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Moonrise Kingdom

2013 August Film series
By Anne Strain, LCSW

Roger Ebert had this to say about Moonrise Kingdom:

“Wes Anderson’s mind must be an exciting place for a story idea to be born. It immediately becomes more than a series of events and is transformed into a world with its own rules, in which everything is driven by emotions and desires as convincing as they are magical. Moonrise Kingdom creates such a world and takes place on an island that might as well be ruled by Prospero. It is set in 1965, though it might as well be set at any time”.

I think Ebert pegs an essential element of Anderson’s story in the idea of it being more than a series of events, but rather a transformation into a world with its own rules. In an NPR interview, Anderson referred to the movie as what he calls a “memory of a fantasy”. I wonder if it is perhaps also a fantasy of a memory, as Anderson, in another interview, characterized his parents’ divorce when he was 8 as “the most crucial event of my brothers’ and my growing up”.  Regardless of, or perhaps in addition to, whatever aspects of Anderson’s experience may find expression in the film, there is also an infusion of archetypal, or universal, motifs that give us as viewers an opportunity to explore how these images and motifs resonate for and within each of us.

The approach that I am going to take in discussing the film is this: the interplay of the interrelational and the intrapsychic. Sometimes that may be difficult to hold in our minds, as it is always tempting with an engaging story to concretize or literalize the depiction as reality, and to lose the opportunity to work with the images and ideas in a symbolic, metaphoric and imaginal fashion. One point of convergence of these perspectives is to view the film as though it is a dream or a complex or an image of internalized object relations. The film lends itself particularly to that approach, as a result of what Ebert described as “a transformation into a world with its own rules”, which is also a good description of the psychic realities that are imaged in our dreams and in our experiences via our complexes.  

So, our film “dream” begins with an upset. The seemingly idyllic island life and peaceful staid community is turned upside down when Suzy and Sam run away together as a storm is approaching. We can think of the storm as both an external event and an internal experience, a storm that exists both within and without. In this beginning, we get a glimpse of psyche’s role in relation to the ego. Something needs to change. The “children” have to flee the structure of the parental world, imaged in a psychic divide that requires a bullhorn to maintain communication, and in a connection that is so severely altered that there is no home to which one can return.

Suzy and Sam image new capacities that have emerged from unconsciousness, perhaps not fully due to repression, but also simply because the time for their appearance has arrived. They “seek” one another. In an alchemical sense we could say that they incarnate the Axiom of Ostanes, which is: A nature is delighted by another nature, a nature conquers another nature, a nature dominates another nature.” They know that they belong together. Sam doesn’t know what kind of bird Suzy is, but he knows she is the bird with whom he wants to be. This is an image that we frequently encounter in dreams, the fantasied lover, the magical other.

Sam and Suzy each show a particularly attenuated sense of nascent wholeness. Suzy is not limited to traditional feminine attributes. In addition to her cat and cat food, books and record player, she also brings her aggressive tendencies that she hasn’t yet been able to modulate in an effective way. But it is her situationally appropriate aggression and use of her special left-handed scissors that save Sam from the marauding Scouts. Nor is Sam limited to traditional masculine attributes. Although he is well able to prepare and provide, with his camping apparatus and supplies and his instinctual nature, represented in the coon skin cap, he has not yet been able to have an embodied experience of his receptive and relational capacities that are imaged in his talisman, his mother’s brooch. This is one of those points I mentioned earlier where it is sometimes hard to remember that Sam and Suzy can be seen both as individuals interacting with each other, and also as images of components within a single psyche. In spite of language about masculine and feminine, which I find sometimes conjures up an unnecessary idea of polarities, I prefer to think of the psychic components that come into play within an individual as simply different aspects, not polarities, not either/ors.

One of the things that I enjoyed the most in this film is the depiction of the matter-of-factness with which Suzy and Sam accept different aspects of each other. This   depiction captures a sense of one possible goal in working with our dreams and complexes, which is to discover what disparate components of our psyche have been kept apart, what psychic slivers may need to be brought back into relation to one another. In Sam and Suzy we get an image of the result of such an examination, a greater acceptance of the totality of who one is. Just as with Sam and Suzy, such acceptance does not always lead to an idyllic experience; it does, however, enable us to engage more fully in our life as it unfolds. In Sam and Suzy’s case we could say that this integration prepares “them”, whether that is two actual people, or the multiple aspects of a single individual, for the rest of the journey. Sam thinks that Suzy’s idea of being without a family is crazy, but it doesn’t diminish his love for her. She is hurt by his laughter in response to her reaction to the “Dealing with a Difficult Child” pamphlet, but is able to accept his amends.

There was a juncture in this film where I had a kind of visceral fear that the connection between Sam and Suzy would be ruptured. During their first kiss, when Sam breaks lip contact and turns his head to spit, I was thinking, “Oh, she is going to be crushed, insulted, mortified, embarrassed, shamed—pick a word”. Obviously, I had too little faith in Suzy, who takes this in stride. She just wants to know what is happening. Sam comments that it was sand he was spitting out. So what does the sand represent? I think the sand is an image of an arbitrary separation of psychic reality, a separation that may have contributed to a measure of psychic protection that was at one time necessary. Spitting it out is an image of that separation no longer serving the individual.  

Of course, this conjunction is quickly challenged. The “parental” psychic component feels the absence of this child-energy and works to bring it back into the fold, to reestablish homeostasis. This appears desirable on one level but is not really desirable at all.  However, the conjunction of the “child” forms a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. This whole has a voice: “You can drag us home, but you can’t undo what has been formed.”  But they try….the efforts of Susie’s parents and Captain Sharp and Social Services and the Boy Scout troop and the troop master can all be seen as efforts to maintain the status quo…..for a complex or complexes to remain dominant. In the end though, in an optimal situation, the “parental” and “cultural” complexes are assimilated into the “new” whole psychic situation…..they are essentially “relativized”.

For example, in the beginning it is chaos in Suzy’s home. The image of the mother using the bull horn to call the children illuminates how much difference there is between the prevailing psychic structure and the potential enlivening psychic energy imaged in Susie. The “mother” and “father” can’t communicate. The “mother” has aligned with another “father/man”, but is at an impasse with further development. It takes “Susie’s” defection to bring this stalemate into the open.  Only when she leaves her home does the situation become conscious and available for examination.

In Captain Sharp we see an image of the “law” that allows a young boy to have a glass of beer with him. On a rational, literal level this seems questionable, but in the psychic world it images the fact that literal law has its limit and that sometimes psychic law needs to be humanized; it needs to be incarnated in an individual life situation. Sam and Captain Sharp, both as individuals in a story and as images of an individual’s psychic reality, need to come together around “spirit”. In contrast, we encounter Social Services, who doesn’t even have a name. She is an image of the stultifying result of obedience to an external letter of the law, but with no lived experience of an individual’s “law”. When Susies’s lawyer parents advocate for Captain Sharp to be able to provide a home for Sam, we see an image of the softening of previously controlling parental complexes.  A new law comes into being.  

I think we see an image of this new psychic law being jelled in the scene on the top of the church. There is a continuing thread in the story that relates to being shocked. In the church play, the set includes zig-zap thunderbolts. There is the threat of Sam being referred for ECT. Sam is struck by lightning. In the final scene at the church, lightning topples the church steeple just as a solution has been discovered. We could say that the lightning both topples a hierarchical faith structure and leads to an arc of connection between Sam, Suzy and Captain Sharp. This arc images the divine nature of the reunification of previously separated psychic parts. This reminds me of Jung’s comments in The Red Book that relate to the incarnation of a new god within, but that would be enough to fill a whole other lecture.

So let me simply offer an image of the result of the travels and travails of our characters. As a result of the forging of a “new psychic law”, the bullhorn is no longer needed. The psychic children no longer have to maintain a defensive separation from the internal parents. They can live in the home of these psychic parents, but with a room of their own. A room at the top, indicative of an achievement of a certain kind of consciousness. A room that allows for comings and goings that don’t have to be hidden, however unorthodox and unconventional they may be. A room that images the capacity for both individual experience and for relationality. And although it isn’t a room that can be lived in continuously, it is a room to which one can return again and again. A room in which memory and fantasy and experience can be given form. A room that nurtures the game, the music and the art of life, in whatever forms they unfold.