Name That Tune: Britten, Anderson, and MOONRISE KINGDOM
20 January 2013
When I first saw Moonrise Kingdom I did not know of Benjamin Britten. An admitted novice to orchestra, opera, and classical music, I first noticed Britten’s name while the credits to Wes Anderson’s latest film rolled. After researching Britten it turns out, aside from the musical accompaniment Britten’s work offers Moonrise Kingdom, two of his contributions, Noye’s Fludde (an opera) and The Young Person’s Guide to Orchestra (an children’s educational tutorial), add significant layers to the film. Now understanding a bit about Britten, his music, and these two specific works, I feel more intellectually stimulated by Moonrise Kingdom and have a deeper appreciation for Anderson’s most recent release.
To begin, Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) was a British musician and composer. Although somewhat doubted during his life—in part because of his resistance to conventional musical etiquette of his time, and because of his homosexuality—, Britten has become a highly revered British composer of the 20th century. His life’s work is rooted in classical music, with many of his compositions influenced by classic literature. Yet, Britten also composed scores for films, orchestrated church music, and dabbled in a number of other diverse projects during his lifetime. Thematically, Britten was drawn to the struggle of the innocent in a corrupt world, and this detail may be one of the most important when pondering Anderson’s use of Britten in Moonrise Kingdom.
Set in 1965, Moonrise Kingdom tells the story of two preadolescent children, Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) and Lionel Shakusky (Jared Gilman), who defy convention to be together. Suzy lives on the island of New Penzance in New England with her parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray), both attorneys, and three (unnamed) younger brothers. Suzy is “a troubled child,” or so the book she carries around says. She is prone to fits of anger and considers herself misunderstood. Similarly, Lionel, an orphaned boy who attended summer camp on New Penzance, also feels misunderstood, disliked, and unwelcomed among people. By happenstance Suzy and Lionel meet during St Jack’s Church’s annual performance of Noye’s Fludde. Sparks fly and Suzy and Lionel become pen pals for an entire year. When Lionel returns to the island for another year of summer camp, the two create a plan to run away together. And, just days before a massive storm is expected to hit the island they set their plan into motion, bringing with them only what they absolutely need: a record player, several young adult fantasy fictions, a kitten, and camping survival supplies. The two aspire to escape to Moonrise Kingdom, a secluded cove on New Penzance. On their way they share secrets, confessions, and inner thoughts with one another, and by the time they arrive in their sacred cove they have fallen in love. Meanwhile, Suzy’s parents are (relatively) frantic with concern, as are island officials, Camp Ivanhoe Khaki Scouts, troop leaders, and Social Services (Tilda Swinton), the state official assigned to Lionel when his foster parents renege their responsibilities. The adults catch up to the runaways in Moonrise Kingdom and the two are separated, but, with the help of his fellow Khaki Scouts, Lionel and Suzy reunite just as the terrible storm arrives.
Britten’s opera Noye’s Fludde plays a special role in Moonrise Kingdom. The opera, composed in 1957, is essentially the story of Noah’s Ark. Disgusted by all the dishonesty and vile people, God tells Noye, an average but honest man, to build a ship in preparation for a massive flood, and then to fill the ship with his family and Earth’s animals. Noye’s wife, who repeatedly mocks Noye, initially refuses to get onboard. Ultimately, Noye forces his wife on the ship and the flood waters’ rise. During the flood, Noye sends two birds out to see if there is any land left; he sends The Raven and The Dove. The Raven does not return, signaling land has been found for the bird to perch on. The Dove does return, with an olive branch, a symbol of hope, solidifying land still exists. Noye’s ship runs aground and the people and animals depart; Noye receives blessings from God for his service. Using a setting that would enhance Noye’s Fludde’s theme of the innocent’s struggle in a corrupt world, Britten wrote this particular opera to be performed in a church or church-like space with amateurs, or simple, ordinary people cast as the performers. This opera appears twice in Moonrise Kingdom, and, both times, Anderson sets the opera in a church. Furthermore, Anderson absorbs Britten’s theme about the innocent’s struggle with corruption into his overarching cinematic theme of childhood innocence; the innocents in Anderson’s use of Britten’s opera are Suzy and Lionel, the children.
A few parishioners of St. Jack’s Church gather to watch a rather elaborate rendition of Noye’s Fludde the first time this opera is referenced in Moonrise Kingdom. This is also the first time Suzy and Lionel meet. Bored with the performance, Lionel wanders down to a dressing room where Suzy, who plays The Raven, awaits her cue. This initial use of the opera characterizes Suzy. As The Raven, she separates herself from all others; Suzy is dark, different, and isolates herself from the flock.
Later on in the film this opera appears again. As the impending storm approaches, Anderson quick-cuts to a poster that reads Noye’s Fludde’s scheduled performance cancelled. However, that’s not exactly true. The storm stopped the annual staged version of the opera, but during the storm, in the film’s climax, the opera comes to life. Waters rise as St Jack’s (the ark) shields all the characters from drowning, and the film’s theme of childhood innocence in the face of corruption is once again brought to the forefront. As the adults (corrupted) squabble over power, ironically missing how powerless they actually are in the wake of this massive storm, the children (innocents) attempt another escape. Suzy may still represent The Raven while Lionel becomes The Dove. Just as the two children prepare to potentially sacrifice their lives, just as the birds do in Britten’s opera, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) stops them. Suddenly, lightning strikes the church; yet, miraculously, the two children survive the blast by hanging from a piece of the church’s steeple, symbolizing the olive branch. With The Raven and The Dove alive, the waters recede; with the olive branch extended, peace wins, which cures the adults of their squabbles and ends the film on a hopeful note. Anderson and Britten’s respective themes are so interconnected that Anderson’s inclusion of Britten’s opera in Moonrise Kingdom intensifies his film.
Moreover, another of Britten’s works, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, also adds depth to Moonrise Kingdom, drawing more parallels between Anderson and Britten’s works, and symbolizing Britten and Anderson’s resistance to the conventions of their respective forms of artistic expression.
Suzy’s brothers diligently listen to The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. So diligently, in fact, some of the film’s comic relief resides the way these three boys listen, breathless and immobilized, to the record about instruments, harmonies, and orchestra. However, Suzy takes the record player (but not The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra record) when she runs away with Lionel. Suzy is not the type to follow a guide, and her actions inadvertently stop her brothers’ from their hilarious adhesion to convention. Looking at her from this lens, Suzy has a lot Britten and Anderson in her.
On the other hand, referencing The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is not simply about defiance; this mentioning is also heartfelt because this work is for the innocent, as opposed to about the innocent. Britten was commissioned to create this tutorial so he might communicate musical understanding, and perhaps even appreciation, to children. Anderson’s efforts in Moonrise Kingdom are not dissimilar. His film is unconventional, reflecting his own unique style, which some consider whimsical and ridiculous. But, there is also something very sentimental about Moonrise Kingdom. It seems to embrace all that is awkward, imaginative, and exciting about childhood. What adults see as whimsical and ridiculous may seem less farcical to a child, or one’s inner child. Represented by The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Moonrise Kingdom may not be about childhood but for childhood, and the inner children still living in all of us.
No knowing about Britten when I originally watched Moonrise Kingdom did not lessen my appreciation for Anderson’s film. Yet, rewatching the film having researched and considered Britten’s work has added layers on Moonrise Kingdom for me. In general, I find Anderson’s work to be underappreciated, too often simplified as quirky, with too heavy a focus on the visual spectacle; Moonrise Kingdom being no exception. But, it seems to me, particularly when looking at how intricately Moonrise Kingdom builds off Britten, Anderson’s work is, in fact, deceptively complex, as well as intellectually inspired and inspiring.