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Wes Anderson and white innocence

An extract from Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

Cathy Park Hong
Author and Antidote speaker

Extract from Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong, published by Allen & Unwin, RRP $34.99. Hear Cathy speak at the upcoming Antidote talk #StopAsianHate.


The legacy of Holden Caulfield’s arrested development has dominated the American culture industry, from the films of Steven Spielberg and Wes Anderson to the fiction of Jonathan Safran Foer. In the mid-aughts, there was even a short-lived movement called New Sincerity, where artists and writers thought that it would be a radical idea to feel. “To feel” entailed regressing to one’s own childhood, when there was no Internet and life was much purer and realer. Though they prized authenticity above all else, they stylized their work in a vaguely repellent faux-naïf aesthetic that dismissed politics for shoe-gazing self-interest.

Wes Anderson was once classified as a New Sincerity filmmaker. I recently rewatched his Moonrise Kingdom, which, as one blogger noted, is as pleasurable and light as a macaron. Filtered through aging-postcard lighting, Moonrise Kingdom is as much an exhibition of found nostalgic souvenirs as it is a story, with memorable curios like a sky-blue portable record player and a Wilson tennis ball canister of nickels. Anderson’s fastidious Etsy auteurship is to be admired, but Anderson is a collector, and a collector’s taste is notable for what he leaves out. Sometimes nonwhite characters, mostly quiet Indian actors decked out in the elaborate livery of the help, have appeared in Anderson’s other films. But in the safe insulated palette of Moonrise Kingdom, there is no hint of the Other. The characters are all mid-century white, the scrubbed white of Life magazine ads.

“Anderson’s fastidious Etsy auteurship is to be admired, but Anderson is a collector, and a collector’s taste is notable for what he leaves out.”

The film is set in 1965 on the fictional island of New Penzance (based on New England), where two twelve-year-olds fall in love and run away together. The boy character, Sam, is an orphan in the whimsical children’s book sense— odd, scrappy, full of mischief—who convinces his marmoreal love interest, Suzy, to escape to a far-off inlet called Moonrise Kingdom. In this paradisiacal inlet, they “play” at being self-sufficient adults: they pitch camp, fish for their own meals, and practice kissing. Suzy’s and Sam’s parents and guardians look for them, and once they’re caught, they run away again because Social Services want to send Sam away to “Juvenile Refuge.” Meanwhile, an incoming hurricane endangers the lives of the two runaways but they are found again in the nick of time. The film ends happily: Suzy and Sam stay together. And adopted by a local policeman, Sam becomes a junior cop just like his kind and rugged guardian.

Nineteen sixty-five was a violent, landmark year for the civil rights movement. Black protesters attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery twice, only to be viciously beaten back by Alabaman police before succeeding the third time. Lyndon Johnson finally passed the Voting Rights Act that prohibited discriminatory practices in voting. Malcolm X was assassinated as he was giving a speech at a rally in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom. And in August, Watts erupted into a mass riot, after years of its citizens being frustrated by joblessness, housing discrimination, and police brutality.

Still from Moonrise Kingdom, boy and girl read map


Still from Moonrise Kingdom

Race was the topmost concern of most Americans that year, the majority of whom felt threatened by African Americans demanding basic civil rights. The artist Suze Rotolo said, “Pure unadulterated white racism . . . was splattered all over the media as the violence against the civil rights workers escalated. White people were looking at themselves and what their history has wrought, like a domestic animal having its face shoved into its own urine.”

In 1965, Johnson also approved the Hart-Celler Act, which lifted the racist immigration ban that prevented immigrants coming from Asia, Latin America, and Africa. America’s disgraceful history of barring immigrants based on nationality began with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which expanded to the Immigration Act of 1917 that banned everyone from Asia and the Pacific Islands. Finally, in 1924, using the ugly science of eugenics as their defense, the U.S. government expanded the restriction to every country except for a slim quota of Western and Northern Europeans. All others immigrants were restricted since they were from inferior stock that would “corrupt” the American populace. Johnson downplayed the seismic importance of the Hart- Celler legislation by saying, “The bill we will sign today is not a revolutionary bill.” He had no idea that the law would irrevocably change the face of America. Since 1965, 90 percent of American immigrants have hailed from outside Europe. By 2050, the Pew Research Center predicts, white Americans will become the minority.

“It’s as if the Neverland of New Penzance is the last imperiled island before the incoming storm of minorities floods in.”

Despite the violent turbulence of that year, Anderson, who was born in 1969, imbues his film with a manufactured, blinkered, pastiched nostalgia that the theorist Lauren Berlant defines as “a small-town one that holds close and high a life that never existed, one that provides a screen memory to cover earlier predations of inequality.” It’s revealing that Anderson dates his film to the last year when whites made up 85 percent of this nation. It’s as if the Neverland of New Penzance is the last imperiled island before the incoming storm of minorities floods in.

On its own, Moonrise Kingdom is a relatively harmless film. But for those of us who have been currently shocked by the “unadulterated white racism . . . splattered all over the media,” we might ask ourselves what has helped fuel our country’s wistfully manufactured “screen memory.” Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom is just one of countless contemporary films, works of literature, pieces of music, and lifestyle choices where wishing for innocent times means fetishizing an era when the nation was violently hostile to anyone different. Hollywood, an industry that shapes not only our national but global memories, has been the most reactionary cultural perpetrator of white nostalgia, stuck in a time loop and refusing to acknowledge that America’s racial demographic has radically changed since 1965. Movies are cast as if the country were still “protected” by a white supremacist law that guarantees that the only Americans seen are carefully curated European descendants.

Book cover of Minor Feelings

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