Monday, July 8, 2013
There are only a handful of movies in the Criterion Collection I've seen more than Rushmore, yet I haven't put it on in at least four years, since I'm just getting around to writing about it now. This is probably the longest I've gone without seeing it since its release in 1998, opening night in Century City, where it was running for one week to allow Bill Murray to qualify for the Oscars (his snub for this performance remains a total joke). Having seen the film so many times, it's hard to remember what my first response was to it beyond loving it - I do remember that as a budding Kinks fan the soundtrack was especially impressive - but in multiple viewings since I've come to believe there are few movies as successfully executed as this little character piece. Wes Anderson was only 29 when he made it, but his skill and - perhaps even more importantly - his discipline as a filmmaker were already fully formed. His use of flat perspective mixed with subtle handheld work merged an indie aesthetic with a distinct storytelling visual palate that allowed the tone of the film to match up perfectly with its cinematography; Anderson is at once highly stylistic and not at all flashy, twee for the indie generation but devoid of his later films' preciousness (detractors would argue with this last point, but comparatively there's no contest).
Although Anderson's sure hand (and his and Owen Wilson's vision of the story) is what makes Rushmore so impressive from a filmmaking perspective, the movie is largely held together by two impressive performances. It would be entirely impossible to imagine anyone as Max Fischer other than Jason Schwartzman, who inhabits the role so much that he's been trying to run away from it ever since to no avail. Meanwhile, Bill Murray is so funny, so heartbreaking, and so lovable that he's been using the same routine for the last fifteen years, nearly winning an Oscar for a far inferior film in the process. The relationship between the two characters manages to feel authentic and natural without much in the way of exposition; this is mainly thanks to Murray, who looks at Schwartzman with an endearing stare of bemusement and longing - for his own youth just as much as for Schwartzman's. He loves Max because he understands him, but he also envies his naïveté and courage. He wants to be Max far more than Max wants to be him, even after he gets the girl.
Rushmore is not the towering achievement many of the best films in the Criterion Collection manage to be, yet it is one of the few perfect films in the set. It's especially impressive because it's lack of ambition never gets in the way of the power of its story. Over the past decade and a half, this has turned out to be the key to Wes Anderson's immense talent; Max says early on in Rushmore that "I guess you just gotta find something you love to do and do it for the rest of your life. For me that's going to Rushmore." For Anderson, it's producing quirky semi-nostalgic character portraits of characters struggling with their identities (usually wrapped up in parent issues). There is a case to be made that the messy but brilliant The Royal Tennenbaums is Anderson's crowning achievement, but every film he's made after Rushmore is a response to this one, because it is a perfect execution of his voice. There were probably only two other filmmakers who produced great, truly unique work in the US in the 90s, not coincidentally also with their second features: Quentin Tarantino with Pulp Fiction and Paul Thomas Anderson with Boogie Nights. Both of those films are great, but unquestionably messy affairs - it's Wes Anderson with his quiet story and dogged focus who produced the exact film he intended to make. Although its reputation has been somewhat diminished by complaints that his style has devolved into a schtick, what's actually onscreen never fails to enchant, and the director's choices for set design, costumes, music, and even cinematography make the film as timeless as it seemed when it was first released. Rushmore is one of the best-known and most-owned films in the Collection, but even that assessment understates its value to the series. It's the gold standard for contemporary film for Criterion, and fifteen years later it's every bit the masterpiece it appeared to be upon its release.