Friday, July 13, 2012

Truth, Shmooth

Back in college, I had a summer job as an assistant coach at a public school summer program. Humanity's powers of self-delusion never ceased to amaze me. I would see with my own two eyes that a runner was safe. I'd make the call. "Safe." (The runner's team would agree with me -- but that didn't count, because he was on their team.) The opposing team would swear by all that was holy that the runner was out. They'd be outraged at me, sputtering, wild with righteous anger. Clearly, I hated their team. I wanted to see them fail. This wasn't an act. They weren't simply lying. They knew the runner was out. (Of course, I knew the runner was safe. I'd seen it.) They had re-framed their memory, re-edited the tape.

Obviously, this is why professional sports rely on cameras, instant replay, yattayatta. But when all you have to go on is human perception and memory, the definition of "truth" becomes a contest of wills.

Being disinterested and objective is the referee's job. The opposing teams want to win. Each team fights for the version of reality in which they win. Each team is doing its best to shove this "truth" down the referee's throat. It's a dilemma, folks. Ironclad. Inescapable.

To see the world clearly, you can't take sides. To change the world, you have to take sides.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

In this beautiful kingdom by the sea

Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom is as perfect as a movie can be. I don't say that often. Even about movies I really like (Prometheus, for example), I’m usually thinking, “Ah, that scene is too long. That character wouldn’t say that. OK, that doesn’t make sense. Arrgghh! A yawning plot hole! Arrghh! Anachronism!" Not this time.

Spot-on '60s references; vividly drawn characters; stellar cinematography and art direction; great acting; great directing; fine script. Loved it.

Time: 1965. Setting: a mythical New England island. Anderson opens with formal tracking shots through what looks like a life-sized dollhouse. (Actually, a converted lighthouse.) Suzy (the preteen problem child played by Kara Hayward) searches for something with a pair of binoculars. That would be Sam (Jared Gilman) -- an orphaned problem child who was impressed by Suzy's role as the Raven in last year's production of Benjamin Britten's Noye's Fludde. (Sam is nerdy but self-confident, like the dude in Rushmore.) After secretly writing for a year, Sam and Suzy meet and run away. As this is a tiny island, that's a problem. Another problem: a killer storm is coming. Noah's Flood will be playing out for real. Adults and a troop of pesudo-Scouts give chase. The clock is ticking. Comedy, complications and suspense ensue.

That's the plot. But the plot doesn't tell you much. In another director's hands, this could be twee, manipulative sentimental crap. In Anderson's hands it isn't, and it's hard to say why.

Some random observations ...

This movie is intrinsically a movie. You could adapt it as a novel. But its form is intrinsically visual. Think: beautiful paintings that move. Moving pictures. Literally. And they're all ridiculously gorgeous to look at. Anderson is the Willy Wonka of cinematic eye-candy.

Excellent comic touches, comic casting in particular. Child actors Gilman and Hayward play it dead serious -- which makes it dead funny -- and never come across as forced, cutesy or fakey. Action icon Bruce Willis is hilarious as a loser bachelor cop with a nowhere beat. This is a Wes Anderson movie, so, according to Federal law, Bill Murray is in it. He'd be hilarious playing a rock. Francis McDormand, Ed Norton -- they're all screamingly funny and funny in character.

There's a running gag framing the inner world of the Khaki Scouts (led by Ed Norton's chain-smoking troop leader) in the cinematic cliches of a WWII guys-on-a-mission movie. The gag is a howl -- but Anderson never elbows you in the ribs to spell it out. It's Inglourious Basterds, get it? He hits just the right note, and pulls the gag off.

Excellent narrative structure, too. Sometimes, Anderson tosses crumbs of information. You find out in passing that the estranged Mr. and Mrs. Bishop (Murray and McDormand) are lawyers. Other times, Anderson flat out tells you. He shows maps. Or Bob Balaban functions as Mr. Exposition. His character breaks the fourth wall (occasionally turning on lights so you can see him) and moves the story along.

Anderson consistently plays against type and expectation. It's a Wes Anderson movie, so that's easy to overlook. He has an instantly recognizable style. You tend to forget how many rules he breaks. For example ...

Incompetence is funny. That’s one of the basic laws of comedy. The Three Stooges are lousy plumbers; The Dude is a lousy detective; Homer Simpson is a lousy nuclear safety inspector. That's how comedy works. But Anderson defies the laws of comedy physics, like a bee that flies when it’s supposedly impossible. Almost all his characters are very good at what they do. Anderson's young hero has excellent wilderness survival skills. The Khaki Scouts (Anderson's affectionate, paramilitary parody of The Boy Scouts) is a marvel of efficiency and order. There are no lousy parents. The Bruce Willis character is a good cop. Everybody does their job and does it well.

Stupidity is also funny -- another basic law of comedy. But this is a movie about smart kids and (mostly) smart adults. The movie opens with the Bishop kids (the ones living in the lighthouse) listening to an LP of Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. Nobody's forcing them. Sam and Suzy are also Brainiacs. They read. They know how stuff works. In Sarasota, they'd both be Pine View students.

In the standard romantic template, Suzy and Sam would be beautiful outsiders -- outside a rotten society. In this corner, losers and loners. In that corner, jerks and authority figures. Anderson doesn’t work that way. His society thinks better of its judgment and rejection, and ultimately rallies together and saves the prepubescent lovers.

So, why's this movie perfect? I still can't say why, exactly.

Anderson broke the rules. Plenty of other directors do too, and their movies suck. Anderson knew which rules to break. Obviously, there's no rule book for that. Or every movie would be this perfect.

Obviously, they're not.