is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
Two Different Kinds of Direction
Part of the wonder of a Wes Anderson film, for me, is getting to see the kind of film a designer would make given a budget, a crew and a sampling of today’s most notable celebrities. Anderson populates his movies with big name actors eager to burnish their indie cred, and he surrounds them with the accoutrements of his obsessions: obsolete technology, dubious uniforms, imaginary cartographies, naive architecture, and more. Every single piece counts, and is placed exquisitely in relation to every other. Most filmmakers compose their frames, but it might be more accurate to say that Anderson lays his out, much the way print designers once pasted up pages in lavishly illustrated encyclopedia volumes. It’s not film direction, it’s art direction.
In this, Anderson remains at the height of his powers. “Moonrise Kingdom” looks great. The eye can’t help but pore over each frame, visually twiddling with the seemingly endless details festooned fussily on every object. No one can art direct quite like Wes Anderson, and together with his regular cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman, no one can produce films quite this visually rich. The story is set in 1965 and is rendered with an appropriately halcyon color palette that’s a wonder to behold; it evokes an intoxicating, imaginary past with the verve of an Instagram photo adapted for the screen by a true auteur.
Nevertheless, I found myself intermittently irritated by it. To watch “Moonrise Kingdom” is to be enthralled by the totality of Anderson’s vision, and even to be warmed by the obvious fondness that he has for his characters. But the movie is also ninety-four minutes of starvation if you’re hungry for any kind of substantial character development. The protagonists (and by the end, nearly everyone is a protagonist, undermining any real dramatic tension the plot had going for it) are little more than inventories of their scripted eccentricities. The director offers scant few arguments for why any of the characters do any of the things they do; they’re all just dress-up dolls at the beck and call of Anderson’s charmingly pre-adolescent fetishes.
Poor character development can seem like a petty complaint when Anderson also provides the visual riches that he does. His technical proficiency is clearly higher than ever, and if you can set aside the centrality of character development, you’d have no trouble arguing that “Moonrise Kingdom” is a remarkable jewel of a movie. (In fairness, the characters are not as horrifically ill-conceived as they were in Anderson’s 2007 travelogue “The Darjeeling Limited.”) This is perhaps how we should think of Anderson’s films from here on out: technical marvels engineered to show off endless quirk. That’s a legitimate credential; it’s just not the one I would have hoped for right after I saw “Rushmore.”+