A BEAUTIFULLY BLOODY PAGEANT: Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom

I saw Moonrise Kingdom the other night and couldn’t let myself slip away into dreamland without first writing down a few of the things and moments that especially struck me.

Bob Balaban! He is an enigmatic gnome, a slightly surreal, out-of-time, omniscient narrator who knows the past and the future, who knows the land and the weather.

Jared Gilman, who plays Sam has an incredibly earnest and determined way of wrapping his mouth around words. He bites off consonants just where they end, embellishing emphases where they belong, and he seems delighted, instead of ashamed, by the strange and unfamiliar topography of words he has perhaps read or heard grown-ups say, but hasn’t ever actually said himself. He’s making the noble effort to say what he says just right. His diction proudly declares his wonderfully, frustratingly middling position on the spectrum of child > adult. Though I’m sure this was all part of Anderson’s intention, Gilman seems to be naturally comfortable breathing wet and lisping life into this precise and super-appealing sensibility on screen.

The choir music throughout is haunting, but brave and dreamy and inspiring, also. It is the sound of Peter Pan magic — of eternal childhood. And it serves as a grand and worthy backdrop for Sam, a man-boy on a boy’s adventure fueled by a man’s desires. This mash-up seems to be a big part of the movie’s driving force, as if there’s a subliminal message flashing at the audience between each scene: “CHILDREN ARE PEOPLE TOO!” And with this an invitation to remember: “You were a person when you were a child! What a weird prison to not be taken seriously by adults! Don’t perpetuate ageist oppression!”

Further: Ed Norton’s character, Jason Schwartzman’s character, Bruce Willis’s character, Bill Murray’s character, and (and Frances McDormand’s character) are all boy-men — camp is a world within reality where the distinction between childhood and adulthood is blurred (councilors wear the same costumes as their campers, young people are taught how to fend for themselves in the ageless wilderness); an extramarital affair is a secret world, created by grown-ups who wish to slip out of the realities of their familial responsibilities; and I hate to rain on the humor of Bill Murray’s character, but alcoholism is an escape from restrictive adulthood (and parenthood) into a childish, playful world in which a man can get halfway through cutting down a tree just for the heck of it. This is what we all want. We all want to be both forever, and adults kind of get to be. It’s tougher for kids.

On one hand, Moonrise Kingdom shows us that we can’t realistically be both — it’s not practical for parents to be irresponsible, and kids have to follow (slightly arbitrary) rules so that their parents can relax in the soothing belief that “the kids are safe. We’ve done our job.” BUT we all bend these rules, and this seems to be the essential and endlessly appealing spirit of Anderson’s films. Life is more fun when we shirk our responsibilities, when we unhinge from our frames a bit, when we live slightly beyond the bounds of of what’s expected of us, when we create our own roles within society. And all the characters in Moonrise do achieve that in the end, with varying degrees of success (ranging from Bill Murray to Sam).

With Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson once again tackles big, inspiring, stuff, and presents it as a beautifully-staged, heartily human pageant.

MUGGING AND THE ART OF SILENT LAUGHTER: Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist (2011)

I won’t be the first to say that this is a truly delightful film. But I think it would be simply that and not the glistening and magical treat that it is if it weren’t for a few moments particularly perfect moments:

There is a scene in which the beautiful (and just so damned plucky and sassy and also smart, dimensional, dynamic and very aptly named) Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) finds her way into the dressing room of the dashing and charming silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, who is the most effective silent laughter I can imagine). They’ve already had a few charming moments which end in them mugging (which is totally different from and far superior to “miming”) and laughing and flirting hesitantly and not so hesitantly with their eyes and bodies which have incredible vocabularies of movement. In this scene, Peppy approaches George’s top hat and tails where it is hanging empty, but enticing, and conveniently “eye-level.” Peppy caresses the shoulder and gently grabs the lapel bringing her face to it to smell it. This is all fine and good, effectively cute and tender even, but then it transcends: Peppy’s arm has an epiphany and slips itself, almost unbeknownst to Peppy, through the sleeve of the tailcoat and looks down, agog and titillated, at her hand that comes out transformed at the other end of it. The sleeved arm suddenly wraps itself around Peppy’s waist, its hand firm on the sequined small of her back, and draws her in to a completely convincing and intimate embrace. This, in my book (or, as it were, “on my blog”), is the perfect moment of the film — the moment of surprise and sheer play. It is successful not only because it is visually simple yet astonishing, but because this moment also illuminates the value and art of physical theatrics that is so celebrated by the very voicelessness of silent film. Brilliant!

This next scene of interest relates specifically to the silence of silent films. George has been told that there’s a new innovation coming up around the bend, that silent film is over and should get out of the way to make room for TALKIES! In a subsequent scene he is sitting at his desk and he puts down his glass of booze and… 

It. 

Makes. 

A sound. 

Some audience members may not even notice this as unusual at first, but George certainly recognizes the otherworldliness of this occurrence and, incredulous, he lifts and lands the glass a number of times, in an attempt to insure he isn’t going crazy. He stands and all of his movements make all of their rackets. He looks at his reflection in the mirror and opens his mouth to yell at it, but, of course and alas, like Ariel, the eponymous heroine of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, and many other suddenly mute characters of film, literature, and theatre, to his horror no sound comes out. He yells and yells, but to no avail. He is as voiceless as a stone. And it is tragic and terrifying, but also exciting. I started to think I understood where this crazy movie was going, and I started to like it. George runs outside in a bewildered frenzy and there’s Peppy walking towards him in a fabulous little sequined leotard, laughing whimsically, loudly, with slightly piercing TREBLE. And then she’s closer and there are more laughing, sparkly girls with her. And then they’re closer and there are more girls, more sparkling, more cacophonous cackling. George looks away and spots a feather wafting through the air. The camera watches it (and my friend and I laughed because it reminded us of Forest Gump) until it lands with an explosive and thunderous BOOM! And George wakes from his dream with a start and I quickly realize I was wrong about where the movie was going and how dare I wish for that because that desire for sound goes against everything that George, our professional mugger of a hero, stands for. It goes against ENTERTAINMENT and CINEMA in their delightfully pure and original forms. (Sort of.)

In the final scene of the film, we are granted the gift of sound again. We hear the sound of Peppy and George tap dancing their lively little black-and-white hearts out. We hear the sound of good old fashioned entertainment. It sounds like the flashing lights of a marquee and the twinkling stars in the eyes of Hollywood kings and queens and the warm flickering of film rushing around in front of a projecting light. George and Peppy go and go and go like wind-up dolls or George and Ginger or dancing angels until the sound of their feet on the stage crescendoes into a glorious champagne climax of fireworks splashing against an inky night sky and then they finish with hands stretched out to the camera to the audience to the fans who are really the ones they do it all for, and the world is silent except for their heaving, joyous human breath. They are exhilarated bodies and they are superstars. They hold this pose for so long that some idiot in the movie theater audience claps their clammy palms together a few times. Then the camera pulls back to reveal the dark and cluttered set (I almost said “sound stage,” but that felt too cheeky) and the producer Al Zimmer (the perfectly cast John Goodman) asks, sheepishly, if they’d mind doing just one more take. George says, in a perfectly harmonious voice we could have never dreamed of, avec l’accent français (!!!), “It would be our plehzuere.” And there we have it, because we trust him completely, yet, we feel obliged to tell him, the pleasure is all ours. 

Marilyn can make a child’s plaything sexy(/ridiculous).

Marilyn can make a child’s plaything sexy(/ridiculous).

CHAMPAGNE HUMAN HERO: Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011)

Drive may be the movie-est movie I’ve seen in quite some time. 

The film opens much like a James Bond movie, in the middle of an operation that demonstrates our protagonists superhuman ability to be badass and expert at what he does. Then: montage + slow-motion + apotheosizing “champagne” lighting. One might quickly grow bored of a film whose first half is dominated by these familiar elements. But wait, there’s also very little dialogue, which is interesting, and there are all these anthemic songs that you’re sure you know from the closing credits of one or another of the Brat Pack movies, but they don’t quite go with this movie. Ok, we’re getting somewhere, but still, one could write this film off as a fairy tale plot structure adapted into an action flick with fast cars and, eventually, a predilection for seriously snazzy gore. But then things get startling: “Fairy tale” why? Because of the smiling perfection of the first half of the film in which the lighting is blindingly soft, Ryan Gosling looks handsome to an almost hysterical Disneylicious degree, two strangers fall in love, and a familiar conflict is set up in dialogue that may as well be delivered with old-fashioned title-cards. But that alone doesn’t really qualify this cinematic story as a “fairy tale,” in the Grimms’ sense, and this film goes Grimm — the horrific violence that shocks through the second half of the film wouldn’t work (nor would it be as aesthetically satisfying) were it not for the quiet calm that lulls the viewers through first half. The introduction to the world of Drive makes viewers feel as though this is a movie they’ve seen before, lulls them into feeling nostalgic even as they’re experiencing it for the first time, makes them feel, maybe even, that this might not be a very good movie. (It’s also fairy tale-like because of the Frog and Scorpion fable that gets dropped line a cheesy noir-ish one-liner towards the film’s end only to shed light, for the attentive viewer, on the entire, pleasingly simple plot structure.) The tricky thing is: this is a great movie. It’s great for many reasons. The most fun, in my opinion, being its meticulous awareness of itself as a cinematic landscape, and its endearing love of THE MOVIES and all the fantastic, manipulative shit movies can do. It takes some real cinematic intelligence and sensitivity to make a movie that manipulates its audience while showing all its cards, while making it clear to the audience that it’s manipulating. 

According to the the young Danish director, Nicholas Winding Refn (Valhalla Rising, which I haven’t yet seen but really really want to) half the dialogue was cut from the original script and then another half was cut. So, we’re left with maybe less than ten lines total from our protagonist and his love interest. Still, a train wreck in the aisle of the theater would not have torn my attention from the screen. The silence of the film is part of what’s so riveting about it, and the film doesn’t busy itself with covering its scene with wide, medium wide, and single close-ups. This film keeps both faces in the frame, and, as a cinematographer friend of mine pointed out, the viewer is forced to create the action of that kind of editing on her own. We feel like the scene is active because we are looking back and forth between the two huge faces on the screen, searching for communication. What we get to notice in these moments are gorgeous eye movements, subtle shifting of lips, the expanding and settling of a woman’s chest. This hands-off style creates scenes that a cinematize the less dramatic elements of human connection, that celebrate the astonishing and sparkling mundanity of moments like this, rare and inarticulable, but essential.

Gosling plays his character with insane precision. The collected and contained stillness of his character makes it just utterly thrilling any time his cool is broken. The first time he cusses is like a goddamn car smashing through the window of a diner. And that’s NOTHING compared to what we eventually see him do. In an interview, Gosling speaks about his awkward first encounter with Refn.  He recalls turning up the radio to “quiet the silence.” There’s something about the physical stillness-in-motion driving in a car that really is a appropriate for this character: still, shiny, and quiet, but capable of combustion, explosion. 

Before concluding, it mustn’t go unobserved that I’ve had the film’s three anthems blasting on repeat since the moment I rushed home from the theater to spotify them. My roommate is probably going to kill me.

Oh, and also there’s this other film called The Driver that wasmade in 1978 with the same underwhelming premise. Watched some of its car chases. They were super boring.

IN THE MIDDLE OF THE BEGINNING

Miranda July’s The Future 

I kept thinking, less people would be laughing at this if I were in Portland, Oregon.

The least comfortable moments of The Future for me were the moments that hit too close to home: the overuse of internet, the hyper-realist depiction of bourgeois/hipster-ennui, and the omnipresent fear of action and/or THE FUTURE (it’s what we all think about when we get too high; it’s the scariest monster). 

The most comfortable moments of the film for me were the moments in which Miranda July seemed to really let her freak flag fly, in her increasingly unapologetic, very free-form way. The shirt dance scene, for instance is really really good; shocking in a tender way; surprising in that way that comes back around to intimate familiarity. We’ve all at least wished to do something like that, to crawl back into childhood and dance like no one’s watching. Alternately, we’ve also all wished to be grown up already, to start preparing for death now, so that our grave will be all set for us and we’ll feel comfortable in it (“Forty is basically fifty, and after that it’s just loose change…” and the scene in which the young girl digs a grave for herself to spend the night in, buried up to her neck in cold, dark dirt [the image was startlingly reminiscent of some of Kiki Smith’s paintings]).

The film is full of brave choices on July’s part because it taps into that realm of “so strange it’s true.” And in the end, perhaps it’s more courageous than her first film, which could easily be classified as a more celebratory “so strange it’s fun/funny.” (A vestige of this kind of sensibility is present in moments of Paw Paw’s monologue in The Future, but even the talking cat strays from cute/weird/fun and gets pretty emo.)

I missed the play of hope and desire that pervaded even the creepiest corners of her first feature film. The desire in this film is usually exceeding if not completely missing its object. The hope in this film’s world is fleeting, and sometimes devastatingly curtailed. 

The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick

"It was a lone tree burning on the desert. A heraldic tree that the passing storm had left afire."

"He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die."

I went to see Mr. Malick’s new film about a month ago with a friend who wanted to see X-Men, but was dear enough to acquiesce to my movie choice. At the end of the show, I was surprised to find myself defending Tree of Life. And then I wasn’t surprised. I expected it to be a perfect film. It is not a perfect film. Though, here, one month later (and after having read Blood Meridian twice through) I’ll note the things it did that moved and startled me.

The repeated imagery of windows and doors made me think about the tempting nature of portals. Throughout the film, characters depart, arrive, meet opportunities to exit or enter goodness or evil. Windows serve as views of the outside and also as mirrors, looking glasses. As usual, Malick uses mirrors masterfully. (On a very broad note, the film often struck me as an ecstatic celebration of the sense of sight.)

Faces are kept out of view in the opening frames. This reminded me of the anonymity of existence and/or the mystery of what this world and all of us wandering around it in appear to someone/thing like God.

Like Badlands, it often seems more like choreography (of the human form and of the visual world) than cinematography. And there are dance sequences (the brothers chasing and playing, the mother dancing on air, the mother’s hands opening up against the bright white sky, the figures on the beach) that seem to admit to this.

The dance. Here, perhaps because it is just such a fresh wound, I think of the Judge’s final speech in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. “There is room on the stage for one beast and one alone. All others are destined for a night that is eternal and without name. One by one they will step down into the darkness before the footlamps. Bears that dance, bears that dont [sic].”  Malick and McCarthy capture the vast and various emotional landscapes of existing in the world. They pit Grace against Nature and celebrate, with brutal beauty, the cruel chaos (or not) of our naked universe.


The House is Black, Forough Farrokhzad (1962)

I suppose blackness is an apt representation of certain kinds of desolation of the soul. It is also an appropriate stylistic choice for filmmakers who are documenting previously obscured spaces.

Farrokhzad concludes the film with words perhaps from her own poetry, or from the Old Testament, or from the Koran. Regardless of their source, they seem to sing the song of all humans, beautiful or not: “O overrunning river driven by the force of love, flow to us, flow to us.”

Sherman’s March - Ross McElwee (1986)

Like General William Tecumseh Sherman, McElwee “captures” the south (on film, and by sleeping with many southern women), but with a real appreciation and love for it.

SHAKE A HAND

Killer of Sheep - Charles Burnett, 1977

Following Stan and his friend’s Sisyphean struggle against gravity (in which gravity prevails and defeats them), is this starkly beautiful scene that opens with children jumping through the air, from rooftop to rooftop, in a defiance of gravity’s shackles. These children serve metaphorically as an image of the future generation shedding the social inequalities that have weighed their parents down. 

One thing the people in Killer of Sheep have learned to count on is that life will cycle through, that it won’t always be “this bad”; that it used to be worse; that in the end, as Dinah Washington croons so soothingly in the song that is featured twice in the film, “this bitter earth may not be so bitter after all.”

This is my favorite scene, I think, in Where the Buffalo Roam. Bill Murray is really into the weird here, just living and breathing the specific brand of weird that strikes me as accurately Hunter-S.-Thompsonian. There’s something kind of magical about the mixture of normal and surprise — the shoes on the hand driers are at once absurd and inevitable. And, I particularly like his short speech about “the doomed”. It’s a reminder of how big-hearted Dr. Gonzo really was beneath all the edge-work and savagery.