Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Concept of Plot and the Plot of Moonrise Kingdom

R. S. Crane, in his 1952 essay, "The Concept of Plot and the Plot of Tom Jones," asserted that plot is not merely a device or mechanism on which to hang character.  Crane was a formalist who thought of art as a "dynamic whole which affects our emotions in a certain way through the functioning together of its elements...."  In other words, it's like a symphony.  (As Walter Pater wrote, "All art constantly aspires to the condition of music.")

Warning--spoilers ahead!  In Moonrise Kingdom, director/co-writer Wes Anderson begins and ends with Benjamin Britten's "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra."  Like Britten's piece, the film moves from the general to the particular, and then brings the discrete elements (or characters) back together again in the end in the tradition of classical comedy.  The movie is almost Shakespearean, with its play within a play, its tempest, its pre-pubescent Romeo and Juliet.

Anderson focuses on his runaway 12-year-old leads, Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), but through their brief idyll we come to know the variations of all of the key characters.  Scout Master Ward (Ed Norton) is an unattached math teacher who considers himself a Scout Master first.  (Anderson, in a recent interview with Elvis Mitchell, pointed out that most of the adults in the film wear uniforms, representing institutions, and that their hearts are not into "the thing they've been given."  "They're all Fredos," Anderson quipped, referencing The Godfather.  This is a good place to note that Anderson's co-writer on this screenplay is Roman Coppola, son of Francis Ford.)

Scout Master Ward is divested of his stripes, so to speak, but in the end his heroics earn them back, he finds his girl (the switchboard operator), and he embraces his true calling.  Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), an unrequited love in his past, lives what appears to be a lean bachelor life in a trailer, punctuated only by his affair with Suzy's mother, Mrs. Bishop (Frances McDormand).  Sharp literally rises to the occasion in the final act of the movie and offers to become Sam's new foster father, saving him from the blues of Social Services (embodied by Tilda Swinton), and rescuing both Sam and Suzy from possible death by drowning or broken necks.

Mrs. and Mr. Bishop (Bill Murray, resplendent in madras) are attorneys who sleep in twin beds with a sturdy nightstand between them.  But even they are able to duet in the end, providing counterpoint to Social Services with the threat of a lawsuit.  And so, ultimately, there is synthesis; community is restored.  Sam and Suzy carry on quasi-clandestinely, echoing the affair of Capt. Sharp and Mrs. Bishop, who have called it quits "for now."  The storm is over; the lightning has effected a collective electroshock to the system.  There is no orgiastic future in New Penzance (except perhaps for the corn crop), but homeostasis is restored.  The siblings in the Bishop household--incorporating Sam--go back to their routines.  Mrs. Bishop resumes communication via megaphone.  The film seems to say that we are all very troubled children, but that somehow we abide, and the beat goes on....

The cove where Sam and Suzy symbolically consummate their bond of misfithood is ultimately divested of its name on the map (reprising Scout Master Ward's loss of his Khaki Scout patch), but the cove's re-christening by the leads as "Moonrise Kingdom" lives on in the final shot of the film--in Sam's watercolor.  Anderson understands that sometimes the real is best accessed through the ideal; hence his artful fable.  And that our ideals are...well, just that.

What has struck me about this movie is how perfectly wrought its plot is--what Crane would describe as a "plot of action," meaning one which results in a "completed change" in the situation of the protagonist.  Kingdom also has a subplot of "character," in which the Khaki Scouts, who have been Sam's nemeses, have a change of moral character and rally to his and Suzy's cause.  (For the record, Crane's third category was plots of "thought," in which there's a completed process of change in the protagonist's thoughts and feelings.)

Every element in this film (especially production design, cinematography and camera movement, costume design), precisely contributes to the whole.  I've seen the film twice now, and its integrity is a delight.  There are no loose ends here; there is nothing superfluous.  It's a formal gem.

I wish I could say the same for the state of plot in contemporary television, beginning with the show Lost and devolving most recently with The Killing.  In  terms of the Ericksonian stages of psychosocial development, if Moonrise Kingdom represents Integrity, the trend in television plots offers mainly Despair.  But I'll save that rant for another post....

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  1. You made me want to see it again. Do you have any thoughts about the adult scout (Ben?) who performs the wedding ceremony and wants to keep the can of change?

  2. Cousin Ben is played by Jason Schwartzman,whose mother is Talia Shire (nee Coppola)--so he's Francis Coppola's nephew. I wonder if Cousin Ben isn't a kind of Godfather inside joke, since Schwartzman describes his character as someone who "has connections" in the video below (see link). I like how he decides not to keep the money, as he's touched by the couple--a mini subplot of character.


  3. A well-written analysis of a beautifully rendered film. Brava. I want to hear your thoughts on the state of plot with Lost. I watched only the pilot and felt I missed out with all hype the series generated. I never heard any negative criticisms so I'm curious to hear your take. Personally, I disliked the pilot so I never watched again. I don't know if I ever told you that a simple error of mine became a significant detail in the plot of that show.

  4. Eloquent and beautifully rendered synopsis Sharon!