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Rushmore artwork by Mister G

Rushmore

Rushmore artwork by Mister G

Director: Wes Anderson / Screenplay: Wes Anderson & Owen Wilson / Editing: David Moritz / DP: Robert Yeoman / Music: Mark Mothersbaugh

Cast: Jason Schwartzman / Bill Murray / Olivia Williams / Brian Cox / Seymour Cassell / Mason Gamble / Sara Tanaka / Stephen McCole / Luke Wilson / Kumar Pallana / Deepak Pallana   

Year: 1998

 

The World According to Wes


S
uddenly, it’s as though every other film that crosses my path, is the second entry from its Director… From Welles’ unjustly-maligned Ambersons, to Jon Favreau’s Elf, to Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, it feels like a theme is developing…

If you’re any kind of cinephile, chances are you’ll have an opinion on Anderson’s work, that’s somewhere between reverence and plain hatred; mere indifference is hard to find: a position I understand completely. In the interests of Full Disclosure, I’m here to say that I’m a fan but, if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to explore the reasons why some find his work so cloying. This beautifully-packaged new edition of Rushmore, courtesy of Criterion, is a great place to start exploring…

By the time he got to the University of Texas at Austin, Anderson had moved from shooting movies on Super 8 with family & friends, to working part-time as a projectionist at a local cinema (always a great way to soak-up film). It was at UT Austin, where he’d meet the first – and arguably the most important – creative collaborator of his life: Owen Wilson. 

GlassesThe pair of them would write Anderson’s professional Directorial debut Bottle Rocket (S) (1994); a short that found a slot at the Sundance Festival, then had the good fortune to attract the attention of a lone producer who believed, not just in Rocket’s potential to be expanded into a full-length feature, but in the duo’s ability to get it over the line. Bottle Rocket (1996) was duly made & released, but did less business than all had hoped for. Indeed, so poorly did it perform, that Wilson was on the verge of joining the Marines…

That is, until their next script – Rushmore – found its way to Bill Murray, along with a VHS of Rocket. Having read it, not only would an impressed Murray agree to sign-on to the project, but such was his faith in these young film-makers, that he’d appear for a negligible fee. His attachment led, in-turn, to a production deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures, that brought a substantial budget and a concurrent PR & distribution deal: if Anderson really DID have mettle as a film-maker, then Touchstone’s deal would be the anvil, on which it’d either shatter or be tempered…

Rushmore’s basic plot is straightforward: Max is an eccentric student (academically poor, but a Renaissance Man in-the-making) on a scholarship at ‘Rushmore’, a boy’s ‘prep’ school. Whilst there, he develops a crush on an attractive teacher (who’s also a widow) and forms an unlikely friendship with the father of twin brothers (& fellow pupils). After Max is expelled through poor performance, he experiences a crisis of confidence – of identity – that, thanks to a new-found maturity, he resolves after attending a local public school. 

Yet reducing Rushmore down to its components doesn’t come close to explaining Anderson’s achievement with the film. Watching it now, with the knowledge of all that followed, it stands as a remarkable second feature. There are Directors who toil an entire career and fail to make something this accomplished.

GlassesAs always it begins with the script and here can be seen, the first stirrings of Anderson’s writing style; whatever Wilson’s later achievements as an actor, Rushmore would be his penultimate writing credit. Anderson’s dialogue tends to be mannered, almost literary in its form and characters are, usually, quirky & easily ‘read’. Rushmore is full of them: from Max’s shapeless red beret, to the tweedy melange adorning Prof. Guggenheim, Rushmore’s headmaster. Then there’s the decision to dress Murray’s Mr. Blume in colour-coded shirt & tie… Or giving Stephen McCole’s Magnus a broken arm in a cast and showing him sat high-up in a tree… When Anderson writes comedy, it’s delivered dead-pan; don’t come here expecting slapstick. Revel instead, in visual puns & comedy that reward the attentive over multiple viewings.

Anderson also favours symmetrical compositions for his shots and measured camera moves that often linger, allowing the viewer to take in everything within the frame; kudos to DP Robert Yeoman here, for the understated look – the sheen – of the film. There’s little here that’s unintentional; all that one sees is meant to be seen; in that way, Anderson’s as controlling as Hitchcock and it’s for this reason, that I think it unlikely we’ll ever see him tackle a fast-moving action movie, as such would be anathema to his favoured style. That’s not to say the results wouldn’t be intriguing: little would actually happen, but it would at least look good! Remember only this: when Anderson pays homage to another Director, it’s to Kubrick circa-Barry Lyndon that he looks, rather than Bay or Verbinski…

While I’m on the subject of Anderson’s control, I should talk about the equal care he affords the sound of his films. Aside from a playful, mellifluous score by long-term collaborator Mark Mothersbaugh, Anderson also has a sense for how contemporary music can affect our reading of a film. In Rushmore, he plays Mothersbaugh’s score against a curated set-list from the so-called ‘British Invasion’ from the Sixties; bands such as The Who and The Rolling Stones, who followed in the wake of the ‘Fab Four’. By selecting lesser-known tracks, he captures an identifiable sound & energy but, one imagines, at a fraction of the cost of a more popular number: clever. That word ‘energy’ is also key in Rushmore, as these rock songs add zip to Max’s personal revolution, just as they once did to that of popular culture…

GlassesSo to the film itself and from the opening shot of an off-beat, though outwardly traditional family portrait, to the word ‘Rushmore’ spelled-out against a school railing, this is the mark of a young Director who believes in what he’s selling us, with all the conviction of an artist, offering few concessions to the norm. The camera drifts into a math’s class, set in an indeterminate time & location; set dressing is giving us no clues. When asked about an ‘impossible’ geometry question on a blackboard, the teacher replies that if anyone can answer it, he’ll see to it that ‘no pupil need open another text book’… Cue: a sly reveal of Jason Schwartzman as Max Fischer.

It’s a confident debut from Schwartzman. Anderson had been searching for his lead for many months, until this precocious seventeen-year old turned-up at a casting call, wearing a blazer sporting a home-made Rushmore patch. Little wonder that he landed the gig – and duly became a regular in Anderson’s later films. And, make no mistake: Schwartzman’s good here, more than justifying his debut casting.

The only student wearing a blazer (in-keeping with Schwartzman’s flamboyant audition), Max walks up to the blackboard and, with china teacup in-hand, proceeds to solve the problem, to the gratified amazement of his fellow pupils. Naturally, such wish-fulfilment soon crashes back to a numbing reality: when he comes-to, he’s revealed to be among the congregation at the school’s chapel assembly. There’s a guest speaker that morning: Mr. Blume; Murray, in a memorably laconic performance, for which he’d win his first Oscar. 

Blume has twin boys at Rushmore (Ronny & Donny), but has grown disillusioned over how they’ve turned-out: jocks who’re always fighting, wrestling and who receive a crossbow as a birthday gift… Despite a fortune made from steel-making, Blume’s a sensitive soul at-heart and, though he drives a Bentley, it’s a mere reflection of his status; it doesn’t move his soul. There’s a memorable scene in Mike Nichols The Graduate (1967) – one of many, in-truth – in which Dustin Hoffman ends-up sitting on the bottom of his family’s swimming pool; this, if I recall, shortly after he’s been told the magic word that’ll unlock his future: Plastic. Anderson riffs on the scene here, at the twin’s birthday party, when he has Blume launch himself off the diving board & bomb his own pool. No-one stirs or comes to his rescue, bar one curious guest, who dives down to see Blume cross-legged, serene in his isolation, where his tears can’t be seen.

GlassesMax is undergoing a crisis of his own. Called-in to the office of Mr Guggenheim, Rushmore’s Principal (a wonderfully dry performance by Brian Cox), he’s told that unless his grades improve, he’s to be expelled, as a result of ‘Sudden Death Academic Probation’, a typically obscure piece of writing, that Max follows with a reminder for Guggenheim – and us – of how he landed his scholarship in the first place. ‘I wrote a play, do you remember? In the second grade. A little one-act. About Watergate’. 

As I said at the outset, the writing is deadpan, but is lifted by the players; watch the subtle, self-deprecatory shrug as Schwartzman says ‘Watergate’. It also alludes to his character, for in this exchange as much as the opening dream-sequence and snippets of the numerous extracurricular clubs that Max has either founded or now leads, it’s at once clear that he’s over-compensating for more than his academic deficit…

Later, whilst playing a game during a session of ‘The Backgammon Society’, Max is also reading a book by the legendary French oceanographer & researcher, Jacques Cousteau: ‘Diving For Sunken Treasure’. At the moment his opponent tells him that there’ll be no more Latin classes the following year (to be replaced by Japanese), he sees this handwritten quote in the margin: ‘When one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself’. It’s a turning point in the film, as research reveals the last person to take the book out, was Miss Cross – a new First-Year teacher at the school, played by the under-rated Olivia Williams (along with an unexpected cameo by Tom Petty, the best thing about Costner’s turkey The Postman (1997)). Miss Cross’ late husband wrote the quotation…

GlassesPretty soon, Max has a crush on Miss Cross so intense that, for his next project, he will drive a one-man campaign to (successfully) re-instate Latin to the curriculum. Of course, this being a Wes Anderson film, Miss Cross does the decent thing and declines his overtures on grounds of propriety, age and, err, The Law. However, she then compounds the problem by embarking on a chaste, almost courtly fling with Blume; the catalyst for much antagonism between he & Max, that escalates from driving over Max’s bicycle to severing the brake-lines on Blume’s Bentley… 

Such escalation proved Anderson’s first mis-step in the picture. Why would Blume’s character – a multi-millionaire steel magnate – be willing to descend to Max’s juvenilia? Wouldn’t it have been more in-line with expectation to have him show Miss Cross that he was the ‘adult in the room’? Well, yes, of course that would’ve been the case, but despite its stylistic bells & whistles, Rushmore is a comedy after all; Blume was written this way to give him playfulness. Why not? He’s already been shown to be living in something approaching an emotional cul-de-sac, so this playful rivalry with Max, can be interpreted as Blume’s way of freeing his own ‘inner-child’. This might be the first time Blume’s cut-loose in twenty years, so it’s little wonder he seems delirious at-times! 

There’s a great line around here, delivered by Blume to a hotel concierge, in which he asks the location of the hotel’s pool; he intends to swim after getting ‘blind drunk’ at the bar. On hearing the reply: ‘It’s on the roof, sir!’ I was reminded of Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film Lost in Translation, in which Murray plays an actor who’s in Tokyo to shoot a commercial and who’s hotel has a pool on its roof! Given that Schwartzman & Coppola are cousins, I’d bet this is no coincidence…

Blume’s ‘emotional cul-de-sac’ is a contrast to Max, who’s been written as the still centre of the piece, around whom all the chaos swirls. Despite being ‘just’ fifteen, he’s the least childlike character here. When Blume makes a fool of himself over Miss Cross, he comes across as a winsome galumph, but when Max does something inappropriate (i.e. climb-up to her bedroom window & gain entry on false pretences) he just comes over as too naive for his own good; displaying an earnestness that verges-on creepy; again, I don’t believe this to be anything less than intentional.

When poor grades finally trigger his expulsion, Max switches to the local Public School. Yet even then, Rushmore – as an idea – is hard to let go of, for in what seems no time, Max promises to deliver a ‘fencing team’ to his disinterested new classmates (Anderson found a great shot that conveys how Max is swimming against the tide with that ambition). And yet… It’s only when he gets to ‘Grover Cleveland High’ that he meets Margaret Yang (Sara Tanaka); a pretty, though equally dorky girl, who admires Max; who gets what he’s about.

GlassesThere’s an interesting use of an ‘elliptical scene’ involving Margaret. By that, I mean a scene that begins & ends with her character being introduced in an unorthodox way, almost as an afterthought. It begins with Max, out in a windswept, empty carpark flying a staid box-kite with ever-loyal factotum Dirk (Mason Gamble). Throughout his time at Rushmore, Dirk has been the ‘Robin’ to Max’s ‘Batman’ and, touchingly, it’s a bond that survives Max’s expulsion. From out of nowhere, an R/C plane starts buzzing their kite, before landing gracefully – accurately – at their feet. Only now, does Anderson reveal its pilot: Margaret. Who’d have guessed? After Max scrutinises her ‘flight-plan’ (artfully drawn in Crayola), Margaret tells him that he’s acted as ‘a jerk’ towards her, before she takes off again and disappears. 

What of Max’s response? Does he go after her? Does the camera follow her departure? No. Instead, Max asks Dirk to ‘take dictation’ as he flies the kite: a request his old friend’s thrilled to hear, as it recalls ‘the good old days’ when Max studied at Rushmore. And the note he’s asked to take? It begins: ‘Possible new members of Kite Flying Society’. Max then lists a string of names, of which Margaret is only at number #3! It’s a typically off-hand way of telegraphing just how Max is impressed by this girl and how he can’t reveal as much to Dirk, for fear of inducing jealousy… 

By this point, Max sees Blume as a tragic, weather-beaten figure as a result of his overdue / inevitable divorce from Mrs Blume… Not only is Blume struggling to escape the same holding pattern he’s been in for years, he failed to maintain his friendship with Miss Cross. There’s another great scene, in a hospital lift, where Blume is spiking a can of Cola with something harder, before draining – then discarding – all evidence between stops. Not done yet, he then lights – and simultaneously smokes – a pair of cigarettes; throughout, Murray is channeling rumpled dishevelment like a pro… 

As a result of being confronted with this new, painful development, Max finally opens-up about his family, i.e. that his dad is ‘only’ a barber and not a ‘neurosurgeon’ as previously claimed. The revelation is first made to Blume, naturally, though Anderson chooses a tender moment, having him meet, then receive a haircut from Bert, Max’s dad (a nuanced performance by the great Seymour Cassell). It’s both a way for Blume to regain his dignity (from a symbolic haircut) and to recalibrate his view of Max and see him as ‘just’ a kid, who’s still learning about the World and his place in it. Somewhere in Rushmore, is a story of class reconciliation & redemption. Much like the relationship between Twain’s Tom Sawyer & Huck Finn, that bridged a gap in contemporary society and allowed both sides to see the basic humanity in the other, Max is a social chameleon, reaching out beyond his working class. He recognises how one’s social class has no bearing on how a person feels; on what they want, deep down. The only distinction of class, is how easy it makes it for someone to achieve such goals: a truth Max recognises.

GlassesMax’s final act of redemption comes when he mounts the most ambitious of all the plays we’ve seen excerpts of throughout the film (a highlight being Serpico). For this meisterwerk, Max has written, produced & directed an ambitious staging of a battle from The Vietnam War, entitled ‘Heaven and Hell’, in a conscious nod to Blume’s time ‘in the shit’. Max throws everything at this – even the purchasing of dynamite, in a homage to Michael Mann’s Heat (1995). As Max concludes in his introduction to an unwitting audience: ‘Safety glasses and ear-plugs are under your seats. Please feel free to use them.’ 

They do. The rest, I’ll leave to your imaginations…

What struck me most about Rushmore, is the extent to which Anderson seeded the film with clues about the films he hoped to make afterwards: with hindsight, it’s remarkable how things have turned-out. Rushmore would be followed by The Royal Tenenbaums (2001); a film that took the ‘family’ dynamic of Rushmore School and transplanted it into an actual, err, family of over-achievers, of the kind that Max dreamed of belonging to… Then there’s The Life Aquatic (2004), which was hinted at in the Cousteau book. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)? How about the gratuitous use of Crayola to draw & illustrate documents used to exposit character or plot? Or characters wearing bright macintosh’s and over-sized binoculars? Then watch The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) and tell me that Ralph Fiennes character isn’t how Max might’ve evolved in a different life? Little wonder that Anderson’s filmography has triggered something of a cult among aficionados, competing to deconstruct & assess the work; I’ve barely scratched the surface, here.

GlassesI could go on, but time and space force a conclusion. So, I’ll say only this: if you’ve never seen a Wes Anderson picture (and what’s stopping you?) I would recommend starting with Rushmore. It’s in-step thematically & cinematically with his subsequent output and is as good a place as any to begin. 

If you’re NOT a fan, I’ll make this concession: I agree with some of your reservations… 

If the stories we have to tell, lay beyond the doors of an infinitely-roomed hotel, I get the strong impression that Anderson has never left the lobby! Although he’s delivered an impressive body of work on a technical level, occasionally it does feel narratively hemmed-in. Kubrick knew the risks of boxing oneself-in creatively; that’s why he varied his themes & genres so much during his career: anything to keep things fresh. I fear that, as long as Anderson resists opening any of those doors, that my review of this, his second feature, might also apply to his twenty-second 

But as a film? As an entertainment? This is Anderson laying-down a marker…

Could you make it out to ‘Ready Demolition, Tucson, Arizona?’

 Rushmore  Triple Word / Score: EFFORTLESS / UNIQUE / INTERNATIONAL / NINE

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