Tuesday, June 27, 2006
Rushmore (USA, 1998, Wes Anderson)
Where the love for Anderson flows...
As you know better than I do, the so-called "independent" film is no such thing. We've had it now for about 20 years right? Not unlike so-called "alternative" rock music, these cultural products emerged in the 80s from creative forces that could not tap into existing sources of financing but nonetheless had to rely on existing outlets of distribution and promotion. In retrospect we can confirm that it amounted to a way for commercially untested talents to break into the market, not really about independence or alternatives at all. Hollywood underwent a restructuring just like other industrial sectors in which de-centralized and deregulated out-sourcing and niche marketing were modalities intended to offset labour costs and investment risks to front-line producers unprotected by large capital assets in the industry. It was in this context that, say, the Cohen Brothers and Steven Soderburgh and the Sundance Festival graduated to the big league.
What, if anything, then, can we identify as aesthetically distinctive about the independent cinima development I have adumbrated? I am hardly the guy to answer the question but as I happen to be the guy who is writing this paragraph, I have to suggest that it is a quirky sense of humour. It has to be humour because the practitioners are novices working self-consciously and are simply too inexperienced to be pretentious, at least if they are smart. It has to be quirky because it is conceived and executed in a low-budget context. This means that fabulous slap-stick based on big special effects is not an option. Nor is super-slick one-liner dialogue, the sort cranked out by an expensive sit-com-type gag factory. It has to be quirky because at rock bottom it lives and dies on the degree to which we enjoy entering into a modestly idiosyncratic situation featuring unthreatening odd-ball characters who we find charming simply because they are not genre-bound and are played by relatively unknown actors. The latter is key I suspect.
Billy Murrray in Rushmore may seem to disprove my rule but actually I think he is the exception that proves it. So much of his star persona is a sort of diminished anti-persona, such a B-flat dullness, he is one droll dude, (love him). But whether you give me my rule and Murray too, Rushmore seems to me to be an exemplar of what I am trying to theorize about the independent vibe, fundamentally an orientation to humor. I like the film a lot. It is charming and warm and funny. A very nice exploration of true friendship. And what a motly crew. Watching it for the second time, I think a direct line may be drawn from it to Napoleon Dynamite. You are more knowledgeable than me. I bet you could throw a bunch of other pictures into the pot I am stirring. Clerks comes to mind.
In any case, the Max Fischer character in Rushmore is a delight. And almost credible. He is a genius of sorts and could be getting straight As but he wants to spend the rest of his life at Rushmore because it is an upper class haven for a working class boy with no mother. I love the plot for kicking him out of the private - also called "independent" these days - school, for allowing him to bring his mad methods to the public school, where he continues to be himself and come into his own. Sure, sure, there is no class conflict, there are classes but no conflict, life is benign and this is light comedy. Even so, his academic and sexual maturing is predicated on class recognition of himself. He finally introduces his father the barber, not the brain surgeon, to his friends. And even though the film is called Rushmore, he does not return.
And Dan Adds:
Your analysis of the death of true independent film is pretty much spot on--those filmmakers we label indie today are merely one step removed from the studio system, not independent of it at all. Names I'd add to your list (you mention Clerks, which is a Kevin Smith production) that you might recognize include Richard Linklater, who, like Soderbergh, alternates between mainstream studio productions and more intimate "indie" films like Before Sunrise/Sunset, Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People, Jude, Code 46), Chris Nolan (Memento) Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko) Larry Clark (Kids, Bully), and Darrren Aronofksy (Pi, Requiem for a Dream). There are a few Cassavettes-style iconoclasts left, such as Vincent Gallo (Buffalo 66, Brown Bunny), but he's the sort best identified as the exception that proves the rule. His films are seen almost exclusively by film festival types, and are so wild and provocative that they have little hope of ever being picked up by a distributor. In the end, most of these guys end up like Soderbergh, the Coens, Linklater, squarly inside the studio system, making mainstream entertainments hoping that their success will allow them to get the financing to make the smaller films that become their signature statements. However, a sample of the films above puts the boots to your suggestion that these films are united by a quirky sense of humour. A self-conscious and quirky world view, perhaps, but there just ain't that many laughs in the films of fellas like Kelly, Clark or Aronofsky to support such a genralization.
Now, onto Rushmore, which remains my favourite Anderson film. Unlike, say Kevin Smith, who, despite being a pretty good writer, is simply unable to frame an interesting shot, I contend that Anderson is unable to frame an uninteresting shot. He is first and foremost, cinematic. I make this distinction because it is clear that his material , particularly in his first two films, is deeply indebted to the literature of J.D. Salinger, with Rushmore being his homage to Catcher in the Rye, and Tenenbaums his affectionate tip of the hat to Franny and Zooey/9 Stories.However, rather than offering up a slavish recreation of Salinger's world, Anderson (and his writing partner in these 2 films, Owen Wilson) adapt and personalize it. In the case of Rushmore, that means moving the story out of New York and it to their own neck of the woods, central Texas. It also means removing most of the dark undercurrents that haunt Salinger's films. Even the attempted suicide scene in Tenenbaums, the closest that either of these films comes to staring personal torment square in the eye, and arguably the most powerful scene in Tenenbaums, is not allowed to linger too long, as Luke Wilson's character is resurrected and redeemed quickly. Most importantly, Anderson fills his films with childhood memorabilia (all the theatrical productions in Rushmore refer to films that shaped the filmmaker's consciousness, whereas in Tenebaums you need look no further than the games closet for signs of similar inspiration). So, depsite being inspired by Salinger, these films are in the end distinctive and distinctly personal statements by Anderson and Wilson.
I'd even argue that in the case of Ruhmore in particular, that they are an improvement upon Salinger. Anathema, I know, for a teacher of literature to argue that the movie suprasses the novel, but at the end of your review you alluded to the element of Rushmore that makes it a more interesting work. The one thing that always grates on me about Holden Caulfield, and the world he inhabits, is its suffocating aura of privilege. For all the astute comments he makes about the hypocrisy of the world he moves through, Holden is a part of the same world. His parents are loaded, and he attends expensive prep schools, and for all his criticisms of the people in his world, he makes no attempt to look at the flaws inherent in the system that produces such people. Max at least steps out of the rarified air of Rushmore (true, against his will, but still) and moves his show into the real world. And whattya know, he does much better there! It turns out that this is his real milieux. And, of course, we also have Murray's Harold Bloom, who, in one of the best movie speeches ever, urges poor guys like Max to take dead aim at rich guys like him. Not exactly the stuff of Marx, but it's a step up in awareness from Salinger/Caulfield.
Okay, so granted, as a so-called indie filmmaker, Anderson is no Cassavettes when it comes to getting to the emotional nitty gritty of human relationships, nor is in the league of a Robert Altman when it comes to dilineating the relationship between human behaviour and t he underlying social order. But he's one helluva good filmmaker nonetheless whose wacky universe I'm happy to spend 100 minutes inhabiting. Over and over and over again.
My favourite part of your discussion is when you refer to "Salinger's films."
About Salinger, I think we have talked about him before. You got to him at the right time in your life. I read Catcher on a beach in Thailand when I was 30. The rich kid problem you identify was just the beginning of my irritation with Caulfield. The whole thing was so oriented in a 1950s cultural framework. Everything he was objecting to and the way he objected to it struck me as so tired, passe. I read Kerouac and Ginsberg when I was a teenager as well as transcripts of Lenny Bruce, this after Vonnegut and Catch-22. I read Rise High the Roofbeam etc. in my late 20s before Catcher. But The whole Salinger thing has simply passed me by, my fault for being behind the curve I suppose. I acknowledge that he continues to impose a big shadow on any intelligent approach to adolescent male angst, but the upshot here is that I am perfectly comfortable with your view that Rushmore is an improvement on Catcher, and not just because the reason you give follows on my own appreciation of the class awareness in Rushmore. Hey, speaking of cinema inspired by the Holden model, have you seen Igby Goes Down?
I have not seen TRT for some time and I have only seen it once. Whereas I have seen Rushmore twice and just days ago. Still, I have to agree with you that of the three I've seen by Anderson, Rushmore is the most fully realized. In my review of TLA, I speak to what I consider to be the central weakness of that film. As for what makes Rushmore work so well, I can only suppose that Anderson lived with that material for many years before he finally got the opportunity to bring it to the screen. It's coming from a place he knows through and through, perhaps even from personal experience. Ditto for Wilson? You mention that they locate Rushmore in their own neck of the woods. I wonder if either or both of them found it in their own lives.
I also return to my point about seeing an unknown actor in a leading role. ( I still don't know the name of the actor who played Max Fischer.) This brings a freshness to our experience of the film I believe cannot be overemphasized. It helps that the actor eats the part up with a spoon. Without getting into a big critique of celebrity and how it commercially interferes with the theatricality or illusory power of performance, to say nothing of the sincerity of art, it is simply impossible to tease out an actor from his act if you have never seen him before. This makes for a very powerful character. I know Bill Murray brings a great deal to the table in Rushmore, but what he brings there he also brings to Lost in Translation and TLA and so on. For all I know, the actor playing Max Fisher IS Max Fisher. Same for Napoleon Dynamite. Speaking of which for the second time, how do you like that film? I was completely won over by it.
You mention how Anderson is not Cassavettes or Altman. It would never even have crossed my mind to compare him so. Of course, I have only this week latched on to his name. I find his work lightweight but pleasant as all get out. Perhaps I am missing some of his more serious overtones. I'll see what you have to say in response to my TLA review.
I mention Cassavettes and Altman as examples of independent directors of the past who have followed their own visions in order to make highly personal films, which is what Anderson has done with his first three films. He's not at their level or depth (and may never be), but I have yet to grow tired of his work.
The lead in Rushmore is played by Jason Schwartzman. Jason is the son of Talia Shire, whose bloodline I bet you know very well. Jason is another Coppola, like Nick Cage, who chooses to fly his kite under a different banner. Schwartzman effectively disappeared off the scene after this film, appearing in mostly forgettable stuff as the token teenager, until he grew up and reappeared in a relatively serious way recently, starring I (Heart) Huckabees with David O. Russell (Spanking the Monkey, Flirting With Disaster, Three Kings), another of these young-ish "indie" directors whom I could have easily included in my list. Dunno if he'll ever shake off the role of Max Fisher completely, though. It's his Rocky. Heh.
And oh yeah, I like Napoleon and his dynamite. Good goofy fun. And that actor (John Heder) is forever branded. He'll never play a serious part. At least, not convincingly. And, yes, I've seen Igby Goes Down. Pretty good job of picking at the Salinger scab.
Wilson and Anderson were high school buddies who attended (and got kicked out of, I believe) the same Houston prep school. Anderson went onto film school, Wilson to fame as Jackie Chan's buddy (I love their work together, btw; they are great comic foils. Wilson is all about the words; Chan is all about the action.)