Flesh and Blood Out of Thin Air

Rushmore

I won’t fault anybody who finds Wes Anderson’s movies insufferably whimsical and overly pleased with themselves, but I will try to convince them that there’s something in them that deserves their attention and respect. And, for people who think Anderson is a god, I’ll try to introduce reasonable doubt, because there is something amiss.

Writer/director Anderson, who has the gall to be only 35 at this writing, debuted in 1996 with Bottle Rocket, came into his own with Rushmore in 1998, and gave the world The Royal Tenenbaums in 2001. (All three were co-written with the actor Owen Wilson.) The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou — which I fear will suck — is due this Christmas.

My wife is a Tenenbaums person, while I prefer Rushmore. They’re tonally of-a-piece, with the main difference being their scopes and structures; Rushmore is essentially a cinematic play about a love triangle across three generations, while Tenenbaums is a family saga with a novelistic range. Because I’m in charge here, this piece is primarily about Rushmore, although I have written a bit about Tenenbaums, and most of what I say here applies to that later movie, as well. (I doubt there are many people who’d take Bottle Rocket over those two, except folks who find it appealing that the movie seems to take place in the real world instead of Anderson’s cheeky, insulated fantasy bubble. If you are one of these people, write your own damned essay. And send it to me.)

While Bottle Rocket was pleasant and fun, Rushmore marked Anderson’s arrival as a singular filmmaker. His style and his movies take some getting used to, and time to process. David Thomson, always quick with a judgment in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, delivered this brief non-assessment of Anderson, in his typically glib way:

“Watch this space. What does that mean? That he might be something one day.”
Meanwhile, back in a place where critics are typically required to explain themselves a little, our friend Roger Ebert is divided. In a marginally negative review of Rushmore, he wrote that Anderson’s and Wilson’s movie
“seems torn between conflicting possibilities: It’s structured like a comedy, but there are undertows of darker themes, and I almost wish they’d allowed the plot to lead them into those shadows.”
Yet in opening his laudatory evaluation of Rushmore’s follow-up, he wrote:
The Royal Tenenbaums exists on a knife edge between comedy and sadness.”
Thomson and Ebert are clearly struggling with what to make of Wes Anderson and his odd little movies, and I don’t think they’re alone. Many critics and film fans seem to love the movies, but I’ve yet to see a serious exploration of what makes them work, and how they manage to be on that “knife edge” between humor and poignancy, and between the characters’ innate goodness and their seemingly endless capacity for self-involvement.

Take Max Fischer, a person who does not belong to this planet. The obvious meaning of that sentence is that Max — a 15-year-old who befriends a self-loathing millionaire, who is upfront about lusting after a widowed kindergarten teacher, and who stages theatrical productions of popular movies — can clearly only live in fiction. His contradictory eccentricities — the aggressively outgoing manner, the flouting of virtually all the rules of the Rushmore Academy, the stench of someone begging to be accepted, the complete lack of dignity — are not remotely credible or realistic. The character is relentlessly idiosyncratic, over-the-top, and pathetic.

But Max is a beautiful creation, and is played by Jason Schwartzman with authenticity, vigor, passion, and conviction. Most importantly, like every other major character in Rushmore, Max is at his core deeply human and real, even though you have to work to discover that.

The movie is full of similarly exaggerated characters, played for smiles and laughs. Bill Murray — beginning a disaffected, deadpan period that reached a zenith with Lost in Translation — is Harold Blume, the aforementioned millionaire who matches Max juvenile prank for juvenile prank and who lusts after the same widowed kindergarten teacher.

But there’s something to these people, even though they’re as grounded in reality as characters from a cartoon. Anderson’s movies are magic acts, in the sense that he creates resonance out of broad comedy, eccentricity, and the ridiculous. He is, in other words, conjuring flesh and blood out of thin air — and I mean that both as compliment and criticism. He casts his outré creations with performers able to imply the core humanity of their characters, even when it’s not really in the script.

Yet that gift is so consistent — even in the large central cast of Tenenbaums — that there must be something in Anderson’s and Wilson’s scripts. In Rushmore, Max and Herman shouldn’t be remotely likeable, but they win the audience’s affection because their flaws — namely, being a pair of nearly insufferable jackasses — come from common wells: grief, loneliness, neediness, insecurity. Anderson writes and directs with clear-eyed warmth and generosity of spirit, a recognition that everybody does shitty things, but that doesn’t make them shitty people. Beneath the considerably dense character surfaces is an understanding of what drives people to act as they do.

Yet there’s also a vagueness about the characters. Anderson and Wilson hint — at loss and unhappy marriage — but leave it for the audience to interpret both the characters’ behavior and its causes. Max has a dead mother and an overly permissive father, but what’s beyond those easy answers? Herman’s family life is loveless and unhappy, but is there something else behind that blank façade and the compulsion to act again like a carefree teenager? These characters become vessels, highly specific in their personalities and oddities, relatable in a broad sense, yet also empty in the psychological details, receptive to whatever you might want to pour into them.

And that’s the main thing that gives me pause about Anderson’s movies. His characters are simply collections of whimsy, they’re a bit too comically broad, and they’re too willfully alien and alienated. Yes, they’re detail-rich, but without any real sense of who they are as people.

And yet ... like the best movies, Rushmore is surprising each time I see it, and there’s no denying that it’s clearly the product only of its authors; I can’t imagine it written, directed, or performed any other way, in whole or in any individual scene.

In the end, I guess, I’m as baffled and Thomson and Ebert.

But that’s one of the great things about cinema for me. It still has the power to inspire wonder with alchemic mystery: How did those component parts become that wonderful, mysterious, golden thing?

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