Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Two

#2 — Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998)
In Max Fischer's dreams he can liberate his classmates from the tyranny of homework with some concerted strokes of a piece of a piece of chalk. In the waking world, triumph is a little more elusive.

So begins Wes Anderson's second feature, and, with a burst of ecstatically funny creativity, the life and aspirations of his main character are laid out. As played by Jason Schwartzman, Max believes in his own greatness with only the most simplistic idea as to what that means–the only occupations he considers viable aspirations are senator and diplomat–and he proceeds as a genius among philistines. He is an overachiever at school with no apparently ability to achieve the necessary minimum in his classes as he represents Russia in the Model U.N., serves as president of the Calligraphy Club or, later, creates the Kite Flying Society. Most notably, he's the creative force behind the Max Fischer Players, mounting elaborate theatrical productions, including a stage adaptation of Serpico. Max has the narcissism that’s typical of a high schooler enhanced by a sense that he’s a junior misunderstood artiste. He is nestled within the chill satisfaction of someone who sees nothing but genius reflected in the eyes of others, including the pretty new school teacher who inspires him to save Latin and the local industrialist who becomes his friend.

Rushmore is a landslide of inspired details, each one offering some fresh insight to Max Fischer and the small brigade of characters that surround him. It is as precise as Max himself, who offers to retrieve a dictionary to help prove that “relationship” is a fairly innocuous word. Anderson and his screenwriting collaborator Owen Wilson make the film both warm and biting, following Max’s trajectory with uncommon keenness, portraying his passive aggressive jockeying with an amused understanding. He is just a boy, lost and adrift, but probably smart enough to find his way out, discovering the sort of selflessness and generosity that he previously only feigned by trying to establish his benevolence by buying root beers for his hardworking theater crews.

Anderson frames every image with care, employing some conceits like the stage curtain that open to each new act, but always mixing the controlled with grounded, deeply felt insight. One of the prime examples of this is the portrait of manufacturing tycoon Herman Blume, portrayed by Bill Murray with a sardonic melancholy that has practically defined the remainder of the his career. The weight of his disappointment is crushing and Murray shows how it has worn him down, and, movingly, how little chances at happiness can revive him in unpredictable ways. The film drags him down to the lows of emotional destitution, but eventually allows him the grace of a tentative rejuvenation, a journey that Murray underplays beautifully.

Everything in the film is perfectly staged, carefully constructed, and ideally realized, all adding up to an intricate artistic vision. The music, cinematography, costumes, art design, editing, casting stand as an unique expression of Anderson. The films that followed cemented his style, but the personal nature of it–how clearly it belongs to him–was apparent from the moment this effort started to spin off of its reels. It is that distinct and boldly original.

Putting it plainly, Rushmore is a movie that I adore.

Greatish Performances #1

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#1 — Mason Gamble as Dirk Calloway in Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998)

Around the time of Rushmore‘s release, Bill Murray went onto Charlie Rose’s PBS program to discuss the film. The interview covered a broad range of Murray’s career, and even began with Rose asking the actor to comment of the business tumult going on with some Hollywood agencies at the time, but the host also eagerly did his duty to ask extensive about the film Murray was there to promote, particularly asking about this young director named Wes Anderson as if he were an extraterrestrial that had swooped down to kidnap significant stars. At one point he tried to keep the telecast moving by jumping right into a clip. It was the scene that featured a young Rushmore student confronting Murray’s businessman character about the affair he’d fallen into with a teacher at the school, pointing out how it was a form of betrayal to their mutual friend, the aspirationally precocious protagonist Max Fischer. Murray interrupted the flow a moment to interject his judgment on the young actor he worked with in the scene. He noted that he’d previously worked in a film adaptation of a comic book, uncertain if he’d played Richie Rich or Dennis the Menace (it was the latter, part of the less palatable legacy of John Hughes that everyone has been kindly ignoring during the extended mourning period). While he has a reputation of cantankerous behavior, Murray also has a notably generous spirit, and even though this was just a kid in a small role, Murray wanted to take the time to explain to Rose that he was really good.

I agree with Murray. There are a lot of excellent performances in Rushmore–it remains Anderson’s very best film in part because there’s more empathy and less quirky contrivances to the characters and therefore the acting–but Gamble’s is often overlooked. His is a deceptively tricky role. As Max’s right-hand ally, Gamble represents a sort of barometer for the audience of where Max is at in the bumpy progression of his story. We see the state of Max’s psyche reflected in Dirk’s interactions with him, no clearer than the moment when Max rebounds from a series of setbacks. He instructs Dirk to take notes as he speculates on likely members of a kite-flying society. The inventive screenplay by Anderson and Owen Wilson has already clearly signaled that this sort of organizational creation is a mark of Max’s ambition, and in the context of the film the return of Max’s ambition is a sign of the return of his spirit, but Gamble needs to play the emotion of the scene, a mix of surprise, delight and excitement that his friend is finding his footing. And he has to do it without any overt signaling, because he’s required to return to his station as accomplice and assistance to let the revivification take.

There are all sorts of little balancing acts for Gamble in the film. He was probably around eleven or twelve at the time of filming, and his character is often calibrated to react with the emotional immediacy of youth. He approaches his confrontation with Max with a urgency to hurt his friend back the way he himself has been hurt. He shares a secret he knows will plunge Max into despair, but lacks that knowledge to articulate in a way much beyond taunts informed by a kid’s schoolyard knowledge of how human sexuality manifests. Gamble is feigning toughness while revealing innocence, and when he confronts Max verbally his insults are delivered with an tenor of brattiness. Like Max, Dirk is a kid trying out adult emotions that he doesn’t really understand, and Gamble somehow manages to hint at both the playacting and the confusion that shadows it.

Since Max is a theatrical auteur, that playacting gets to take a somewhat more literal form when Dirk takes a feature role in the magnum opus that closes the film, the Vietnam epic Heaven and Hell. He plays a soldier who denies his place in the middle of the muck of war with the happy delusion that he’s not there, but he’s “in Cheyenne, Wyoming,” just another front announced right before he triggers his flame thrower with a howling commando rage. The Dirk seen in these scenes is a little more forthright, challenging the veracity of the ketchup makeup slathered on his face between acts, still loyal to Max but perhaps now aware that the friend he trails proudly isn’t quite as infallible as he once seemed. Dirk is growing up a bit, and Gamble gives him that tone.

In the play-within-the-film, Gamble’s Dirk isn’t especially convincing as the soldier. He’s still a kid playing an adult’s role. But I believed that Dirk believed in the performance, that he was committed to it. That in and of itself coheres to his portrayer’s work quite nicely.

Take a run and hide yourself away

Around the time that The Darjeeling Limited was released, a good friend of mine, who knows a thing or two about movies himself, asked me if I was going to go see the “new dollhouse” from Wes Anderson. That struck me as a perfect and succinct way to describe Anderson’s filmmaking approach. I like the majority of Anderson’s films, some of them a great deal (and one of them with a level of affection probably matched only by the proudest members of Anderson’s immediate family), but I also recognize that he brings a precision to his image construction that can have a certain embalming quality, as if he wants to drain every bit of human uncertainty out of his work. That characteristic in his style has increased exponentially with each film, so it makes a certain sense that he finally has arrived at the dollhouses that my pal unwittingly predicted. And he’s filled them with little puppets that he can control down to their tiniest movements. It’s also no surprise that he clearly feels right at home.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox is based on a Roald Dahl novel, but, by all accounts, Anderson and his screenplay collaborator, Noah Baumbach, have embellished it generously. In the film, Mr. Fox is a skilled thief of chickens and other farmland property. As many must do, he has to settle down, abandoning his youthful indiscretions in favor of stolid security in a mundane job, and a nice little home with his wife and child. And as many eventually discover, he can’t quite resist the allure of his dangerous former life, and recruits some willing friends to engage in just one more job that naturally evolves into just one more series of jobs. His criminal endeavors raise the ire of the farmers he’s targeted, leading to a necessary retreat underground as a full out war escalates.

Anderson tells his story with zest and wit, and, despite a public skirmish that cast doubt upon his authorship, it is definitely, distinctively his, the very first moments of the opening credits, as clear as a signature. Anderson’s musical taste, slightly off-kilter pacing, and deadpan tone are all fully present, as is a tendency to emphasize the underlying sadness in his character’s lives. The action is spirited, but really lingers is the conflict between cousins or other aspects of mild familial dismay, and the sense of quiet perseverance that often accompanies it. To be fair, there may be a tad too much of that, and the film could have benefited from a few more instances of offhand absurdist humor–the ones that are there are easily the moments that work the best. But as with Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are from earlier this year, it’s the added depth in a film that could have easily gotten by on surface gloss that makes the effort come close to being, well, fantastic.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Forty-Nine

#49 — The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001).
For all the precision that Wes Anderson brings to his filmmaking–the carefully constructed shots, the pristine cinematography, the merging of imagery with the rock’n’roll soundtrack so complete that it feels like the movie itself is breathing in time with each song’s backbeat–it is the ungainly sprawl of The Royal Tenenbaums that impresses most. Anderson has been upfront about drawing upon the works of J.D. Salinger, particularly those involving the Glass family, for this film, and it indeed comes across as a wildly inventive, overstuffed novel. Set in a arch, Bohemian, colorful New York City that would seem nostalgic if it bore any plausible resemblance to a world that existed outside of the imagination. Instead, it is nostalgic for the New York one might have conjured up in the imagination at some point in the past: sun-dappled and gritty, literate and cantankerous, urban and urbane. Anderson’s film longs for the tilted, lovely world with an earnestness that is endearing. It’s as if the entire film is the celebrity author character played by Owen Wilson, looking at the Tenenbaum family and their environs with a palpable ache, an insatiable desire to be immersed in all their romantic, wounded possibility.

The primary story of The Royal Tenenbaums focuses on the attempts of the deeply flawed patriarch to reconcile with the family he abandoned long ago. The soul of the movie, though, resides with the three Tenenbaum children. Each was a child prodigy of some sort, and each crashed after enormous initial success. In their forlorn drifting Anderson captures something poignant. What happens to those who peak early? When precocious achievement fades into memory, leaving only unfulfilled promise? That’s true of this trio, but it’s a quality that is present throughout the film, with each character standing as a sort of worn copy of their more prosperous selves from some point in the past. Just because you’re dangerous enough to have a price on your head in Calcutta doesn’t mean you won’t wind up a discarded citizen, tossed out of a hotel and pleading your relatives for reentry into their lives.

Gene Hackman plays the character who faces that fate, the charming, crafty, irredeemable, lovable Royal Tenenbaum. I mean it as about as grand of a compliment as I can bestow to note that his performance here stands on par with his very different work as Harry Caul in The Conversation and Rupert Anderson in Mississippi Burning. In some respects, Hackman’s earthy approach, which always ground his characters in something deeply, recognizably human, seems, on the surface, a problematic match with Anderson’s quirkier stylings. Instead, it winds up being a mutually beneficial collaboration, causing Hackman to stretch himself out a bit, finding new reservoirs of unpredictability. Hackman always brings a certain amount of authority to his roles. That authority is tempered and actually enlivened by the hints that there’s a certain degree of phoniness to it. Royal Tenenbaum is always playing roles–dying man, lovelorn husband, doting father–so it makes sense that the moments he’s most energized, most free are those when his role-playing is at its most transparent: bounding around the neighborhood with his newly acquainted grandsons, careening around in go-karts, aggressively jaywalking, hanging off a garbage truck as it rolls down the street.

Anderson and his film, meanwhile, benefit by the assurance of Hackman’s work. It never spins into mere whimsy–overcome by pink walls and matching red track suits–in part because Hackman doggedly keeps it tethered to the real through his conviction to the role. His Royal Tenenbaum is a sly huckster, but remains fully recognizable as a man grasping for a better ending. His scheme transforms into something more genuine. The bits of redemption and glimmers of personal fulfillment, perhaps reached inadvertently and unwittingly, feel fully earned. The other actors noticeably step up their games, especially when they’re in a scene with Hackman. He winds up being as potent and influencing of a force as an actor as Royal is as a character.

The film is moving, sometimes in an almost casual, disarming way. Ben Stiller may never have a better, more honest moment on film then the beat here when he lets a hard veneer of emotional self-defense fall away to reveal pure vulnerability in front of his father, finally forgiven, in no small part because he is finally needed. Maybe that reveals part of the message of Anderson’s film. The misfits, the offbeat, the challenging, the discarded all have a place of value in this world because, at some point in time, each of them will be exactly who someone else needs. It’s a kind thought, artfully conveyed by a generous film.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)