Reminding me how to be alive – the joys and terrors of childhood in Wes Anderson’s world*

Allison Reynolds: When you grow up, your heart dies.

John Bender: Who cares?

Allison: … I care.

The Breakfast Club (1985, John Hughes)

When I was a teenager this exchange between Ally Sheedy and Judd Nelson’s characters in The Breakfast Club – Allison, the basket-case and John, the criminal – sort of scared the shit out of me. I was on my way to being a grown up and I didn’t like the idea that my heart would die when I got there one bit.

Allison from The Breakfast Club delivers the bad news

Back then I couldn’t fully appreciate Allison’s warning. In fact, I’m not sure I really understood what she was talking about at all. But I understand now that Allison (aka John Hughes) was equating the end of childhood with the end of something pretty significant. Maybe Allison was saying that when you grow up you play it safe and smother the feelings, both joyful and terrifying, that remind you of what it means to be truly alive.

We’re all in a hurry to grow up, but why, when so much of adult life is a tedious routine. When you’re a child you always feel like real life’s happening somewhere else and that it’s happening without you. You’re in a hurry to get there. But it’s in childhood (and by extension adolescence) where we’re infinitely more likely to let our imagination – that most prized of all human qualities – run free. We’re more likely to take chances, to look silly, to think big and fall hard, to feel and care about things and people in ostentatious ways, to not only loudly express but also follow our passions with unbridled enthusiasm.

Of course being an adult isn’t completely terrible. When we grow up most of us have the money and resources to get out there and make things happen but the sheer exhaustion of modern life can make striking out for something new a difficult proposition. Our idea of freedom looks very different when we put away childish things. And maybe it’s because for the masses of us, adulthood is regimented by the 9-to-5 day, which means following rules and regulations like no other stage of life.

I’m not suggesting that I work in a salt mine or that I hate what I do. I’m just saying that the predictable routine of working life can suck something out of you so your existence starts to resemble the colourless world described by Radiohead in their exquisite song ‘No Surprises.’ (If you don’t know what I mean, listen here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5CVsCnxyXg). Your time is more controlled and limited. The expectations of conformity follow you everywhere you go. Bruises take longer to heal. There, amidst the paper clips, artificial lighting and tea-stained carpets, your heart dies a little bit more.

Is there anything you can do to resuscitate it?

If feeling alive means having the freedom to break rules, to experience things on a grand, operatic scale, to run against the conforming masses, then you can only really live when you stop playing it safe and give yourself permission to shake off mundane constraints.

Suzy (Kara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman) escape to Moonrise Kingdom

The main characters in Wes Anderson’s latest film, Moonrise Kingdom, understand this. Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) are twelve-year-olds who after a year as pen pals formulate a plan to run away to the shore together. Misunderstood by the adults in their lives, Sam and Suzy share a child’s romantic spirit of discovery, while craving the freedoms they perceive adulthood will bring them. He’s deadpan. She’s tender. Both young performers, it has to be said, are outstanding, able to convey so much often with very few words.

Moonrise Kingdom is not a film for children. It is, as Joe Morgenstern writes in the Wall Street Journal, ‘an adults guide to young love’. It is a coming-of-age film with considerable emotional depth. It’s about growing up and falling in love and making real a shared fantasy of liberation and self-rule suggesting that the relationships we have when we’re kids can inspire us to do amazing things.

It’s 1965, on the fictional/mythical island of New Penzance. Sam’s an orphan. When we first meet him he’s spending the summer at Khaki Scouts Camp Ivanhoe where he is a social outcast with exceptional scouting skills. Suzy’s a ‘problem child’, a bookish dreamer with a dash of violent tendencies thrown in, living with three precocious younger brothers and lawyer parents, Walt and Laura Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), who refer to each other as ‘Counsellor’ and sleep in separate beds. Suzy’s estranged from them; they’re estranged from each other.

Sam escapes from the regimented Khaki Scouts camp
Suzy looks outside her world for something more

When we first see Suzy she’s standing at a window in her house (the evocatively named Summer’s End) with binoculars to her eyes. The Bishops seem to live in a lighthouse. She’s looking outside for something else; the binoculars suggesting she has a far-reaching vision of the world and her place in it. As she later tells Sam, her binoculars are like her ‘special power’, they help her to ‘get closer’ to things. (The Royal Tenenbaums opens in a similar way, with the three Tenenbaum children looking out their bedroom windows.) Sam doesn’t know what awaits him when he goes back to the foster home (unknown to him he’s no longer welcome there; they think he’s emotionally disturbed); he just knows he doesn’t belong. On the cusp of adolescence, both Sam and Suzy are unhappy with the limits of their world so set out together, with their vivid imaginations in tow, to create a more satisfactory one.

But Sam and Suzy are kids and of course they can jump into the great unknown with little concern for the consequences. That’s both the beauty and essential selfishness of youth. But I think that’s Anderson’s point. In most of his films he seems to be showing his adult audience that we can learn a lot about how to live from the young or by reconnecting with what it was that fired us in our own youth. This is Sam and Suzy’s final summer before they become teens on the road to adulthood. It may be their last chance to dream this big.

Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) and the scout troop discover Sam is missing

It’s a common thread in Anderson’s films that adults and children occupy distinct universes. Moonrise Kingdom’s opening scene visualizes this idea, tracking a camera, like a slide show, from one room of the Bishop house to the next, showing us a family living quite separately from each other, adults downstairs, children upstairs, all going about their separate business. Suzy reading, intently, while her brothers huddle around the record player and listen to Leonard Bernstein’s recording of The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra by Benjamin Britten, their parents involved in less passionate pursuits downstairs.

But that divide can be bridged. After all, in Anderson’s world – as in Truffaut’s and Salinger’s – adults hanker for the simplicity of childhood, and children want to feel grown up. Understanding this attraction, Anderson generously explores the space between innocence and experience.

Consider the wonderful scene in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) where Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) spends the day with his grandsons Ari and Uzi, with whom he’s only recently become acquainted. Together they gambol around and let their enthusiasm for life pulse through the screen. They jump into the pool with their shoes on, run across the road when it says ‘don’t walk’, throw water bombs at passing cars, steal milk and ride on the back of a rubbish truck. As Royal explains, they spend the day, ‘scrapping and yelling and mixing it up.’

Mixing it up with grandpa on the back of the rubbish truck in The Royal Tenenbaums

Presenting a massive divide between the worlds of adults and children, The Royal Tenenbaums features elder characters behaving like kids, adult children regressing to their juvenile selves, and actual kids constrained by adult rules and regulations. After their mother’s death, Ari and Uzi have had to grow up too quickly, and follow a strictly regimented life under the watch of their protective father, Chas (Ben Stiller). Chas is enraged that his sons have spent the day with Royal. It’s not until the film’s final scenes, once he has reconnected with his father and they all ride on the back of the rubbish truck together, that Chas recaptures some of the joy of childhood that had long passed him by. It’s the first time he smiles in the whole film.

For me, Wes Anderson’s films are much more than carefully rendered set pieces with stylized performances and eclectic soundtracks. Many critics find his work cool, whimsical and remote, self-important, too clever, too arch. Others say they are all surface and that this hinders the emotional development of narrative and our ability as viewers to connect with it. I couldn’t disagree with these views of Anderson’s films more. I wonder if I’ve been watching different films.

I find Anderson’s world a warm, enchanting, openhearted world, and Anderson a deeply sincere and humanistic filmmaker. His finest films (or at least my favourites), Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited (2007) and especially Moonrise Kingdom, are bursting with very full hearts.

Yes, in Moonrise Kingdom, the art direction is cute, delicate and flamboyant, presenting its world with the warm glow of a faded Polaroid picture. The score is gorgeous, the cinematography precise. There is technique to admire aplenty, but the film is so much more than this. The film looks, as one critic has noted, like it has been crafted in ‘the imagination of two kids who dream of grand adventures and wild floods and roving bands of adversaries and fire-cracker explosions and matching outfits and watercolor landscapes.’ Moonrise Kingdom is the landscape of the potential in all of us to make our lives less ordinary.

Romantic Sam prepares to meet his girl

Within this space, the children in Moonrise Kingdom are hopeful, but Anderson presents the adult world as a more rigid, structured and depressing place. Adults are cynical and loveless. Their hearts have stopped beating. Suzy’s parents have an unhappy union. Laura Bishop is particularly regimented, summoning her four children to the dinner table with the use of a megaphone. Outside the home, she’s having a rather awkward affair with the local policeman, Captain Sharp (an excellent Bruce Willis, about as far from his Die Hard persona as you can imagine). Her husband (the always excellent Murray) seems exhausted and resigned to his miserable cuckolded state, so drunk and absorbed in his own misery he doesn’t notice Suzy has run away the second time. Like most of the adults in this film, he’s given up expecting anything more from his life.

All the lonely people – Moonrise Kingdom’s adults (left to right: Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton and Bruce Willis)

Meanwhile at Camp Ivanhoe, Scout Master Ward (the very wonderful Edward Norton) runs a tight ship despite being basically incompetent. Here is a space for children missing any of the looseness or creativity they need. He takes care of the boys and imparts ‘life skills’ but his own life seems to lack any meaningful connections. Tilda Swinton as the aggressively rigid Social Services who wants to lock Sam up in a juvenile facility completes the adult world in which the kids find themselves in conflict. The always brilliant and boyish Jason Schwartzman as Cousin Ben, a counsellor at another camp, is the only adult caught somewhere between the constraints of adulthood and the chaos of childhood, playing a pivotal role in the film’s climax.

Cousin Ben (Jason Schwartzman) leads the way
Anderson regular Jason Schwartzman out of costume … just because I like his face

It’s important to note, I think, that Anderson doesn’t condemn these adults. The Bishops, Captain Sharp and Scout Master Ward are very lonely, disappointed people and it’s impossible not to feel compassion for them, especially Murray’s Walt who is characterized, as Roger Ebert says, by a ‘bemused sadness’. Despite its humor, Anderson’s world is always a melancholy one.

Sam first meets Suzy one year before the action of the film starts, when he stumbles into the dressing room at St John’s, as Suzy dresses with the other birds (she’s a raven) for the church’s annual production of Benjamin Britten’s opera for amateurs, Noye’s Fludde (Noah’s Flood). Sam knows what he wants and singles her out from the group. Later, she gets a note to him on the bus with her name and address and the forthright demand: ‘Write to me.’

Suzy (middle) as a raven preparing for Noye’s Fludde when Sam first sees her
Sam chooses Suzy from the crowd to be his soulmate
Suzy reads Sam’s love letters to her in secret

One year later they’ve escaped from their respective prisons. Suzy’s armed with her cat, some cat food, a portable battery-operated record player plus extra batteries, a Francoise Hardy 45 and a suitcase full of her favourite fantasy novels (she’s stolen them from the library, she knows it’s bad, but as she tells Sam she does it so she’ll have a secret, like a grown up). Sam has camping supplies, his raccoon-tail cap, survival skills and an overwhelmingly romantic disposition. He brings her flowers. Each displays adult affectations – Suzy, some heavy 60s eye makeup, Sam, his handcrafted pipe – but in their hearts a childlike spirit, nervous and tender, thrives. Later, Sam asks Suzy what she wants to do when she grows up. ‘Have adventures,’ she says and he concurs.

Together they have their first. As they head out, a major storm heads in (the narrator, a hilariously garbed Bob Balaban, informs us). Sam and Suzy follow the Chickchaw Harvest Migration Trail all the way towards the sea and settle in for their idyll at a cove we later learn (in the most beautiful, moving way) they rename ‘Moonrise Kingdom’. Along the way they will catch a fish, slow dance on the beach to French pop, navigate their first kiss, share a tent, innocently, in their underwear and take on the reflective roles of artist and muse (Sam is a budding painter with a penchant for nudes and landscapes; Suzy poses but keeps her undergarments on).

Suzy and Sam dance to Le Temps de l’Amour on their own private beach haven
Sam paints a picture of his beloved

Adventure allows an escape from the mundane in other Anderson films too.

The Royal Tenenbaums tells the story of a family of geniuses (not dissimilar to Salinger’s Glass family). The three Tenenbaum children – Chas, Richie (Luke Wilson) and adopted Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) – find themselves as adults living in the family home together again for the first time in seventeen years. Chas and Margot retreat into their childhood spaces when the adult world becomes too difficult to deal with (Chas’ wife has died, Margot hasn’t written a play in years and is in a loveless marriage, Bill Murray again). Richie comes home under the false pretense that their father is dying. He’s a failed former champion tennis player. And he’s in love with his sister.

Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Richie (Luke Wilson) are Tenenbaums in love

Early in the film, the narrator (the whisky tones of Mr Alec Baldwin) recounts an adventure that Richie and Margot had as children, not dissimilar to Sam and Suzy’s escapade in Moonrise Kingdom. One winter, Richie and Margot ran away from home and camped out in the Africa wing of the public archives building. They shared a sleeping bag and survived on crackers and root beer. Another journey out on her own resulted in the loss of one of Margot’s fingers. Later, as adults, Richie discovers that Margot has been having an affair with his best friend, Eli Cash (Owen Wilson) and tries to kill himself. Back at home, recuperating in his little yellow tent, he and Margot reveal they love each other and try to recapture the magic of their youth.

In Rushmore, fifteen-year-old Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) lives everyday with an adventurous spirit. From a modest background he attends the prestigious Rushmore Academy where he dreams big. While he has a less than stellar academic career, Max sees no limitations to what he might do or who he might be (he is involved in everything from chess to lacrosse to a mini United Nations to his passion, playwriting). He applies this same philosophy to romance when he decides he’s in love with Rushmore’s first grade teacher, Miss Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams).

Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) will try anything once

In Miss Cross, Max thinks he recognizes a kindred spirit when he discovers they’ve borrowed the same book about ocean adventures by Jacques Cousteau (the underwater adventures continue in 2005’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). To prove his love and to show that there are no bounds to his schemes he sets about raising funds – with the assistance of Mr Herman Blume (a divinely droll Bill Murray) – to build Rushmore a world-class aquarium. Along the way, Max is prone to ecstatic drunken outbursts (‘I wrote a hit play! And I’m in love with you’), behaves in both childish and ingenious ways, and doles out sage advice to adults, telling Herman the ‘secret’ to being happy is to ‘find something you love to do and then do it for the rest of your life.’

Max and the object of his affection, Miss Cross (Olivia Williams) and that Jacques Cousteau book

But Anderson doesn’t idealize childhood here. When Max and Herman find themselves fighting for the affection of the same woman, tit-for-tat ensues. Max unleashes bees in Herman’s hotel room, Herman destroys Max’s bike then Max cuts the breaks on Herman’s car. There’s no end to the games. Exasperated, Rosemary rightly observes: ‘You and Herman deserve each other. You’re both little children.’ Children want to be like adults because they think this means ‘freedom’ and adults no longer want to be grown up because this means ‘restrictions’. Chaos follows. Both want what the other has. Who has it right?

In the deeply romantic Moonrise Kingdom, Sam and Suzy’s adventure sets the adult world into a spin, with two separate search parties urgently assembled – the Bishops and Captain Sharp make up one, Scout Master Ward and some handpicked scouts (with ‘exceptional wilderness and orienteering skills’) the other – to locate them and bring them home. But bring them home to what?

Anderson gives us more than two worlds in conflict with each other. He seems also to be suggesting the real possibility that adults have failed their children in irredeemable ways. Sam and Suzy don’t actually need to be rescued. They are doing fine on their own. Lying in their separate beds one night, their marriage on the verge of collapse, Laura reminds Walt that they are all the children have. Walt then speaks the script’s most profound line, accepting their inadequacies: ‘It’s not enough.’

Despite this alarming truth, family is at the heart of Moonrise Kingdom as it is in all Anderson’s films. Suzy feels hurt by her position within the family as the ‘problem child.’ She’s discovered a pamphlet, ‘Coping with the Very Troubled Child’ which makes her feel even more alone. But as Sam tells her ‘I’m on your side.’ From that moment on, it’s the two of them against the world. That Suzy is old enough to realize – and close enough to observe with her binoculars – that her parents marriage is falling apart and that Sam has been forsaken to Social Services so Suzy is all he has, makes their union all the more touching. Their faux wedding at Fort Lebanon with the assistance of Cousin Ben allows them to take this a step further and create their own version of a family.

Suzy and Sam against the world

A physical and spiritual journey to discover the meaning of family is at the heart of The Darjeeling Limited. Here, three disaffected adults, brothers, are trying to heal the wounds of their youth and the more recent wounds left by the death of their father the year before. The brothers – Francis Whitman (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) – haven’t spoken since the funeral. They meet on a train in India to take a trip orchestrated by Francis, ‘for us to find ourselves and bond with each other.’ As he says, ‘I want us to make this trip a spiritual journey where each of us seeks out the unknown and we learn about it.’

Brothers – Jack (Jason Schwartzman), Peter (Adrien Brody) and Francis (Owen Wilson) – set out to find themselves as adults on a journey through India

All the brothers are damaged in some way and some wounds are fresher than others. Jack’s heart has just recently been broken, Peter feels lost and confused with a baby on the way and hides behind his father’s old glasses, but Francis’ scars are most visible. He wears an assortment of bandages on his head and face and carries a walking stick after a recent car accident.

I’ve always found The Darjeeling Limited Anderson’s most heartfelt film. There is a lot of sorrow and soul here – much of it contained, for me, in Brody’s deeply empathetic face – that sets it apart from Anderson’s other films. Strangely, most people I ask tell me they like it the least – have I missed the point, or have they?

Although we only know Francis, Peter and Jack as adults, the fact that they are brothers sees them falling into childlike roles when they are together. Peter tells Jack a secret and asks him not to tell Francis; Jack tells Peter a secret and asks him to keep it from Francis too, and so on. This regression continues when they locate their mother (Angelica Huston), living as a nun in a convent at the foothills of the Himalayas. And it’s here that Anderson adds another layer to his story. Childhood, as well as a place of hope and limitless potential, can be a time that scars. Francis, Peter and Jack don’t get an explanation from her about why she didn’t attend their father’s funeral. She doesn’t want to talk about it; it’s the past and she wants to move on. But Francis tells her that the past is never over for them.

But Anderson gives the brothers a chance to leave the past behind. He quite beautifully suggests this in The Darjeeling Limited’s final scene. On their way home, the brothers are late for the train to the airport and running to catch it they literally throw away their baggage (it belonged to their father) in order to climb on board. There is forgiveness here, like they receive at the funeral for the Indian boy they couldn’t save from drowning, and this allows Francis, Peter and Jack to find a way forward together.

Losing their baggage at the end of The Darjeeling Limited

Anderson has a way of making emotions and desires – even when unfolding within highly artificial scenarios – seem very real. Although they’re only twelve I didn’t question for a moment the legitimacy of the feelings between Sam and Suzy. All the way through the warm, grainy glow of 16mm film stock, it looks and feels like love to me. It’s understated, or as Ebert says, ‘We don’t feel like they’re kidding.’ In Anderson’s world, falling in love is as serious as your life, an adventure that requires openness and sincerity and a shared purpose.

Young love, in particular has a powerful effect and enduring pull in Anderson’s world. In Rushmore, we learn that Rosemary Cross met her late husband Edward Appleby at thirteen. She still loves him. In The Royal Tenenbaums, Margot and Richie have clearly loved each other since they were children. No one else has ever come close. Anderson seems to be less concerned with what ‘first love’ looks like than he is with what defines ‘lasting love.’ Sam and Suzy might be each other’s first love, but they have something more than romance on their side – they found each other, they need each other and they will take care of each other (she doesn’t mind for example, that he might wet the bed), I think, for a long time to come. And this, in the end, is the film’s most profound point.

There is an emotional honesty to all this that might just break your heart a little, if you let it. And I think Moonrise Kingdom’s final scene is perfect, showing us that Sam and Suzy find some measure of contentment, both together and alone. To some extent life goes on as before, only better.

Suzy says goodbye to Sam (just for the day) at the lovely conclusion of Moonrise Kingdom

While watching Moonrise Kingdom I was reminded of the Henry Mancini classic, ‘Moon River’, especially, the magical, evocative lines, ‘Two drifters, off to see the world/There’s such a lot of world to see …’ I’ve been feeling a bit stale lately, lacking imagination, but here’s the feeling I take away from this and most of Anderson’s films – that despite my now being an adult there are endless possibilities still awaiting me for discovery, adventure and excitement. There are many more moments of joy and terror to come. And that’s a nice feeling to have. Actually, it makes my heart beat quite fast.

*I owe the title of this post to Peter Travers who notes in his Rolling Stone review (May 24, 2012) of Moonrise Kingdom that ‘by evoking the joys and terrors of childhood, it reminds us how to be alive.’

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “Reminding me how to be alive – the joys and terrors of childhood in Wes Anderson’s world*

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s