Friday, July 23, 2010

Maggie 2010: A Round of Resounding Recs, Part III

#90. Rushmore

To date, director Wes Anderson has six films in the Criterion Collection; and of them, Rushmore was the only I had not seen. There is no doubting that Anderson's style -- both as director and as writer -- is simultaneously distinct and readily pigeon-holed. (To get a sense for this curious juxtaposition, one need look no further than this spoof trailer of God of War, the epic action videogame, as a film as it might look if written and directed by Wes Anderson.) It's also easy to understand why someone might tire of this film style, which calls attention to its own artifice at every turn by stringing its unnaturally clear-sighted characters through soft-spoken, high-stake absurdities of plot. I certainly felt I'd seen enough of Anderson to understand his game, his ends, and his means, much as I loved the last, Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Nonetheless, I watched Rushmore. Now I wish I'd started with this film, which for me was truly the clearest execution of Anderson's particular thesis. I don't hazard to say "best" -- but, clearest.

Rushmore follows Max Fischer (David Schwartzman), a private school student verging on expulsion because he is too busy immersing himself in every possible creative outlet at Rushmore to focus on minor matters like his actual classes. Max falls in love with a teacher (Olivia Williams). Max makes friends with a depressed millionaire (Bill Murray), father to two sons he fails to see himself in. Max tells lies. Max makes plans. Max never seems to follow through on anything except his plays. Max makes an even bigger mess of things. Then things make a mess of Max.

All throughout the film, Anderson makes exaggerated use of gesture, position, and action. People exist in a space, at a time, static, and then they make a motion that takes them out of that space. They don't survive in most spaces -- especially the ones that bring them in close proximity to other people -- and so they return to their original spaces. Pauses between lines are important: without them, there would be none of this consciousness of artifice that both marks his work, and allows his lines to live as something above and beyond the high school play superficiality they would imbue if spoken at normal rhythms with more of an investment in physical movement.

So that's when it hits you: Anderson's great thesis. Emotion is place. Emotion is specific people. Emotion is a concrete object, in other words, for those of us who feel displaced. For the rest there is movement, there is unconscious action and speech. For them emotion is an abstract, but for everyone else deliberation stands in. For people displaced, emotion can be a wall, and walls can be run into. Walls can hurt. It holds no logical accuracy whatsoever, but for people in Anderson's films, if emotion is a building material, then with the right building materials it follows that the world can be made to resemble the emotions we most want.

So thinks Max when he tries to build an aquarium to establish his love. Or a surfeit of school club positions to secure his place in the school (ideally, it seems, forever). Even his love interest is later found to have sustained a concrete place where certain emotions can live on. The millionaire, meanwhile, makes a home out of his love for a woman.

This device is by no means unique among Anderson's films. In Royal Tenenbaums one character attempts to find a sense of security in an outfit and manner of readiness. In The Life Aquatic the vessel itself is a microcosm of attempted stability. In Fantastic Mr. Fox the selection of home gives the titular fox his sense of purpose and identity back.

But in Rushmore the device is at its most self-evident: it bleeds through the lines and the plot points like it does in no other. So suddenly a scene emerges with very typical Anderson-style strangeness--a new and strange location; characters standing strangely about one another; something still stranger and more unexpected going on between them all. And that's when the second revelation hits: If emotion is place, then (again defying the principles of formal logic -- just as humans always do) all place reflects emotion. Thus wherever we are, whatever we're doing, if we're among the emotionally displaced, we're always going to be trying to interpret the emotion of that space, that action, that scene, in a way that makes sense of ourselves and our lives. And that act, repeated throughout the whole of our displacement, becomes life -- at least as we know it. Maybe also as it is.

In Rushmore, Max's plays make a regular appearance in relation to the plot. These plays are elaborate, otherworldly pieces of a production quality you would never find in any real school. Yet as this whole conceit of Anderson's so perfectly demonstrates, the most elaborate artifice of the most elaborate production still fails to match the immensity of artifice that exists among the people in his films. ... Who are, of course, themselves giving an elaborate and artificial performance for us in the audience. Which, if this two-point trending continues, means we in the real world must be giving the most elaborate and painstaking performances of all.

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