A few hours before I watched Wes Anderson’s new film, Moonrise Kingdom, I was watching the undergraduate commencement ceremony at Biola University. It made me nostalgic to see 670 seniors receive their diplomas and officially conclude a long chapter in their journeys. I remember being there myself, seven years ago at Wheaton College, “commencing” a pivotal new chapter as my 22 years of being a kid gave way to the new adventure of independent adulthood. What a memorable moment, graduation day–abuzz as it was with the teetering uncertainty of the liminal spaces which were its backdrop: between youth, inexperience and protection on one hand and adulthood, maturity and risk on the other. Everything then was new, curious, possible. The world was there to be explored; adulthood to be experimented with.
Moonrise Kingdom dwells in a similar liminal space: between the innocence, wonder and “firsts” of childhood on one hand and the danger, letdown, and regrets of adulthood on the other. In the same way that Saturday’s commencement reminded me of the coming-of-age threshold of “student” life giving way to a truly independent “working adult” life, Moonrise evoked nostalgia for another transition moment: when the pleasant domesticated adventures of childhood began to mix with the restlessness and reckless passions of adolescence.
Among the many merits of Moonrise is the uncanny way it captures the way that children understand reality: as a parade of wonders, thrills, discoveries, not unlike the adventure novels they read. The film’s central pair–Sam and Suzy–forge a path together that flirts with adulthood (french kissing, setting up a camp together, “getting married” and setting off on their own), but they still make time to revel in the wonders of the world as curious children: dancing on the beach to the music of a portable record player, drawing portraits of each other, creating a camp in an imaginary inlet they call “Moonrise Kingdom.”
Moonrise excels at representing the intersection of “play,” “game” and “real life,” and the manner in which they sometimes all blur together. The Boy Scouts motif (“Khaki Scouts,” as they’re called in the film) exemplifies this. Scouting is a an activity of domesticated danger and simulated adulthood, where young men can play at being adults–warriors, indians, explorers, doctors, etc.–while also having fantastical adventures. As exemplified in the film, scouting is about learning to be mature and “adult” without having to give up one’s sense of whimsy and boyish bravado.
The Noah’s Ark motif also showcases the tension between “play” and “reality.” The film’s early scene of the youth musical presentation of Benjamin Britten’s “Noye’s Fludde,” in which Suzy plays a “raven,” is then juxtaposed with a real life flood near the end of the film. The former is a “safe” experience of the reality of the latter, and perhaps a preparation for it. Like the Boy Scouts, “play” is here both a whimsical experience of dress-up simulation but also something very grounded in and linked to reality.
In 1938, Dutch anthropologist Johann Huizinga defined play as “a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious,’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly.” Pioneering computer game designer Chris Crawford adds that playing games provides “the psychological experiences of conflict or danger while excluding their physical realizations. In short, a game is a safe way to experience reality.”
The “playing” of childhood–as beautifully portrayed in Moonrise–is thus a sort of “bracketed” reality, a “safe” experience in between parentheses that nevertheless exists within and is informed by the larger narrative of a very real and dangerous world. From the opening sequence of Moonrise we see the motif of childhood and “game-playing.” Inside a comfortable house–“Summer’s End,” a name itself evoking childhood play–we see children playing games, listening to a recording of Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, safe and comfortable while a storm rages outside.
The “Wes Anderson aesthetic” of symmetrical, boxed-in mise-en-scène also works to underscore the “parentheses” subreality that is childhood. Everything in this world is in a nice, tidy box: framed as if on a stage, or in a doll house, or a scene of toys a child might arrange in a particular manner. It’s a surreal, bracketed-off existence, full of adventure and “danger” that is very contained, as if in a Nancy Drew novel. In childhood as well as adulthood, play and games are about artificial conflict; about that protected place where we can experience adrenaline rushing, the overcoming of conflict and the solving of problems without any real, imminent dangers or threats. Sam and Suzy’s camping adventure is about “playing at” survival in the wilderness, like the Chickshaw Indians had to do. Sam suggests at one point that if they get thirsty they should suck on pebbles to generate more saliva; but then he admits that he brought plenty of water, so the pebbles won’t be necessary. In any case, he’s prepared–like a true Boy Scout.
In many ways college–my experience of it, at least–was like Moonrise Kingdom: a “bracketed-off” experience of surreal life, in which we played, and learned, and became prepared for the adulthood to come. It was a safe place–a “bubble” of protected learning, in a way–though not entirely innocent. We were free to fail, to be broken, to learn real-life lessons about heartbreak and suffering, just as Sam and Suzy are in Moonrise. But above all it was a time of exploration, of discovering oneself and the world; seeing it through new lenses (like Suzy and her ubiquitous binoculars), new books, new compadres (like Sam’s Scout buddies) with new teachers and guides (like Edward Norton and Bruce Willis are for Sam).
Moonrise is an elegiac memorial for those moments of youth in which we were “young and easy under the apple boughs… green and carefree… Golden in the mercy of his means,” to quote Dylan Thomas’ “Fern Hill.” For me, it’s also a call for us to recover the sense of wonder that characterized those days–those Peter Pan days when we lived for fictional adventures, became transfixed by the breakdown of instruments in an orchestra, and paused on our merry way to marvel at the curiosity of a drinking fountain. Those days weren’t actually a “subreality” at all, but in fact as real as what we call “real life” in adulthood. Or more real.
It’s a call for us to regain a vital imagination, in which dreaming and creation infuse us again, and not just as part of a nostalgic longing for our pre-utilitarian innocence. Imagination is key to thriving in this world.
I think part of the sadness and elegiac quality of something like commencement is that we remember what it was like to be young and free, “Golden in the mercy of his means,” with the world as our oyster. We lament that we’ve lost the sense of adventure, bravery, and risk that electrified those long lost days. And yet the truth is we need not abandon such things. We should be lifelong learners, career explorers, always re-imagining the world and discovering its wonders anew.
We may no longer live in the “lamb white days” of youth, or in the green days of the undergraduate college “bubble,” but we still exist in a world of inexhaustible wonders –a world with “the sun that is young once only” and “the moon that is always rising.”
“Fern Hill,” Dylan Thomas
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.
And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.
All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark.
And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.
And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace,
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.