When asked who some of my favorite current filmmakers are, a few names come to mind. I will hopefully, eventually, get to talk about all of them in one aspect or another throughout future reviews, but for this one I want to focus on Wes Anderson. Wes Anderson is a hit or miss filmmaker with a very unique and recognizable aesthetic. He has written and directed nine feature-length films since his first movie Bottle Rocket in 1996, with a tenth one due out this year, The French Dispatch. For this review I will talk about his sophomore picture, Rushmore (1998). Rushmore probably is the most approachable of his films, even if it is not his best or my favorite.
Rushmore centers on Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), an overly confident and outgoing student at a private preparatory school—Rushmore—that is not very good academically. Max befriends a parent of his classmates, Mr. Bloom (Bill Murray), after hearing him speak at a school assembly. Mr. Bloom is a successful businessman that loathes his life. Their friendship is put to the test when both fall for a widowed first-grade teacher at Rushmore named Rosemary Cross (Oliva Williams).
Wes Anderson’s style is one of exaggerated reality. While his films tell stories about the human condition, generally at a mature and almost existential level, he makes it clear the characters and world they inhabit is a heightened representation of ourselves and our world. It is very clear to the audience from the beginning of Rushmore that they are watching an artificial world. The credits are shown over a red curtain, which then opens to reveal the Rushmore school gate. The opening of the curtain lets us know what we are watching is only a play. This is further emphasized as the opening scene of Max is a dream sequence where he solves an unsolvable geometry problem. At this point, the audience knows not to take anything presented as realistic.
Max walking out of the hotel elevator with the bees he used to get revenge on Mr. Bloom, starting the escalating feud between the two. Retrieved from Rushmore (Anderson, W., 1998, Buena Vista Pictures), scene at 00:49:09.
Another example of the exaggerated reality is depicted in the variation in the two high schools in the film. Rushmore is the idyllic representation of a boarding school with it ivy lined red brick walls and posh extra-curricular activities, including fencing and calligraphy. The school is perfectly maintained by a dutiful groundskeeper. Students are dressed in uniforms and everyone seems to fit in and enjoy the school, at least at first glance. While Grover Cleveland High School, the public school that Max attends when he is expelled, is prison like. It has cold grey walls that seem run down slightly. The student body, in the few shots we see of them, seems to detest the school and just want to get through the day and leave, exception being if there is a sporting event. Both seem like the cliché versions of the two types of schools, especially from Max’s point of view. And this makes perfect sense as the movie is Max’s story and his admiration for the title school, Rushmore. Ultimately, it is as if Max never seems to wake up from the opening dream and everything is his embellished view of the real world.
The fact that the film is a fictional world is not unique to Anderson. Almost every film, in some way or another, is a made-up world to tell a particular story. One way Anderson’s films are set apart from others is his limited use of color. In Rushmore, the main colors are accented in Max’s wardrobe, blue blazer and red beret. Occasionally, Max is seen in a green velvet coat. This contrasts with Mr. Bloom, who is seen in a brown coat and faded yellow shirt. Together the colors give a very autumn feel and represent the characters, with Max being closer to summer,—full of life and optimism—and with Mr. Bloom being closer to winter—more morose and pessimistic. The color scheme in Rushmore is not as striking as in some of his later films, like The Grand Budapest Hotel, which utilizes vibrant pinks, reds, and purples. Regardless, it is clear that something is off in Anderson’s created world as all the colors are not present.
Another key aspect of Anderson’s filmmaking is the use of stylized text during montage scenes, generally at the beginning of the film, to tell background information. For Rushmore, Max’s plethora of extracurricular activities is conveyed through a yearbook- like montage of clubs and positions he holds at Rushmore. The film wants you to feel like you’re thumbing through the yearbook and reading all the activities along with seeing the pictures. The text on the screen and rapid pacing demonstrate that the story and character of Max, in particular, is an exaggeration. No person has enough time and energy to do all the things he does. From the opening scene and the montage that follows, the audience has learned all they need to know to understand the caricature that is Max in the story.
Finally, Anderson composes his shots symmetrically to add a constructed or staged feel to his pictures. In film, as well as photography, compositions are generally framed according to the rule of thirds. Space in the shot left by using the rule of thirds allows for more action and audience perception in the story. Many filmmakers have forgone the rule of thirds to set their pictures apart in one way or another. Anderson seems to go to the extreme by actually centering his actors and sets, to give a play-like feel where the action is set around center stage. Centering the story exactly in the middle of the frame with symmetry on either side is not a haphazard circumstance. It takes forethought and planning to get it aligned correctly. Subconsciously, the audience recognizes this when viewing a symmetrical piece, making them view the shot as an artistically constructed image, versus a naturally occurring story. Again, this is shown most clearly in the yearbook montage scene in Rushmore. Another example is when Mr. Bloom is on the diving board getting ready to dive into the pool. He looks right to see his wife flirt with someone, and then he looks left to see his twin sons with their friends look up in disgust at him. Here the symmetry emphasizes Bloom’s family life of being stuck between two aspects that seem to dislike him.
Favorite Scene: Like many other favorite scenes from previous reviews, my favorite scene in Rushmore is centered around music. No, it is not the yearbook montage which does fit this category and I have already talked about quite bit. Instead it is another montage scene, one of escalating moments of revenge Max and Mr. Bloom play on each other. The scene is accented throughout by the rock band The Who’s sixth movement from their mini-opera “A Quick One, While He’s Away” entitled “You are Forgiven.” The scene starts with Max introducing bees into Mr. Bloom’s hotel room. Next Mr. Bloom removes Max’s bicycle from the bike rack at school, so he can run it over, then proceeds to tie it back on the rack. Finally, Max cuts Mr. Bloom’s brakes on his car.
The scene highlights one of great features of Wes Anderson’s film, which is the use of music to complement the story. The music does not start with the scene, instead it is used after the bees are being introduced to the room by a tube. The audience sees Mr. Bloom smirk at first before getting mad and the music comes in harshly with a cymbal crash. The loud rock music is allowed to carry the scene to its conclusion. The music ends by slowing down and fading, which is reflected in the scene by Mr. Bloom’s brakeless car slowing as it goes over rough terrain, almost hitting the groundskeeper of Rushmore Academy. The scene is edited expertly to match with the music, instead of the music having to be edited via an audio fade in or fade out.
Atmospherically, the music adds its own humor, most readily with the lyrics repetitively stating “you are forgiven,” even though the two are taking revenge on each other. Forgiveness between the characters is not provided until a few scenes later. The scene and music is a contradiction, much like the characters themselves. Contradiction between what is said and what is actually meant or occurs is a fundamental element of humor, think sarcasm for example.
Also, the song is one of The Who’s more tongue-in-cheek humorist pieces. In the song the band sings the word “cello” where they originally want a cello to be played, but could not afford. This is included in the scene as Max is walking slowly through the hotel staff area. This highlights that nothing should be taken too seriously in the film as it is made up, much like The Who not taking their music completely seriously.
I mentioned at the beginning that Wes Anderson’s style is not for everyone. You will not know if you like it or not until you see it, so I highly encourage you to watch Rushmore as an introduction. Worse comes to worse, maybe you will enjoy the music or some of the well-composed singular shots that are beautiful photos unto themselves, even if you don’t like the story or characters. At best, it will open you up to a manageable number of other films to watch and see how Anderson has grown through his career.
To wrap up this review I will leave you with this inspiring quote from Robin Williams’s character from Dead’s Poet Society, John Keating.
“You must strive to find your own voice because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are going to find it at all.”