Sunday, March 23, 2014

From My Collection: Rushmore Movie Review

Wes Anderson’s filmmaking style has evolved over the years to such extremes of whimsical fantasy that to revisit his second feature, 1998’s Rushmore, feels tame and almost like a regular movie experience. He was just beginning to hone his skills at symmetrical and perfectly fastidiously set-dressed diorama-like compositions. Compare it to the brand new Grand Budapest Hotel or even The Royal Tenenbaums, his follow-up to Rushmore, where you’ll see clearly compartmentalized sets that resemble a doll’s house, and the earlier film reveals an artist who was learning what kind of worlds he wanted to create on film.

Watching Rushmore (co-written by Anderson and Owen Wilson) for the first time in about fifteen years affirmed its position as my favorite (or possibly second) Anderson film. I thought perhaps I would have outgrown it seeing as how much of my initial attraction to the film was in the young Jason Schwartzman’s resemblance to me (and the jokes some people made about that at the time) and to his character, Max Fischer’s, proclivity for paying far more attention to extra-curricular activities than to academics, a trait shared by my very good college friend (and the jokes we made about that). Seeing the movie in 1998, I knew who Max Fischer was. I got him. And I was surprised not only that the film still holds up, but that it remained true within me to my personal reactions to it.

Schwartzman was too old in 1998 to play the fifteen-year old Max (so I thought at the time), but now that I’m older and the actor has matured into more adult roles, he actually looks – and more importantly – acts like a teenager to me. Max is a terrible student – “one of the worst students we’ve got,” according to Dr. Guggenheim (Brian Cox), the Dean of Rushmore Academy, the private school Max attends on scholarship. When he’s not founding clubs, running the French club, skeet shooting, staging elaborate theatrical productions adapted (by him) from movies, or editing the paper, he’s saving Latin to impress Miss Cross (Olivia Williams), the schools’ first grade teacher. She’s a real beauty and charming so you can understand why Max is attracted to her even though he doesn’t get at all why it’s never going to happen.

Max’s only friend at school apparently is the ten-year old Dirk Calloway (Mason Gamble). Later, he befriends the even less age appropriate Herman Blume (Bill Murray), a Rushmore Academy alumnus who is a self-made millionaire steel magnate. The role seemed such a departure for Murray at the time, but now the self-loathing and pathetic Blume looks like the perfect fit for his droll delivery. The performance is perfect and it catapulted him to a late-career renaissance that has seen, in addition to an ongoing collaboration with Anderson (he’s appeared in or voiced a character in all of his films since), memorable roles in Lost in Translation and Broken Flowers, among others.

Max is instinctively aware of his need to impress those around him. The son of a barber (Seymour Cassel) feels out of place surrounded by classmates born into the lap of luxury. That’s why he shares such kinship with Blume, a man who is now rich and probably hates himself for it as much as he hates that his own sons have become what he loathed as a Rushmore student. So when they collaborate on a project (Blume’s money and Fischer’s ideas) to build an aquarium facility on the Rushmore grounds to impress Miss Cross, it is perfectly within character for both of them. Max desperately wants Miss Cross’s attention while Herman couldn’t care less about throwing his money away. What Max didn’t count on was that Miss Cross and Blume would hit it off so well.

The unique tone Anderson strikes in Rushmore has Max acting far more adult in many ways than his years suggest. To some extent, he’s more grown up even than Herman. Curiously, the adults surrounding him also treat him not like a teenager with outlandish fantasies and not even as if they’re just indulging the whimsy of a kid, but more like it’s totally normal for a boy his age to write a stage production of Serpico or woo a woman twice his age. That’s all part of the world Anderson sets these characters in. It’s a world where none of the silly antics or odd behaviors are considered bizarre. It’s a movie world and Anderson is acutely aware of the inherent artifice. In Rushmore we see those seeds germinating that will eventually flourish into ever more artificial productions. Max himself creates a sort of artificial world for himself to live in – one that seems composed of movies he might have seen (or at least those that Anderson has seen). There’s the Serpico production for one, but also his big final opus, a Vietnam stage epic obviously modeled on Apocalypse Now (perhaps even an extra-artificial hat tip toward Schwartzman’s uncle Francis Coppola). Max’s actions are even modeled on movie behaviors and relationships. The things he does to win over Miss Cross are lifted from film romances. When he asks Herman about his experience in Vietnam  - “were you in the shit?” – it’s a line that comes from the mind of a 90s teenager whose entire knowledge of that war stems from movies like Platoon or Hamburger Hill. Upon being expelled from Rushmore, he asks Dr. Guggenheim if they can keep him around “for old times’ sake,” the same thing poor old Tessio pleads of Michael before being sent to his execution at the end of The Godfather.

Max is an artificial character in a fake movie world. He’s a product of a generation inundated by images from TV and movies. He’s even an early version of the idea of the millennial generation, those young folks who we lament nowadays know nothing of the classics and only know about what they see on the Internet. It’s just that Max lived in a pre-Facebook-Twitter-Instagram world. Rushmore remains a unique work from one of America’s finest visionary directors. That no one else is imitating him I think suggests more about the difficulty in capturing a combined sense of whimsy and satire that maybe only Anderson know how to tap into so eloquently.

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