Friday, June 19, 2009

Rushmore (1998) A Film by Wes Anderson

Nearly every Wes Anderson film has its own special setting, a world that is considerably unique even in the face of distantly recognizable forebears. The only exception is Anderson's first film, Bottle Rocket, where it felt like a mildly creative director was tuning his strings rather than the pedantic artist that Anderson has become. Therefore, Rushmore, his sophomore effort, arrived as the first shimmering foray into Andersonland, a place that is perpetually changing on the surface but which is unquestionably crafted by the same man. Rushmore's antecedents are well cataloged, with 60's coming-of-age films being the salient reference point: Lindsay Anderson's If.... (1968), with its tight private school community, Mike Nichols' The Graduate (1967), and Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude (actually from 1971), both of which contain highbrow main characters and young man/older woman relationships that can also be spotted in Rushmore.

Despite these similarities, Rushmore is very much its own film, as eager to shake off its inevitable comparisons as its main character Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) is to win the heart of Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), a first-grade teacher he falls for at the Rushmore Academy. For Max, school is life, but ironically, this does not mean his grades are sparkling. What he cares about is extracurricular activities, the absurd extent of which seems a conscious attempt to prove his elitism to the leaders of the Academy. (In a wonderfully composed series of tableaux, Anderson documents all of them, from the Beekeeping Society to the Fencing Team.) Max is an extremely well-dressed prep with a razor-sharp wit and a constant drive to assert his point-of-view or justify the elaborate schemes he devises, which are meticulously organized but ludicrous on the outset. Miss Cross is charmed by Max's confidence only like an owner is to its pet, but Max's weakness is his emotional ignorance, and as a result he clumsily persists at becoming her boyfriend in spite of the age gap.

He finds support from Herman Blume (Bill Murray's first role in what would becoming a continuing collaboration with Anderson), a local millionaire and Rushmore alumnus who, outwardly, is the antithesis of Max: he is introverted and lonely and has been through Vietnam, putting him leagues ahead of Max regarding real-world experience, considering Max seems to have been supernaturally implanted with knowledge and is almost entirely blind to life outside of Rushmore (his attempts at universalism as a theater director result in wildly bombastic, technically astounding plays that are rife with caricatures and generalized attitudes). Max and Herman both learn in the end however that they are at the same maturity level, when after a cavalcade of ups and downs - Herman's betrayal of Max when he dates Miss Cross, Max's declaration to Herman's wife of his adultery - they meet at reconciliation.

Anderson never once judges his characters, viewing their relentless quirks and missteps with cool distance rather than treating them to a long, scrupulous eye. The film is paced accordingly; short scenes flow together with economical deftness, usually shot with a few wide and medium shots (utilizing barrel distortion), until the film's dynamics begin unfolding, in which case a few longer scenes ensue. Still, the bouts of dark drama do not lack a discernible comic edge, and vice versa. Anderson and his co-writer, his college roommate Owen Wilson, have clearly shown a knack for writing both droll one-liners ("one dead fingernail" immediately comes to mind) and spontaneous, downplayed physical behaviors (at one point, Bill Murray enters into a scene and randomly stuffs a kid's shot at a basketball hoop). Rushmore's strength lies in this sardonic humor as well as in Anderson's dedication to the visual schema: the film is told in monthly chapters which are announced by colored curtains. With this, Anderson also directly acknowledges and even foreshadows the theatrical strain that runs throughout his entire oeuvre. The film is one of his more modest successes, an always enjoyable character study before the increasingly style-heavy films that have followed.

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