Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore” (1998)

Notable Film Festivals: Toronto, Telluride, New York

Independent Spirit Award wins: Best Director, Best Supporting Male

Inducted into the Criterion Collection: 2000

Despite the disappointing reception of 1994’s BOTTLE ROCKET, director Wes Anderson’s first feature somehow managed to gain a small following of fans inside the studio system.  They championed his efforts towards a follow-up–a feature called RUSHMORE– scripted from an idea that he had initially hashed out with co-writer Owen Wilson long before BOTTLE ROCKET came to fruition.  The project was initially set up at New Line Cinema, where it languished for quite a while before the studio decided they didn’t want to go through with it.  Undeterred, Anderson and producer Barry Mendel put the rights up on the auction block and sold it to Disney.  Their scheme proved fruitful, and before long Anderson was back in his home state of Texas, shooting his second feature on the very same grounds that had been his actual high school.  But this wasn’t some scrappy indie production like BOTTLE ROCKET was– backed by a budget of ten million dollars and the support of well-known screen performers like Bill Murray, RUSHMORE was a real, honest-to-goodness studio picture.. and the launching pad for one of the most interesting and inspiring careers in cinema.

RUSHMORE tells the story of Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), an outspoken and eccentric young lad who fancies himself the head of his class at his prestigious private high school, Rushmore Academy.  In a way, he is– he’s the president or founder of just about about every social club on campus, and he regularly mounts elaborate (if highly inappropriate) stage adaptations of classic films.  However, he’s not so hot where it really counts: his grades.  Regularly threatened with academic probation, he just might actually be the lowest-performing student at the school.  His efforts to improve his grades are derailed when he falls in love with a first grade teacher named Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams) and befriends the local steel tycoon, Henry Blume (Bill Murray).  In a complicated bid to win her love (even after she’s already rejected him), Max convinces Blume to donate funds to build a large aquarium on the school grounds, all without the school’s knowledge or permission.  His scheme fails, and Rushmore’s headmaster Dr. Guggenheim (Brian Cox) summarily expels him from the place that has given Max his very identity.  Lost without his beloved Rushmore, Max flails in his attempts to fit in at his new public school– his eccentricities and conceited sense of self-importance making him more enemies than friends.  As he falls even deeper into despair, he alienates even the few friends he has: he incites a childish war of aggression against Blume when he discovers his affair with Miss Cross, amidst other bouts of acting out that cost him some of his closest allies.  Through all these trials, RUSHMORE reveals itself as a heartfelt, if idiosyncratic, coming-of-age story, and sets the sets the stage for the kind of grand comeback that only Max Fischer could devise.

Besides the obvious discovery of the Wilson Brothers in BOTTLE ROCKET, RUSHMORE is perhaps the earliest example of Anderson’s uncanny eye for talent.  After all, his characters are so meticulously developed that he can’t leave it to just any old actor to reliably breathe life into his creations.  This was certainly the case with Jason Schwartzman, who was only found after an exhaustive worldwide search for the perfect kid to play the precociously ambitious Max Fischer.  RUSHMORE is Schwartzman’s debut, kicking off a career that’s given us several iconic performances over the last several years.  Even while he’s gripped in the throes of puberty, Shwartzman effortlessly embodies Max’s misguided, deceitful charm.  Murray had already cultivated a long career as a beloved and respected comedic actor, and his turn here as the melancholic steel tycoon Herman Blume marked a new direction that continues to this day– characterized by quiet, inward-looking and deadpan comic performances within somewhat serious films.  Murray’s performance as Blume– a droll Vietnam vet and disinterested businessman– was highly praised as one of RUSHMORE’s biggest strengths, beginning a close collaboration with Anderson that has run through every one of the director’s subsequent films to date.

Olivia Williams brings a balanced, sweet perspective to the film as the widowed elementary school teacher and object of Max’s affections, while Brian Cox slips effortlessly into his coke-bottle glasses for the role of Max’s arch-nemesis and cranky headmaster of Rushmore Academy, Dr. Guggenheim.  Seymour Cassel, a seasoned character actor and longtime member of indie maverick auteur John Cassavetes’ troupe of players, is an inspired choice to play Max’s dad, Bert– a sweet and jovial barber.  Amidst all these new faces, Anderson brings back a few members of his BOTTLE ROCKET cast.  Luke Wilson has a recurring cameo as Dr. Peter Flynn, a male nurse and William’s boyfriend, while Kumar Pallana lends his eccentric senile charms to the small role of Mr. Littlejeans, Rushmore’s groundskeeper.  The other Wilson brothers, Andrew and Owen, also appear briefly.  Andrew dons a sleazy mustache as the no-nonsense Coach Beck, and co-writer Owen trades in BOTTLE ROCKET’s starring role for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance as Miss Cross’ dead husband via a photograph in her room.

Anderson’s BOTTLE ROCKET cinematographer Robert Yeoman returns to lens RUSHMORE.  Shooting for the first time in the 2.35:1 anamorphic aspect ratio that he has since employed as a consistent component of his aesthetic, Anderson intended to give RUSHMORE a slightly heightened sense of reality, or a feeling resembling (in his words) “a living Roald Dahl book”.  Indeed, the film feels somewhat like a fragile diorama, achieved via an inspired mix of symmetrical compositions, flattened depth, bright primary colors and prominent intertitles rendered in both flowing calligraphy and Anderson’s preferred Futura font.  His tableaus are given motion by a considered and precise camera that only picks itself up from it sticks and dolly tracks to strategically capture brief handheld moments of chaos or imbalance.  Returning production designer David Wasco reinforces the exaggerated prep-school aesthetic by dressing the various locations with the quirky minutiae of Max’s world.  Editor David Wasco builds off his prior collaboration with Anderson in BOTTLE ROCKET, channeling the spirit of Martin Scorsese (despite the radical tonal difference) in his navigation of Anderson’s frequent whip-pans, punchy inserts, speed ramps, and numerous montages.

Mark Mothersbaugh, also a BOTTLE ROCKET alumnus, crafts RUSHMORE’s baroque electronic score, using the template of classical music to convey a quirky, ornate vibe that fits in with the film’s exaggerated depiction of academia.  The real spirit of RUSHMORE’s soundtrack, however, lies in Anderson’s usage of rollicking Brit Invasion tracks, which imbues a punk edge to the film’s buttoned-up approach.  Creation’s “Making Time” becomes an anthem of sorts, headlining an eclectic mix of classic rock tunes from the likes of The Rolling Stones and John Lennon, French love ballads, and even cues from the 1965 television special A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS (indeed, Anderson’s aesthetic tends to draw comparisons to, and borrow quite frequently from, Charles Schulz’s creations).  The film’s musical palette finishes off with the now-iconic use of Faces’ “Ooh La La”, which plays as the film draws to close.  Combined with Anderson’s characteristic slow-motion final shot, the track sends us out on an uplifting, hopeful note that’s tempered by a hint of sweet nostalgia.

If BOTTLE ROCKET established Anderson’s singular voice to the film community, then RUSHMORE does the same for his self-contained universe, whereby he examines recurring themes even while cycling through new characters, locations, and scenarios.  Anderson’s characters are, at their hearts, innocents– they believe in the best version of themselves and the world, even if their expectations don’t quite match up with reality.  They’re eccentrics and outcasts, reflected outwardly in their style of dress as well as their off-kilter interests (in RUSHMORE, Max buries his nose into books by Jacques Costeau, foreshadowing a larger fleshing out of that world in 2004’s THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU).  These traits also manifest in the reversal of role dynamics, where the children seem to be smarter or more cognizant of reality than the adults.  Though he’s only fifteen, Max acts much like he perceives successful adults to behave (which, ironically, isn’t very adult-like at all).  Conversely, the middle-aged Herman Blume resorts to childish antics and petty revenge in his war with Max over Miss Cross’ affections.

RUSHMORE also reinforces and perfects Anderson’s trademark balance of the comedic elements with a sobering dose of melancholy.  Heavy, mature topics like divorce, adultery, and regret hang over the otherwise sunny playgrounds of Rushmore Academy, and Anderson’s characters’ attempts to hold on to their innocent natures in spite of this reality endears them to us even more.  As in RUSHMORE, Anderson’s characters often encounter dramatic conflict along the lines of their relationship (or lack thereof) to their families.  A fundamental driving aspect of Max’s character is his relationship with his dead mother, and his actions throughout RUSHMORE can be seen as an attempt to reconstruct a new family unit for himself, with Blume and Cross as parental figures.  Blume in particular represents the ideal father figure for Max, at least as far as Max’s idealized perception of Blume as a successful, enterprising steel tycoon and not how he is in real life:  a lonely, sad sack railing against his failing marriage and his obnoxious sons.  Complicating matters is the fact that Max already has a dad, albeit one he tells other people is a brain surgeon to obscure the fact that he’s really just a “lowly” barber.  Naturally then, a major plot point of the film revolves around Max learning to accept his biological father for who he is and see value in other lifestyles he’d otherwise dismiss as beneath him.

RUSHMORE is an extremely important film in Anderson’s career, for obvious reasons.  For one, it marks the first appearance of American Empirical Pictures, Anderson’s production banner that has carried forth through all of his films to date.  RUSHMORE premiered at the Telluride film festival, whose rave reviews propelled the film further on to a warm reception at the box office, redeeming Anderson in the eyes of the studios system after the disappointment of BOTTLE ROCKET.  With the successful execution of his first studio film, Anderson proved he could deftly navigate the luxuries and the pitfalls that come with higher budgets and well-known collaborators, all while still retaining his singular voice within the final product.  And while that voice may have confounded audiences during the release of BOTTLE ROCKET two years prior, this time they had caught up with the young auteur– cheering him on to higher ground.  RUSHMORE would go on to win Best Director and Best Supporting Male at that year’s Independent Spirit Awards, but its legacy would be truly solidified when the venerated Criterion Collection gave the film a spine number of its very own only two years later.  Anderson was now, officially, a rising force in Hollywood, and much like his precocious wunderkind Max Fischer, he was ready to show the world what he could do.

RUSHMORE is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via The Criterion Collection

Credits:

Executive Produced by: Wes Anderson, Owen Wilson

Produced by: Barry Mendel, Paul Schiff

Written by: Wes Anderson, Owen Wilson

Director of Photography: Robert Yeoman

Production Designer: David Wasco

Edited by: David Moritz

Music by: Mark Mothersbaugh