Wednesday, June 6, 2012

What's new again: Frank Borzage's Moonrise

Posted By on 06.06.12 at 10:37 AM

Into the shadows: Dane Clark in Moonrise
  • Into the shadows: Dane Clark in Moonrise
After the press screening of Moonrise Kingdom, my colleague Kevin Lee posited that director Wes Anderson may have been thinking about Frank Borzage’s noirish romance Moonrise (1948) when he made his latest film. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was: Anderson’s orchestrated style has more in common with studio filmmaking of the 40s and 50s than it does with most recent studio films. (In an astute review for MSN Movies, Glenn Kenny compares Anderson’s approach to that of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.) Indeed, there are big similarities between these similarly named movies. Both are love stories about social outcasts, and both contain lengthy passages set in the woods; but more importantly, they advance the optimistic message that we become better human beings through loving others.

Borzage was one of the most stalwart romantics in movies. Even when his stories feel contrived, the director’s sincerity comes through overwhelmingly. “It is melodrama, certainly,” wrote Dave Kehr in his Reader capsule of the director’s masterpiece, History is Made at Night (1937), “but melodrama played with so much conviction and exquisite sensitivity that all the viewer’s defenses are destroyed.” This might not be true for all viewers; whenever I go to a Borzage revival (thankfully, there tends to be at least one a year in Chicago), I always hear at least one burst of incredulous laughter. That’s an understandable response; Borzage’s sensibility sometimes can seem archaic or a little silly. In Moonrise, for instance, a sensible schoolteacher (Gail Russell) pledges unconditional love to a social misfit with violent impulses (Dane Clark) because she’s convinced of his gentle inner nature—and she remains loyal to him even after learning he accidentally killed her boyfriend. (It plays a lot more movingly than it sounds.)

The film's lovers sometimes retreat to the woods to be alone, and Borzage depicts the environment as both inviting and mysterious. The characters feel free to be themselves in the natural world, yet the woods are ultimately unknowable—they’re not a place for people to stay (Borzage emphasizes this by often filming the lovers in shadow when they’re off on their own). Danny, the misfit character, has a friend who lives there, however: an older black man named Mose (Rex Ingram). Like Danny, Mose had a father who’d been to prison, and he was so ashamed of his background that he stopped living in town (in the movie’s small-town setting, children of convicts get treated like pariahs for life). About halfway through the film, Mose reflects on his solitary life with a lovely monologue:

A man ought to have a woman—friends anyway. A man ought to live in the world with folks. When I came out here, I thought I’d be out of the way; I thought there’d be no one shoving me around. What I did was resign from the human race, and that’s about the worst crime there is, only they don’t hang you for it.

moonrise_mose.jpg
These lines neatly sum up the movie’s sentiment. Moonrise isn’t just about Danny learning to accept the love of Gilly the schoolteacher; it’s about him learning to overcome his sense of isolation. When the town’s sheriff figures out that Danny’s committed murder, he urges him to confess so that he may get a reduced sentence and one day “live his life like an ordinary human being.” As in other Borzage films—like The Mortal Storm, Man’s Castle, or Song o’ My Heart, to name a few—compassion is what allows communities to take shape.

The same could be said of Moonrise Kingdom. Nearly all of the major adult characters are lonely outsiders; the film’s development charts their individual growth and their eventual coming together. In one of the more touching subplots (and one that’s especially evocative of Borzage’s), an introverted sheriff (Bruce Willis) develops sympathy for an orphaned boy who’s run away from summer camp and becomes a paternal figure in the boy’s life. But everyone in the movie learns to empathize a little better, even minor characters like an aloof senior scoutmaster (Harvey Keitel) whom Anderson introduces, quite funnily, as a minor-league Colonel Kurtz. No less than Moonrise, Anderson’s Kingdom is about the benefits of living in the world with folks. One thing that makes the film so refreshing is that Anderson often expresses this theme as sincerely as Borzage does.

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