In the inaugural issue of Screen Machine, Huw Walmsley-Evans succinctly identifies the clichéd critical move vis-à-vis the films of Wes Anderson: almost without fail, the complaint is that ‘there are some real, valuable characters and emotions to be found in this film, but they are obscured by all the artifice’. In this regard, Moonrise Kingdom can be seen as Anderson’s throwing down of the gauntlet to his critics, for it is at once his most immediately emotional film and, at the same time, his most artificial.
The premise accepted by Anderson’s detractors (and even some of his apologists) is that these elements – the artifice of Anderson’s style and the emotional substance of his stories – are at odds with each other. In the most extreme example of such logic, Anderson is accused of deploying ‘fascist aesthetics’:
[Anderson] has stated that he seeks to give life to his characters through their costumes and props, to flesh them out through physical indices. Ironically, as his curatorial instincts outstrip his dramatic ones, he succeeds in the exact inverse of his plan. By freighting his characters with accessories and trappings he effects a depersonalizing reversal; objects are exalted into fascinating characters and characters are reduced to boring objects.
The problem with such an argument is actually a deeply philosophical one: can one really think a character outside of their material context? To the contrary, a character is never simply a given – a character is formed through their relationship with other bodies, be they people or objects. You will often hear a critic or reviewer say that ‘the landscape becomes a character in the film’, which means precisely that the movie’s drama derives from a dynamic interrelationship between a human character and some un-human element. (Not to mention that there are films, such as James Benning’s, that have no humans at all). To ignore objects is to fall for the naïve humanistic fallacy that people ultimately have a free will. We are much more formed by the objects around us than we like to think, and any real interest in people must also be attentive to the material reality in which they live.
Some of the greatest moments in cinema ask us to leave humans aside for a moment to consider objects: what is their history, their exchange value, their emotional resonance or political significance? Olivier Assayas asks these questions with regard to artworks in his bittersweet film Summer Hours (2008), while Claire Denis surveys the traces of colonialism in an unnamed African country through objects in her brilliant film White Material (2009). One of the most famous objects in cinema must be the vase in Yasujiro Ozu’s masterpiece Late Spring (1949), which has inspired a whole body of critical commentary by writers such as David Bordwell, Paul Schrader, Donald Richie and Gilles Deleuze.
Wes Anderson is the great filmer of objects: not just a curator with good taste, but a filmmaker with an innate understanding of the romance, pathos, irony, bitterness and sentiment that can become condensed in particular inanimate things. Towards the end of Moonrise Kingdom, 12-year-old Sam (Jared Gilman) sacrifices himself to retrieve a pair of binoculars – the girl with whom he is on the run, Suzy (Kara Hayward), has left them behind in the enemy Boy Scout camp. This is obviously not a case of someone ‘putting objects before humans’. We remember that Suzy uses those binoculars to see Sam at the start of their adventure when they meet in the field. We remember the conversation in which he asks her why she uses them so much and she replies, ‘It helps me see things closer, even if they’re not far away. I pretend it’s my magic power’. Thus, we understand why he risks himself for the binoculars: Sam has internalised all Suzy’s insecurities and fragile fantasies as are condensed in the binoculars and wants to honour them. He wants to be a hero for her.
There is another typically Andersonian moment earlier in the film, at the start of their runaway adventure, when Sam decides to inventory all the objects that Suzy has brought with her from home. The moment is not at all just about appreciating the aesthetic beauty of her belongings. It is like the inverse of that narrative idea in Michel Gondry/Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where Joel (Jim Carrey) is confronted with a parade of objects, each sparking a memory of his ill-fated relationship with Clementine (Kate Winslet). By contrast, in this scene from Moonrise Kingdom, each object looks forward to a possible future, possible shared moments, secrets, joys, sadnesses. Suzy opens her suitcase as Sam opens his notebook and jots down: a record player (with her favourite record), books (fantasy and science fiction), scissors (for cutting hair), rubber bands, extra batteries, a toothbrush and a pair of binoculars.