Rushmore (1998)

Wes Anderson | 1hr 33min

There may not be a single Wes Anderson character more suited to the director’s mannered, self-assured affect than Max Fischer. This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise given how much of the ambitious underachiever is based off a younger adolescent Anderson, both being meticulously focused in their passionate endeavours, and perhaps a little misguided in their intentions. Bottle Rocket was where it all started for him as a comedic filmmaker, but Rushmore marks his first major breakthrough success as a genteel stylist setting up artificial barriers and then breaking through them to find the sensitivity inside his lonely, deadpan characters.

With its noticeably minimalist budget compared to his later films, Anderson’s roots in the 1990s American wave of independent cinema are abundantly clear. His artistic voice is pure and idiosyncratic, dedicated to the organised style and form that so clearly belongs to an off-beat world just slightly adjacent to our own. That so much of Rushmore is shot on location at a real school makes this feat even more surprising, as even with this element of realism there is still a curated symmetry and neatness to Max’s life. His camera almost never moves in curves or diagonals, but rather dollies in straight lines across his frame and towards his subjects, maintaining the air of civil decorum that Max holds about him.

One of Wes Anderson’s greatest characters, up there with Monsieur Gustave and Royal Tenenbaum. Max Fischer is an underachieving perfectionist, dreaming of being adored and respected by his peers, and is naturally based off a younger version of Anderson himself.

Also integral to Rushmore’s visual style is the self-conscious, theatrical blocking that seems to take its humanistic drama and force it into the artificial shape that Max so desires it to conform to. Though he does not yet fully understand the emotions and principles of adulthood, he at least believes he does, and so there is a humorous overcompensation in his sophisticated presentation that continues to manifest within Anderson’s methodical staging of characters in lines and geometric patterns, much like the stage plays that Max directs. Such a distinguished manner continues to define Rushmore right down to the chapter breaks marking the months of the school year, opening curtains to formally introduce new stages of Max’s coming-of-age journey and closing at its end.

Max’s love of theatre is crucial to Rushmore’s form. Curtains open up to each new month of the school year like chapters, and close at the end of the film.
Close-ups and fourth wall breaks – very French New Wave.

Jason Schwartzman carries a self-assured yet purposefully stilted conduct in his performance that matches Anderson’s own fastidiousness, and yet in both the acting and direction, the artifice is always very carefully applied, refraining from impinging on an otherwise realistic emotional arc. He is a teenage boy who carries business cards and goes about executing elaborately vengeful plots on those who have done him wrong, but he is also suffering deeply from the wounds left behind by his mother’s death. There may even be something a little Freudian about the way he transfers those unresolved feelings upon a schoolteacher, and when he discovers that she has lost her husband, he sees the absence as a gap waiting for him to fill.

“So we both have dead people in our families.”

Anderson is doing The Graduate in this shot, except with Bill Murray – drowning in isolation.

Perhaps the greatest difference between Max and Anderson is the maturity the latter displays in understanding those other, slightly less eccentric people in his life. The isolating shot of Bill Murray’s disenchanted businessman, Herman Blume, within a cold, blue pool evokes a similar image from The Graduate, revealing a loneliness within him that is at least equal to Max’s. Perhaps the most obvious reference to the Mike Nichols film though comes in Anderson’s narrative study of a boy’s lust after an older woman, escaping from the narrowed perspective of adolescence and enticing the notion that adults don’t necessarily have life figured out either.

Montages of superbly blocked compositions and Anderson’s iconic overhead shots. This is his second film, and he already possesses a fully developed artistic voice.

In that sense, there is a recognition that “coming-of-age” is not a thing that happens once and is then left behind. Anderson’s vivacious style of editing and visual comedy is drenched in the jubilant energy of youth, underscoring much of Rushmore with the songs of John Lennon, Cat Stevens, The Who, and The Rolling Stones among other British bands from the Swinging Sixties. He especially leans heavily on montages that do more than simply bridge gaps in time, but rather develop character in sequences that flash through immaculately constructed tableaux of Max’s various social clubs and vengeance-driven exploits. Even Anderson’s visual gags serve a similar purpose, using a shot as brilliantly simple as Max dressed in a fencing outfit being overrun by basketball players in the gym to let us know everything about his place in the school.

One of the best crafters of visual gags currently working. The lineage stretches back to silent comedians such as Buster Keaton who would set his camera back in wide shots and create a world that only exists within the boundaries of each frame – Anderson is doing exactly the same here.

It is in the Vietnam War-inspired play that Max stages in the final act of Rushmore that we see perhaps the most acutely captured vision of Anderson as a young storyteller, creating extravagant dioramas complete with pyrotechnics and clearly artificial designs to bring his own eccentric artistic expressions to life. Together, both embrace the transitory affectations of young adulthood, and yet as they look towards the future where they might meet grown versions of themselves, they also acknowledge those bizarre characteristics that are intrinsic to their identities. For the juvenile creative types, middle-aged cynics, and grieving widows of Rushmore, there is no point shirking one’s most honest nature – just an understanding of how it can mature into something more mindful and compassionate with time.

Without the highly stylised production design that would define his later films, Anderson instead shoots on location and picks out these marvellously symmetrical structures to shoot against. Fantastic mise-en-scène as character.
A gorgeous finale, tying off the film with one of its many slow-motion sequences.

Rushmore is currently available to stream on Disney Plus, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, Amazon Prime Video.

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