Rushmore (1998)

While I loved my time in Boone and Appalachian State, going to school in a small, Western North Carolina town wasn’t without its drawbacks. The more time you spent in the area, the more these caveats seemed to decrease in severity—except for two, at least, in my experience. The first was the cold. Specifically the wind and its chill which cut through my skinny ass like Machete’s blade cut though racism. The second and more egregious fault I had with the town was its lack of movie theater options, which made it next to impossible to bring any art house or limited release films to Boone. For a movie buff like me, this was the kiss of death. Later on in my college career, regular trips to the Queen City or Asheville would help alleviate this dire circumstance that I found myself in, but those first couple of years got to be brutal.

Luckily, I had a good support system of likeminded movie fanatics and we would obsess over the films that we would never get a chance to see theatrically. Ben Bailey was the first cinephile I met during my freshman year of college, and luckily for me, he lived right next door to me in the dorms. Despite living only one door down from Ben, I didn’t actual meet him until Halloween and I don’t remember the circumstances that caused us to talk about movies until the wee hours of the morning, but that doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that Ben had, at the time, the largest DVD collection I had ever seen (this was 1998 and he had somewhere between 50–100 flicks on a medium that had only been out a short while), a kick-ass sound system and TV to view them on, a love for movie trailers, and an encyclopedic knowledge and love of film that lead to a discussion of Kevin Dunn’s acting prowess. This would lead us to watching a ton of movies—both terrible and amazing—oftentimes in double or triple feature mode, fostering a rather enormous preoccupation with movies that had yet to be released, scouring the Internet for early reviews, random casting news, and trailers that would hopefully give as a good look at what all the hype was about.

One such movie was Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, a film I wouldn’t be able to lay eyes on until the following summer when it came out on VHS (remember those?) and DVD. Since the movie was released in time for Oscar consideration in 1998 and then went wide in early 1999, this was a wait that seemed like it would never come to an end. On the Tuesday it came out for purchase, I drove out to the local Circuit City (remember those?) and plunked down $30 bucks blindly; that’s how much faith I had in the director’s sophomore effort. I had been a big fan of his first film, 1996’s Bottle Rocket, and I could tell from the preview that Anderson had taken his game to the next level. I got home and for only the second time in my life, I watched the same film twice in a row. The next day I watched Rushmore twice more, each viewing taking place with a friend or family member present that I just HAD to share this newfound film. Yes, it was pure, unadulterated love at 24 frames per second, and it washed over me instantaneously, creating that full-body film buzz that only the great films can supply.

Rushmore follows the exploits of an eccentric teenager named Max Fisher (Jason Schwartzman), a student of a prestigious academy that bares the same handle as the film. Max is best described as a doer rather than a thinker. He’s also a self-proclaimed collector of activities and along with his best friend, Dirk Calloway (Mason Gamble, Denis the Menace in the early ’90s film adaptation), act as creators of a plethora of clubs in which the duo appear to be the only members of. Max is a sharp kid but his grades don’t reflect it, and he is running the risk for expulsion from the school he invests so much of his time in. Rather than buckling down and focusing on his grades, Max begins to try to pull strings that he thinks will help him stay in his beloved school, all the while becoming distracted by his infatuation for a teacher, Mrs. Cross, played by Olivia Williams. This new-found obsession replaces his old one and is complicated by the presence of an industrialist millionaire by the name of Herman Blume (Bill Murray), at first a friend and mentor, later a rival in the quest for the affections of Mrs. Cross. A deadly game of one-upmanship breaks out between Blume and Fisher, with increasingly outlandish and near-deadly pranks occurring at a rapid-fire pace, further jeopardizing Max’s standing not only in his beloved Rushmore Academy, but his relationships with Dirk, Blume, and Mrs. Cross as well.

With Rushmore, Anderson was able to fully flush out the motifs and style he began establishing in Bottle Rocket and would carry with him throughout his career. His themes that explore the dynamics of family and community are well established in his second outing and his visual style and general aesthetic choices come into their own. The elaborate set designs (later to be dwarfed by The Life Aquatic and The Royal Tenenbaums, especially), the attention to detail and self-aware nature that helps to foster an informed perspective for whatever or whomever he points his lens at, meticulous framing and camera movement, eloquent, signature slow motion shots, and his ability to explore the melancholy of human nature without sacrificing an inch when it comes to investing his art with humor that forever remains true to characters he unmistakably loves with all of his heart. Yet all of the reasons I love Rushmore and Wes Anderson’s work are precisely the same reasons that his detractors rant and rave against him. Their major argument—and one that I couldn’t disagree with more—is that his style has ossified. Personally, I love that his style is consistent from film to film. I LOVE the fact that I know what I’m going to get when going into his latest effort, and in a way, it’s like catching up with an old friend–all that changes are the stories that he’s relating. Like it or not, his talent always shines through.

At its heart, Rushmore is a coming-of-age story focused on the pursuit of the unattainable, a manifestation of one’s own will in relation to the out of reach, glorified conquest. The film revels in its indie sensibility and even helps to refine and embellish the traits in Bottle Rocket that I was so taken only a couple of years prior. Once again Anderson pairs with his University of Texas classmate, Owen Wilson, for writing duties, and the tone the duo creates still reigns as their clearest balance of the authentic and the uncanny, creating a storybook vibe the best of his films impart to their audiences. In order to achieve these results, they frame the film almost like a play, with seasons replacing acts by way of drawn curtains. They give the gift of juicy dialogue to the wonderful troupe of actors they assembled, who in turn help to relate the feeling of growing up with all its angst, rebellion, snootiness, embarrassment, and yes, even the thirst for revenge.

Originally conceived as a British exchange student, the character of Max Fisher should have been nothing like what we have today (the British Invasion–focused soundtrack is all that’s left to remind us of this original narrative thread). To that I say thank God for allowing the director to take a risk with Jason Schwartzman. In his first film role, the actor manages to drive down deep into the heart of Max and all his quirky personality traits, creating a fully rounded character that’s hard to like at times but always human. It became obvious early on the first time that I watched the film that Schwartzman would be around for a long time, with his humorous line readings and the wealth of chemistry he possesses with the cast (that he holds his own with by the way, no easy feat considering some of the powerhouse thespians that show up in supporting roles). As I mentioned before, one of those supporting cast members is none other than Bill Murray, a legendarily prickly actor who had fallen on hard times prior to the release of Rushmore. The star’s last two headlining efforts—The Man Who Knew too Little and Larger than Life—were less than stellar, and when watching them it became obvious that he was tired of the same old shtick and needed a change of pace. As Herman Blume, Murray found one of his best roles and he knew it, crafting one of his signature performances. Anderson knew Murray would nail the role and requested him outright. Much to his surprise, Murray responded with a yes almost immediately (an ultra rare occurrence as any response at all is a long-shot), creating a long-lasting, fruitful artistic relationship between the director and actor and establishing a second act for Murray’s career: go to indie actor.

While I enjoy and own all of Wes Anderson’s films, Rushmore has managed to remain my favorite—and his best effort, in my opinion—of his oeuvre. Recently several of my friends and I took part in a nerd exercise of the highest order in which we listed our top 100 films of the ’90s. After much hand wringing, I’m pleased to report it clocked in at the number 6 spot. While it’s hard for me to imagine the auteur creating another film that could knock Rushmore off its perch, I know that if any director is capable of it, it’s Wes Anderson. The reviews coming out of Cannes this year for the director’s latest, Moonrise Kingdom, are certainly promising, so yet again it appears it’s time for me to scour the Internet for any tidbits I can find. The trailer has been viewed ad nauseam and anticipation has reached a fever pitch. And I would be willing to hazard a guess that Ben Bailey, the rest of the Film’s Okay (I Guess) editors, and film buffs the world over feel the same way.

-David

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