We’re All Forgiven
There must have been something in the water in the ‘90s. In the space of a few years Tarantino went from Reservoir Dogs to Pulp Fiction, the Wachowskis jumped from Bound to The Matrix and P. T. Anderson moved from Hard Eight to Boogie Nights.
It doesn’t matter whether the sophomore features were better than the debuts (though I prefer them). What matters is how different they are. The directors of these films didn’t choose to stay in place. They wanted to move, goddamit. And with critical success and better budgets under their belts, they were ready to move to bigger films. Pulp Fiction, The Matrix and Boogie Nights are far more complex movies than their predecessors and in each case the directors push their personal aesthetic further, solidifying the stylistic preferences and thematic concerns that would come to distinguish their work. If the debut was their final exam, the sophomore feature was the coming-out party.
The same can be said of Wes Anderson’s first two features. The difference between them is simple: Bottle Rocket is a very good movie; Rushmore is a great one.
But Rushmore isn’t great in the same way Pulp Fiction or Boogie Nights is great. The ambition of those films lead the directors to epic canvases, where they juggle tone, plot and character to create sprawling, breathing works of art. Rushmore is a different beast. Instead of sprawling out from Bottle Rocket, Anderson and Owen Wilson turn inwards, focusing on one story with a simple through line. And much of Rushmore’s strength comes from its focus and polish. It’s a lean little movie, clocking in at a mere 93 minutes. That’s two minutes longer than Bottle Rocket, but you’d never know it. Rushmore moves like a freight train.
The pace is really quite remarkable and it’s helped along by the continued emergence of Anderson’s style. He’s much more confident his second time behind the camera and it shows. If the modern baroque soundtrack didn’t already give it away the whip pan at 0:59
should tell you that you’re firmly in Wes Anderson land. And the style comes thick and fast. Here, for example, is the first of Anderson’s music montages, tracking Max’s abundance of extra-curricular activities, from the prosaic:
to the odd:
and, finally, the patently absurd.*:
*This particular bit is stolen verbatim from Matthew Dessem’s wonderful blog The Criterion Contraption. Keep writing, Matt! We miss you.
What’s even better is that Anderson’s style hasn’t reached overbearing quite yet. This is because the purpose of the style in the first half of the movie (everything before the prank war) is designed to keep things fast and funny, staving of the stuffiness that will eventually infect Anderson’s movies. Sure, the fisheye lens is all over the place and Robert D. Yeoman is pretty careful about the shot composition, but there’s none of the obsession with symmetry that would come to define Anderson’s aesthetic. There’s even some honest-to-God handheld, such as the shot where Max goes for Magnus:
It’s kinetic. Not a common description of Wes Anderson movies.
Dense, however, is a common adjective for Wes Anderson movies and Rushmore is certainly that. It’s filled with tiny bits of detail. Some of these are funny, such as the particularly calligraphied note next to the honey basket:
some are poignant:
and some, like the contrast of Herman Blume’s disheveled state against the Christmas decorations, are both:
The humor, of course, is pretty particular. It’s a dry, deadpan thing with a tendency towards the goofy. I know not everyone can get into it. C’est la vie. But it works fantastically well for me, whether it’s the silliness of Max’s plays:
Or Bill Murray making a sad face:
But Rushmore’s true strength isn’t in its humor or even its style. The defining feature that makes Rushmore a masterpiece is its heart. It is an immensely loving and generous film and its heart entirely encapsulates its cast, giving even the smallest characters a moment of honesty and grace.
The most attention, naturally, goes to Max. Max is a brilliant, enthusiastic student. Maybe not of academics, but certainly of whatever catches his fancy. But his fancy is whimsical and sometimes he can stretch himself a bit thin. He’s smart, but he doesn’t find time to study. He lacks focus. But one day he meets the following quotation:
and it changes his life. It’s strange for a movie to lay out its central theme so explicitly, but that realization comes only in retrospect. Like Max we’re intrigued by the quotation even if we don’t get it. Not yet. But Max decides to follow the quote and at the end of his search he finds Ms. Rosemary Cross.
From there Max’s arc becomes one of the most commonly told narratives in modern cinema: the superhero origin story.
It’s about a young man growing up and learning to use his powers (enthusiasm, energy, brilliance) for good.
True to its egalitarian nature, Max isn’t the only character to get an arc. So do Herman Blume and Rosemary Cross. The difference is that their stories are quieter and more melancholy than Max’s. They’ve been “grown up” for a while and they’ve had more time to get hurt.
For Herman it’s a matter of ennui. He’s a Vietnam vet who came home alive, started a company, became successful, married and had children. But none of this seems to make him happy. Especially not the last two. He suspects his wife of cheating and he doesn’t understand his kids. He spends their birthday drunkenly tossing golf balls into the pool before going for a dip. Naturally, Anderson decides to emphasize Herman’s state with a cinematic reference:
Rosemary Cross’s trauma is the death of her husband. We meet her only a year after his accident and she’s struggling to move on. Her thesis was on Latin American economic policy but she teaches first grade at the school he went to and she, as Max says, she sleeps in a room surrounded by his stuff.
All three characters are broken. But they can also find in each other little bits of what they need. Max finds in Blume’s speech a kindred spirit. He loves Rushmore more than anyone. But he’ss also painfully aware of his position as an outsider. He’s there on scholarship, and a precarious one at that. Sometimes he can’t help it and ends up telling people his father is a neurosurgeon.
In turn Herman sees in Max all the things he’s lost in his current foggy state. All the enthusiasm and vitality he’s lost.
“What’s the secret, Max?”
“Yeah. Well, you seem to have it pretty figured out.”
“The secret… uh. I don’t know. I think you just gotta find something you love to do, and then do it for the rest of your life. For me it’s going to Rushmore.”
It’s a sweet little scene that lays out Max’s ideas, but it also hints at Herman’s depression. He’ll try anything. Even the advice of a fifteen year old.
Max’s attraction to Ms. Cross is similarly complicated. Sure she’s beautiful and appeals to his intellect (see: the Costeau quote, again), but they also share a bit of trauma: the death of someone they love.
The first time it comes up it seems something like a joke:
“My mother’s dead.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“She died when I was seven. I guess we both have dead people in our families.”
But the presence of Eloise Fischer lingers over the rest of the movie. We learn that she’s the one who supported his plays. She’s the one who got him into Rushmore. She’s also the audience he chooses for his attempt to vanquish Blume at the end of their prank war:
It probably doesn’t help that the cemetery seems to be right behind his house.
But Max has had eight years to process his mother’s death. For Rosemary Cross the loss is still raw. And it’s partially this rawness that prevents her from pushing Max away, even when she knows she should. After all:
“You remind me of him, you know?”
“I do? How?”
“Well… you were a member of the Rushmore Beekeepers, weren’t you?”
“Yeah. I was president of them.”
“He founded that club.”
Max is a shadow of her husband and even though she knows that pursuing a relationship with him might be wrong she can’t help trying to stay friends. And, ultimately, it is Max who helps her confront her feelings about his death.
“Well, I mean, you live in his room with all his stuff. It’s kind of…”
“I was married to him.”
“I know you were.”
“Although, I will say…”
“…that Edward has more spark and character and imagination in one fingernail than Herman Blume has in his entire body.”
“One dead fingernail.”
“Right. One dead fingernail.”
And, as I said, this generosity of character moments is given to the whole cast. Whether it’s Max’s father Burt and his insightfulness, his warmth
and his understanding:
Or the respect given to the feelings of Dirk Calloway, the secret hero of the film. Dirk is the one who takes the first step towards reconciliation in the film’s second half. He forgives Max for his trespasses before Max has even apologized:
And it is he who starts the chain reaction events that lead to one of the most beautiful, funny, heart-wrenching and warm of movie endings.
Then all you need is Margaret Yang,
“Blume’s got a bit more spark and vitality than you expected, doesn’t he?”
“I thought the aquarium was your idea.”
“Well, I gave it to my friend.”
So there’s a bit of awkwardness here. Max is relinquishing his hold on Rosemary, but it might read like she’s a bit of property that he’s decided to give over to Blume. But, the way out of that bit of nastiness is thinking of the idea as the actual thing that was given. And even if it was meant to draw Ms. Cross and Blume together, it is the idea that was freely given. I bring this up because it comes back again in the final scene and I really don’t want to detract from the power of that one by thinking of certain unsavory connections. So I’ll just put this here. Take it as you will.
But, okay, the play. It’s Max’s big opus. But unlike the production of Serpico, this isn’t about showing off. No, this one is personal.
“I don’t usually do this, but this play means a lot to me, and I wanted to make a dedication. So I’ll just say that this play is dedicated to the memory of my mother, Eloise Fischer, and to Edward Appleby, a friend of a friend.”
Like the horizontal tracking shot that precedes it, this one is about bringing people together and working out their problems. It’s about Max’s relationship with his mother and Rosemary’s relationship with her husband and, as we learn, Blume’s relationship with his time in Vietnam. But even in this, the moment where all the three leads are supposed to be the focus, Anderson takes time to insert one shot, Burt reacting to the mention of his wife:
And that is the shot that makes Rushmore more special to me than any other ‘90s comedy. Even when the lead character is making his triumphant character turn, it takes the time to show the effect it has on everybody, regardless of how important they are to the narrative.
But this is still a comedy and so the speech ends with:
And so the play is a triumphant success and all the things Max planned come to pass:
And then we go to the after-party. It’s a quiet moment after the raucous amazingness of the play:
But it’s just as important. Here are all of the characters, brought together to have a good time. They meet and talk and reinforce their character turns. Then they dance. But, right before the end we get one final conversation between Max and Rosemary:
“Well, you pulled it off.”
“No, I didn’t get hurt that bad.”
It might not be true. But it doesn’t matter. Max didn’t do it for himself. He did it for everybody he knew and loved. And that’s far more important.
Then, Rosemary takes of his glasses, looks into the eyes of the boy who reminds him of her husband and turns to dance with him.
The Faces play in the background and the camera slows-down, stretching out this moment. This moment when a man in a wheelchair can boogie on the dance floor, a bully can be won over by an appeal to his creativity, a girl can know she got the guy, a man can smile with his friend’s girl, a woman can take one last turn with her husband, a boy can get what he always wanted and even Luke Wilson can be there.
For this moment everything is perfect and nothing hurts. Not too bad.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)