The Everlasting Boyhoods of Wes Anderson
From the Lawnwranglers.com Archive
Film Comment, January/February 1999
by Mark Olsen
Unlike many writer-directors of his generation, Wes Anderson does not view his characters from some distant Olympus of irony. He stands beside them — or rather, just behind them — cheering them on as they chase their miniaturist renditions of the American Dream. The characters who inhabit Anderson’s cinematic universe, a Middle West of the Imagination, embody both sides of William Carlos Williams’ famous edict that the pure products of America go crazy, being, for the most part, both purely American and slightly crazy. Though some might label his people losers, or even invoke that generational curse, slackers, they are in fact ambitious and motivated overreachers, misguided though their energies occasionally are.
Todd Solondz may be the new leader of the arch-irony cult, and therefore the filmmaker seemingly most at odds with Anderson’s lighter, nonsatiric touch, but he at least uses his distance to create a shifting matrix of uncertain sympathy and identification. It’s filmmakers like Gregg Araki or that ironist old-timer Hal Hartley to whom Anderson is most in opposition. They use an ironic stance to establish their superiority over characters and audience alike. Within their overly referential worlds, the viewer is always left to play catch-up, attempting not only to spot the reference but also digest its “meaning,” while characters are reduced to ciphers or signs. In a climate where coolness reigns and nothing matters, the toughest stance to take is one of engagement and empathy. Anderson seems to have accepted the challenge.
Anderson himself seems not so removed from those he portrays, as if his deep affection and sympathy for his characters stems from a glimmer of self-recognition. Both of his films to date, 1996’s Bottle Rocket and the new Rushmore, were shot in areas of his native Texas with which he is intimately familiar, and apparently autobiographical elements are strewn throughout. Rushmore, named after the small, fictitious private school in which it is mostly set, was filmed at the alma mater where Anderson languished through his high school years. Still, this is not to imply that his films are psychodramatic extensions of a therapist’s couch. Each is an entertainment of the highest order, with a wit, verve, and sincerity largely absent from the contemporary youth picture.
Young Wes, like Rushmore’s Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), would, in exchange for good behavior, be permitted to put on plays for his classmates — hyper-energized, TV-derived scenarios such as The Five Mazeratis, an Autobahn drama, or a reenactment of the Battle of the Alamo. Anderson also made short Super-8 films — spy movie knockoffs or the new installments in the ongoing adventures of Indiana Jones. After a brief phase as a self-styled “literary type,” he majored in philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin but wanted to return to moviemaking. Eschewing film school, he got involved with local cable access production in both Austin and his native Houston. He had by this time met up with Owen Wilson, his writing partner, and they set about writing what would become Bottle Rocket, the script Anderson claims at one point ambled its way up to around 300 pages. They began shooting with the intention of filming their way through the script in installments, but ran out of money after completing a modest 13-minute short. This prototype Bottle Rocket and their epic-length script made its way up the moviemaking foodchain until it reached producer-director James L. Brooks, who helped steer more money their way than they had ever imagined necessary for their project.
It’s easy to see how the short functioned as a small part of a larger whole, and although it’s self-sufficient, it is most interesting in relation to its more fully realized feature companion-piece. For example, while the short begins with two of its characters riffing on Huggy Bear and a particular episode of Starsky and Hutch, this type of pop culture dialogue — a fixture of Nineties hip cinema — is conspicuously absent from Anderson’s feature. In its place is an obsessive, endless patter of therapy-inflected self-analysis, aimlessly revolving in circles. Not for nothing does the bookstore robbery that serves as centerpiece of the short remain unseen; instead Dignan (Owen Wilson) and Anthony (Owen’s brother, Luke Wilson) recount the details to their getaway driver Bob (Robert Musgrave, who, like the Wilsons, reprised his role in the feature). The action itself is important only in that it gives them something new to talk about, creating a springboard for further attempts at personal insight. If both of his films seem to be about people spinning their wheels, Anderson is interested less in the lack of forward movement than in the kinetic excitement of energy displaced — life as a colorful pinwheel or, as the title metaphor points to, a beautifully glowing, albeit temporary, roadside firework.
Anthony and Dignan will surely someday be recognized as Nineties archetypes; restless and uncertain about their current life status, they are perpetually in transition. Their essential dilemma is one that faces a lot of contemporary middle-class Americans standing on the verge of full-fledged postcollegiate adulthood; finding the prospects somewhat terrifying, they yearn obsessively to regress into a childhood freedom that is obviously unobtainable. Early in what we might call Bottle Rocket: The Movie, Anthony visits his little sister, Grace, at her private school. She speaks to him with an adult honesty he later calls “cynical,” yet she has a far clearer perspective on her brother and Dignan than they ever have on themselves. Anthony, fresh from a voluntary stay at a mental hospital for “exhaustion” (Grace: “You haven’t worked a day in your life, how could you be exhausted?”), seeks grace in Grace, a sense of innocence and purity he has lost in himself and in the world he sees.
Shortly after, while waiting for Bob (whose only qualification for their would-be criminal crew, besides his self-styled air of mystery, is his beat-up, hand-me-down Mercedes), Anthony discusses his recent hospitalization with a sorority-girl friend of Bob’s older brother, Future Man (another Wilson brother, Andrew). He explains how, when asked by his then-girlfriend whether he wanted to water-ski or lay out, “I realized not only did I not want to answer that question, but I never wanted to answer another watersports question, or see any of these people again for the rest of my life.” The honesty of his response pinpoints a sense of guilt and anxiety about an inherited life of privilege and leisure, and its seeming inescapability. This is the closest Anderson & Co. ever come to the suburbia-as-soul-crushing,-mind-numbing-hell sentiments espoused by their filmmaking contemporaries. The overall feeling of this moment is one of melancholy rather than anger, resentment, or mockery — a wistful schoolboy sadness that is reflected in the eyes of the girl, who can muster no reply but “You’re really complicated, aren’t you?” Her tone bespeaks a certain wonderment: is Anthony one of those sexy, bohemian boys she read about in a magazine once? He smiles slightly, and the tone shifts back to one of polite, guarded optimism as he shrugs and responds, “I try not to be.”
Their little-league Wild Bunch complete, Dignan, Anthony, and Bob set about planning their “practice job,” a small robbery meant to capture the attention of local crime boss Mr. Henry (James Caan). The job will be among the first steps in Dignan’s 75-year plan in wealth and happiness, which he has conveniently outlined for Anthony in a spiral notebook with Magic Marker. Now we finally get to see the boys in action; with Breathe-Rite strips for disguises (“What are you putting that tape on your nose for?” “Exactly.”), they rob a bookstore. The heist, if it can be thought of as such, is a success, and they set off on the run, settling in at a roadside motel where Anthony falls for their pretty young Paraguayan housekeeper.
Though the trappings of gangster cool are played off against the trio’s affable likability throughout, the film is ultimately not about suburban fantasies of a criminal lifestyle. Bottle Rocket is more attuned to how success comes in all sizes, and the drive to achieve it needs to be measured on a sliding scale. Dignan, for example, simply wants a direction, a road down which he can head with certainty, instead of aimlessly drifting through a series of haphazard life decisions. Anderson employs an effective formal device to convey Dignan’s hopes and drive. Using an in-camera speed change from normal to slow motion, he creates a look of epic yearning for authentic crime and criminality, not the playful fantasy version espoused by the boys. The technique is deployed sparingly, but it cements Anderson’s vision of Dignan as, ultimately, a winner. It turns out the boys’ big “job” was simply a snipe hunt of sorts, something to keep them busy while Mr. Henry robbed Bob’s lavish family home bare. When Mr. Henry’s true motive is revealed, he is framed in a low-angle shot, moving slowly and proudly, secure with himself and the satisfaction of a job well done. The film’s final shot is Dignan, captured following the bungled burglary, giving a triumphant slo-mo perp-walk through a prison yard. It may only be in his own mind, but he has achieved his goals, however small or ridiculous, and so he is finally allowed to enjoy his moment of glory.
The same segue-into-slow-motion technique is used throughout Rushmore, although to a slightly different end, and it is just one point of coincidence and connection between the two films. Rushmore and Bottle Rocket also share a handful of performers (both Luke and Andrew Wilson appear in what feel like homespun celebrity cameos), and much of the behind-the-camera team, giving the two films a unified look that cements their thematic intersections. And while Bottle Rocket features original music by Mark Mothersbaugh and the deft deployment of music by the Sixties group Love and others, the addition of ace music supervisor Randy Poster to the Rushmore team makes its soundtrack, a melange of angry-young-man, British Invasion-era pop with Mothersbaugh’s harpsichord-driven score, one of the year’s best.
In all areas, in fact, Anderson seems to be steadily improving, gaining confidence and ability. The inventive widescreen framing utilizes in Rushmore is a wonder to behold, creating a comic world of off-kilter compositions that match his characters’ unconventional worldviews. By using as few lenses as possible, frequently cutting from longshot to closeup while maintaining the same focal length, he creates a visual unity that helps to bind his characters closer together.
Whereas Dignan and Anthony find themselves at a crossroads, passing clumsily into adulthood, Rushmore heads back to the teen years and finds mostly those same emotions of confusion and anxiety, while also celebrating the youthful, exuberant enthusiasm with which Max pursues his dreams. Rushmore begins with a pair of velvet curtains opening across the screen-as-proscenium, revealing a classroom: the scene that unfolds is quickly shown to be Max’s daydream — and the entire film can be thought of as something imagined within Max’s head. An early montage presents an improbable succession of school clubs and societies Max either has founded or belongs to (Trap & Skeet Club, Calligraphy Society, The Max Fischer Players), but as the film progresses, it becomes apparent that these clubs do exist. It is also quickly revealed that, despite his excellent extracurricular record, Max’s weak curricular showing has landed him on sudden-death academic probation; he’s on the verge of flunking out.
With his self-confident exterior, it’s tempting at first to read Max as a variation on a Ferris Bueller type — in control and running the show with a cocky, above-it-all attitude. Anderson and cowriter Wilson resist such a stock type, however — or perhaps look to slightly more esoteric sources for their inspiration, such as the coming-of-age films of Francois Truffaut or the raged sincerity of a film like The Bad News Bears. The essential sadness, the built-in nostalgia and disappointment lurking just underneath a colorful, fun-filled surface, that seems to run through Rushmore is rare in American youth pictures, and it’s partly this that makes Rushmore so distinctive.
When Max awakens from his daydream at the film’s beginning, he’s in the new chapel and auditorium that has just been built with a donation from Rushmore alum and local industrialist Mr. Blume (Bill Murray). Blume is addressing the student body, admonishing them for their lack of ambition, urging, “You can’t buy backbone.” Max immediately pegs him as a kindred spirit, and throughout the film Blume and Max engage in an odd, cross-generational friendship that is part competition, part mutual admiration in which it’s difficult to tell just who admires who more.
While the film arranges a romantic competition for the two over the affections of Miss Cross (Olivia Williams), a grade school teacher at Rushmore, the relationship between Blume and Max is the film’s true center. Blume is seen throughout as just a big kid himself — sitting amidst a sea of schoolboys in a dapper blue silk shirt the same shade as their oxford shirts, he is at one with the youngsters, if perhaps a grade or two above them. Murray brings a genuine tenderness to the role, showing a depth and subtlety he’s rarely hinted at before. Rather than framing Blume as a colorless, bourgeois, Mr. Jones type (as in Dylan’s hipper-than-thou “Something is happening, but you don’t know what it is”), Anderson and Murray take their cue from the sympathetic, suburban short stories of John Cheever; they allow us to slowly understand Blume and what he sees of himself in Max — before the business responsibilities, the paunch, the cheating wife, and the obnoxious, ungrateful sons made it all seem worthless. Through Max, he recaptures what is was he wanted in the first place, where his own drive and ambition came from, and feels renewed. It is a tender, comic delight to watch Blume bloom, reemerging from the slumber brought on by status and security, to sneak furtively across a yard to exchange words with his heart’s new flame. He is never condescending towards Max because he sees the essential purity and beauty within Max’s behavior, however naive and occasionally hopeless. Not long after their initial encounter, Blume asks Max how he does it, what’s his secret. The response is: “I think you have to find something you love. For me it’s Rushmore.” As the film progresses that statement form the film’s central thematic: that love, passion, and ambition are always worthwhile endeavors. Near the film’s center, following a hilarious sequence of escalating revenge tactics (bee attack, crushed bike, severed brakes) between the two romantic rivals, perfectly timed to The Who’s “A Quick One (While He’s Away),” Blume and Max reach a truce when Blume confesses why he moved in on Max’s love interest: “She’s my Rushmore, Max.” Love, melancholy, apology, and admiration all surge through the moment — and in some ways it forms the film’s centerpiece and emotional climax, the essential need to dream and reach for more.
When, at film’s end, all its players are brought together for a party to celebrate Max’s play “Heaven and Hell” (a Vietnam saga with real dynamite for explosions), all squabbles are forgotten and differences set aside. Max had the DJ play The Faces’ “Ooh La La,” and while the chorus sings, “I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger,” Anderson allows us a final, slow-motion look around the room, taking in every detail, reaffirming that these are the moments we remember — the laughter, the friendships, the triumphs, the successes. It is one more tender, ebullient moment, tempered only by a sense that it may already be a memory, sweetly come and too quickly gone.
In the span of one short and two features, Wes Anderson has established himself as one of the most original and refreshing voices in contemporary American cinema, complete with his own collaborative team. He is immune to the urge to be down that comes across in film-school-grad dreck like Amongst Friends, Things to Do in Denver…, et al.; nor does he revel in the schoolboyish are-you-shocked-yet? reflex is Araki, Solondz, or films like Very Bad Things. Maybe it would be going too far to see him as the vanguard of the New Sincerity, but he is clearly out of step with many of his contemporaries. Likewise, one should not be too quick to place him under some Outsider or Geek Chic rubric, for many of the trappings of current hipster culture — G-shock watches, Guayabera shirts, the institutional cool of matching jumpsuits — are there to be taken, even though they may be placed within a newfound context.
It is by now a commonplace that too many young filmmakers speak only of life in relation to the movies, not of life as it is lived. How reassuring to know that in conversation Anderson is as likely to make a literary reference as a cinematic one. One may have to go back to Preston Sturges — an acknowledged influence — to find a director who exhibited such faith in the American dreamer. Here’s hoping Anderson continues on an upward growth curve, that he does not himself fall prey to the growing pains that terminally afflict his characters, and that he forever cheers on those whose reach ever so slightly exceeds their grasp.