Through his quintessential use of camera, space, and symmetry, we already see the formation of Wes Anderson’s now easily attributed style incarnated in Rushmore. It makes us aware we are watching a movie just as it makes us keenly aware of the filmmaker. There is a meticulous storyboarded quality to it with telling POV and overhead shots laying the groundwork for his unmistakable aesthetic.
For some, this is a turn-off. It totally ruins the so-called suspension of disbelief. You don’t want to be reminded you are watching a movie. You want to disappear into it. But Anderson’s style is so particular it’s hard not to marvel especially because it’s not simply a case of form over substance. This movie is about something meaningful.
Jason Schwartzmann proves himself an exquisite choice to play our lead. Max Fischer is a young teenager with such an impressive array of extracurriculars and side hobbies, he has no recourse to fail all his classes at Rushmore prep school. He’s too much of a driven, daydreamy kind of person to get stuck with his textbooks for hours on end. His aspirations seem to be focused on something more.
One of those might be romantic love as the ancients would come to understand it. I think of the scene where he first makes the acquaintance of the pretty literature teacher, Ms. Cross (Olivia Williams) on the bleachers. Anderson frames them in individual shots, but then Max keeps on sliding out and back into the frame. It’s not in a continuous camera movement. Instead, these orchestrated moments add together to give us a sense of what’s going on – both good-humored and slightly awkward.
But we must also talk about Bill Murray. I’m no Murray historian, but Rushmore and with it, the actor’s continuous collaboration with Anderson, seems to mark a distinct shift in his career. It may not be a Reinnaissance, but it effectively took an SNL phenomenon known for comedy films like Caddyshack and Ghostbuster, only to provide him a fresh dimension.
Perhaps it was always there before, but whether it was Anderson seeing it in Murray or Murray finding inspiration in Anderson’s material, I don’t see his work in movies like Lost in Translation or Broken Flowers coming to fruition without a spark.
It’s not that Murray is unfunny in any of these roles. Instead, like Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, and the like, he’s able to somehow take those comic eccentricities with his own core humanity, and make it deeply impactful.
In Rushmore, Murray gets his Dustin Hoffman “Graduate” moment submerged in the pool at his son’s birthday party. The allusion is straightforward enough. Meanwhile, Max goes and falls in love with his teacher — resurrects Latin class and tries to procure her some new aquarium tanks all as devoted acts of affection. He has other passions too.
He directs his own stage version of Serpico and the lifelike train noise and walkie-talkie sound effects mimic the attention to detail Anderson would have admired. But these are not all the stage elements. Because there’s a recurring sensibility that brings attention to the performance nature of the movie, whether it’s the curtains being pulled away with the changing of the months or Max’s neverending thespian endeavors.
I’ve never known Luke Wilson’s filmography well, but I found his cameo almost endearing as he becomes the target of Max’s jealous and impudent ire. He’s not willing to relinquish Ms. Cross to any man even if he has no hold on her either as her junior.
This and other shenanigans get him expelled from Rushmore. Being caught smoking or failing his classes is far too mundane. He tears up the baseball field for the ground-breaking of his new aquarium. Thereafter he’s off to public school with a wounded heart, though he encounters several sympathetic spirits including Margaret Yang (Sara Tanaka).
Still, the movie becomes a love triangle with a 15-year-old and Murray’s grown man(child) going at it in their attempts to hurt one another like vengeful kids in the schoolyard. It proves how fickle they can be. But that’s not to say unlikeable. Because Herman and Max became friends and then turned into rivals.
In fact, there’s a precociousness to Anderson’s adolescent subjects even as his adults have flaws and insecurities. It’s as if all his characters are on the same plane of existence. This is not Peanuts. There’s no chasm between the relatable kids and the unknowable adults. I’m not sure this makes it more realistic; Anderson does not strive for realism, but it reminds us that we all are not too dissimilar as people.
Dirk, Max’s most faithful friend, and Herman share a conversation near his car that in any other film would probably feel ludicrous; here they are able to speak to each other as equals, and they are not the only ones given this luxury.
It’s easy to feel sympathy for Rosemary because she has lost her husband, and she did not ask for Max to fall in love with her. She tries to navigate their interactions with warmth, but his boyish impulses and irrepressible spirit mean he’s never going to let her be. He can’t comprehend how one does that. For a teenager, she must feel like Mrs. Robinson. In her own world, she’s just another confused and lonely person trying to make sense of things.
At first, I was trying to figure out the purpose of the soundtrack: It’s full of agreeable British Invasion tracks from the likes of Chad & Jeremy or The Faces. The easiest answer is how it comes to represent nostalgia but also the prep school malaise. It’s Anderson’s version of the Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack for Dustin Hoffman — compiled for a slightly different segment of society and an emerging generation. It exudes a contemplative melancholy not without its quirks and humor.
From my vantage point, I can only watch Rushmore retroactively, having seen much of Anderson’s career unfold, but it does give me a different way in which to appreciate it. Here we see him coming into his own; he has a Truffaut-like eagerness for the cinema, and money hardly seems to be the signifier or measure of his film’s success.
Now he commands larger budgets and even more intricate and sprawling productions, but Rushmore shows what he is able to do as a filmmaker with his own sense of inventiveness, flair, and surprising resonance no matter the restraints put upon him.
For me, this is often the measure of a sublime director, and Anderson signaled his ambitions to the world with this movie. I found myself instantly fond of the film, and I can see this affinity only growing with time. Again, I appreciate the allusiveness of his films — how they are steeped in movie tradition and what feels like technical virtuosity — but even more so I feel compelled by these particular characters. What’s more, I want the best for them.