Well that was Bottle Rocket. I had been expecting to have a series of equally analytical posts after that, but they all kind of failed for various reasons. But I have a bunch of notes anyway so I’m going to make posts and try to commit to something for once. It felt right to combine my thoughts on Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums.
I think Rushmore and The Royal Tenanbaums are most enjoyable for their characters, precocious children and emotionally stunted adults. I also think that these two films are the most Wes Anderson that Wes Anderson can get without being Wes-Anderson-eyeroll. I combined the posts about these two because I think I have the least to say about them. Not only do I find them to be the least flawed, but I’ve also seen them the most. Perhaps the opposite should be true, but my familiarity with these films makes it hard to put on my Analysis Hat while watching them.
First off, just a throwback note. My DVD of Rushmore must be an antique—the FBI warning is still bright green and the special features include only the theatrical trailer and a list of “film recommendations.” Particularly funny is Good Will Hunting’s inclusion on this list of recommended films because Rushmore’s opening scene parodies Good Will Hunting. Putting in this DVD was like whenever I’ve worked as a cashier and gotten one of those really old bills.
I think Rushmore is a teen movie in a very specific, strange way. Or maybe it’s better to say a “young adult movie” because it certainly reminds me of The Graduate (and not just because Bill Murray is angsty and jumps in a pool), but Benjamin in The Graduate has graduated college so he’s not really a teenager. Rushmore also reminds me of Election, probably because of the overachieving main characters and the elements of social satire. In other words, while centering on a teenager at a prep school, Rushmore is not really in the same category as, say, Bring It On. Perhaps this is a successful setting for Anderson because many of his characters are emotionally stunted man-children, while Max Fischer is actually a child by legal definition. He is precocious, but he’s obviously not always supposed to be taken seriously, and some of the most poignant moments happen when he crosses into scenarios that are more adult than he can handle. For example, Max’s drunken outburst at dinner in front of Miss Cross’s date is incredibly sad and awkward and funny, and just becomes more so with every reiteration that he “wrote a hit play!”
I wondered perhaps if Wes Anderson’s man-children are best when they’re like Max Fischer; that is, too young to know better. But this hypothesis quickly fell through, since so much of the joy of Rushmore is based in the competition for Rosemary Cross’s affections. She even says, “You know, you and Herman Blume deserve each other. You’re both little children.” (Also, such a hypothesis wouldn’t explain my love for The Royal Tenenbaums.) Of course, what works in Rushmore’s favor is that it’s downright silly. The use of slow-motion is much rarer, and its tone is much more comedic, unlike, say, Margot Tenenbaum stepping off the bus to Nico. Rushmore Academy’s Scottish bully, Buchan, never ceases to make me laugh out loud (especially the line “Well you tell that stupid Mick he just made my list of things to do today.”)
I think, too, that in many ways Rushmore is closer to real life than some of the other films, which are located in Wes Anderson’s Mystical Land of Whimsy. There’s something about Rosemary Cross’s big fight with Max about sex, how declarations of love occur as frequently as mentions of “hand-jobs,” and Herman Blume’s sad Budweiser swimming trunks that makes the setting much closer to my reality than any of Anderson’s other films. I think I can see myself inhabiting the same world as Max Fischer much more easily. He’s just ridiculous enough that I feel I could know him, though I’d probably want to punch him in the face if I did. It probably helps that Max is forced to leave Rushm ore in the first place for public school (also, Max as cheerleader for the Grover Cleveland fighting owls is hysterical). But of course, other than Miss Cross’s aquarium in her classroom and the one that Max intends to build for her, Rushmore only seems to be magical in Max’s mind and by Max’s efforts. Other children at the school like Buchan, Dirk Calloway, and Herman Blume’s sons make it seem like Rushmore is a good school because rich people send their kids there. Of course, the academics must be good if the school can hire people like Rosemary Cross (who wrote a thesis on Latin American economic policy, knows Latin, and tutors Max in geometry) as a first grade teacher.
But where I feel like Rushmore could exist in the same world as me, that I might have met a less cinematic version of Max Fischer somewhere, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone in The Royal Tenenbaums. The latter sands off the rough edges of the former—it seems more stylistically controlled somehow. I think Wes Anderson is really kicking it into high gear here: Alec Baldwin narrates the sad story of the Tenenbaums and every detail has been suffered over: in Rushmore we see Max get off an nondescript bus, but in Royal we know Margot takes a specific bus, and moreover, it’s a bus that looks like it could be from another era.
I barely even took notes on The Royal Tenenbaums. I suppose that wasn’t very analytical of me. I watched it on my computer instead of the TV, so getting a window to type in that was the right size didn’t really work. Also, I had some personal stuff going on that day and it kind of just slipped my mind.
I will say that I think I might not love The Royal Tenenbaums as much as I love Rushmore anymore. I’m not really sure why, especially since as the graduate of a very rigorous private college who just spent five months losing my dignity at a job at Starbucks, I can relate to failed geniuses—either people who are smart and fail to get ahead or people who fail to be as smart as they want to be. But maybe I should follow Margot Tenenbaum’s lead and not use the word “genius” lightly.
As I say above, The Royal Tenenbaums doesn’t seem to take place in any world I can relate to in my daily life. It’s like (duh) a movie version of New York—the way that Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks could take place either in the 1950s or the 1980s. The Tenenbaums inhabit a New York that is once millennial and somewhere in the late 70s/early 80s.
I may be more forgiving to Tenenbaums than I am to, say any other Anderson film because I am a sucker for movies with narrators (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Little Children to name two that are among my favorites) and Alec Baldwin. So clearly by having Alec Baldwin as narrator, there is no way I could dislike this movie. Beyond having a narrator, this is the film where I think that Anderson grows into his own auteur-ship, which he seems to wield with an iron fist. This is demonstrated through overhead shots and other camera techniques that Matt Zoller Seitz is qualified to discuss. Seitz says this in the fourth part of the series:
Salinger and Anderson’s work displays a similar approach to character, a kind of ornamental realism that suggests Gustave Flaubert’s journalistic romanticism with its obsessive worrying over the rightness of each word and phrase, only updated and pushed to the brink of caricature, sometimes beyond. It’s rooted in the notion that character can be signified, revealed, perhaps even distilled through observable detail.
I don’t know why this doesn’t bug me as much in Tenenbaums as much as it does elsewhere in Anderson’s film canon. Maybe it’s because these sorts of “observable details” aren’t commented upon by other characters and our mostly for the audience to absorb—for example, the brothers bickering over their fathers possessions in The Darjeeling Limited seems obnoxiously on-the-nose. Maybe it’s because for all its “look how precise I am!” production design, these details are still scaled back enough to let the story breathe. Maybe it’s that it’s the prefect blend of dry wit and understated drama, or maybe it’s that Gene Hackman is so great in his role that he brings a spontaneity to the film that keeps it fresh. Maybe it’s just nostalgia. I don’t know. I mean, I can still quote all the lines.
After watching Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, the trailer for Moonrise Kingdom gives me hope that Wes Anderson will return to what he does best.
Soundtrack Pick for Rushmore: “Making Time” – The Creation
Soundtrack Pick for The Royal Tenenbaums: “Needle in the Hay” – Elliott Smith