“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 Blows, The 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.
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.