After the Flood: Young Love & Loss in "Moonrise Kingdom" and "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial"

Aside from marking the cessation of summer abandon and the establishment of another school year, September 2015 was the 50th wedding anniversary of two of recent moviedom’s most endearing protagonists, Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), the young “emotionally disturbed” lovers of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (2012). It’s an anniversary of  fiction, yes, not in line with pageants more connected to nostalgia and content manufacturing as online media perseveres to shove the past into the present (did Facebook remind you whom you befriended six years ago today?) Sam and Suzy’s union was itself not condoned by the fact-based world of “Social Services” (Tilda Swinton), but as the Khaki Scout vicar played by Jason Schwartzman reminds them, the ritual holds a deeply meaningful symbolic weight within themselves. Bob Balaban’s Chorus presents the axiomatic world of facts and figures, geography and time, setting up the historical chopping block for the drowned crescent beach wilderness of “Mile 3.25,” where Sam and Suzy fell in love. But Moonrise Kingdom is an ode to imaginative creation, its title referring to the secret universe (recalling the title of one of Suzy’s fantasy books) of Paradise renamed in the antediluvian Genesis as “Moonrise Kingdom.”

Such a story of young love runs the risk of sentimentalizing youth versus the disenchantments of adulthood. Among his many influences, Anderson takes cues from his hero Truffaut (The 400 Blows, Small Change), Bill Melendez and Charles Schultz’ Peanuts cartoons, and—rarely pointed out—mainstream moviedom’s other great architect of childhood loss, Steven Spielberg, and, as with those artists, it’s myopic to trivialize Anderson’s design. Windmills behind Sam and Suzy on their prairie meeting, the first time we see them together, evoke both a lost Malickian Eden (Days of Heaven) and Cervantes. It’s not as simple as reducing the theme to imaginative power overcoming fact-based doldrums or fanciful ideals at play but, in Sam and Suzy’s gaze at each other across the golden field, it’s that safe harbor offered by a secret universe, the aspiration for a self-fashioned identity away from foster homes and quarreling parents and predestined consequences stemming from such environs.

The moment is awash with longing and the look between the two adolescents overleaps Hegelian linearity to go back to uncanny half-remembered archetypal memory, the Biblical Flood of Noah represented as Benjamin Britten’s children’s opera Noye’s Fludde. Khaki Scout Sam absconds from his seat and Robert Yeoman’s camera tracks behind him in mellifluous accord with the music. The sequence is like a light-hearted take on a film mostly in a man’s imagination, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, as Sam regards characters dressed as animals, much like something spotted in the Overlook Hotel (the bear preparing to fellate a ghostly patron; here, of course, there’s nothing quite so nefarious, which is not to say this scene isn’t fundamentally carnal, as youthful eros blossoms and takes possession). Sam moves through a coat rack and catches sight of raven-dressed Suzy and her feathered female cohorts, one of whom tells the intruder, “It’s not polite to stare.” But Sam and Suzy don’t break the optical connection, cut together in close-ups. Sam notices Suzy’s bandaged hand and asks what happened. She did it to herself, hitting a mirror because “I lost my temper at myself.” The vulnerability and honesty here, where the self-loathing of “troubled” children, smashing their reflection, is allowed to air out and reflect on the sympathetic eyes of another person, emblematic of how the roving and precocious imagination reaches out beyond the strictures of solipsism, and perhaps how we inwardly respond to a film we’re watching or book we’re reading.  

This is, in keeping with the themes of Noye’s Fludde, a Genesis. And—to simplify the 18th century Enlightenment criticism of Giambattista Vico’s New Science—it’s not in Eden but after the Flood when human history begins, because human beings themselves recreate the world, mimicking God, just as we oftentimes mimic art. According to Vico’s history (nowadays mainly studied as one of James Joyce’s key models in the writing of Finnegans Wake, which like Moonrise Kingdom contains the circular history of the world within its narrative), the Greeks’ scientific discoveries led to an “eternal history,” the eyes of which are geography and chronology, precisely how Moonrise Kingdom begins as the Chorus describes the coordinates and outlay of New Penzance. Preceding that, though, is a supernatural faith superior to reason expressed in poetry, sparked by the creative spirit (as Sam says to Suzy, poems don’t have to rhyme, “they’re just supposed to be creative”) struggling to understand our place in the cosmos. “The poetic speech which our poetic logic has helped us to understand continued for a long time into the historical period,” writes Vico, “much as great and rapid rivers continue far into the sea, keeping sweet its waters borne on the force of their flow.” Vico has the thunderbolt—a motif present throughout Moonrise Kingdom, including the nights of the first and last Noye’s Fludde performances—as being the spark linking the poetic imagination to a Divine sense.

The whole history of the world then is between Sam and Suzy’s gaze, in their letters, in their flight into the forest, and in their christened Moonrise Kingdom. There’s Edenic reference enough with the discovery of a turtle that’s been named “Albert” by unseen hands. Now a new Eden arises and the pair’s mysterious connection salves the wounds of emotionally troubled children. Vico writes, “The human mind is naturally inclined by the senses to see itself externally in the body, and only with great difficulty does it come to understand itself by means of reflection.” Suzy can’t stand her reflection, but a sympathetic gaze with another person finds a living metaphor in moonlight, a perennial symbol of reflection. The world of Mile 3.25 is remolded, reversing from science to supernatural prehistory and the poetic imagination of “magic powers,” like Suzy and her binoculars. The indigenous legacy of “Chickchaw Territory” is reclaimed to its pre-colonial, pre-axiomatic state of wonder. Like Noah in Genesis, or as those Quixotic windmills remind us, Sam and Suzy are psychologically free from history and impositions of Progress (an Enlightenment idea of which Vico was skeptical). It’s a suspension of hard-facts and the Chorus’ science, the Malickian imagery—be it Sam and Suzy’s wilderness wanderings like Badlands’ lovers on the lam, or Saint-Saens’ music playing alongside magic hour dusk—elevating Sam and Suzy into their own Days of Heaven, a component to perfect self-knowledge being their deeply felt sympathy for each other, as we see Sam hurt Suzy’s feelings by laughing at her psychological predicament, followed by a humble and sincere apology, and then Suzy saying she wishes she could be an orphan like he is, met with his frank reply, “I love you but you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The days of heaven are cut short as the adult world—like horizontal time—encroaches. In the police boat of kindly bachelor Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), Mr. Bishop (Bill Murray) chides his daughter in his lawyerly tone (“Be advised…”) as she replies with a threat. Held in a latrine below deck is Sam with Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), who compliments Sam’s proficient scouting while recognizing the hopelessness of his wayward path. The boy is crestfallen in his capture, and for the first of two times on the soundtrack we hear Britten’s “Cuckoo Song,” sadly telling of winged migration with the passing of summer into autumn.

Time shackles Moonrise Kingdom’s characters: the “Cuckoo Song,” phrases like “never again,” and “some day,” and grim future prospects for everyone on the boat. The overwhelming sadness underlying Moonrise Kingdom points out that adulthood isn’t the antagonist, or even the cold objective reason of “Social Services,” but time’s endless rotation stealing away the illusion of permanence, “days of heaven,” or as we see Sam and Suzy on the beach before embracing, dancing in place (in the style of Melendez’ Peanuts cartoons). Later, as the Vicar forces Sam and Suzy to deeply consider their decision to marry, we see a boy in the background jumping in place on a trampoline. It’s ecstatic movement but vertical, heavenward. A title of one of Suzy’s stolen library books is “Disappearance of the 6th Grade,” referencing a flight from progressive temporal categorization. Measurements of horizontal geographical coordinates and time blot out the euphoria of fantasy, making fond memories sad ones (Anderson has described Moonrise Kingdom as a “memory of a childhood fantasy”). At Captain Sharp’s trailer home, the lonely policeman pours Sam some beer and says, “All mankind makes mistakes. It’s proven by history.” He then adds, “You’ve got your whole life ahead of you. In front of you, I mean.” Life is horizontal, and even a polite and sincere sentiment (“I’m sorry for your loss,” Sharp tells Sam) is uttered because it follows that one says it (“Anyway, that’s what you’re supposed to say”).

Lying down in their separate beds, Mr. Bishop and Mrs. Bishop (Frances McDormand) go through their perfunctory conversational protocol as calcified partners, both more committed to their lawyering than their marriage. Mr. Bishop stares upward from his lobotomized horizontal inferno with a strange suicidal prayer: “I hope the roof flies off and I get sucked into space.” Mrs. Bishop might be right that he’s feeling sorry for himself, a cuckold who can’t get his household in order. “We’re all they have,” she says, reminding him of their children. He admits that it’s “not enough” that they’re all the children have. Time is hell and growth leads to no place but another dull moment, physical and mental strength gradually diminishing. In his anger, Mr. Bishop gets drunk and cuts down a tree; in his sadness, he yearns to fly heavenward, even if it’s a to void. Trying to console Suzy, Mrs. Bishop promises “some day” she’ll understand why her parents are acting the way they are. The perspective on responsibility leads Mrs. Bishop to cut off her clandestine affair with Captain Sharp (which Suzy has spotted with her magic binoculars) in a blue-lit scene that feels inspired by the scene in Michael Mann’s epic of “not having enough time,” Heat, when Robert De Niro’s similarly lonesome thief emotionally comes clean and begs Amy Brenneman to stay with him. Decisions of responsibility vs. self interest surround these sad characters, and idealistic romance, fantasy, and the well-being of others jumble together to make us wonder what “doing the right thing” is.

In the moonlight of reflection, there’s clarity, not axiomatic but mythological and perennial. The Khaki Scouts, in their vertically designed clubhouse, overcome their horizontal groupthink. They gossip about Sam and Suzy’s relationship and address how he might be lobotomized, when one of the boys stomps his foot (almost bringing the house down) and says, “Damn us!” He lays out Sam’s difficult life story as an orphan who’s lacked the privileged entitlements they all possess, asking the key question to them, one by one: “How would you feel?” They resolve to save Sam from the clutches of Social Services—which will soon be arriving from the mainland to take him away to a Dickensian orphanage—and ensure his escape back into the wilderness with Suzy.

Alongside the blessings of reflection and sympathy, the climactic storm on September 5, 1965 has miracles. After their symbolic wedding, Sam emulates the indigenous Chickchaw tribes (quoting Chief Joseph, “I will fight no more forever,” in effect stopping time) and survives the Jovian thunderbolt; Scout Master Ward defies gravity, twice, with his leap across a flooding moat to save the ailing Commander Pierce (Harvey Keitel); and Captain Sharp saves Sam and Suzy, the three held together in a vertical line, hanging above the church cemetery, time’s final destination.

In the epilogue, the Chorus tells us that it was the worst storm in New Penzance’s recorded history but the harvests were plentiful and satisfying. Sam is now the adopted son of Captain Sharp and has a home, far away from Social Services, orphanages, and lobotomies. Scout Master Ward now has a girlfriend and continues to indoctrinate new Khaki Scouts (including the incoming “Pigeon Scout”), and Suzy is back at home with her brothers, all of the children still somewhat oppressed by the elder Bishops’ megaphones calling them to dinner. But the “Cuckoo Song” reminds us time is moving, the cosmos recurring in cyclical waves as we tumble through the foibles of personal memories and fantasies that migrate and fade as new memories and worlds come into motion. Sam and Suzy are secretly together, and we see that he’s painted for Suzy (just as Wes Anderson has crafted this film “For Juman”) their Moonrise Kingdom, which the Chorus says is no more, swallowed by the storm. The poetic expression of one’s secret universe is what holds out hope against Time, the secret word (like the letters in Suzy’s “Secret Box”) whispering in “the commodious vicus of recirculation” (the first of Joyce’s references to Vico in Finnegans Wake’s opening paragraph), history moving hither and thither as opposed to a progressive straight line where one’s life is simply “in front” of them.

The ending of Moonrise Kingdom, one of the most touching conclusions I’ve experienced in a theater, rests on Sam’s artwork before dissolving to a photographic moving image of a place that no longer exists. And as a film set in 1965, about two adolescents about to hit the rocky tumult of their teen years, what’s “in front” of this fictional world isn’t hopeful: Vietnam, assassinations, riots, Watergate, and a national disenchantment memorably reflected in the film medium, Sam and Suzy’s appearances anticipate the oncoming “cinema of loneliness,” to take the title of Robert Kolker’s seminal book of ‘70s American film criticism. In her beret, Suzy evokes Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie Parker (from Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde), just as Sam does Bud Cort in Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude and Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud (the latter full of bird imagery, the hero striving to go upward but plummeting back to earth as his ideals—like the ideals of the time—are unable to take flight).

Such reminders of America’s dark period and cinema of loneliness are accompanied by the warmth of Moonrise Kingdom’s relationship to its closest American movie cousin. The masterpiece of a filmmaker who re-ordered universal and familial tumult by blowing up the cthonian leviathan in Jaws and establishing benevolent harmony between humankind and the cosmos in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial may have made exponentially more money than all of Wes Anderson’s films combined, and yet the films are joined at the hip as stories about loss, longing, loneliness, fantasy, sympathy, and most importantly seeing.

I’m admittedly projecting a little of myself onto them, assessing them as not only the two greatest adolescent love stories of my lifetime, but also bridging the totality of my emotional experiences as a filmgoer, E.T. being one of the first films I can remember seeing in a theater, Spielberg’s alchemy infecting my personal imagination and entwining it into the collective movie-going imagination and pop culture as a whole; Moonrise Kingdom arrived as I was deep into adulthood, however still uncoordinated and immature in my own skin. Myself a child of divorce (like Anderson and Spielberg, both of whom invest so much accurate feeling into broken families), and bearing attributes none too different from Elliott or Sam and Suzy, an “emotionally disturbed” adolescence isn’t terribly off the mark in describing my own, in the interest of full disclosure. As Moonrise Kingdom rattles its audience awake and addresses us with Suzy’s eyes as they dart up from her secret box, the precocious, searching eye of the extra-terrestrial opens E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Suzy and Sam are psychically assimilated through their mutual gaze, and more literally are E.T. and Elliott, feeling each other’s feelings. My circle of youth opened with E.T.’s spaceship heading toward the cosmic Empyrean, and closes with the memory of Mile 3.25.

Anderson and Spielberg craft their films in such a manner that we are wedded to their emotions, submitting to their respective abundant idiosyncrasies. We see and we feel within a volley between the head and the heart. Moonrise Kingdom opens and closes on paintings in the Bishop house, the first one a framed picture of the house suggesting closed off territory, the final one Sam’s “Moonrise Kingdom” painting, unframed and unfinished, transporting us out of the house and back in time to the beach, a rapturous cinematic dissolve between worlds both fantastic and tangible. Spielberg’s alien watches John Ford’s The Quiet Man and what he sees results in Elliott’s faraway-so-close mimesis of John Wayne kissing Maureen O’Hara, just as the whole film overleaps its boundaries to move its audience. The Khaki Scout epiphany of “How would you feel?” is in Elliott’s dysfunctional household as, without thinking, he hurts the feelings of his mom (Dee Wallace) by bringing up an absent father in Mexico with a new girlfriend (“Think how other people feel for a change!” his older brother says). When frogs are to be dissected in E.T., the faceless teacher (something associating Spielberg’s fantasy along with Anderson’s to Melendez’ Peanuts) tells the students they don’t have to watch the creatures as they’re put to sleep, and that the animals won’t “feel” anything or “be hurt.” But Elliott does look, deep into the doomed frog’s eyes, as E.T. simultaneously looks at anthropomorphized cartoons (Tom and Jerry) on television—just as we look up at the screen at them—and Elliott decisively becomes their liberator. Submitting to art and mimesis, human intelligence and feeling remakes the world in his or her image; movies and books are no more differentiated than animals from people, or Elliott from an alien, a boy from a she-raven.

It’s fantasy, yes. The illusion is no more real than the fairies Elliott’s mom reads in Peter Pan to youngest sibling Gertie (Drew Barrymore), and it’s telling that Elliott and E.T. watch the storytelling through window blinds, the set decoration acting as a pun. And just as Moonrise Kingdom separates the metaphysical sense of love from its introductory axioms (the maps of which the film’s characters move across like Indiana Jones in Spielberg’s blockbuster tetralogy), E.T. begins to die when put under scientific measurements. As the alien is defined objectively, reduced to an “It,” his psychic and physical connection to Elliott weakens and the boy’s health returns. Social Services in Moonrise Kingdom and the scientists in E.T. function as the inquisitional licentiate in Don Quixote’s opening chapters, setting fire to much of Quixote’s library in order to bring him back to normality (or for that matter, the Zig Zag fascists of Anderson’s follow-up, The Grand Budapest Hotel, saying “What’s the meaning of this shit?!” when faced with an Igon Schiele painting and so bringing to mind Hitler’s Degenerative Art exhibitions committed to stamping out idiosyncrasies in artistic representation).

Like Moonrise Kingdom, E.T.’s climax is full of miracles, the resurrected E.T. (who now, instead of mimicking human words, can answer questions: “Does this mean they’re coming?!” “Yeeesss.”) ascending with his bicycling protectors through the air and into the forest. Feeling moves from the feeling heart to be preserved in memory (“I’ll be right here,” E.T. points at Elliott’s head, whereas earlier Elliott said the same words to him while pointing at his chest). There’s a tempered resignation accompanying both films’ bittersweet farewells, an acquiescence to time that roots out ideals and harvests youth before bitter frost sets in. The fictional anniversary of Sam and Suzy and the rising artificial moonlight is as real as Eden, Noah’s Ark, the Resurrection, and E.T. departing in his fiery (or rather, rainbow scented) chariot. We can see them represented, and more than believing them as Fact or Fiction, feel them and contemplate. As with Scheherazade’s 1001 Nights, in the tumult, turmoil, and romance of things felt totally, tenderly, tragically, fiction staves off the outcome of time’s historical winter-chilled chopping block waiting for everyone. So, with our eyes wide shut, we dream ourselves back to summer.

Originally written in September 2015.