Sunday, June 24, 2012


[Spoilers for Moonrise Kingdom.]


There is hardly a clearer example of Foucauldian power than the Boy Scouts—a most codified set of techniques of the self, each self a set of badges pinned to the uniform.

I saw Moonrise Kingdom last night; the centrality of its "Khaki Scouts" highlights the way in which overinvestment in such systems conduces to tragicomedy, especially in Wes Anderson's films (The Life Aquatic, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Rushmore function similarly).

Particularly notable to me are the juxtapositions of adults and children; there is often intergenerational buy-in. There is something truly hilarious about a group of boys taking their scouting very seriously. Funnier still is the truest true believer, the adult Scoutmaster Ward, who avers that being a scout master is his real job: "I teach math on the side." But the boys' and men's beliefs exist in the same plane; Sam's adorable self-importance as he gives Suzy camping tips (of very widely varying utility) is later validated by his scout master's manner of offering sympathy: "I wish we'd had time for an inspection back there. I would have given you a Commendable."

As ridiculous as the Khaki Scouts are, they are soon revealed to be no more ridiculous than the other disciplinary institutions that they mimic—the law, as figured by Suzy's lawyer parents; the state, as figured by Social Services (Tilda Swinton, in some of the film's most visually striking moments—of course); and perhaps the most absurd of them all, the police, as figured by Commander Sharp. In a climactic scene, all four avatars of systematized discipline bark into walkie-talkies attempting to sort out the proper placement of the two children, four criss-crossing domains of authority emblematized by five bewildered—but still entirely invested—adults. At the end, when Sharp agrees to foster the orphaned Sam, Sam switches out the Khaki Scouts uniform in which we have always seen him for a miniature police uniform. He has merely switched systems.

In Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf mocks men's love of fancy dress by pointing to the pomp and circumstance of the military. Busby Berkeley's Footlight Parade (1933) contains a military dance sequence ("Shanghai Lil") that indeed quite undermines any distinction between the military and the Tiller Girls when it comes to examples of the mass ornament. What I am getting at is that there is a pettiness in these systems—and it is precisely the pettiness that interests Anderson—that we may identify as a form of puerility. It is "boyish" behavior, both highly elaborated and ridiculous, even if adults are frequently the originators of that puerility. (What is The Life Aquatic if not a story about a man playing with the people and things around him as if they were so many toys?) These are systems of play entered into for their own sake, and prioritized regardless of the consequences. (A pet dog is killed in one encounter; when confronted with this fact, Sam's nemesis shrugs and says something to the effect that it can't be helped; the dog is a casualty of war.)

Puerility and its powerful appeal—its necessity, even—is one of Anderson's continual themes. Why do people invest themselves in ridiculous systems? When is such investment reprehensible? From what standpoint is one capable of distinguishing between puerility and grandeur of vision—or does any such distinction exist?

Kracauer, Siegfried. "The Mass Ornament." The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1995. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966. Print.

Puerility is also one of Stephen Crane's great themes.

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