Criterion Corner: Rushmore (#65)

It took a while for me to warm to Wes Anderson and his films. It’s not that I didn’t see his talent for mise-en-scène; that has always been obvious. It’s that I found his characters and their quirks grating rather than charming. I did not enjoy spending time with the Tenenbaum family, I didn’t want to hang out with Steve Zissou and his crew. And when the films veered towards tragedy, I found them too affected to care, too smugly self-conscious and twee.

It was only with The Fantastic Mr Fox that I learnt to enjoy a Wes Anderson film, not for individual parts but as a work in its entirety – and oddly, it took the more sustained artifice of latter Anderson for me to connect to the underlying emotion as something real. It was therefore with some trepidation that I approached Rushmore, Anderson’s second feature film, which I expected to be closer to the films that would follow it, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic, in style and tone. And it is – though it has some interesting quirks of its own, among them an awareness of the limitations and annoyances of The Life Andersonian.

From the first, Anderson’s idiosyncratic style is in full evidence in Rushmore, even if it hasn’t yet been refined down to what it would become in Moonrise Kingdom or The French Dispatch, or in those perfect encapsulations of Anderson’s work that are his stop-motion animations, The Fantastic Mr Fox and Isle of Dogs. And Max Fischer, 15-year-old scholarship student at the prestigious Rushmore Academy, is a quintessential Anderson protagonist in many ways – even an Anderson stand-in, one might say. (The Wikipedia article on Rushmore lists the key similarities between Max and the young Anderson.) Max may not be a strong student, but he is there for every single oddball extracurricular activity, and he’s even responsible for the creation of many new ones. Apart from beekeeping, calligraphy and fencing, he directs, and stars in, student theatre productions that are at once highly intricate and as precocious as Max (one of his plays is based on Serpico, another is a Vietnam War drama with overtones of Apocalypse Now – including the extensive pyrotechnics in the background), yet indicative of the extent to which Max can be said to be stuck in arrested development. He is a boy who emulates grownups, in particular the ones he perceives to be cultured and suave, turning his mimicry into a 24/7 performance – albeit one that reveals the petty, resentful, scared, sad child underneath when Max can’t get what he really wants.

And what Max wants is Miss Cross (Olivia Williams), who teaches at Max’s school, becomes the object of his infatuation, and while she finds herself amused and flattered at least in part to begin with, his obsession with her soon brings out the sides of his personality that are less charmingly Andersonian. This is underlined by the casting, because Max isn’t played by an actor the same age as the character (as for instance Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, the two young leads of Moonrise Kingdom) but by Jason Schwartzman – who may only have been a few years older than Max when he played him, but in comparison with the other students at Rushmore looks like an adult playing at being a child (and, more specifically, like a surreal version of an adult Stanley Tucci pretending to be a child). Putting Schwartzman in the part has the effect, at least on me, of making Max a much less endearing Anderson avatar than Gilman would be in Moonrise Kingdom, for instance, and of highlighting his petulance and the creepy aspects of his infatuation with Miss Cross. It emphasises the affectation that can rub some people the wrong way in Anderson’s films, but it does so for a reason.

Having Max as the protagonist makes Rushmore grating at times; especially in the middle stretch where Max basically throws an extended Anderson-flavoured tantrum because he can’t treat the people around him like he treats his actors on stage, the character isn’t someone who’s enjoyable to spend time with. Yet this is also what makes Rushmore an interesting outlier. It leaves space for us to have ambivalent feelings about Max, especially as he and the artifice of the person he has adopted rub against a more real, less Andersonian world. In Rushmore, it doesn’t feel as much like the audience needs to buy into the director’s world, characters and tone 100% in order to enjoy the film. It also doesn’t feel, as it did to me in The Royal Tenenbaums, like tragedy is a mood generated by the mise-en-scène, by the cinematography and soundtrack. Rushmore rarely zooms in on the losses that the film’s characters have experienced; these remain around the edges of the story and characters mostly, glimpsed only rarely and obliquely. But they are key to who these characters are.

And this is the big difference to the next two films that Anderson would make, both of which feature a major tragic event in their plots – and in both cases, I didn’t buy the tragedy, because it didn’t feel like a part of the world Anderson had created. The tragedies in The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic feel external to the films and to the characters. They feel like they’ve walked in from another director’s film. And the surprise when they occur doesn’t outweigh that, at least to me, these tragedies feel manipulative: we’ve been in Quirky Town for long enough, it’s time for some tears – and the sadness is as thoroughly designed and choreographed as the quirk. Whereas in Rushmore, tragedy stays off-screen, but it informs the characters. While I don’t think that this would work in other, especially later, Anderson films, where the aesthetic, the style and tone, come together to create a hermetic world that’s entirely its own thing, Max in Rushmore chafes against a more recognisable reality, and against characters that aren’t born and bred Anderson (though there are these too). His withdrawal into Andersoniana is motivated by his history, it is a choice, even a symptom. It tells us something more than just that Anderson really, really likes his doll’s-house aesthetic and his particular collection of quirks as embodied by Anderson’s frequent collaborators. I’ve come to greatly enjoy Anderson’s later films, and his style is perfect in its self-containedness in the best of his works. But it is fascinating to see it butting heads with a different, more familiar, and perhaps more relatable, reality.

Verdict: I don’t think that Rushmore will win over anyone who finds the artifice of Anderson’s works too affected, but it’s an interesting outlier in that it isn’t as thoroughly, hermetically Andersonian. While Max can be very grating, his quirks are personality traits and not the all-encompassing style of the director’s films that is basically the price of admission for watching a Wes Anderson film: it is almost as if we’re watching a character who’s developed a severe case of Andersonitis in response to the world, and we see how this plays out. This means that the film doesn’t have the doll’s-house perfection of later works by Anderson, but I found this to be its main appeal – as a contrast to films such as The Grand Budapest Hotel or The French Dispatch. I’d be likely to revisit several of the later films before returning to Rushmore, but I enjoyed this one more than I enjoyed The Royal Tenenbaums or The Life Aquatic (though I should probably revisit the latter at some point – giving it a second chance, perhaps?). And even for regular Anderson fans, it’s fascinating to see how much this early film by the director already shows great confidence in bringing his idiosyncracies to the screen and how some elements – such as Bill Murray in the kind of role that Anderson would give him again and again – are already practically fully developed.

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