Just So: Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” vs. The Stuff That’s in Gedi Sibony’s Alley
The first time that I watched Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, I was recovering from having my wisdom teeth extracted, and I was on a lot of drugs. Apparently there had been some complications during the procedure, and when the doctor finally got in there, what I had were closer in size to wisdom tusks. The resulting painkillers were, as they say, the good stuff, and I headed back to my parent’s house to recover and watch some movies. What I remember next is being about halfway through Rushmore, and apparently I was crying uncontrollably and screaming at the screen: “Why are they taking this kid so seriously?! He’s just a kid! You’re an old man, Bill Murray, why are you friends with a kid?! Attractive British lady whom I don’t know: are you, like, dating this kid?! What is wrong with all of you?!?” Someone in my family was kind enough to turn the movie off for me at that point.
I can’t remember what exactly I was on, but it was an oddly emotional weekend. I also remember having a serious conversation with a Slurpee – also while crying. I thought that it thought that it was better than me because I was having such a hard time actually getting it into my mouth.
So… I may have missed a little of the nuance of Rushmore the first time around, but I eventually watched it again in a less chemically-outmatched state, and was deeply moved by its story of the danger of trying to do everything that you can. But while the character of Max Fischer is forced to exfoliate the many obligations that keep him from ever getting anything real accomplished, Wes Anderson has always struck me as a director whose own precision (although his critics tend to call it “preciousness” with alarmingly unoriginal frequency) is constantly at odds with this central lesson of his second film. As is widely known, Anderson’s attention to mise en scene, props, set decoration, and design makes any other definition of “minutia” seem like something closer to “carpet-bombing.” Anderson is the kind of director who puts things that will never be used in drawers that will never be opened. It is for this reason, though, that his films are unparalleled in their sense of texture and depth, their luxurious albeit impossible touchableness. Like the famous large-scale, long-take, cut-out tour of the good ship Belafonte’s quarters in The Life Aquatic, there is something undeniably special about many of Anderson’s designs. As with much realistic dollhouse furniture, for example, our relation to the original object is changed by seeing the detail with which it can be made small. Likewise, Anderson’s aesthetic requires us to accept the artificiality of stage construction as a precondition for having access to what we would have otherwise just assumed would be there.
For example, within the first moments of Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson’s seventh feature film, anyone attuned to the director’s fastidiousness will have noticed a pair of scissors hanging on the wall, which – regardless of whether they do or do not play a role later in the film (they do) – are as important as anything else. This is not to say that they are or would be symbolic, signifying, or necessarily indicative of anything other than themselves. Rather, they are just so. One of the most visually appealing (and frequently humorous) features of Anderson’s films is not exactly what is there, but that what is there is there. This does not mean that nothing has been left out, as though he were a bitter neo-realist kneeling at the death-dusty bedside of verisimilitude, but that Anderson’s surfeit of objects and documents and little homemade things contributes to an architecture of fantasy wherein what seems so very unreal about this films is the result of too much of life. It’s a little like the difference between looking at your apartment and thinking, “Hey, there’s my stuff” and looking at the same space and thinking “Now that is what I call a scrapbook!”
Moonrise Kingdom is in fact very good, and very much a Wes Anderson film. Like at least Rushmore, there are precocious children who act with more grace and maturity than the Peanuts-grade inscrutability of their authority figures, whose misbehavior and acting out are even more pronounced against the backdrop of adolescent naiveté that really wants to know the world, not remake it according to some arcane or arbitrary system. As in many of his other films, Anderson’s characters don’t seem to speak in sentences that would ever come out right in real life, but instead we are afforded characters whose clipped patterns are the product of isolated selves that seek complement. However odd the observation or offhand the phrasing, the speaker puts him- or herself out there with the hope that the other’s answer will fit. Often, of course, it just ends up sounding weird, which is part of the fun. Here’s one of the film’s more touching scenes, between its two principle leads, Sam Shakunsy (played by Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (played by Kara Hayward):
Suzy: I’ve always wanted to be an orphan. Most of my favorite characters are. I think your lives are more special.
Sam: I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.
Suzy: …. I love you, too.
The idea, though, that the dialogue is something unfitting, or designed in a way that characters only occasionally connect with each other as a result, seems to run counter to Anderson’s visual aesthetic, which is like that of an elegant hoarder with an advanced degree in architecture. (Anderson’s own inventory of the film’s many specific, necessary, artfully placed items has apparently been turned into a kind of drinking game.) Anderson’s objects and fleeting fabrications (oh, let’s say like a typewritten list of three easily remembered items in the film) are framed, almost always, within visible structures suggesting not so much that the characters themselves crave order but that the film does. Again, one gets the sense that nothing is ever out place – not in any dictatorial way, but out of respect for the objects themselves. Which are then arranged just so on the screen, which is to say particularly and with care, thoughtfully, as though there could be no other way. For example, the plaid lunchbox just above Suzy’s feet as she reads is there. It just is.
In this way, one is reminded of the Brooklyn-based fine artist Gedi Sibony, who – while no less interested in materiality and the being-there of objects than Anderson – relies not on the creation of objects and the precise, precarious just so of their arrangement, but works instead with found materials. Anderson’s films are, if you haven’t noticed, very clean, and while Sibony’s minimalist compositions are hardly what one would call dirty, his material consists of the torn, discarded, left out and forgotten: pieces of carpet, plastic sheeting, tape, cardboard – all trash, basically, or what we would consider trash, which he finds on sojourns through the city. In the words of Kristina Van Dyke, Director of The Pulitzer Foundation of the Arts in St. Louis, MO, for which Sibony recently served as the guest curator of a major exhibition, In the Still Epiphany:
His individual sculptures and thoughtful installations possess a poetic sensibility, often using the detritus of daily life as a point of origin. … He isolates particular qualities of these materials, bringing attention to a jagged edge, a tear, a thread unraveling, and in so doing makes us consider these materials as a singular moment in time as opposed to carelessly discarded debris.
The fragile quality to his arrangements and the tenuous hold that the individual pieces have on one another betray a certain vulnerability that we may not always associate with the monolithic nature of Art, which doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. So too are the young lovers Sam and Suzy of Moonrise Kingdom besieged by forces which would, simply by being force, threaten to unmake what they are still only learning to put together – which is to say, Love.
Like Anderson, Sibony’s work certainly has its critics and straight-up haters (including one of the most brutal, hilarious, and NSFW art reviews that you’ll ever read), but as Van Dyke points out, Sibony invites us to celebrate the outcast, quite literally. It is almost as if what Sibony sees in objects is what Anderson sees in this characters – those who have been singled out to be cast out, those who are slowly starting to show the wear of time, unraveling. This may be more obviously seen in the aging characters played by Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, and Bruce Willis in the film, but it’s worth noting that both Sam and Suzy spend next to no time indoors together. For all of their modern stuff – books, records, scissors, a kitten (oh epitome of newness!) – these two are nevertheless alternately exposed to the elemental vagaries of a society that keeps trying to bring them back and the natural world of the island that would, inevitably, sadly, end up weathering them.
The process by which Sibony scavenges and composes his found objects differs almost completely from the exacting production specs with which Anderson constructs his material vignettes, objects, and curiosities – of which there are memorable examples from each of his films, from Dignan’s 50-year-plan notebook in Bottle Rocket to basically every bedroom in The Royal Tenenbaums. And while the principle of care is not all that dissimilar, in the sense that each artist is committed to the implacable specificity of the object, Sibony asks us to see beauty in what we are all complicit in having thrown away, and Anderson asks us to see ourselves in what we already own.