Saturday, May 15, 2010

Review: Rushmore (1998)

I love Wes Anderson's style. I love the way his characters jerk into and out of his frame, always maintaining the screen's symmetry. I love the way his character's dialogue is often just bizarre statement of fact, like they couldn't work out what to say, so they just decided to describe their surroundings. I love his colour schemes - his use of rich, earthen colours often contrasts wildly with the film itself's total lack of realism. I love his soundtracks, and the fact that he doesn't believe that the score should be unobtrusive - sometimes he'll have a musical montage sequence just to show off some cool song he likes (and that maybe has some sort of emotional resonance or whatever). And I love the fact that he uses all this style, all this immeasurable coolness, to portray legitimate emotional experiences on the screen. I mean, sure, his movies are ultra self-aware, and are in fact showing us these genuine emotional experiences with a healthy dollop of irony, but that irony doesn't alter the legitimacy of the emotions, it just makes them more fun to swallow.

Let us take, for example, the montage in the middle of Rushmore, in which Jason Schwartzman's Max Fischer attempts to kill Bill Murray's Herman Blume. The most obvious thing about this sequence is that it has really cool characters wandering around while a totally kickass song by the Who plays in the background. But if we break this scene down, we can see that it is actually very cleverly constructed - ironic, yes, but also legitimate. So we start off the scene with Bill Murray in a hotel room. There's a close up on a bee and the audience thinks, "huh. That's weird." Bill Murray reacts to the bee casually at first, but then both he and we notice that the room is slowly filling with more and more bees. He starts to flip out, then notices that the bees are gaining access to his room via a tube through the front door. He works out what is going on while the first discordant sounds of the Who song start, and he smiles to himself in recognition, before realising that this revelation does not, in fact, mean that he is in any less danger from the bees in his room. We then cut to Jason Schwartzman as the song proper kicks in - he is in an elevator, wearing a hotel waiter's jacket and standing next to a box labelled "Rushmore Beekepers". He is more dishevelled than we have ever seen him before, smiling snidely to himself and chewing gum. The ridiculousness of the situation makes the audience laugh, but they also feel the palpable change that has come over Max - he is no longer the tie wearing nerd, but is now the gum chewing slacker - the song helps to sell this image of a new, 'cool' Max, one who has stopped caring about anything at all. When Max takes out the chewing gum and brazenly sticks it to the wall of the hotel the transformation is complete - he is now (in his own mind) a total badass. This moment is intentionally ridiculous on the part of Anderson - Max is not, and never will be, a cool guy, and the gum-on-the-wall represents the delusional fantasy world that Max's grief has plunged him in to. But, aided by the awesomeness of the song, along with the legitimate (if ridiculous) coolness that Max is displaying, the audience is allowed to understand exactly what Max is going through. We laugh at him, but we also empathise with him, and we do think, just for a moment, "he's actually a pretty cool guy." The laughter comes as much from the ridiculousness of the audience thinking that Max is cool due to his ludicrous actions, as it does from those ludicrous actions themselves.

And that is the genius of Wes Anderson - he is somehow able to present things to the audience in such a way that they are simultaneously ironic and sincere. We know what we are watching is bizarre, or over-the-top, or stupid, and yet we are affected by it anyway. He wants the audience to be hyper-aware of the artifice of his films, so that they are surprised when they actually produce genuine emotion. This surprise causes laughter, and this laughter, in some weird way, allows us to empathise all the more with the characters. If a show like The Office had a scene like the one in which Max pretends he was hit by a car in order to sneak in to Rosemary Cross' (played wonderfully by Olivia Williams) bedroom, it would be made as intentionally awkward and horrible as possible. The result would be that we would feel bad for all the characters involved, as well as feeling superior to them. The way Rushmore plays the scene, though, is hardly awkward at all. By removing this awkwardness, the audience is free to empathise with Max, rather than pitying him. We feel the underlying hurt that led him to this situation in the first place, rather than just the embarassment of the situation itself. Yes, we laugh at him, but we don't laugh at his shame, and I think that is an important difference.

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