This post is part of my first blogathon. When I saw Sean Munger was organizing a Wes Anderson week, I jumped at the chance to write about my favorite Anderson film, Rushmore. (For those of you who are unfamiliar with Sean’s blog, it features great movie reviews but even more interesting “details” posts – to use my blog’s term for them. Check out his investigation of Mark Hamill’s wampa scars.)
As for Rushmore, I was an early fan. I even saw it in the theater on opening day – that “Oh, are they?” joke from the trailer was pretty impossible to resist. (As an interesting side note, the trailer actually does a great job of capturing what must have been a challenging movie to sell in two and half minutes.) Rushmore was my entry into the world of Wes Anderson. The Royal Tenenbaums was next, followed belatedly by Bottle Rocket. I’ve seen every film and short of his since, and I’ve even read the book he co-authored with his brother. Without any qualification, I can officially state that Rushmore is his best work.
But I don’t think Anderson could make Rushmore today. I’m not even sure he wants to, as he seems to have said as much in an interview (which is sadly not referenced in the link). That’s too bad, because Rushmore catches Anderson right before his style overwhelmed his substance. It explores all of the things that make Wes Anderson films Wes Anderson films: the role of the individual, the importance of personal relationships, and of course his meticulous technical details. But in comparison to his later work, they’re finely balanced in Rushmore.
This post goes deep into the themes of the film and thus spoils pretty much the entire thing. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should. Because it’s one of the best films of the past 20 years (don’t take my word for it – The AV Club thinks so too).
I would be remiss to talk about an Anderson film without talking about technical details. While not his first film, Rushmore finds Anderson more recognizable than Bottle Rocket but still stripped down. Thus it’s interesting so see Anderson’s technique forming – or struggling to break free, depending on your perspective. For the most part, however, Rushmore looks pretty conventional – at least compared to Anderson’s later films. In fact, his first lateral tracking shot came out of necessity rather than choice: the field they wanted to use as a background was flooded, so they jazzed up a bleacher shot by moving the camera. His center framing is still there but isn’t as obvious as in later films. (There’s a reason there’s no Rushmore banner for this blogathon – the poster doesn’t feature the entire cast neatly arranged).
This stripped down style works well in the film as most of the stylistic flourishes are related to Max. Even the “chapter” titles of the months are on the curtains in front of which he introduces Heaven and Hell. Thus, it’s easy to imagine that all (or at least some) of these flourishes are in Max’s head: the slow motion exit from the elevator after letting loose bees in Mr. Blume’s room is his action hero moment. Here, Anderson’s style becomes an extension of Max’s character (more on the relationship between Anderson and Max later).
Style aside, to describe Anderson as an eccentric is a bit of an understatement. His films represent a unique point of view, one that has only gotten more unique the more successful he’s become. So it’s not surprising his films feature unique protagonists.
Max Fischer definitely fits the bill. On paper, he’s an impressive kid: student at an elite prep school, president or member of multiple school clubs, and able to put on plays whose special effects curiously recall those in Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel (more on that later). But in person, Max is a bit of an asshole. He’s embarrassed of his family, he takes advantage of his friends, and is clearly a bullshit artist. Anderson and Jason Schwarztman (in his first role!) make no effort to make Max likable. He’s not all bad, though, and short scenes like his campaign to reinstate Latin or his production of Serpico show that when he’s not being awful, he’s capable of pretty impressive things.
Something about Max draws other characters to him. Maybe Mr. Blume sees something of himself in Max; it’s never clear. Miss Cross clearly sees something of Edward Appleby in him. Poor Margaret Yang runs him down after class to talk with him, brings him a gift after he’s arrested, and even tracks him down at the airport. Probably the best example of Max’s ability to simultaneously repel and attract is his first scene with Miss Cross.
Max is awful: everything he does comes off rehearsed, pandering, or an obvious ploy. It’s a credit to Schwarztman for how unlikable he can make Max and yet somehow give a hint of the charisma underneath. Olivia Williams is equally good, and I love her reaction as Max comes down to join her near the end of the scene – she doesn’t know exactly what to think, but there’s something about Max. (The original script actually has a follow-on scene between Miss Cross and Professor Guggenheim’s wife where they discuss Max and admit they like him against their better judgment.)
And there IS something about him. To say he’s odd is – like describing Anderson as such – an understatement. In fact, one could argue he’s an Anderson stand-in, even down to the crushed velvet suit he wears at the end. And the fact that he’s the director’s surrogate, if not the audience’s, means that Anderson does something a lot of films about “odd” characters don’t do – he treats Max with respect. After all, it’s basically him up there. So while Max may say or do ridiculous things, he himself is never ridiculous. A contemporary review in Entertainment Weekly (which I remember reading to this day – I even knew I’d mention it in this post) made a point in saying that Anderson “treats eccentricity with the dignity such individualism deserves: no winking, no snickering, no egotistical elbow nudges.”
Unlike someone like Napoleon Dynamite, Max is never treated as joke, or his quirks treated as throwaway gags. Yes, it’s silly that he puts on a production of Serpico complete with a miniature elevated train and tons of inappropriate gunplay, but it’s not silly to Max. Professor Guggenheim gave him a scholarship based on a play like that, Mr. Blume backs his aquarium idea not once but twice, Margaret approaches him after his ridiculous introduction to Grover Cleveland High, and even Miss Cross compares his extra-curriculars to Edward Appleby. His individuality makes him who he is, and it’s the reason people are drawn to him.
But Anderson’s films aren’t solely focused on the individual. Their characters try to make or repair connections with each other. Often, it’s a family dynamic – Sam just wants a family of his own in Moonrise Kingdom, while Royal wants to reconnect with his in The Royal Tenenbaums. Watching these characters’ relationships progress is satisfying and routinely yields a happy (if slightly skewed) ending. It doesn’t hurt that they follow Aristotle’s dictum that comedy, and thus happy endings, flow from disorder to order.
When we meet Max, it’s clear that his relationships are disordered. At best, he’s emotionally distant from his father: Max lies about his father’s line or work, he doesn’t invite him to the Serpico after party, and patronizingly rebuffs his attempt to give him spending money (the scene where he treats Bert like a barber and not a parent is funny until you realize how sad it is). And although Max’s mother is dead, it’s clear that his relationship with her is still important. All we know about her is that she encouraged Max to attend Rushmore; in her absence, Max serves as his own biggest cheerleader, which sometimes leads to disaster when he encourages himself a little too much.
It’s not just Max’s family relationships that are problematic. He sees Mr. Blume less as a father figure (although he does stand in for Bert at the Serpico after party) and more as an equal or rival; all three are inappropriate. And while Miss Cross isn’t a mother figure, it’s clear that his feelings for her are unrealistic and unrequited. Max knows this too, as his reply to Miss Cross’ question of their unsuitably shows: “It crossed my mind that you might consider [me being too young for you] a possibility.” Even Max’s relationships with the supporting characters are out of sorts. He repeatedly rejects Margaret’s overtures despite the fact she’s a much more appropriate love interest. He’s friends with kids like Dirk rather than teenagers like Ronnie or Donnie (although who can blame him?).
Mr. Blume and Miss Cross have their problems as well. Mr. Blume doesn’t see Max as the son he’s always wanted, although we could understand if he did based on what we’ve seen of his actual sons. He initially sees Max as a protege, but later as an equal and rival for Miss Cross’ affection. She, on the other hand, clearly is looking for a replacement for Edward Appleby in everything she does and everyone she knows: she teaches at his school, lives in his house, she sleeps in his room, and her relationships with both Max and Mr. Blume provide a part of that Edward Appleby fix.
Eventually, as Aristotle says they must, things move from disorder to order, mainly through Max’s agency. By the end of the film, he’s introduced his father to Mr. Blume and Miss Cross (and presumably accepted Bert and himself for who they are), he’s acquiesced to Mr. Blume and Miss Cross as suitable partners and even tried to reunite them, he’s made friends (sort of – you never can tell with Buchan) with a peer, he has an age-appropriate girlfriend in Margaret, and he calls Mr. Blume his friend.
Rushmore has a pretty unified theme in that all its characters are looking for the same thing, even the minor ones (maybe all Buchan needed to turn him from a life of juvenile delinquency was a role in one of Max’s “fooking plays”). I just watched Michael Tucker’s video essay on American Beauty as part of his series Lessons from the Screenplay and he makes the great point that having your main characters experience variations of the same issue reinforces the theme of your film. Bill Murray described Rushmore as a film about “the struggle to retain civility and kindness in the face of extraordinary pain.” The three main characters are clearly in pain – Max for who he is and who he isn’t, Mr. Blume for not being happy with all the things he thought would make him so, and Miss Cross for the life that was taken from her with Edward Appleby’s death. By the end of Rushmore, these characters are treating each other with the same kindness Murray sees.
That’s why final tableaux (my favorite scene in the film) is so important. Just as we’ve moved from disorder to order, this visually brings everyone together in order . . . sort of. As we’ve established, Anderson has a quirky point of view. So even though Max/Margaret and Mr. Blume/Miss Cross are the couples, it’s Max and Miss Cross who take center stage. It couldn’t end entirely conventionally, could it?
I think that final scene sums up everything that Anderson got right with Rushmore. It features things I still love about his movies – center framing, camera tricks (here, slow motion), and spot-on soundtrack choices – as well as what I think his later films are missing – focus. That’s the only Anderson-esque tableaux in the entire thing (save maybe the Serpico curtain call) and it’s focused clearly on our main characters. In his later films, however, one Max Fischer became three Tenenbaums became the entire world save Zero in The Grand Budapest Hotel – a world of Max Fischers all trying to out-Max Fischer each other.
So could Anderson make the same film today? I shudder to think what it would look like if he tried. It would be about Max Fischer’s amazing plan to put on Heaven and Hell. The teachers would be played by Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, and Waris Ahluwalia. Max and Dirk would have to outrun the owners of the dynamite factory on their soapbox derby racers – told via stop-motion animation, of course. Margaret Yang would probably have an eye-patch or something. And Miss Cross and Mr. Blume wouldn’t even be characters, although Bill Murray would cameo as the math teacher at the beginning.