Ruin and Redemption of an Andersonian Eden
The building of new worlds in the broken microcosm of Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom
In his film, Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson captures a pastel-colored moment in time, wrought with the enchantment of a childhood summer and the delights of young love. The quintessentially Andersonian landscape of New Penzance in New England—with unobstructed views of a natural world sprinkled with quirks like a fogged-in lighthouse and a house with its own crows nest—is secluded in its own microcosmic universe. It sits at the precipice of a mountainous love between Sam Shukusky and Suzy Bishop, the diligent Khaki Scout and the bookish introvert; but the key to Anderson’s film is its push past the pleasantries of innocent love into a realm much darker and more visceral than is let on by its color-saturated environment and playful score. There is no denying that watching Anderson’s film feels like a warm welcome back into childhood, but not readily apparent are the undertones that bring this childhood innocence into question.
The question, then, is what exactly are these ‘undertones’ and how do they function in Anderson’s world?
Throughout the film, there is a clear depiction of children (of which there are many) in an adult manner. Nearly every aspect of the life of a child is given an adult twist, one of the best examples being Camp Ivanhoe, the summer home of the protagonist. From the events in the scene itself to the very movements of the camera, the reveille of Anderson’s Camp Ivanhoe manifests itself to viewers as a military encampment. Drums sound beneath the images, beating a tune that evokes the marching of feet towards battle; and in essence, these young children are marching towards a battle. What lies ahead, what Anderson seeks to inform us of throughout his film, is oncoming adolescence and eventually adulthood; that children face a crusade against their childhood where the spoils of war will be the attainment of authentic, mature experience. The children of the film, like soldiers, seek excellence in fulfilling their duties, but their real duty is simply to grow up. However, greater disparity arises when we realize that these children have essentially already matured. Physically they are young, but their intentions are fully-grown. These children have willingly sacrificed their boyhood—consciously chosen to behave not like children, but like the adults that, to them, embody nobility and stature—to escape what they see as confines and what adults see as protection.
There is an almost paradoxical relationship occurring between feelings of dissatisfaction and responsibility to chivalry, which permeates all of Anderson’s film. It is the children who (unknowingly) best represent this tug-of-war. The kids in Moonrise Kingdom are desperate to act like adults, but why? Their reasons—be it respect, admiration, or integrity perhaps—are severely misguided. They are ignorant to the reality of adulthood, fooling themselves with chivalric facades and notions of knightliness, and from that ignorance spring warped images of what life as an adult provides: freedom, liberation, power. But where there is freedom and power there is responsibility and hardship, and most of the adults in the film know all too well of this fact, feeling so lost that they cling to the only thing they can: their work. Suzy’s parents converse in legal tongues, thinking not of their children as they lie awake at night, but of the duty they feel they have to their work; and the woman who hopes to send Sam to an orphanage cannot escape the only name she merits, “Social Services.” But even while these characters epitomize adult discontent, there is an air of aristocracy to the way they live. As the idyllic world Anderson has created for them begins to shatter to pieces—broken marriages, illicit affairs, and “troubled” children all surfacing in the rubble—these adults retain what little dignity they have and hold their courtly heads high.
So then what about the children? The reality is that these discontented boys cannot understand the reality that lies ahead, because the adults that surround them are far too honorable to let real affliction affect them outwardly. What Anderson builds is a cycle wherein the children’s perceptions of adulthood are incongruous with the truth of New Penzance’s adults, but by no fault of their own; they exist in a world that is aristocratic in nature, priming them to be blind to authentic experience even when it is right in front of them.
In “Wes Anderson’s World,” author Michael Chabon sheds light on this idea as he teases out what he perceives to be the role of children when they begin to assert themselves in a world that “is so big, so complicated, [and] so replete with marvels and surprises.” But he does not stop at simply recognizing these intricacies, he explains that although reality offers nuanced experiences, it is undeniably and “irretrievably broken.” To him, it is as children that we are faced with this massive truth and are tasked with sifting through an already shattered world that seems to offer little more than “bitter lessons” to our young, malleable minds. Only when we stare out at the tangled image of life in front of us does something stare back at us, perhaps “an intimation of vanished glory, of lost wholeness, a memory of the world unbroken” (Chabon). Only by looking at the mess, at the inevitable pitfalls of human experience that are faithful to our truer existence, do we realize there must have been a time when people lived in a world undamaged. The acknowledgement of these problems creates authenticity within our sphere of human existence, and when we accept our downfalls, we may find ourselves capable of fixing our world again. Yet, Anderson has approached this idea cautiously. His chivalric Khaki Scouts do not see a damaged world, they see something noble and faultless that adheres to the romanticized life they seek to live, and that adults in the film strive to protect.
Aside from the bystanders in Moonrise Kingdom, the primary characters Sam and Suzy are nourished in their adventures by their own dissatisfaction with a broken world, what they imagine is beyond repair. Anderson chooses to pinpoint a moment in Sam and Suzy’s lives when they have each been so abused by their reality that they feel helpless, at the mercy of their uncontrollable existence. But these feelings are isolated within the minds of the characters. It is only when their unhappy realities intersect that a more frightening beast begins to grow in their collective mind. Initially cynical about their individual social experiences, Sam and Suzy have each met their equal. They are a perfectly dangerous couple; their chaotic beliefs accentuated by naivety and youth and therefore increasingly at the will of their unstoppable notions about life. The chaos derives from their union. Sam and Suzy do not have the collective courage to face their realities. They share a desire to retreat into wild imaginings with no one but each other, seeking to become Adam and Eve of a world that cannot hurt them anymore.
The words of Manohla Dargis of the New York Times resonate with this idea of worldly creation, explaining that through running away, Sam and Suzy “construct a world parallel to the larger one, carving out an intensely individual space and defining themselves through their shared visions and actions, which means that the movie is also very much about creation as an act of self-creation.” This concept of “creation,” as put forth by Dargis, represents Sam and Suzy’s actions positively and characterizes them as individuals so in tune with their emotions that they are able to forge a new, Edenic life away from the eyes of a society that cannot appreciate their eccentricities. However, Sam and Suzy’s creation is only ‘Edenic’ in that it evades the struggles that afflict the real world.
In this sense, Sam and Suzy’s “creation” is broken, twisted, and incomplete. They have not built a paradise of freedom and maturity, they have built a teetering tree house just like that from Camp Ivanhoe, bound to fall from the height of their expectations. In seeking to build a world “parallel to the larger one,” they take a misrepresented reality and remove aspects that make it authentically human; they remove the inevitable struggle of life, core to human experience, and forge a utopia for escape. They desire a world where they are free to act as they choose and love each other completely, both of which are very idealistic, adult desires. But they fail in their creation because they, as children, cannot begin to understand what adulthood (or even adolescence) entails.
At this point we may ask ourselves, why complement the beauty of a Wes Anderson world with these themes of dissatisfaction, cynicism, and other such concepts, so juxtaposed to the saturated images that flash across the screen? Perhaps to show us, the viewers who are so eager for an uplifting movie, that we are blind to the beauty and grandeur of our own reality, condemned to feel constantly discontented with the small imperfections in our world. It is almost unfair to allow downtrodden parents, duty-obsessed campers, and unknowingly detrimental lovers to stumble around in the alluring environment of New Penzance, unappreciative of the beauty around them; but we cannot protest because we are those characters, living lives separated from reality, disconnected from true experience.
Why is this? If we take it to be true that our individual lives are worth more than what we see as a damaged and irreparable reality, why does Anderson assume we cannot see these greater splendors of existence?
For generations our culture has been the locus of a power struggle between two opposing forces: the maturation of societies as they become accepting and therefore liberated, and a regression of society towards a closed-mindedness that is mirrored in the love story of Sam and Suzy. Their discontent is our societal discontent, spurred on by the growth of a culture that we praise for making us prosperous. John Berger, in an essay on the relationship between painter and model, begins by saying: “Today images abound everywhere. Never has so much been depicted and watched.” Our social growth is coupled with technological growth, which are both again coupled with social decay resulting from constant stimulation. We ultimately crave more of what we already have, “and this is precisely what the present system’s mythology continually needs to exploit. It turns appearances into refractions, like mirages: refractions not of light but of appetite, in fact a single appetite, the appetite for more” (Berger).
This idea of “mythology” is deeply rooted across many historical cultures, but the seemingly benign word is actually far less distant from where we are today. Mythologies offer lenses through which we can perceive realities different from our own, realities appearing so real that they could detach us from authentic life. The stories of heroic Odysseus or conniving Zeus, of the love between Orpheus and Eurydice or Eros and Psyche—they appear to some as tales to dismiss, but to others as truths to accept. Sam and Suzy sit on a treasure trove of mythological acceptance, rejecting the real world and believing wholly in the power of their created paradise. What Berger calls our “present system’s mythology” is essentially a culture teeming with manipulable Sams and Suzys, a culture that rests on a minefield of dissatisfaction.
Thus, we find ourselves deeply disembodied from experience and without the ability to live in our own space. Sam and Suzy, too, felt trapped in childhood, physically restrained by a Khaki Scout uniform and a raven costume, and how do they free themselves? By removing their clothes (the physical manifestation of their youth and discontent) and dancing together in an act of metaphorical consummation. But even in their blissful paradise, the two lovers are disillusioned. They have forged a new life, but in doing so, have detached themselves from the world entirely. In Berger’s words, what is created is “not, as claimed, a sense of freedom (the so-called freedom of choice) but a profound isolation,” a void which our culture rushes to fill, not with substantial human experience, but with “the not-yet-real, the virtual, the next purchase.”
It is understandable that his abstract web of chivalry, discontent, and cynicism may appear to digress unreasonably far from the roads of New Penzance. It is not my place to deny that Anderson’s film receives the fairytale treatment, wrapping itself up with a happy ending: Sam and Suzy are saved from the deluge that their chaotic love metaphorically created, Sam with a new father and Suzy at home again in her reading niche. It is undeniably beautiful to see the two together at last after their love has been tested throughout their adventures, but I would argue that far more beautiful than their love, is the realization of their youth. There is no romantic kiss, not even an embrace before Sam escapes through the window in the final scene; but what does exist in the space between Sam and Suzy’s final gaze is the reconciliation between lovers and the childhood with which they had so deeply lost touch.
With this ending of the film, Anderson reaffirms his creation of a world that is idealized and realistically unachievable. Even so, this little pocket of bliss reminds us that like a child seeking answers in a confusing world, Anderson has begun the process of recreating our puzzled reality. With Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson, “passing among the scattered pieces of that great overturned jigsaw puzzle, start[s] to pick up a piece here, a piece there, with a vague yet irresistible notion that perhaps something might be done about putting the thing back together again,” that he might be able “to build a little world of [his] own. A scale model of that mysterious original, unbroken, half—remembered.” (Chabon)