Can Wes Anderson be considered an auteur? It’s an interesting question, because his unique style has spawned many imitators, all aiming to achieve his quirky yet poignant & meaningful vibe. I can’t say I’m as high on the usual Anderson finished product as I am on his unquestionable talents. Bottle Rocket (1996) is a lot of fun, but it’s more of a prelude to his future work than a great picture in itself. The Royal Tennenbaums (2001) turned me off the first time I saw it, seeming unnecessarily cold—on a second viewing, because I was familiar with Anderson’s style, it charmed me. This year’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), while possessing all the requisite sparkling facets for a typical Anderson gem, was too detached for me to fully relate to—it felt like a film student meticulously studied Anderson’s body of work and cobbled together his own picture from the notes. That criticism may come across as harsher than I mean it to—in actuality, the acting in The Life Aquatic is outstanding, and there are a good number of strong scenes, mostly revolving around the father/son dynamic. My fellow critic Derek Smith’s informative and intriguing review made me eager to revisit The Life Aquatic, as Anderson’s movies tend to improve upon repeat viewings. Anyway; regardless of my personal admiration (or lack thereof) for Anderson’s films, it’s impossible to discount his creative abilities, even if his films don’t always work for me.
Aside from Rushmore (1998), that is, which to these eyes is nearly flawless. The first time I watched Rushmore, I enjoyed it a great deal, but I was baffled by the swooning love for it in some circles. Subsequently, it stole my heart more and more, until Rushmore gently nestled into my top 20 of all-time. The storyline: Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) is an iconoclastic 15-year old who defies every conceivable school norm. Instead of using his considerable intelligence to accumulate a strong GPA, the precocious Max instead devotes his energies to participating in—and often spearheading—as many extracurricular activities as he can, from the Rushmore fencing team to the Rushmore beekeepers, to the math team, etc. Despite his scrawny build and thick glasses, Max is even an alternate on the wrestling team! Rushmore is all-consuming to him, and while he talks of elite colleges (“My top choice is Oxford. But my safety is Harvard.”), and his *neurosurgeon* father (his dad’s actually a barber), he wants little more than to remain forever in Rushmore’s comfort zone. As Rushmore progresses, he meets Herman Blume (Bill Murray), a sarcastic, bleary-eyed multi-million dollar business tycoon whose dumb jock sons attend Rushmore, and Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), a first-year teacher with tender eyes and a sad past who quickly becomes Max’s obsession.
Part of Rushmore’s appeal is how Max, while regularly acting like an adult, is always clearly doing just that—acting, even if he’s not fully aware of it himself. He’s prone to random bouts of immaturity: his post-performance dinner with Ms. Cross, her friend Peter (a hysterically dorky Luke Wilson), and Mr. Blume is simultaneously hysterical—(“These are O.R. scrubs.” “O, R they?”)—and telling. Max is damned proud of his extreme talents and range, but reverts to childish tactics when put in a position of unhappiness—he tries to use his extramural heft to bully those around him. That tactic rarely works, but he’s a stubborn brat, and keeps plugging away, often forcing his hand at the most inopportune times. He has grownup ideas, but at fifteen he isn’t able to act on them in any sort of normal fashion, and thus resorts to dodging authority figures & going behind people’s backs to get shit done. Normally, the result isn’t pretty: witness his decision to build an aquarium on the baseball field in order to impress Ms. Cross. That the school director would be upset that he learned of this during the opening ceremonies doesn’t ever cross Max’s mind—he feels invulnerable at Rushmore, which leads to his ultimate downfall.
Themes of parenthood are omnipresent throughout Rushmore, especially the Oedipal angle—Max’s infatuation with Ms. Cross is deeper than just a schoolboy crush. He finds her quiet dignity and intellect mesmerizing, but also envisions her as the mother he never really had (his mom died of cancer when he was 7), someone to coddle & hold him, and most importantly understand him. For all his bravado, Max has never really felt loved—an ironic blindness, for while his father may be just a simple barber, Bert’s adoration for his tortured son burns in his warm eyes. It takes a long time for Max to accept that his dad doesn’t need a law degree from Harvard or a doctorate to be a good parent; few moments of Rushmore are more moving than Max and Bert eating a TV dinner together, or Max’s eventual pride as he introduces Bert to Ms. Cross and Mr. Blume. Until Max reaches this point, he’s envisioned the successful industrialist Mr. Blume as a surrogate father of sorts: a go-getter whom he could proudly walk down the streets with. It takes a long time before Max realizes that everyone belongs in their proper place in his life, and that he has nothing to ashamed of—in fact, he’s blessed to have admirers (of various levels) from so many angles.
Rushmore wouldn’t be nearly as successful without the top-notch performances. As Max, Jason Schwartzman’s mannerisms and enunciation are both hilarious and pathetic, just what the character calls for. Murray’s dry wit and repertoire offacial expressions are on full display as Blume, and Olivia Williams—while not in as demanding a role—is quite touching as Ms. Cross. The real treat here is watching the supporting cast deliver the goods, from Wilson as Dr. Peter Flynn, to Mason Gamble as Max’s “chapel partner” Dirk Calloway, to Sarah Tanaka as Margaret Yang (a nice, normal girl who’s as precocious as Max). Visually, few directors are as adept with pans and tracking shots as Anderson—for instance, during conversations, he’ll frequently eschew the standard shot // reverse-shot in favor of swift pans back & forth. Coupled with the eccentric individuals that populate his worlds, the camera movements successfully portray Rushmore’s herky-jerky emotional ambience. His use of slo-mo is remarkably deft, milking the maximum comedic & emotional value out of multiple sequences. Mark Mothersbaugh’s score is used selectively, but smoothly—Anderson prefers using tried-and-true songs in his work, and Cat Stevens’ Here Comes my Baby and The Wind, The Rolling Stones’ I am Waiting, and Donovan’s Jersey Thursday contribute to Rushmore’s perfect musical blend. While Rushmore can be analyzed from many angles, I think it’s most interesting as a daring and original character study—unlike most clichéd genre pieces, Rushmore doesn’t conclude with Max emerging from the darkness as a changed man. He’s wiser, certainly, and more aware of his emotions (his lone visit to his mother’s grave, while incredibly touching, maintains a sardonic edge—Wes Anderson at his best—and he’s begun giving Margaret Yang some much-deserved attention), but he’s still the same gifted, ambitious kid taking on adult responsibilities (his final play is about Vietnam, an ode to Blume’s service time in addition to the actual dedications he makes before the curtain goes up). He’s just finally realized that his childhood and its accompanying emotions aren’t something he has to run from, and neither is his family. And that family is growing all the time.