Say a Prayer for Surf Boy, Wherever He Is: A Look at Rushmore
Pajiba's Guide to What's Good for You / Daniel Carlson
Guides | July 27, 2006 | Comments ()
As a movie critic, I’ve grown used to being asked the eternal question: “So, what’s your favorite movie?” It’s an understandable thing to ask, and I usually respond that the medium of film and my unhealthy love for same preclude me from choosing just one movie as my favorite. Dozens of films have affected my life, influenced my worldview, and worked the kind of magic that only movies can. It seems like, every moment of every day, some scene is constantly playing itself out in my head, whether it’s Michael kissing Fredo, or Charlie Kaufman reflecting on the benefits of a banana nut muffin, or a bloodied old British man muttering “My name’s Wilson” through gritted teeth, or Lloyd and Diane looking up at the “Fasten Seatbelt” sign, or Frank T.J. Mackey weeping at his father’s deathbed, or Jake Gittes watching a car wreck, or Mike doing the twirly-whirlies with Lorraine, or — well, I’m pretty sure you get the idea. So it’s not like I’m lying when I tell people that I can’t choose just one. Or anyway, not exactly lying. Because, when it comes down to it, I do have one. For the past eight years, I haven’t been able to get the character of Max Fischer out of my head. My favorite film is Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, and it also happens to be the director’s best film, encompassing his pathos, full of quirks and details, and soaring on a blend of faith, hope, and love. It’s got his best protagonist, the truest story, and the most genuine emotion of all his films.
Anderson, 37, is one of the young generation of filmmakers whose passion for movies outweighs their prolificacy. (Others include Sofia Coppola, P.T. Anderson, Alexander Payne.) He’s only made four films, and pretty evenly spaced: Bottle Rocket (1996), Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004). Charted out, his brief filmography begins with skill, laughter, and great promise; crescendos to a peak of beauty and strength; falters slightly under the weight of its aspirations; and ultimately collapses under the weight of its grandiose posturing, trapped in a spiral of self-reverential idiosyncrasies that border on parodic. This rise to and painful fall from greatness is itself found in a majority of Anderson’s characters, a wild and wandering group of outsiders united by a common loneliness and desire to recapture the glory of days past.
It’s difficult to encapsulate Rushmore’s plot cleanly without reducing it to one of the cliches it so strongly avoids. On the surface, the film is about a 15-year-old student named Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) who attends the tony Rushmore Academy and spends more time “starting up clubs and putting on plays” than studying. He develops a crush on one of the teachers, Rosemarie Cross (Olivia Williams), as does local steel magnate Herman Blume (Bill Murray), who strikes up an unlikely friendship with Max after meeting him on campus. Blume and Miss Cross later have a brief, mild affair, though it ends quickly. Max winds up getting expelled from Rushmore, and after a series of ups and downs and a battle with Blume over a woman neither one can have, Max begins to re-examine his life and relationships. In short, he starts to grow up.
That’s a pretty poor summary of the film. I can just imagine the difficulties Anderson must have had trying to pitch the thing to some producer in order to scrape up cash. It seems like most movies today are designed to be pitched, sold, packaged, and easily reduced to a logline. If you’ve never seen the film, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a coming-of-age tale about a weird high school kid, but the film is infinitely more nuanced than that. Deftly, beautifully played by Schwartzman, Max Fischer is Anderson’s greatest and most relatable hero. As he gradually matures, Max best embodies the yearning for the past that runs like a subterranean river through the landscape of Anderson’s world. Max pines for a lost glory he never actually had, because Anderson’s characters are constantly chasing a fictionalized version of their own pasts, convinced that if they can just reach their goal, then things will once again be right with the world. In addition, Max also exemplifies the savior qualities that run through Anderson’s protagonists.
The key line of dialogue that unlocks the films of Wes Anderson comes mere moments after the beginning of Bottle Rocket. Luke Wilson’s Anthony Adams is packing his bags and preparing to leave the mental hospital he’s been staying at in order to clear his head and cure his “exhaustion.” Outside, Dignan (Owen Wilson) waits for Anthony to escape via a bed sheet out his window, despite the fact that Anthony’s hospitalization has been voluntary. The doctor comes in to say his goodbyes and discovers Anthony at the window, ready to climb out, and reluctantly acquiesces to Anthony’s scheme after he says how much it will mean to Dignan. Anthony’s willingness to serve the often delusional needs of his best friend are underscored by the doctor’s final words, which are almost carried off on the wind as Anthony jumps to the ground: “Don’t try to save everybody, OK?” Anthony calls back, “OK, I won’t,” but his dismissive tone means Anthony likely won’t heed the advice. Dignan’s quirks propelled the narrative, but Anthony was the relatable hero who gave of himself just to make his friends happy. It’s a moderately noble goal, if a little short-sighted: Anthony’s biggest contribution comes when he agrees to join Dignan’s crew in robbing a meat packing plant, when he probably would have been better off trying to help Dignan get a better grip on reality.
This pseudo-messiah complex is at the core of Anderson’s heroes, and it’s never stronger or purer than in Max Fischer. When Max finally realizes that Miss Cross doesn’t love him, the bottom falls out of Max’s world, but instead of becoming overly bitter, he begins to approach life with a kind of grace that comes not just from conquering your demons but transcending them. He persuades Blume to finish the aquarium in order to make Blume look good to Miss Cross; Max even seats them next each other at the opening of his play “Heaven & Hell.” Max has an unrelenting desire to offer his friends the kind of peace and happiness that he himself doesn’t have. This is much more than the favors for a lonely friend that Anthony performs in Bottle Rocket; here, Max is actually willing to give the woman he loved to his best friend out of a selfless to desire to make their lives better.
Anderson continued mining this trait of heroic martyrdom in his next two films, but never with the success or power of Rushmore. His follow-up, The Royal Tenenbaums, is a beautiful, sad portrait of a sprawling family of geniuses in decline, held together primarily by the pain that’s marked the seasons of their ruined lives. The Tenenbaums’ patriarch, Royal (Gene Hackman), is a cantankerous old liar who decides to force himself back into the lives of his estranged wife, Etheline (Anjelica Huston), and three children — Chas (Ben Stiller), Richie (Luke Wilson), and Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow). He feigns cancer in order to move in with the family for a while, but they discover he’s faking it and kick him out, which eventually starts Royal on the road to self-improvement through sacrifice and recovery through helping his family work out their various problems. Royal connects the most with the son he’s emotionally furthest from at the beginning, Chas, whose wife died a year before (as you can probably tell, absent parents are a pretty big thing with Anderson). Stiller’s manic energy brings the perfect edge to Chas’ spiraling depression, and at the end of the film, Royal and Chas stumble into a blissful moment of forgiveness as Chas whispers, “I’ve had a pretty bad year, Dad.” And Royal responds, “I know you have,” placing his hand on his son’s shoulder. It’s a calmly magnificent moment, but hampered by the subdued tone of the film that preceded it. While Rushmore was filled with moments of quiet joy that reveled in the quirks and humanity of its characters, Tenenbaums feels more intentionally repressed, and self-reflexively so. The film announced its serio-comic nature with a kind of posturing that edged dangerously close to parody (though Anderson wouldn’t fully commit such follies until The Life Aquatic.) If Rushmore wore its heart on the sleeve of its navy blazer, then Tenenbaums expected you to laud the film’s emotion without its having to display it often, or even at all. It’s still a well-made, hilarious film, with a sterling cast and stellar soundtrack (including the haunting “Christmas Time Is Here” by the Vince Guaraldi Trio), but it’s ultimately a derivation of Rushmore, not a companion to it.
Tenenbaums was Anderson’s third film, but his second in what has become his recognizable style. For instance, Bottle Rocket was shot in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio and relied on the gray skies and foggy primary colors of the Texas countryside:
But with Rushmore, Anderson graduated to a 2.35:1 ratio, played up his use of inserts and close-ups, and began to more carefully compose shots to maximize the frame:
Look at the way Anderson’s able to easily fit eight people into a medium shot by using such a wide frame. Anderson came into his own stylistically on Rushmore, thanks in no small part to cinematographer Robert Yeoman and production designer David Wasco. The frames are beautifully filled and rely heavily on a more formal composition, with handheld shots kept to a minimum, which also served to highlight a scene’s importance or emotional instability whenever Anderson shifted to hand-held. There’s a palpable sense of joy in the tableau inserts Anderson uses, even if it’s just to detail the items on Max’s desk or show a close-up of a bulletin board. It’s the joy of discovery, of a filmmaker mapping out his own world with the viewer along for the ride. Everything about Rushmore’s style brims with freshness and light; it’s the rush of falling in love for the first time and realizing your own full potential. But Anderson’s later films resorted to the same tools with diminishing results, and though he still managed to find success with Tenenbaums, his next feature, The Life Aquatic, caved under its own weight.
Upon first viewing, The Life Aquatic feels just like a typical Wes Anderson film: wide frames, use of space, a production design that filters reality through the epic imagination of a child storyteller. But the film is a struggle to get through, and a sad departure from the pattern Anderson was beginning to describe in cinema. Although the film starred many of Anderson’s regulars — Murray, Huston, Owen Wilson — the creative team had changed: Anderson and Owen Wilson had co-written Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums, but here Wilson bowed out and gave up co-writing duties to Noah Baumbach. Baumbach is the writer-director of Kicking & Screaming and The Squid and the Whale, among other films, and his presence has a drastic effect on the tone of Anderson’s film. Ocean explorer and documentary filmmaker Steve Zissou (Murray) bears little resemblance to Anderson’s heroes so far: He’s an unrelenting prick, he’s divorced and OK with it, and he’s brutally callous to his enemies. In regards to the relationship between Steve’s ex-wife and his longtime rival, Steve abruptly asks her: “How could you lay that slick faggot?” The line gets a jerking laugh the first time, but the level of repressed hate is disquieting. More than just unlikable, Steve is a horribly far cry from Max, who began to discover his identity by making sacrifice and, in short, loving others. Steve experiences not one iota of emotional change or growth throughout the film, but rather ends it as coldly as he began, friendless and alone in his quest for elusive greatness. The main thrust of the plot is supposed to be Steve’s attempt to reconnect with Ned (Wilson), who may be Steve’s long-lost son, as Ned joins Steve’s crew on a journey to hunt and kill a rare jaguar shark that killed Steve’s friend. But the heart and soul of Anderson’s earlier works is replaced with a fetishistic focus on imaginary toys at the expense of relatable emotion.
I used to think that The Life Aquatic felt like a play Max Fischer might put on: the colors, costumes, plot twists, and set design have a hyperreality to them, as if they were deliberately planted or planned by an amateur playwright. But that’s giving The Life Aquatic too much credit, and Max too little. Max’s plays, particularly his Vietnam-set “Heaven & Hell” from Rushmore’s finale, are full of earnest if clumsy heart; the play actually brings Blume to tears, in a hilarious and touching moment. But The Life Aquatic is sterile and keeps any kind of emotion at arm’s length. Anderson’s too busy obsessing over the helmets on the diving suits to invest any of the characters with a heart or a brain and, as a result, when Steve suddenly and arbitrarily reaches a moment of catharsis at the film’s climax, it feels utterly fake, as if Anderson is pulling our leg, having a laugh at our expense that we could ever have assumed such a caricature could grow into a character. The Life Aquatic is crushed by the weight of Anderson’s swelling head, and fumbled by a reach that falls short of his grasp.
It’s fair to say there’s an exuberance in Rushmore that Wes Anderson may never fully recapture. He wrote and directed the film before he was 30, and it’s not uncommon for many young filmmakers to create works of art that are as fueled by age and desire as by any measurable cinematic skill. Rushmore burns with the fire of a man who realizes that he is capable of unknown greatness, and is willing to risk everything to find it. Anderson’s later stumblings hardly make him a failure, but they do underscore just how special Rushmore is to both Anderson and the field of American comedy. The film also has one of the best endings you could ask for, a sequence at a dance following the “Heaven & Hell” premiere that reunites all the characters for one last moment together. The scenes radiate a warmth that’s impossible to describe; Anderson manages to capture the poignancy of growing up with careful glances and brief, honest dialogue. Max has since gotten over Miss Cross and given a kind of blessing to her and Blume, and he’s also found a girl his own age. But even so, Max and Miss Cross step out onto the dance floor as the Faces’ “Ooh La La” swells in the background. Max and Miss Cross aren’t dating, and never did, but they still found themselves in a valid, if twisted, relationship. And for one moment, Max’s own dreams finally come true, as he and Miss Cross drift out under the firework stars and the curtain swings to a close.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a copy editor at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.