I hate every name that describes what I love. Cinema. Maybe it’s that final “ma” syllable (just like drama) but I sound like a douche every time I try to use it seriously. Plus it’s one of those names for inexplicable things that comes through the utility door : the earliest machines that both recorded and projected the moving images were called cinematographs. Later, the halls and theaters where they were exhibited were referred to as cinemas. And of course, the law of linguistic metastasis requires that eventually such a name will become the shorthand for the entire experience.
Film. Ugh. You can almost imagine where this one came from — “I loved watching your magical light show. But how did you conjure it?”
“I ran a bunch of photographs strung together fast enough to create the illusion of motion.”
“Hot shit. But how did you get it on the wall ? I thought photographs were opaque.”
“Yuppers. Instead of paper I used transparent celluloid with a thin film of silver emulsion that allows images to be projected with a light source.”
“What the…? You made magic with a film?”
“Sick. Got any films with associative dialectical montages that resemble Marxist/Hegelian philosophies enough to claim a new revolutionary art form ? Or, if not, any films with naked girls?”
Using the word film to describe the art form is like calling novels pages or paintings canvases. And filmmaker ? Even the teenagers making lattes at Starbucks have cooler names than that. Then there’s the word I use the most : movies. It’s corny and graceless, and it creates a false difference between films and movies. But the one thing it has going for it is accuracy. As Dieter said to Eddie Munster on Sprockets, “Susan Sontag said that cinema lies at 24 frames a second, Eddie. Any comments?” Movies are still images separated by darkness, moving fast enough to fool the brain into perceiving motion. Does it matter ? Probably not.
Except wait, it does.
When studios and historians started trying to create a formula for successful movies, they noticed that the ones people liked best seemed to work the same way good old fashioned yarns and tales worked, and they started turning those books and tales into hit movies. And in the 1980s, film schools took up the cause, giving primacy to der screenplay über alles. The screenwriter (notice the trend in utilitarian names?) ascended nearer to (but never reaching) the level of the director. “A bad movie can come from a good script, but a good movie can never come from a bad script,” was repeated over and over in screenwriting classes, and it probably still is. Soon, dialogue started to sing off the page, backstories oozed through the complex and tightly formed plots, and the three act structure gave stories a rigid, articulated spine — the mimetic ape of verisimilitude stood erect and walked just like us, talked like us, and at last, character was king. We were certain this was an apex moment because right there, on the screen, we saw more than we’d ever seen before, more than dream, more than fantasy and journey — we saw the human condition, staring us right in the kisser.
Unless what happened was that we killed everything gossamer and gassed up and hot damn about movies and turned them into narcissistic self-fulfilling profitsies. For me, movies are photography. First and foremost. They engage us visually before they ever get to sound and structure. That we can make them feel familiar and predictable doesn’t mean that’s what they are. Movies aren’t stories, they aren’t plays, they aren’t musical arrangements. They’re moving pictures, and when they try to be something else, they get it wrong.
Moonrise Kingdom is wrong. I had planned to see it in a theater with my son, but summer was busier than usual and we never got the chance. I love Bottle Rocket and Rushmore. We both love Fantastic Mr. Fox. I haven’t really bought into the rest of Wes Anderson’s work, primarily because I find the fetishizing of symmetrical wide shots, Futura typography, throw-away jokes, and wistful 60s/french pop music to be less “indie” and more of the “less-is-more” genre. But sometimes movie folk grow into their skill set — Alexander Payne had never seemed to be capable of anything like The Descendants ; I thought Polanski’s best years were decades behind him until The Pianist — so Oskar and I watched Moonrise on pay-per-view. Oskar loved it.
The symmetry is oppressive because it is ungrounded. For the first half hour, almost every shot is aligned on a 90 degree axis, and the camera movies only sideways or back and forth in straight lines. Because the story takes place in the past in a place that doesn’t exist, the excruciating painterliness of the sets and scenes pummel you into receiving all this as the natural order.
As usual, Anderson’s eye is remarkable. The color pallete is controlled ; the sets are desiged with care and exquisite detail. Costumes, sets, even the weather are carefully designed to belong only to this hermetic hermitage : a pleasantly benign world where obsession and passion are allowed to frolic in a nerdy human zoo. Just because the movie is visual doesn’t mean that it is photographic. The photography is beautiful the same way that fashion photography is beautiful. It satisfies without leaving room for any other connections. It’s the visual equivalent of bad improv. (Robert Yeoman has photographed all of Anderson’s movies, and as a matter of disclosure, he was kind enough to photograph my first moviemaking adventure — for me he was a salvation, while for a more sure hand like Anderson he is an artist).
I quickly started to see similarities with Terrence Malick’s Badlands. My own nerdy obsession with that film might allow it to be said I see similarities with Badlands everywhere, but I couldn’t agree less. If it were so, the world would be a stranger and more beautiful place. But once the two young protagonists execute their planned elopement, it’s hard to ignore the facts. Suzy and Sam set off together after their “crime” of leaving home and scout camp. Kit and Holly do the same after he kills her father and burns down the house.
Then there is a period where Suzy and Sam enjoy a brief idyll in the wilderness, at the beach, where they create a peaceful world that allows them to be themselves. Kit and Holly do the same in their tree house by the river. Sam and Suzy even mimic the scene in Badlands where Kit and Holly dance around the fire to Mickey and Sylvia’s Love is Strange. One nice difference between the two is where Kit and Holly’s sexuality can be summed up by Holly’s reaction — “Gosh, what was everyone talkin’ about?” — Suzy and Sam have a surprisingly real and erotic encounter that seems both far beyond their years and exactly true to their hearts. It’s the one moment that didn’t need the perfect arhitecture and composition and distance to appear real.
Suzy and Sam are caught, Kit and Holly aren’t. But in both cases, chaos ensues until they are caught again, this time once and for all. In Suzy and Sam’s case, the plot descends into hijinx involving scoutmasters, cheating parents, a lonely cop, and social services. Emotions are manufactured, moments are misidentified, as though it feels like the movie is biding its time to resolve and end. There is even an extended flashback to when Suzy and Sam met the year before (which I think is where the heart of the movie would be found, not in the aftermath a year later). In Kit and Holly’s case, it’s about… well it’s not about anything. There is no attempt to make sense of or understand what happens when Kit and Holly go on the run.
Badlands is of course also a pastoral dream version of reality. The Starkweather murder spree wasn’t elegiac or profound. It was shocking. But the movie Malick made grew from that horror like a tree from a seed, and the result is as overwhelming and impossible to explain as a tree itself. Malick allows his movie to speak first to the eye, not to the ear or the mind. The lovely voice-over and spare dialogue, along with Carl Orff’s beautiful pieces from Schulwerk, don’t tell the story. They augment and sometimes contradict the photography, creating a broad and varied matrix where there is enough room for meanings and feelings to collide and coalesce. This leaves you feeling disturbed, enlightened, and unsure of what you’ve seen : my definition of a perfect experience.
I am neither claiming nor faulting Moonrise Kingdom for borrowing, stealing, paying homage to, or simply referencing Badlands. I think that’s part of what making art is about and I probably do it more than anybody in my own efforts. Anderson himself did it to good effect when he lifted some of Franny and Zooey for the The Royal Tennenbaums. But where Badlands left me dizzy and lifted, Moonrise left me sour and low. Both directors are gifted and original, and both have made better and worse movies than these (Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, Rushmore, The Darjeeling Limited).
But I think where this and many movies today fall short despite their pedigree is that too often people try to put into their movie what they hope audiences will get out of it : heart, love, hope, wisdom, etc. It’s to the point where many first time movie makers eschew almost all attention to photography for the sake of “performances” and “story”, and the end up with talking oatmeal. This approach only works in genre movies — horror, action, heist, and love stories — where all that is wanted from the audience is visceral response. That’s how movies work. That’s why Hitchcock, Ford, Bertolucci, Scorsese, etc., are so very successful : they understand the visceral, physical power of combining photographic sequences in ways that are impossible for the eye to ignore, and at the same time they provide enough for the ear and the brain to create a fourth organ. When a movie can open this mind’s eye, then, hot damn, you have something.