By Bob Clark
Of the scant collection of American indie filmmakers to rise in the mid-to-late 90’s and remain active into the next decade or more, Wes Anderson probably ranks as one of the most influential of cinematic voices, and in a way that in many ways reaches far beyond the realm of mere moviemaking. Since his 1996 debut Bottle Rocket, he’s steadily developed his own particular and immediately identifiable set of creative mannerisms, juggling both the visual aesthetics of the medium and all manner of idiosyncratic narrative and music choices that make his directorial voice both uniquely his and at the same time easily to imitate, if not quite outright copy. Channel surf for a long enough time on American television and you’re bound to find at least half a dozen commercials airing that take their cues from his particular brand of hipster-chic vision– carefully composed shots of bright primaries and long tableaux, unusual characters and situations that comment on their theatricality, and retro song cues just obscure enough to make you feel cool for recognizing them, if only in the broad strokes. Anderson has directed his fair share of these commercials himself, but even beyond his hand you can see advertisers flocking to pattern their campaigns after his distinctive blend of filmmaking, caught somewhere between the French New Wave and Charles Schultz.
In the same way it’s easy to see his influence over the better part of a new generation of filmmakers working a particular kind of indie/studio character pieces straining to make quirky-character pieces just marketable enough for mainstream art-house audiences, but devoid of anything in the way of actual substance– more commercialized than actual commercials themselves, somehow. For all the waves of imitators, however, Anderson’s been able to keep practicing his style in a way that’s genuine, even for the ways in which it’s become all too easy to commodify, and over the years he’s been able to better hone his craft and up his scale in each succeeding project. Depending on how much of that heavily controlled voice you can stand, he may have reached his zenith or passed it on any number of his more recent films– The Royal Tenenbaums is probably where his branded style reached the mainstream to audiences and marketing teams alike, and since then critics have probably complained the least about Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom, where the medium of animation and subsequently the cast of children help cushion the sometimes suffocating artificiality of his diorama-filmmaking. If you wanted to look at his style, though, and try to decode why it is the way it is and where it comes from, you could do a lot worse than watching the sophomore effort of Rushmore again, and not bother to read between the lines.
The story’s a likable piece of coming-of-age by the numbers stuff, a mishmash of all manner of disparate pieces– Harold and Maude‘s scatterbrain romance and musical stylings without the morbidity or revolting December/January romance; J.D. Salinger’s adolescent angst and wit shaved of Catcher in the Rye‘s suicidal misanthropy or Franny & Zoey‘s inexplicable mysticism; and perhaps most oddly, all kinds of action-packed cop movies, especially those from Michael Mann, thanks to the shoutouts in casting and dialogue to Manhunter and Heat (one can almost see Anderson, with his perfectly commercial visual craft, being drafted into an awful SNL spoof version of a Miami Vice film and selling out like David Gordon Green in his wretched stoner-comedies, if not for the saving grace of Mann doing the adaptation himself). It’s an almost perfect blend of elements for what makes up a precocious American teenage boy in the waning days of the 20th century, and Jason Shwartzman captures just that type of pretentious potential as Max Fischer, a preppy from the wrong side of the tracks and the lowest-scoring overachiever in his prestigious school’s history. He’s the type of kid who puts all of his effort into every extra-curricular activity he can get his hands on– everything from beekeeping to writing and staging elaborate plays that rival Broadway scale productions– but doesn’t save anything for his actual classes.
His desperate crush on Olivia William’s comely young first grade teacher and the love-triangle it forms with the disillusioned, middle-aged businessman he befriends as played by Bill Murray form the crux of the story, but even then they’re almost secondary in importance next to the way that Fischer’s personality is put on display throughout the whole of the film. Since its debut, Rushmore has often been compared to Alexander Payne’s Election and its central character of the extra-curricular activities addict Tracy Flick, but there’s a telling difference between the ways that Anderson and Payne render their overachievers. Flick, as played by Reese Witherspoon, becomes something rather frightening as time goes on in the film, the kind of singleminded goal-oriented type-A personality who uses everyone around her to her purposes and thinks nothing of hurting or backstabbing to get ahead (and, inevitably, winds up being subject to just the same kind of backstabbing herself). There’s a lot of that in Fischer, to be sure, but there isn’t quite the same kind of absolute focus in his energies. Throughout the movie whenever any of the adults ask him what his goals are in life, he always seems to have a different answer– a double-major in mathematics and business at Oxford or La Sorbonne one minute, a diplomat or senator the next– yet he always winds up returning to the theatre, the one place where all of his different over-the-top ambitions can be written and played out exactly the way he wants.
More importantly, Anderson subtly shows how Fischer keeps building a trusted team of friends and allies wherever he goes, winning over fellow students at his collegiate prep-school or the public high he later falls into without ever making a big deal of it. He becomes a center of gravity that pulls others into his world, instead of pushing them out of it in order to demonstrate his power, like Flick. The more those around him are drawn into his influence, the more he winds up enabling them to pursue their own ambitions. Yes, there’s a wildly unrealistic zeal to most of Fischer’s antics, like the range of his club memberships, the scale of his productions or the scope of his campaign to woo his crush (yes, we’ve all run petitions to save Latin classes or tried to bankroll an aquarium for the ones we love) but that’s only fitting for the unusual combination of film, theater and comic-strips that fuels Anderson’s style throughout the film. It’s usually easiest for film critics to see the ample amounts of Truffaut and Godard in the way that Anderson tracks and shoots in long wide-angle 2.35:1 and colors his scenes in a palate of primaries borrowed from Coutard, but there’s just as much of Schultz’s Peanuts in the way that he choreographs the action and coverage of his set-pieces, playing things straight to the viewer for the most part in long stagey compositions. Schwartzman’s performance also echoes a lot of Schultz’s neurotic mannerisms– at times he seems a combination of Charlie Brown’s anxieties and Snoopy’s winning delusions of grandeur.
Of course, Anderson makes the connection plain with small details like Fischer’s barbershop father where Peanuts-special music seems to play on a loop, but for the most part it’s there in the way he plays things to the camera, standing in for the audience (most obvious during the film’s opening yearbook photo-montage). Most of the movie is composed in big stage-like circumstances throughout, both in the obvious productions that Fischer puts on and in more subtle instances like classrooms and lecture-hall speeches, giving big and small moments alike the air of a life arranged self-consciously for public drama. This would soon become the backbone of Anderson’s style as a director, taken to bigger and bigger extremes on each film, but what makes Rushmore stand out somewhat is both the fact that we can see that style really begin to develop in earnest here, and that it isn’t quite there yet. As much as he stages and shoots things as grand diorama presentations, with long-takes and carefully arranged compositions everywhere, he also relies just as heavily on more active editing and use of montage than he does in later films, and through that we have a greater variety of coverage. The stagiest stuff sticks out, but not in a way that feels unnatural to the reality of the movie– from The Royal Tenenbaums on, one gets the sense that Anderson is trying to shoot every frame like a scene from one of Max Fischer’s plays, and the results can be as trying as they are impressive.
Here, however, there’s something closer to a feeling that the world of the film doesn’t just cease to exist beyond the edges of the frame. Rushmore isn’t Wes Anderson’s best film, or his most real (that remains Bottle Rocket, though The Darjeeling Limited comes close), but at times it feels like an ideal combination of the two. All of the larger-than-life moments of manufactured reality feel as though they’re originating from some character’s hopes, dreams and motivations, rather than stemming externally from the director as they sometimes feel in succeeding films. Max is the one trying to remake reality in his vision, rather than Anderson, in Rushmore, and it winds up being one of the canniest expressions of adolescence in both angst and youthful optimism, for how active it is in trying to reshape a hostile world, the way children of all ages tend to do. “You both deserve each other”, Olivia Williams’ teacher says late in the film, at the height of a petty war of romantic rivalry being waged in her honor, “you’re both little children”. Aren’t we all?
How Rushmore made the Top 100:
Steve Mullen (Weeping Sam) No. 10
Jon Warner No. 14
J.D. France No. 24
Bob Clark No. 25
Dennis Polifroni No. 44
Tony d’Ambra No. 44
R.D. Finch No. 59