Outsiders and Oddballs in an Off-Kilter World

Wes Anderson’s new film Moonrise Kingdom tells the tale of two outsider kids – Suzy and Sam – who meet, fall in love, escape into the land of adventure and imagination and ultimately transform the world of the adults in the film and the world of the audience watching the movie. Like so many people, I was originally skeptical of Wes Anderson’s films. Their idiomatic stylization, potentially “kitschy” references to the 1960s and 70s, and the seemingly goofball antics of his characters led me to first think that his films were ironic postmodern parodies. But after seeing his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, I revisited Anderson’s films and discovered that rather than being postmodern parodies, his movies are authentic and sincere stories that resist the slick and often heartless wit of postmodern culture. Anderson’s films are not empty exercises in kitschy nostalgia, but rather they use nostalgic yearning as a vehicle to transport and liberate the characters and the audience into the realm of the creative imagination.  In other words, I have become completely sold on Wes Anderson’s films.

Of course, saying “sold” in relation to Anderson’s films is not the best word choice, since so much of the spirit of his films is about transcending the ordinary daily life of transactions, products, consumerism, and commercialism. His films, above all else, are celebrations of imagination, exploring a world that transcends the confines of commercial consumer culture. Anderson’s films are about the entertainment that the mind can produce for itself and about exercising our creative freedom while also dealing with the complexities of being vulnerable human beings who make mistakes and are difficult to live with and love.

Anderson’s films are about the oddballs of society, and they embrace those who dare to let their imagination reign and live outside the box. Anderson’s films are sentimental, nostalgic, and tenderly human cinematic documents for a time when authenticity, nostalgia, tenderness and sentimentality have been sifted through mass media and regurgitated into shallow and canned romantic comedies or ironic and satirical parody. There is nothing shallow or ironic about Anderson’s films. At their core is a melancholic heart that longs for escape into the world where imagination overrides artifice, but also where the artifice of the creative imagination can be liberating.

No other films look or feel like Wes Anderson’s films. Certainly his films have none of the characteristics that we expect to see at the multiplex. They completely lack the boom and bang of CGI animation and high tech special effects. In fact, his one animated film – Fantastic Mr. Fox – was made in old fashioned stop-motion animation with hand-crafted puppets. Anderson’s films are not about spectacle but about finding the spectacular in the seemingly mundane world around us and inside us. His films operate in a cinematic tableau that evokes different art forms (the diorama and the collage) to create alternate worlds. Anderson creates cinematic dioramas that operate a little like Joseph Cornell’s collage boxes, and they push cinema beyond itself and celebrate the creative process and textural imagination.

Anderson’s films are not just movies. They are like dioramas or dollhouses filled with vulnerable, confused and yearning individuals. I say dollhouses because central to Wes Anderson’s films is the family and how it survives, relates, and gets through life being a family when the family is a unit of fractured, unique, and “flawed” people. The characters in his films and the films themselves inhabit insulated worlds that have been created as alternative environments that seem to exist out of time. Anderson’s characters live outside the fringes of the brouhaha of the 21st century cinematic spectacle. His films are windows into the imagination – of the filmmaker, of the characters, and of the audience itself.

As in a dollhouse, Wes Anderson composes environments for the families he documents in his films. Central to most of his films is the eccentric father figure and the various family members who relate to and are affected by the father’s whimsical and not altogether responsible personality quirks.  Whether in an old house in New York (The Royal Tenenbaums), a funky sea exploring boat (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) or the underground world of a fox family (Fantastic Mr. Fox), the characters in Anderson’s films occupy the frames of the film like they would rooms in a dollhouse. He composes the frames of the film into compartments or spaces that feel like an artificial environment in which he is moving the characters around and playing out their situations (their anxieties, mistakes, heartbreaks, and mishaps). In doing this, he allows us to feel the potential of using our creative minds to relieve ourselves of the pressures in our own lives. The dioramic effect works like a window into the house of Anderson’s creative mind and the characters and situations who occupy it, but this effect also invites us to explore the rooms in our own creative mind as a means to alleviate and process the daily burdens in our lives. His films resurrect a sense of play in the filmmaking process and in the audience, where we can act out our anxieties and relationships in microcosm.

Because they are so overtly crafted and meticulously composed to deliver a sense of a diorama, Anderson’s films feel artificial on the surface, yet they are not artificial in a commercial or product sense. Rather they deliver artifice (or “art”) in the form of the imagination.  The camera moves from scene to scene and room to room, highlighting dramatic changes in colors and patterns that delineate compartmentalized space. They are the locations of imaginative cinematic play where Anderson enacts the lives of families and characters at odds with the world around them. In Anderson’s films, creative play is serious business that leads to transcendence, resolution, and redemption, and he offers that it can do the same for us.

Moonrise Kingdom takes Anderson’s films to a new level. Like so many of Anderson’s other films (how they’re made and what they are saying), Moonrise Kingdom reminds us to never give up on the power of our imagination to transcend the claustrophobic world of the ordinary. But it also moves that transcendent quality to a new space by focusing on two children (a childhood love story) to whom the adults in the film are tangential. Whereas in earlier films, the “patriarch” is central to the narrative, in Moonrise Kingdom, the two children – Suzy and Sam – are the bright light around which the film orbits.

In his newest movie, the site of play is a New England island where Suzy is vacationing with her family and Sam is camping with a troop of scouts. Suzy and Sam are both outsiders. They are both marked as “troubled” children, but what makes them “troubled” isn’t so much anything they do, but what they don’t do. They do not fit into the norm, and they resist being like “all the other kids.” They prefer the imaginary world of adventures and magic over the nuts and bolts world of the herd. Suzy and Sam are tender souls who find each other and hold onto each other in a world that would just as soon incarcerate them for being different. But this is Wes Anderson’s world, so the children are not incarcerated. Rather they are liberated by finding each other, and in turn they provide a kind of liberation for the adults around them.

They meet during a play about Noah’s ark, in which Suzy plays a raven and Sam is attending with his troop of scouts. Too curious to be a passive observer, Sam breaks free from the herd of his fellow scouts and explores backstage – the world behind the surface.  There, he finds Suzy in her black raven costume, looking clearly different from the girls around her. It is love at first sight for these two outsiders. In sweet romantic sincerity, they write each other and finally meet up on a remote vacation island and escape together into the freedom of love and imagination.

As in other Anderson films, Suzy and Sam have their share of luggage, which is both literal (the things that are important to them like a kitten in a basket, an old brooch, a pair of binoculars) and metaphorical (the baggage of their lives of being “different” and “troubled”). Central to the things they carry with them on their journey to Moonrise Kingdom are Suzy’s books and record player. While the record player plays music that transports them into a different exotic world outside of the ordinary (represented by Suzy’s favorite record album from France), the books serve as portals into a world of mystery, adventure and escape that Suzy and Sam share together. Suzy reads the books to Sam, and through their tales, the two kids are joined by imaginary stories written on the pages of imaginary books. (None of the books are actually “real” books, but books which Anderson invented for the film.) The books bond the two children together while transporting them outside the world of the search party scouring the island to bring the kids back to the herd.

In a truly romantic tale of redemption and transcendence, Suzy and Sam win over the adult world. The qualities of their characters that originally mark them as “troubled” end up being the same qualities that transform the adult world into a better place. Similarly, the children’s shared sense of magic and imagination wins over the rest of the herd of children to their side, allowing extraordinary love to triumph over the ordinary compulsion to be like everyone else. The transformation of the “ordinary boys” from the scout troop is played out in a sweet and quiet scene in which Suzy reads a book aloud to the boys, and they are enthralled and ask her to not stop but keep reading. In other words, she and Sam have won them over to their side, which is the “outside.” Suzy and Sam write a new story for their lives, and in so doing they offer that the characters within the movie and the audience itself has the potential to write new stories for their own lives, or at least change the way they perceive and inhabit the world from a creative perspective.

Speaking of the adult world, many critics have said that the film sets up a schism between the adult world and the world of the children, and that the adults are seen as bitter, hard, cruel or unfeeling. I do not have that perception at all. The main adult characters – Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), and local cop Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) – are equally vulnerable and sympathetic. They all wear a coat of melancholy and yearning. Suzy and Sam act on their yearning. In the adult characters, we get a sense that the yearning is still there but has been overshadowed by regret, remorse and a failure to nourish imagination and love in their lives. Suzy and Sam refuse to conform, insist on their love and their imaginations, and in so doing bring some of that magic back into the adult world. As in Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, in Moonrise Kingdom the line between being a child and being an adult is blurred. Children bear the burdens of adults, and the escape that they carve for themselves seems fragile and threatened by the adult world around them. Likewise, adults bear the vulnerability of children as they are at odds with the world they have created for themselves.

The only adult character who truly seems unfeeling is “Social Services” (played by Tilda Swinton) who wants to institutionalize Sam and, if she had her way, Suzy. But “Social Services” isn’t even a character. She is a human stand-in for a system. Anderson dresses her in a suit that looks like the epitome of the unfeeling bureaucracy for which she stands. But even she relents in the end because love and imagination have that much power in the world of Wes Anderson.

The costumes, acting, and set details are beautifully created to give a sense that we are occupying another world. The textural details in the film – from words handwritten on paper to the fur hat that Sam wears to tents, pocket knives, telephones and cars – transport us to a world from another time (1964 specifically) but also evoke a sense that this nostalgic world possibly exists right under the surface of our present time. We just need to be able to access it through our imagination.  Everything in the film is a little out of scale and off kilter. The characters at times seem enormous in relation to the “play set” that they occupy. Through the style of the film, we know that we are not fully grounded in the real world (from which “Social Services” comes), but in the rich, imaginative world of Wes Anderson’s mind. As a storm moves into the film, we realize how fragile this world is. It can be created on a whim but also destroyed in a gust. But in Wes Anderson’s films, the imagination reigns. It is the tool used to survive the storms of life. So while we are aware of the fragility of this world, we also know that it will persevere.

Even more than Anderson’s other films, Moonrise Kingdom takes the world of the outsider and shows us the possibility of finding and holding onto magic through imagination and love. It makes us realize that all this “artifice” around us is suffocating bullshit, lacking in sincerity or meaning. Real meaning exists in our hearts and our creative minds. It is so important that we allow ourselves room to escape the unfeeling commercial world of institutions, products and transactions and to find a place –our own personal Moonrise Kingdom – where we can dance on the beach in our underwear, even if only for an hour, a day, or for the length of a movie.

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently completed a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will was featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA. She is also completing a book of herDirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.