Suzy’s Stare: A Close Visual Reading of the Female Gaze in Wes Anderson’s ‘Moonrise Kingdom’

Outside, checkered cabs whizzed by. Pigeons cocked their heads at clouds, and manhole covers huffed up sewer steam. But in Theatre Five, the first screen off the broken escalator at Lincoln Square Cinemas, I was on a beach in New Penzance, watching hungrily as a pair of twelve year olds practiced French kissing. By my thirteenth birthday, I owned three pairs of saddle shoes – one cheap black and white pair from the online costume retailer, another yellow pair (real leather), and the last, thrifted slip-ons. I listened to Françoise Hardy and Benjamin Britten, and willed my breasts to shrink so shift dresses would fit me properly. All this is to say that seeing Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom at age twelve was not enough for me – I wanted to climb inside of it.

While its romantic plot certainly factored into my obsession with the film (like most adolescent girls, I craved a love story to call my very own), much of my ensnarement could be attributed to the film’s whimsical quirks and meticulous world-building, aspects of production for which Wes Anderson is well revered. Very few directors have a visual vocabulary as recognizable as Anderson’s; flattened images, planes of symmetry, parallel lines, lengthy tracking shots, slow motion sequences, and oversaturated color palettes are all signatures of Anderson’s style. In contrast to the narrative driven editing of big-budget films, Anderson’s films reveal a stylistic, aesthetic approach to filmmaking that has garnered him immense critical acclaim. Anderson’s proponents call his work delightful. Anderson’s critics peg him as “precious” and “twee.” Barely any critics, however, call attention to the subtle way in which Wes Anderson’s work perpetuates the cinematic male gaze.

In her landmark 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” cultural critic Laura Mulvey introduced the “male gaze” as a concept in cinema wherein women are portrayed as the objects of a “controlling and curious” look. Mulvey argues that the practices of mainstream cinema that enable audiences to perceive films as “real” – darkened theaters, shots with deep focus, continuity editing – are, in fact, subjective elements which encourage a voyeuristic relationship that objectifies onscreen women by promoting audience identification with a male protagonist. “Camera technology…  camera movements… combined with invisible editing (demanded by realism) all tend to blur the limits of screen space,” Mulvey writes. “The male protagonist is free to command the stage, a stage of spatial illusion in which he articulates the look and creates the action.”

One cannot dismiss or look away from the rigid male control that underlies Anderson’s fastidious filmmaking. Anderson’s signature precision, after all, is derivative of the collaboration between a male director, a male cinematographer, and a male editor.

The blurring of the line between screen space and real space is an essential aspect of Mulvey’s. The disintegration of the visual boundary between audience and screen allows viewers to identify with male onlookers, cementing the illusion of control. Wes Anderson’s films, however, do not blur these boundaries quite so much; since Anderson does not employ realist editing techniques (instead favoring carefully crafted tableaus), his viewer is consistently aware of the performance of his or her watching. Watchers of Anderson’s films are rarely permitted to regard them as ready-made. In this way, Anderson’s films create a paradox that is difficult to reconcile with Mulvey’s claims. On the one hand, the unwavering presence of the camera’s look in Anderson’s films might prevent viewers from partaking in the voyeuristic identification that Mulvey claims realist editing promotes. On the other hand, one cannot dismiss or look away from the rigid male control that underlies Anderson’s fastidious filmmaking. Anderson’s signature precision, after all, is derivative of the collaboration between a male director, a male cinematographer, and a male editor. Anderson’s perfectionism is noticeably present in his protagonists, almost all of whom are neurotic, hyper-controlling white men. And so we arrive at the puzzling question: can a film that uses non-realist editing techniques still be subject to the male gaze? And if so, what techniques besides realist editing perpetuate this gaze? Where does the identification occur?

Moonrise Kingdom provides a particularly useful case study, since it is a film in which the “look” is constantly negotiated. Moonrise Kingdom weaves the tale of two tween penpals, orphan-turned-Boy-Scout Sam Shakusky and troubled schoolgirl Suzy Bishop, who decide to run away together in the summer of 1965 after their correspondence grows romantic. Sam’s background as a Boy Scout training imbues him with the overconfidence and attention to detail characteristic of Anderson’s protagonists. Suzy has neither quality in spades. Rather, Suzy is a girl who makes up for in hormonal outbursts what she lacks in parental affection. Suzy’s status as “disturbed” is confirmed around 25 minutes into the film when she shows Sam “Coping With the Very Troubled Child,” a book she discovered her parents had hidden on top of the refrigerator. (**It is worth noting that the trope of “troubled female” is relatively common in Anderson’s films. A particularly similar example to Suzy is Margot Tenenbaum, the chain-smoking, promiscuous, “damaged” sibling from Anderson’s 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums. In fact, Margot and Suzy are so similar in appearance and countenance that some fans have even posited that Suzy could be Margot’s mother**).  In a flashback sequence shortly after, the viewer is treated to a montage of Suzy’s letters to Sam, in which she confesses to yelling at her teacher, punching the glass out of a windowpane, and getting into a fistfight with a classmate.

However, Moonrise Kingdom hints at Suzy’s emotional disturbance far before we watch her picking glass out of her mother’s hair. The opening sequence of Moonrise Kingdom is a series of tracking shots that pan throughout the Bishop household, revealing the mundane and compartmentalized business of its inhabitants as the camera mozies from room to room. Suzy’s brothers play jacks. Suzy’s mother files her nails; her father reads the newspaper. Each of these visual scans of the house, ends with with Suzy staring directly into the camera, her eyes glued to a pair of binoculars. The effect is eerie – Suzy, disengaged to a point of catatonia as she intently peers, cannot be disrupted from her silent vigil by the goings on of her family members.

Anderson’s panning shots are unapologetically voyeuristic – the artistry of the scene hinges upon the illusion that we are watching a regular family go about their regular activities. Anderson frequently uses these tracking shots, which exemplify a phenomenon that scholar Thomas Y. Levin refers to as “diegeticized surveillant omniscience.” This technique operates by normalizing the voyeurism of the “impossible shot” – film jargon for a shot from a vantage point unattainable to the human eye, such as inside of a fireplace – by depersonalizing the camera. In other words, Anderson’s tracking shots normalize the violation of the Bishop family’s privacy by providing an omniscient and impossible viewpoint, relieving the viewer of the feeling that such voyeurism is realistic while simultaneously inviting the viewer to partake in surveillance. However, every time the viewer becomes comfortable accepting Anderson’s surveillant practices as a natural aspect of his filmmaking, Suzy appears suddenly, gazing intently back at the viewer. Suzy’s unyielding gaze breaks the fourth wall in a sort of feminist sousveillance: Suzy subverts the voyeuristic look by making the viewer the subject of his or her own gaze. Suzy’s binoculars therefore provide an alternate gaze; a markedly female gaze, a means of resisting the camera’s masculine voyeurism.

Suzy’s unyielding gaze breaks the fourth wall in a sort of feminist sousveillance: Suzy subverts the voyeuristic look by making the viewer the subject of his or her own gaze.

This resistance, however, is framed as threatening. Though Suzy refers to her binoculars as her “superpower,” the film’s editing choices instead connote Suzy’s persistent gaze as predatory. In the opening sequence, Suzy appears suddenly and creepily, foregrounded in unexpected nooks of the house. Further, Suzy’s categorization as “troubled” erodes the legitimacy of her defiant look; viewers are to understand, subconsciously or consciously, that Suzy’s watchfulness is a result of her profound distrust for those around her. Suzy’s persistent gaze is therefore not a liberating one; rather, her gaze represents an obsession that, like her other “troubled behaviors,” precludes her integration into civilized life.

The treatment of Suzy’s gaze and its relationship to the plot of Moonrise Kingdom sheds light on the ways that Moonrise Kingdom promotes the male gaze. Throughout Moonrise Kingdom, viewers are invited to assume Suzy’s gaze through the usage of binocular shots, wherein the ocular circles of Suzy’s binoculars frame a wide or panning shot. The addition of the binocular frame lends these shots a constructed intimacy, as the purpose of binoculars is to narrow the gaze on a person of interest. These binocular shots are explicitly voyeuristic; this voyeurism depends upon the viewer’s recognition of Suzy as the articulator of the gaze. In other words, the binocular frame augments Suzy’s presence in the shot as the silent “looker.” However, there are ample shots from Suzy’s perspective that do not feature binocular framing. One such shot occurs as Suzy observes a secret rendezvous between her mother and an island police officer. Before Suzy dons her binoculars, viewers simply see a wide shot of a police car and a miniature lighthouse. When Suzy puts on the binoculars, a viewer sees the exact same wide shot, except now with binocular frames and a minor degree of magnification. However, a viewer understands the first shot (upper left) as objective, and the second (bottom left) as “surveillant,” solely because the latter is framed by the binoculars.

Anderson thus sets up a gendered dichotomy between these two shots: the binocular framed shots, which are the vehicle for the female gaze, are surveillant, voyeuristic, unnerving, and intimate; the wide shots, which are everything but the female gaze, remain unmarked, objective, and detached. By associating surveillant qualities with Suzy’s gaze, Anderson renders the female perspective uncomfortable and undesirable. Undoubtably, the viewer would feel uneasy if the entire film were shot through binoculars; since they depart from the classic wide shot, viewers understand that the binocular shots are unstable and temporary, mimicking Suzy’s unstable character. The controlled shots are, in contrast, coded for as male. The usage of binocular shots is therefore sparing, temporarily subverting the look in order to reaffirm for viewers that a masculine “objectivity” is preferable.

By establishing Suzy’s gaze – the binocular shots – as visually separate from the “objective” look of wide shots and panning shots, Anderson encourages the viewer to assume that these latter types are not from Suzy’s point of view. In other words, the fact that binocular shots are singularly associated with Suzy marks her gaze as different, queer; however, the gaze of the male characters is always synonymous with the “objective” shots (shots that are not framed by binoculars). The male gaze, masquerading as the “objective look,” is then able to assert its scopic power back on Suzy. In the series of shots mentioned previously, Suzy’s binoculars magnify the police car only slightly. However, when the camera cuts back to Suzy, she is depicted in a much closer frame than in the previous shot of her. The gaze which looks back at Suzy, while invisible and omniscient, is therefore stronger than the gaze Suzy herself exerts.

The female gaze is also destructed when male characters confront it directly. As soon as Sam realizes Suzy is observing him through binoculars (in the stills to the right), the look is taken away from Suzy and granted to an omniscient viewer. From a courtesy perspective, this shift makes sense – if not blatantly rude, it is at least unusual to look at someone through binoculars after they have acknowledged your presence. This custom may be based in the notion that unobstructed vision denotes a more objective “reality.” In Moonrise Kingdom, however, the female gaze is consistently obstructed by binoculars, rendering it inherently subjective. Anderson’s wide shots, however, are unobstructed quite literally; the flatness and wideness of Anderson’s film technique makes characters and their interactions hypervisible. Therefore, Anderson’s jump cut to a wider shot after Sam notices Suzy surveilling him represents Anderson’s need to show the “whole picture.” This, however, implies that a complete reality cannot be fully shown from Suzy’s perspective. Therefore, the shots that viewers take to be the camera’s unbiased look (such as the wide shot) are in fact shots in which female visibility is demanded. And in order for Suzy to be visible, she must be coaxed into giving up her gaze.

Unlike the realism of “narrative cinema,” which affirms male viewers by giving them the illusion of articulating the look, Anderson’s editing reserves an omnipresent, surveillant control for himself.

And that’s where Sam comes in. Sam, like many of the archetypal Wes Anderson perfectionists, is a stand-in for Wes Anderson himself. By imposing his control on Suzy, he is able to pry her away from her binoculars. About two-thirds of the way through the movie, Sam and Suzy decide to get married. Suzy, who is never without her binoculars, forgetfully leaves them in the wedding chapel. Suzy’s forgetting of her binoculars upon marriage implies the gaze is a radical threat that can be mediated through marriage or male intervention. This idea is furthered in the final sequence of the film (shown below), when Sam’s look causes Suzy to relinquish the gaze: after Sam looks up at Suzy directly, Suzy lowers her binoculars and blows Sam a kiss. What follows is a near replication of Moonrise Kingdom’s opening scene; except this time around, rather than donning her binoculars and gazing outward, Suzy removes her binoculars and walks into the home. Without the distraction and burden of wielding the gaze, the ending of the film implies, Suzy will be able to commit more fully to her place in the home.

So if Suzy doesn’t hold the gaze, who does? The answer is deceptively simple: Wes Anderson, of course. Unlike the realism of “narrative cinema,” which affirms male viewers by giving them the illusion of articulating the look, Anderson’s editing reserves an omnipresent, surveillant control for himself. In Moonrise Kingdom, this control is exerted by making his characters hypervisible, which requires the eradication of the female gaze. It is not that viewers of Anderson’s films do not identify with men – it is simply that in Wes Anderson films, viewers identify with the man behind the camera rather than the man onscreen. This identification operates through the vehicle of style, allowing Anderson to become the super-protagonist of every film he meticulously crafts. And viewers who seek control can identify with this super-protagonist, allowing for an arguably deeper voyeurism than identification with a protagonist allows.

So who’s excited for The French Dispatch?


References

Focus Features and Indian Paintbrush present; an American Empirical picture; produced by Wes Anderson et. al; written by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola; directed by Wes Anderson. Moonrise Kingdom. Universal City, CA: Santa Monica, CA; New York, NY: Universal Studios Home Entertainment; Focus Features, 2012.

Levin, Thomas Y. “Rhetoric of the Temporal Index: Surveillant Narration and the Cinema of ‘Real Time.’” CTRL [Space]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother. Thomas Y. Levin et. al Eds. Cambridge, Mass. MIT Press, 2002.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. (New York: Oxford UP, 1999).

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