Wes Anderson’s Breakthrough Film, Rushmore, Revisited in Five Video Essays: It Came Out 20 Years Ago Today

“I gen­uine­ly don’t know what to make of this movie.” So said emi­nent New York­er film crit­ic Pauline Kael about Rush­more, Wes Ander­son­’s sec­ond film. But hav­ing spent the bet­ter part of a decade in retire­ment by that point, she did­n’t pub­lish that judg­ment; rather, she spoke it straight to Ander­son him­self, who had rent­ed out a the­ater to give her a per­son­al screen­ing. “I was a lit­tle dis­ap­point­ed by Ms. Kael’s reac­tion to the movie,” Ander­son writes in his rec­ol­lec­tion of the event. Upon its release on Decem­ber 11, 1998 — twen­ty years ago today — a fair few of its view­ers would echo Kael’s bewil­der­ment. But just as many would feel they’d seen the ear­ly work of a mas­ter, and time would soon vin­di­cate that feel­ing: whether you love his movies or can’t stand them, Wes Ander­son became Wes Ander­son because of Rush­more.

“There are few per­fect movies,” says crit­ic and Wes Ander­son spe­cial­ist Matt Zoller-Seitz. “This is one of them.” His video essay on Rush­more, part of a series adapt­ed from his book The Wes Ander­son Col­lec­tion, breaks down just a few of the ele­ments that have made the film so beloved. “At once arch and earnest, know­ing and inno­cent,” Ander­son­’s sto­ry of a flak­i­ly ambi­tious teenage prep-school boy Max Fis­cher’s friend­ship with a mid­dle-aged steel mag­nate Her­man Blume — and the affec­tions for a wid­owed first-grade teacher that turn that friend­ship into a rival­ry — “feels unique and furi­ous­ly alive.”

Draw­ing deeply from the per­son­al­i­ty and expe­ri­ence of Ander­son him­self (and those of his co-writer and fre­quent col­lab­o­ra­tor Owen Wil­son) as well as The 400 BlowsThe Grad­u­ate, and oth­er clas­sic pic­tures, it nev­er does so in an obvi­ous or pre­dictable man­ner.

Of all the strokes of luck required for the then-twen­tysome­thing Ander­son even to get the chance to make a movie like Rush­more (espe­cial­ly after his debut fea­ture Bot­tle Rock­et seemed to have van­ished with­out a trace), no coup was greater than the cast­ing of Bill Mur­ray as Blume. It “res­onates back­ward through film his­to­ry,” says Zoller-Seitz, “because Max is a geeky teenage ver­sion of a cer­tain kind of 80s and 90s hero. Rush­more’s mas­ter­stroke is how it takes the piss out of those char­ac­ters: it implies that maybe the brava­do that those 80s and 90s char­ac­ters had was just a cov­er for fear and depres­sion.” Quite a depth of insight for a young film­mak­er to pos­sess — but then, many once under­es­ti­mat­ed the young Ander­son, whose sen­si­bil­i­ties get fur­ther exam­ined in the Screen­Prism video essay Rush­more: Por­trait of Wes Ander­son as a Young Man,” and they did so at their per­il.

“The charms of this movie are abun­dant,” says the New York Times’ A.O. Scott in his Crit­ic’s Pick video on Rush­more. “It has whim­si­cal pro­duc­tion design; clever and sharp writ­ing; ten­der, com­i­cal per­for­mances; a bril­liant use of pop music to under­score and slight­ly ironize the emo­tions being expressed on the screen.” Scott sin­gles out the strength of its visu­al com­po­si­tions, which Ander­son uses to, for exam­ple, “arrange peo­ple in the frame in such a way as to show every­thing about their rela­tion­ship — a kind of psy­cho­log­i­cal dimen­sion to the space that almost makes the dia­logue sec­ondary.” It all comes in ser­vice of telling two sto­ries in coun­ter­point, one “about an ado­les­cent com­ing to terms with his lim­i­ta­tions” and anoth­er about “an artist com­ing into pos­ses­sion of his pow­ers.”

Over the past twen­ty years, the crit­i­cal con­sen­sus on Rush­more has shift­ed almost uni­ver­sal­ly away from assess­ments like Kael’s and toward those like Scot­t’s. In the video above, a more mature Ander­son reflects on mak­ing the movie — and mak­ing it, in fact, at the very same high school he went to him­self. “The strongest asso­ci­a­tion for me is being back in class,” he says. “In the end, the thing that strikes me most force­ful­ly when I think back on it is just that I went home.” He also adds that “I don’t even know how we man­aged to get Rush­more made, or why,” giv­en the appar­ent fail­ure of Bot­tle Rock­et, a pic­ture on which he and Wil­son had labored for years. “Rush­more was more expen­sive, maybe even a bit stranger, and yet it seemed just to hap­pen. I think it was just lucky.” Espe­cial­ly lucky for us view­ers over the past two decades, as well as the gen­er­a­tions of Rush­more fans still to come.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Com­plete Col­lec­tion of Wes Ander­son Video Essays

What’s the Big Deal About Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel? Matt Zoller Seitz’s Video Essay Explains

A Glimpse Into How Wes Ander­son Cre­ative­ly Remixes/Recycles Scenes in His Dif­fer­ent Films

Wes Anderson’s Cin­e­mat­ic Debt to Stan­ley Kubrick Revealed in a Side-By-Side Com­par­i­son

Wes Ander­son Names 12 of His Favorite Art Films

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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