Thursday, January 31, 2013

"Moonrise Kingdom" and the Whimsy of Covert Masculinity

            First, let’s get this out of the way. I’ll occasionally review films on this blog. These films will probably not be in theaters, because, as a dad, it’s hard for me to get away and go to a theater. The films I review could be recent films, or they could be downright ancient films. They just happen to be movies that I’ve recently seen and find interesting. I’m a critic on a shoestring budget, armed only with a Netflix account.
             Now, this brings us to Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, which premiered last June, but I only saw it recently. Much ink has already been spilled over what Anderson himself has referred to as his “handwriting,” that is the unique imprimatur that he puts on his films. We recognize, over his seven features, the same filmmaking that relies upon pans and long shots. We recognize a pallet of basic colors that have a warm, vintage look to them, as if shot in Kodachrome. We see the same characters, typically men but occasionally women, rebelling in their ineffectual deadpan way against the tidy, tweedy, oak paneled, tennis courted world of the patrician eastern seaboard bourgeoisie.
            Bottle Rocket has men pretending to be boys, pretending to be criminals. Rushmore has boys pretending to be men, pretending to be criminals. Darjeeling Limited has men who have remained boys, but pretend to be men. Masculinity and the lampooning of traditional masculinity play an important role in these films, and Moonrise Kingdom is no exception.
            However, with Moonrise and 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson embraces traditional masculinity as redemptive, empowering, and noble, while still camping on that idea. His previous films portray masculinity as a kind of grail quest doomed to failure that has been undertaken by misguided, ill-equipped boy/men. Darjeeling has adult men who have remained boys and fail to even commit to the quest of redemptive adult manhood, because masculinity, in their case, can never be achieved. In Life Aquatic you have a middle-aged man, played by Anderson perennial Bill Murray, who has made a living out of appearing to be a virile, adventuresome tough-guy, but has now grown weary of the callow form of masculinity that he shallowly used as a façade for most of his adult life.
            Not so with Moonrise. This is a story about a twelve year old boy who successfully rebels against his unhappy circumstances as an orphan and a foster child. He runs away from the play-acting of traditional masculinity that happens at the Khaki Scout summer camp that he’s staying at, and he embraces true masculinity by surviving by his wits and hard work in the wilderness of the real world. He also rescues, in valiant fashion, his twelve year old girlfriend from her unhappy, intellectual, patrician, eastern seaboard parents, and forms a powerful bond with her that is strengthened, not weakened, by their respective traditional gender identities.
            Anderson knows that he can’t tell this story with a straight-face, because it would be dismissed as hopelessly old-fashioned by jaded modern audiences, so he invests the film with his fey, ironical imprimatur. The girl’s house only resembles a real house. It is a kind of life-size dollhouse. Each scene is stuffed full of kitschy, campy vintage artifacts that form a pastiche of 21st century culture with 1960’s culture. Everything is the platonic stand-in for the aesthetic ideal. A car is not a car, but a “car.” A boat is never a boat, but a “boat.” The setting of the story itself is a fantastic, mythical place that only resembles reality. It is the Moonrise Kingdom, a place somewhere between night and day; a place that resembles the dour, difficult world of struggling adults, but is invested with the whimsy and imagination of childhood.
Wes Anderson: The Titan of Twee
            Indeed, the films of Wes Anderson, and increasingly twee culture as a whole, function as a form of wish-fulfillment for the restoration of traditionally defined gender roles, and a return to a prelapsarian childhood idyll. The characters in Moonrise pursue old-fashioned love ironically because they are children, and because they live in a fantasy world where those ideals are possible. Fantastic Mr. Fox fights off the bad guys, provides for his wife and children, and dutifully protects his community, but he can only do this in a stop-motion animated world populated by talking animals.
            This marks a change in Anderson’s filmmaking. He is no longer interested in showing directionless men in their thirties floundering in a boyhood that was never allowed to happen because of domineering, achievement oriented parents. The main character in Moonrise is a prematurely adult kid who eagerly wants the responsibility of a husband, and probably a father, but he is stuck in a world where that noble undertaking is impossible. Wes Anderson, artistically, is no longer a boy trapped in a man’s body, but a man trapped in a world that refuses to grow up; a world that can only be appealed to with the escapism and moral evasion of irony and caricature.

Further reading: 1) Stephen Marche’s essay in Esquire on quirk culture in America. 2) Ryan Bradford’s reviews of the new films I Am Not a Hipster and The Comedy.

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