19 July 2012

Melody and Moonrise Kingdom

Yesterday I discussed the influence of the 1970s children’s-fiction canon on the work of moviemaker Wes Anderson. For his latest, Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson told Entertainment Weekly that he also took inspiration from certain films of that decade.

François Truffaut’s Small Change (L’argent de poche, 1976), Anderson said, was “really one of the inspirations for this movie, because it’s what made me start thinking about doing…[a] pre-teenage romance.” Among the many vignettes making up that movie is one about a young girl and boy falling in puppy love, sharing a first kiss, and then trying to sneak back into a school or camp assembly unnoticed.

While developing his story, Anderson came across another movie exploring the same idea: Melody (1971), directed by Waris Hussein and written by Alan Parker. For Entertainment Weekly he called that and Ken Loach’s Black Jack (1979) “kind of huge inspirations for Moonrise Kingdom.” (Black Jack is an adaptation of Leon Garfield’s historical novel; I haven’t seen it.)

Melody flopped when it first came out in the UK and US, but was saved from total obscurity by becoming a huge hit in Japan and Latin America. Even now it’s hard to find good cuts in the US; fans recommend the Japanese DVD and a region-2 player.

Melody is one of my guilty-pleasure favorites: I see its flaws, including a cloying undercurrent and an ending that exploits 1960s radicalism without taking it anywhere, but I find it terribly affecting nonetheless—even the pre-disco Bee Gees songs.

The movie is set in a London comprehensive school; as an American I can only begin to parse the film’s discussion of class. The first act introduces Danny (Mark Lester from Oliver!) and his boy-crush on Cockney classmate Ornshaw (Jack Wild, also from Oliver!); the second act shows Danny transferring his affection to a girl named Melody (Tracy Hyde); and the third follows what happens when that young couple decides to get married.

Yet another movie going over the same territory was George Roy Hill’s A Little Romance (1979), with young Diane Lane and Thelonius Bernard. Sir Laurence Olivier was on hand gulping down great mouthfuls of Continental scenery, and critics were unkind, but the kids are good.

What makes Small Change and Melody so enjoyable is that their love stories play out on a field of deep naturalism. The latter film shows us boisterous multicultural schoolrooms, London streets, Melody’s working-class family, Danny’s awful bourgeois parents, the school’s athletics day, and so on. Other movies about kids that share that naturalistic approach include Little Fugitive (1953) and Kenny & Company (1976).

In contrast, Wes Anderson creates arch, artificial worlds. In Rushmore some reality broke through its hero’s self-protective artifice; think of Bill Murray’s visit to the barbershop. But there’s no tether to the real world in Moonrise Kingdom, as hard as Bruce Willis tries. The young leads may be the best part of the movie, but they’re not playing real kids; their characters are brightly-painted Sims.

So after I saw Moonrise Kingdom, I came home and watched unauthorized extracts from Melody on YouTube.


Richard Bensam said...

I've never seen Melody but the name Waris Hussein should already be familiar to anyone with an interest in the fantastic or in children's fiction. He directed ten episodes of the original Doctor Who, including "An Unearthly Child" in November 1963, the very first episode of the series, and after all these years still one of the best directed half hours of television entertainment you can find.

(Hussein also directed the "Marco Polo" story for DW, but none of it survives today.)

J. L. Bell said...

Curiously, all the discussions of Melody that I've seen, including interviews with the cast, treat Alan Parker as the creative force behind the movie. He came up with the story, wrote the screenplay, and did some impromptu second-unit direction. It was his first feature film (as well as the first production by David Puttnam).

I have to think Waris Hussein, with his long experience in television directing, was crucial to getting the project done. The female lead had never acted before, and then there were all those amateur kid extras. But Hussein doesn't seem to have left a big footprint on the movie. Or maybe Parker's more prominent career afterward meant everyone remembered him instead.

Kaylee Tyler said...

I'm a kid and I liked Moonrise Kingdom better than all the movies you mentioned.

I mean, the kiss on the beach and camping out (traveling around Europe alone was DUMB and so was escaping by a cart. No adult would agree to that.) was WAY more realistic to my friends than anything out of A Little Romance or Melody, come on.

How is that sims like?! Small Change was good, though.

It's funny how the bad movies you listed with "real" kid characters never really caught on, but the Moonrise kids (straight out of school) are loved by adults AND kids with the reviews to match.

It's not hard to see why. Moonrise Kingdom has a heart and realism underneath the goofy costumes and staging. A Little Romance is for adults that think kids sound like Brady Bunch reruns. Melody is somewhere in the middle.

J. L. Bell said...

We disagree about the characters of Moonrise Kingdom, clearly. I found them to be arch and artificial, most of the adults and even the kids like little dolls being moved around in a box. You saw a lot more to like.

Of the other movies I mention, only Small Change is truly excellent. As I said, I find Melody to be a guilty pleasure at best, and A Little Romance is often overdone. Those all take different storytelling approaches to the same premise of young adolescents falling in love, and each one reflects the sensibility of its time and its makers.