You can keep your cutie-pie Shakespeare in Love. The season’s wittiest, most original, and best-written portrait of the artist as a young (very young) man is surely Wes Anderson’s Rushmore— the sleeper of the last New York Film Festival, as well as a distinctively dry, droll, and ludicrous romance with an impressively high “huh?” factor.
Anderson, who with his fellow Texan writing-partner Owen Wilson, scored a mild triumph in their 1996 Bottle Rocket— a slacker fantasy about a trio of fanciful slackers— has an evident fondness for skewed genre expectations and obsessive personalities. Rushmore, which is an even less classifiable tall tale than its predecessor, celebrates a character whom a good percentage of the audience would probably love to beat up— a ferocious 15-year-old go-getter named Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman).
“Horrid little Max” (per Janet Maslin) is a scholarship student at the Rushmore Academy. Marching double-time to the different drum of his active fantasy life, Max is neither a successful preppie nor a wacky slacker. Indeed, it is not at all easy to characterize this well-groomed, pasty-faced, bizarrely self-assured four-eyes in the monogrammed blazer and red tam-o’-shanter. The terms nerd and dweeb are utterly inadequate to describe Max’s precocious self-importance. He might be a parody of the character Michael J. Fox played in the Reagan-era sitcom Family Ties were his sense of getting ahead not so individualized. If Max is, as the apoplectic Rushmore headmaster explains, “one of the worst students we’ve got,” it is because he is too busy with his extracurricular activities (bee-keeping, serving as an alternate on the wrestling team, saving Latin, producing theatrical pageants, etc.) to pass any of his courses.
Anderson’s sophomore project— filmed on location at his own alma mater, where by his own account he too was a “lousy” student with grandiose Ivy League dreams— is the story of Max’s sophomore year. It begins, none too promisingly, with the hero placed on “sudden-death” probation. Max soon befriends a depressed millionaire, Herman Blume (Bill Murray), whose jock twin sons have perhaps half a brain between them, and develops a formidable crush on a lovely first-grade teacher, Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams). It is characteristic of Max’s machinations that he would inveigle Blume to create a school aquarium in Rosemary’s honor.
Even before this stunt, which involves breaking ground on the Rushmore baseball field, gets Max expelled, the film’s mood has come gently unmoored. As the befuddled Mr. Blume, a man in a permanent state of acute psychological discomfort, begins to court Ms. Cross, a woman suffering her own confusion and misery, Max discovers their relationship and freaks out— even though this improbable triangle is an Oedipal fantasy that he himself has masterminded (albeit behind his own back).
What makes Max run? Like the movie, he has the effect of baffling people with his schemes. In some respects, Rushmore recalls the baroque high-school shenanigans of Lord Love a Duck and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off— both movies about adolescent “genius.” But Max really is some sort of theatrical wizard who, no less than Will Shakespeare, has a taste for popular myth and historical pageantry— his plays are bizarre reworkings of ’70s movies like All the President’s Men, Serpico, and Apocalypse Now (directed by Jason Schwartzman’s real-life uncle).
Nearly as precocious as Max, Anderson, who grew up writing plays and making Super-8 movies starring himself as Indiana Jones, is a master of soft-shoe comedy. The ensuing series of betrayals and acts of vengeance are played out, largely deadpan, through a series of carefully framed sight gags and judicious wide-screen close-ups that have the effect of children’s book pop-ups. If the tinkly incidental music suggests Restoration comedy, the musical set pieces are almost all late-’60s Brit pop (not just Chad and Jeremy but “Oh Yoko”). The sensibility is in no way derivative, although the friendly score and engagingly quirky performances suggest the warm, puppy-dog humanism of a young Jonathan Demme.
Bill Murray has been widely praised for his superb shambling walk-through, but Anderson also gets an unexpectedly sweet performance from the often too-wired Seymour Cassell as Max’s father. (Although the senior Fischer is a barber, his son routinely upgrades his profession to brain surgeon.) There are also vivid turns from a trio of young performers— Sara Tanaka as Max’s female counterpart, Mason Gamble as his squeaky-voiced “chapel partner,” and Stephen McCole as his Scottish nemesis. But Rushmore is most dependent on Jason Schwartzman’s portrayal of the stubborn, obnoxious, pompous, theatrical, ingenious, horny, and persistent Max.
Cheerfully stylized, Rushmore pretends to be a kid’s film and perhaps it is— at least insofar as the kid in question grew up to make the movie. The story of Max’s education is a charming tale of loss and obsession and, as the title suggests, some sort of monument. The motto it recalls is, “The child is father to the man.”
HOW MUCH TIME does it take to get a painting? Does one devote 10 seconds to a Jackson Pollock canvas? Two minutes? An hour? Decades? It’s a question that naturally arises in the case of Stan Brakhage, a film artist whose work is often believed to be unnaturally demanding.
Brakhage’s new series of scratch-and-stain films, known as ( . . . ) or ellipses, are, among other things, a visual analogue to Abstract Expressionism. The onrushing imagery and the spatial conundrums it creates evoke not only Pollock but also the work of Franz Kline, Willem De Kooning, and even Mark Rothko— that is Pollock et al., at 24 frames per second. Eschewing the camera, Brakhage scrapes away the film emulsion to create a thicket (or sometimes a spider’s web) of white lines and rich, chemical colors. Some segments of the original footage appear to have been printed on negative stock or perhaps solarized— so that the blue and pink lines are inscribed on a white field. In any case, ( . . . ) is a cosmos. Rich without being ingratiating, the effect is one of rhythmic conflagration.
A second 20-minute reel is more staccato— mad chicken-scratch calligraphy fluttering out of a yellow void, sketchy lightning bolts or fireworks interrupted by a sudden field of turquoise. The third and shortest section reintroduces camera-derived imagery and, minimal as it may be (sunlight shimmering on water, seagull wheeling in the sky), it’s still a shock to see “something.” Brakhage continues to play with surfaces, layering the image with scratch bursts and soft-focus superimpositions; sentiment arrives with representation.
For the most part, though, ( . . . ) is predicated on a strategy Brakhage introduced as long ago as his cut-and-paste collage Mothlight (1962). The camera may be abandoned, but the projector-technology remains. Like the “impossible” presentations of his peer Ken Jacobs, Brakhage is reveling in the considerable power of the individual frame as it collides with other disparate frames. The simple 16mm projector that shows ( . . . ) is a hallucination machine, producing flickers and afterimages where none objectively exist.