“I met Bill Murray a couple of weeks ago. He’s exactly what you think. I was like, Goddamn, I’m just happy you exist. I don’t even want anything from you. You make things better just by walking around.” - Conor Oberst
The 19th Annual Mark Twain prize for American Humor goes to Bill Murray. I was immensely honored and humbled to take on this quick project for The Washington Post. I wanted to go weirder with this but the AD had a very simplistic and specific vision in mind. So here we are.
I LOVE YOU, BUT YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT.
by Brianna Ashby
After seeing Moonrise Kingdom, my brother-in-law wrote to say that Suzy Bishop reminded him of the way he imagined me as a young lady. I was flattered that anyone would ever conceive of me as a possible part of Wes Anderson’s world—and thrilled by the idea that, as an adult, I’ve come to embody the sort of child that I always wished I had been. Unfortunately, I lacked the confidence and the sense of purpose that it takes to embrace your own particular weirdness: It took me years to recognize that the things that separated me from most of my peers were the things that defined who I was—and it took me even longer to believe that someday someone else would actually love me for those very same quirks.
And then it happened. I began to come into my own once I saw so much of myself mirrored in someone else, but at the same time, I wanted to keep it all a secret, afraid that somehow it would tarnish if it was left exposed. I finally felt that I had found someone I could build a world around. Together we collected old photographs and postcards—bits of other people’s histories—and tried to replicate them with grainy polaroids and love notes in loopy cursive that helped to inject a sense of nostalgia into the slowly budding narrative we were busy creating together because, to us, it felt like it had already been written years ago.
When Sam Shakusky meets Suzy Bishop in the summer of 1965, it is the reintroduction of two old souls, a continuation of a story that had begun long before. Their instant connection, the strength of their bond, and their resolve to be together against all odds defies their tender ages, but their courage and defiance in plotting an escape from the world belies the sort of innocent and untainted hope only a twelve year old could ever truly possess. Watching the film, I did see some of myself in Suzy, not as a young girl, but as a young woman who found hope for herself and for the future in the face of a young man. Moonrise Kingdom is a restorative film: unabashedly uplifting, and so very, very alive, breathing fresh air into our dusty old hearts and reminding us what it is like to love with the absolute conviction and utter abandon of the young.
I still have a shoebox full of crumbling sepia photographs that serve as the last vestiges of that formative relationship. Sometimes we need something tangible to jog our memories so we can revisit places and times that have long since gone by. We all primarily use the same means of storing our pasts, and the same tools for recollecting them, and in Moonrise, Wes Anderson ingeniously plays off of this intimate commonality, giving the film a recognizable context, making Sam and Suzy’s love story feel like our love story. Lingering shots of unruly sea grass and weathered lighthouses, threadbare braided rugs thrown over sandy hardwood floors and ancient bike paths read like snapshots from a family vacation; someone’s attempt to capture on film what it feels like when the salty breeze tosses your hair around while you squeeze your eyes shut and see the fiery specter of the sun behind your eyelids.
The brief image of Suzy, binoculars in hand, all white and coral against that impossibly blue sky, is stunning in both its beauty and its simplicity. You get the feeling that if you plucked any moment off of the screen, you would find yourself holding an old Polaroid, marveling at both the sudden pang of nostalgia and the masterful hand of the photographer. The graininess of the “film” and the mostly bleached color palette lend an undeniable home movie quality that instantly lures you in with its familiarity.
Anderson has once again obsessively and painstakingly created a gloriously detailed and immersive world—this time the fictitious coastal town of New Penzance, somewhere off the coast of New England. Having spent all of my childhood summers in coastal towns in the region, the affectionate portrayal of the tiny hamlet is especially striking, but not at all surprising considering the lengths that Anderson will often go to elevate the setting of a film into an integral character. (Rushmore Academy, The Tenenbaum House, The Belafonte…) We conjure the spirits of the places that have held us like we summon the distant specters of lips that we have once kissed, often recalling a sheet of peeling wallpaper or the feeling of a cold tile floor beneath our feet with more clarity than the touch of another. The settings of our firsts and lasts aren’t merely static backdrops, they live and breathe with us, holding fast to the parts of our lives we experienced within their bounds, even the places and people that we’d like to forget.
And it’s not particularly surprising that the people and places of New Penzance are exactly what Sam and Suzy would like to forget. It is abundantly clear to both of them that the adult exemplars they are meant to follow are, in reality, incredibly lonely people that seem to be irrevocably unhappy. What spirited, dreamy, love-struck child wants to believe that they are destined to a life of bludgeoning mediocrity? That they will never be able to flourish and grow and build? Suzy’s parents, Walt and Laura Bishop, are shining examples of what happens when you close yourself off to wonder and surprise, whimsy and adventure, and, most damaging of all, love. Their marriage is stagnant, their lives quiet, mundane and unrewarding.
The older we get, and the longer our relationships last, the more convoluted they often become—until one day we don’t even really remember what we are fighting for or about. Time continues to pass until we no longer recognize the people we’ve become, but have also forgotten who we ever were to begin with. The Bishops’ struggle and misguided efforts to understand their “troubled” daughter, and her reasons for running away, stem from this difficulty in recalling a time when they were bound together through desire instead of obligation. It is this overwhelming feeling of obligation that binds the adult characters together; the Bishops, Captain Sharp, and Scoutmaster Ward, all obliged and determined to protect Sam and Suzy from the same sad fates that have befallen them at the hands of love. When this motley crew of lonely hearts bands together to find the preteen darlings and rescue them from themselves, it becomes painfully obvious who really needs the saving.
With all of the adults in their lives mired in denial and bogged down by rules and regulations and logistics and responsibilities, it is no wonder that Sam and Suzy, two misfits longing for freedom and acceptance, find the perfect escape in each other. The scenes of Suzy reading aloud from her favorite fantasy stories while Sam listening intently by her side are so charming and so wistful and so right; their casual intimacy is enviable in its purity, their youthful awkwardness making it all the more heart rending. (The flawless addition of a Francoise Hardy 45 doesn’t hurt either.)
Seeing Sam and Suzy on screen, I couldn’t help but think back to the times in my own life when I felt like I could throw everything overboard because all I needed to survive was a single other person, us against the world. It is a selfish mindset, but not necessarily a malicious one. Sometimes you have to leave behind the Sharps and the Bishops and the Wards of the world in order to avoid following in their tragic footsteps. Sometimes you have to take the lead so that they can follow your example.
Moonrise Kingdom ignites the spark of emotional wanderlust that lies dormant in so many of us, and shows us what we could do with even a fraction of our youthful lust for adventure. I want to remember what it was like to play fast and loose with my heart, even when it seems foolish, because so much of value can lie buried underneath words like ‘dangerous’ and 'absurd’. I want to spend more time thinking about what brought my husband and I together instead of what we’re going to have for dinner tonight. I want to feel like I’ve found my place in the world and that it’s exactly where we stand, and every line on every map that does not outline this place is erased by an invisible hand. I want to save myself before I need saving. I want to flip through faded old photographs plucked from moments in my life and feel the sun on my face and the salt from the sea air settle on my skin. I want to find my own Moonrise Kingdom, a place where they will never find us, because maybe, just maybe, there’s still some lightning in me yet.
Brianna Ashby has taken off her shoes and one of her socks and…actually, I think she’s crying.
IT’S A SMALL WORLD WHEN YOU’VE GOT UNBELIEVABLE TITS.
by Bebe Ballroom
I distinctly remember being eleven, en-route to the kitchen to retrieve multiple ice pops, at the exact moment in which the landlady from Kingpin was haunting a rear view mirror on my mother’s boyfriend’s big, boxy television set. I froze as the landlady made obscene gestures between her fingers, wild-eyed, tongue flapping loudly and madly.
This image would never leave my mind.
It seems likely that the plot of Kingpin was born when some random guys drew the following out of a pork pie hat: “church/rec center/dance hall for troubled youths, about to close due to bankruptcy/tax evasion”, “amish jokes”, “inconsequential sport—like bowling”, “90’s babe who finds balding underdogs endearing”, “Randy Quaid in drag”, and “Ladies and Gentlemen, Bill Murray”.
We give into the mythology of Bill Murray so willingly. On-stage and off, as big and looming as Zissou’s Jaguar Shark. We hear stories of him crashing college parties and doing the dishes afterwards, singing karaoke with strangers, bartending at SXSW, his former wife of many years, claiming abuse, alcoholism and infidelity. As with many other artists, it is often difficult to discern the performer from the private self. A lonely aging star, a cuckold, a washed-up oceanographer, another cuckold, recent roles so polarized by the earlier roles that brought him success.
And during Kingpin, Bill Murray added another epic tale to the books: he actually made three consecutive championship-winning strikes, in character, as Ernie McCracken. The reaction of the crowd full of extras heard onscreen is reportedly genuine applause for Mr. Bill Murray. But of course he would be a bowling virtuoso, as everything he does he seems to do with panache.
I dislike bowling, as any overachiever, terrible at bowling, would. For me, it’s a fickle and inconsistent sport. This is a recent thought—a simple one but clear—earned over the span of many social disasters, the kind you attend when someone is inevitably trying to collide their work friends into their school friends.
Most recently, when my brother was in town, he invited everyone to go bowling. And in the eighth frame of the first game, my high school boyfriend and his long-term girlfriend showed up. My brother had invited them and hadn’t thought to mention it to me because my brother lives in a snow globe where there is lots of snow but never any feelings, and everyone approaches each situation in a reasonable fashion.
Sure, it had been nearly a decade since the break-up, and it was kid stuff, but I mainly wished I would have been given a heads up so that I could have practiced speaking casually into a mirror, tried on varying shades of red lipstick or, at the very least, so that I could have worn something other than leggings spotted with house paint and a giant Garfield sleep shirt emblazoned with the words “LASAGNA TIME”.
(I was also once stood up by a clarinet player who daylighted at a bowling alley. We’d met online—his screen name was a sexual innuendo that used bowling terminology—so it’s my own fault really.)
In Kingpin, Roy Munson (played by Woody Harrelson) wins the 1979 Odor Eaters Bowling Championship, with a full head of blonde hair and two biological hands. Young and talented, he’s told he has nothing to lose, that he’s “on a gravy train with biscuit wheels”.
Enter Ernie McCraken, or “Big Ern” as they call him. This is Stripes Bill Murray, this is Bill Murray in Ghostbusters. Smarmy, entitled, feverish one-liner hog, awe-inspiring; a completely endearing rascal.
Murray’s McCracken is the reigning bowling champ, and soon convinces the young Munson to partner with him for a hustle. The money shot involves picking up a 7-10 split, which Munson aces—but all does not end well. Those who were hustled chase after them, and McCracken quickly leaves Munson in the dust. The crowd catches up to Munson and then, in a cruel but festive act, they stick Munson’s hand down that thing that the balls come back up through after the frame. (What is that thing called? I don’t know, it’s just another cryptic mystery of this mysterious sport.)
Seventeen years later, Roy Munson is down and out in Scranton (“The Office”) Pennsylvania. He stages an elaborate exploit to get a free month’s rent, having a friend pretend to rob his landlady, and then arriving to throw coffee in the “burglar’s” face. When the landlady discovers the “burglar” chilling in his apartment later, Roy is forced to resort to another, more tawdry method for rent relief. He spends the next hour literally throwing up, as his unattractive landlady is shown slowly rolling the stockings back up her vein-riddled, noodle-like legs.
As one might expect, Roy spends the remainder of the film careening towards a less self-involved end, as well as towards his nemesis McCracken. Ernie McCracken is the fun kind of despicable. The kind who asks the waitress to do him a solid and wash off her perfume before she comes back to the table. The kind who sponsors a charity for young fatherless boys, just to pick up some vulnerable tail. (“Sometimes when I wake up, Mr. McCracken’s already here!”) His bowling ball is embedded with a red rose in mid-bloom. Munson’s bowling ball lacks such pizazz.
Munson is snapped out of his indulgent pit of misery by the sounds of pins cracking. Ishmael—tall, unassuming, and most of all, Amish—is the pin cracker. He tells Roy that he averages about 270, though Roy finds out later that it’s actually over 15 frames. (“I told you,” Ishmael says, “we Amish work just as hard as you regular people do, plus a half.”)
Roy sees stars and wants to manage the man he comes to call “Ish”, but first has to prove it to him by putting in a hard day’s work on the farm. This leads to many obvious comic opportunities, all of which the Farrelly Brothers (Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, Shallow Hal) take advantage of, including the worst, which involves a bucket, a bull, and Roy Munson’s mouth.
Imagine every ridiculous scenario involving a rubber hand. Now imagine any obvious comedic opportunity involving the Amish on Rumspringa. You have now seen approximately half of Kingpin. I stopped making tally marks under the heading “Nut Shots” after six. When Ishmael discovers dental floss and the bathroom mirror is splattered with that which used to be between his teeth, I wonder, how can it be that I have seen this exact joke in other movies? How, when one time is already once too often.
The exploitations of Ishmael continue throughout the film, as he appears to be in an extended state of Dumspringa. The gang’s follies include new friend Claudia (shrunken cardigans, Blossom hats—90’s hot) and her bad news eyeliner boyfriend (because all villains wear black eyeliner), which all leads up to a high stakes championship bowling tournament. When Big Ern McCracken reunites with Munson, it’s so good that it almost redeems all the parts of the movie that Bill Murray wasn’t in.
Admittedly, the very room in which I am writing this is equipped with the man’s autograph, and, while the glittering tapered candlesticks on either side of the frame were more of a design choice, it does appear that perhaps his photograph is divinely enshrined, even if just a little.