July 25, 2014 - 3:36pm
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Wes Anderson's Rushmore were written by Austin Wellens, UW, Madison student. Rushmore will screen at 9 p.m. on Friday, July 25, in the Marquee Theater at Union South.

While his first feature Bottle Rocket bears all the trappings that its director would come to be associated with, it was Rushmore that inaugurated the world of Wes Anderson as we’ve come to know it. Where his debut film feels a bit like a collision between the universe we all share and the one he envisions, its follow-up is more distinctly defined by its artifice (transparently foregrounded by the “acts and seasons” structure imposed on it). At the same time it shows a much deeper, personal connection between the art and the artist; the story of a kid struggling to belong to his prep school world is straight out of Anderson’s past in Houston, with the actual school he’d attended serving as Rushmore itself (they were filming in the building while the director’s ten year class reunion was taking place. Anderson failed to attend) and the high school his father had gone to doubling as the public school from later in the film. If the first film provides an introduction to the world of Wes Anderson, Rushmore is an invitation.

Inside, we find the characters of Max Fischer, Herman Blume, and Rosemary Cross, three people sharing the same ailment; loss. For Max, who is the closest Anderson has come to writing himself into his films, it’s the childhood loss of his mother. But more than that, it’s a loss of that childhood sense of everything fitting together, of having control over everything. In the face of his early childhood tragedy, Max tries to find something comparable in an adopted, premature adulthood, re-staging mature works like Serpico and Platoon as school plays and trying to consort with authority figures as equals.

But beyond constantly performing his idea of a grown-up, Max works to control the world around him with almost total indifference to its reality; he imposes a post-graduate year on his school, he orders piranhas from “his guy” in South America, and he alternatingly works to destroy and resurrect Latin as it suits his purposes. And as far as we can tell, he believes these fictions whole-heartedly. It’s as if by simply willing himself to be in command, he can convince everyone that he is. The one lie he can’t be forced to believe is the one he tells about his father working as a surgeon, rather than a barber.

This balance of would-be adult swagger and childish desperation is carefully struck by first time actor Jason Schwartzmann, who would go on to become one of Anderson’s many regulars. Hair swept back and eyes deadly serious behind oversized glasses, he embodies both the fear and want driving Max, and the sincere confidence that he surrounds it with (his drunken “Oh, R they?” impression of “grown-up” humor perfectly, hilariously marries the two). In giving the audience access to the raging bravado of his character without letting them forget his fragile sincerity, Schwartzmann’s performance lets the viewer cringe at and sometimes hate Max while at the same time wishing he could pull himself back together.

As it began one career, Rushmore marked the rebirth of another. As Herman Blume, Max Fischer’s friend and adversary, Bill Murray found a second life as an actor. Anderson had the famously reclusive Murray in mind for the part, and sent him the script with little hope that he’d even read it; he not only read and loved it, but agreed to be paid union minimums to accommodate the film’s meager budget (a story of his writing the director a personal check worth more than his sum payment to fund a helicopter shot the studio wouldn’t cover is not apocryphal).

Murray’s casting turned out to be perfect. Having built his earlier work on a sort of affable goofiness that was effortless to love, he stretches into a darker, lonelier dimension of the same; something like Ghostbusters’ Pete Venkman sitting up alone at 2 o’clock in the morning. In this context the tired hound dog eyes lose their goofiness and gain a profoundly heavy, relatable, everyday sort of sadness that’s perfectly matched to the loss his character feels in the film. His world is as disheveled and out of control as Max’s and to some degree Rosemary’s, but if Max and Rosemary crashed into loss, Herman arrived on a long slow downhill, a much truer, more recognizable type of loss than the childhood loss of a mother or the death of an oceanographer husband. For the most part, we don’t get to watch that sense of childhood “rightness” disappear; we just sort of notice that it’s gone.

Regardless of how they arrived at this pain, both Max and Herman try to get their respective worlds reassembled through their pursuits of a relationship with Ms. Cross, played by Olivia Williams. And at least part of their attraction is rooted in the idea that the losses they’ve all suffered are the same. Yet while Max’s mother had died when he was a child, Rosemary has lost a husband. Max can still imagine some perfect and impossible world where everything is right again; Ms. Cross knows that it can’t be, and there’s a sort of mature resignation in that. While she’d been happy until her husband’s death, Herman may have never actually had his world that together. Herman and Max blur the lines between adult and childhood in their impossible pursuits of control, while Rosemary (a kindergarten teacher, of course) enforces the separation between the two while allowing them to exist side by side. Yes she’s in pain, but she’s come to understand it as a part of life; the world doesn’t get to be as perfect as we want it to, but it can still be pretty good (her husband’s being an oceanographer is a typical Anderson touch, as he’s frequently expressed his admiration for Jacques-Yves Cousteau, and made a full film tribute to him. But where in The Life Aquatic he revisits these childhood fantasies as an adult, in Rushmore they serve as the shining marker of a lost past).

This reconciliation of childhood “all together-ness” with the absurdity of real life is at the core of all Anderson’s work. Rushmore serves, effectively, as a construction piece, the building of a world on this tension, a world that he would inhabit for many of his following films (he wouldn’t address this conflict so directly again until The Grand Budapest Hotel). Despite the immaculate details of all these worlds, he always hints at the violence and messiness of the reality surrounding them. This is, I think, what he had in mind when he originally wanted to score Rushmore entirely with music by The Kinks, referring to their “madmen in blazers” vibe, and in his frequent visual/audio references to Peanuts (the profound melancholy wrapped in the wonderful imagination of a cartoon). My friend is fond of pointing out Anderson’s penchant for breaking characters noses; I prefer to notice that Felicity Fox always paints thunderstorms, and Richie Tenenbaum just paints poorly.

One complaint I’ve heard is that Wes Anderson’s films feel like giant inside jokes. If they are, then the joke is that while the universe is big and scary and never fits the way we want it to, for a little bit it doesn’t have to be. It’s not just being an adult and building a blanket fort with friends; it’s making eye contact with your best friend and knowing that you’re both thinking of that time you built a blanket fort as adults. During a thunderstorm. And for a little while everything felt the way it was supposed to. And missing that feeling.