Rushmore Review

Genuine originality is so rare in the cinema - particularly in a major studio release featuring a bona fide star (Bill Murray in this case) - that the initial reaction to Rushmore may well be one of utter bafflement. Indeed, that was the great Pauline Kael's response when director/co-writer Wes Anderson persuaded her to come out of retirement to watch it, and it seems to be dividing audiences like nothing since the Coen Brothers' similarly eccentric Fargo. It's certainly like nothing I've seen since I discovered Hal Hartley's films over a decade ago, and even then there are striking differences.

So if you want to interpret that preamble as a warning, go right ahead: I absolutely loved Rushmore, but it was obvious well before the end that it wasn't for everyone - and that my own love for it might well be due to it striking numerous personal chords with me as for any of its more obvious virtues (yes, I too was a high-IQ academic underachiever with large but undefined ambitions, and although I'm not totally sure I'd be a soulmate of Rushmore's Max Fischer, I absolutely understand where he's coming from). I wasn't the least bit surprised to learn that it was heavily autobiographical - films like Rushmore simply don't get produced by the usual conveyor belt deadline-driven market-tested system.

The film is named after the school in which most of it is set, and the story revolves around 15-year-old Max Fischer, who to all intents and purposes looks like a model pupil: he dresses immaculately (despite coming from a poorer background than many of his peers), he's active in just about every extra-curricular club and team going, he's obviously as bright if not brighter than many of his teachers…

…but the trouble is, as his headmaster ruefully acknowledges, he's a hopeless student. Encouraged to give his life more focus - he's a bundle of energy, but rarely stays with the same project for long - he ends up befriending former Rushmore student Herman Blume (Bill Murray), a fiftysomething self-made millionaire who's strongly disillusioned with what his life has become.

There's a neat inversion of a scene in The Graduate (to which Rushmore bears at least a passing resemblance) where it's the older man who submerges himself in the swimming pool to block out the outside world, and the foetal position that he assumes foreshadows his behaviour later on, when he becomes Max's rival for the affections of Miss Cross (Olivia Williams), a teacher who still carries a torch for her dead husband, and Max and Blume end up behaving increasingly childishly towards one another as they fail to keep their emotions (Max's emerging, Blume's long-repressed) in check.

What I love about this film is that it's deceptively light and airy on the surface, but considerably darker and more intricate underneath. Anderson is confident enough to follow sequences bordering on slapstick with ones that reveal genuine emotional pain, and he's deft enough to be able to show his characters' misguidedness without ever seeming cynical or nasty. I think that's because for all the mistakes they make, Anderson shows that they're all after something worthwhile: they want to justify their existence in some way, whether it's by staging a hilariously over-elaborate Vietnam epic on stage or building an aquarium as a love offering, and this wide-eyed optimism rarely flags.

Rushmore was shot in what initially looked like an incongruous 2.35:1 aspect ratio - not the shape you'd immediately associate with a small, intimate drama like this. But Anderson uses the format brilliantly, with his characters constantly either slap bang in the middle of the frame, or right out at the far edge, and there are far more medium and long shots than close-ups, which is highly unusual for a comedy. He's also very fond of strikingly symmetrical compositions of a kind I haven't seen much of outside Peter Greenaway's work (though Rushmore is infinitely less self-conscious). The images look deceptively easy to crop to 4:3 - it's rare that crucial action is occupying more than half the frame, and usually it's not even that - but I suspect this would lose a lot of the film's visual quirkiness.

The soundtrack is a joy throughout - taking full advantage of a bigger budget this time round, Anderson crams it with what he admits are many of his favourite songs, including tracks by the Kinks, the Who, Cat Stevens, Donovan, John Lennon and the Rolling Stones, all linked by a rather catchy harpsichord-style main theme by Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo - and the songs are used as much to comment on the action as to underscore it: Martin Scorsese tries something similar in his films, and there's no higher praise than that.

And I similarly can't fault the cast - Bill Murray has the role of a lifetime, and gives it his considerable all, while the less familiar players are perfectly in tune with the film's off-kilter sensibility - no small achievement when many of them are children or teenagers and quite a few were acting professionally for the first time (including, unbelievably, lead actor Jason Schwartzman, who's rarely off the screen!).

I doubt the above has given you much of an idea of what to expect, for which I apologise: there's no easy way of conveying this film's sheer whacked-out originality on paper, and it's unlikely too many readers of this will have seen Anderson's debut Bottle Rocket, since it was never distributed in the UK.

But if you're in the mood for something different, do give this a try - it's obvious from the wildly diverse reactions posted on the Internet Movie Database that Rushmore, like Fargo before it, is a real love-it-or-hate-it experience, though I personally think it's as close to a genuine American classic as anyone's come up with in recent years. And the even better news is that Criterion have done it full justice thanks to a marvellous DVD package.

I simply could not fault this disc on a technical level: it's anamorphic, razor-sharp (particularly striking given the film's deep-focus look), the colours are gorgeous, there's plenty of fine detail even in the darkest shadows, it's framed at the correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and if there are any visual defects (either in terms of print damage or artefacting), I failed to spot them on two viewings - we're talking sheer DVD bliss from beginning to end. Frankly, the only way you're going to improve on this is if you see a flawless 35mm print on the big screen - and since the transfer was personally supervised and approved by director Wes Anderson, I think you can safely assume that you're getting what he wanted.

The soundtrack is similarly superb - a subtle, understated 5.1 mix that nonetheless pushes all the right surround sound buttons, and even gives the subwoofer a workout with the explosions at the climax. As with the picture, I've got very little to say - it's an exact duplicate of what you'd have heard in the cinema, and it similarly comes with Wes Anderson's seal of approval, which is good enough for me. There are 24 chapter stops.

When Rushmore came out on DVD in both Region 1 and 2, it was the victim of Buena Vista's notorious stinginess on the extras side of things. To say that Criterion have swung the pendulum back the other way is the understatement of the year - this has a staggering number of extras, including enough supplementary footage to add up to more than the main feature. Even more gratifyingly - though typically for this label - just about everything is genuinely worth having: probably because Criterion have to buy the rights rather than just pull extras off the shelf, they tend to make a bit more effort in this department than most major studio labels.

Before delving into the extras, praise is due to the menus, which are all based around a school theme: notices pinned to boards, sketches in notebooks, slide and film projectors, and so on. Due to the sheer quantity of extras, they're divided up into sub-headings such as 'Rushmore AV Club' (most of the promotional/interview footage), 'Max Fischer Players Present' (audition footage etc.) and 'Archiva Graphica' (stills gallery), along with Criterion's trademark colour bars (though these are looking a bit long in the tooth when set against the increasingly common THX Optimode test signals).

Let's start with the 'Rushmore AV Club', which features documentaries, storyboards, interviews and promotional materials. 'The Making of Rushmore' is a fairly standard electronic press kit featuring interviews with all the key players (plus co-writer Owen Wilson, who did indeed turn out to be the Shanghai Noon co-star) - though plus points are that it was made by the director's brother Eric, so there are a few more quirky personal touches than you'd get with the usual studio PR job. It also runs nearly seventeen minutes, considerably longer than average.

The Charlie Rose Show interview with Bill Murray and Wes Anderson initially looks as though it's going to be one of those superficial American talk shows in which the film is glossed over in just five minutes. Actually it runs only just under an hour, and is an impressively heavyweight grilling of Bill Murray and Wes Anderson that goes into considerable depth, using clips from the film to illustrate key points.

Two sections feature storyboards: the film to storyboard comparison parallels the opening maths lesson scene as shot with Wes Anderson's quirky storyboards (which reveal that his idiosyncratic approach to Cinemascope composition was present and correct well before shooting started). You can also see these storyboards without the film clips, plus sets of storyboards for the country club scene, the yearbook montage, the Vietnam play and the "you are forgiven" scene. Full marks for presentation here, incidentally - the storyboards are displayed in front of a school blackboard riddled with chalk dust. Indexing is the usual back-and-forth kind, but each section has its own separate selection, so it's not as painful as these things can sometimes be.

Finally in this section, there's the theatrical trailer - but if you're watching these extras in sequence you'll have seen it already, as it's also featured in the Charlie Rose interview (the quality here, though, is considerably higher - it's anamorphic, for starters).

The other hefty section is the 'Max Fischer Players' one, which kicks off with the original audition footage for all the lead actors (Bill Murray aside - I assume he didn't need to audition!), both in straight-to-camera pieces and staged scenes from the film with Wes Anderson filling in the other roles. Unsurprisingly, these were shot on a camcorder (and a rather wobbly one at times) and the technical quality is pretty lousy, but I doubt they had a DVD release in mind when they were shot - and they're fascinating for the way they reveal how the actors' interpretations developed and deepened when they shot the main feature.

'The Grover Cleveland Society for the Performing Arts' and 'Rushmore Academy Productions' sections are somewhat peculiar memorabilia collections - in that they contain posters, stills, press cuttings and even ticket stubs for the nonexistent plays (Heaven & Hell and Serpico) featured in the film.

The best part of this section, though, comes at the end, when the Max Fischer Players perform The Truman Show, Armageddon and Out of Sight at the 1999 MTV Movie Awards, complete with a scene-setting introduction by Max himself. These are pretty much what you'd expect if you've seen the main feature - brief stage dramatisations of scenes from the above films with the production values of a school play (though, to be fair, we're talking pretty good school plays), and I particularly liked the regular cuts "backstage" to give away how the special effects were created (as though you couldn't have worked it out from looking at them head-on!).

The 'Archiva Graphica' isn't so much a stills gallery as a collection of memorabilia from the film - paintings, poster designs (including an unused poster by Guy Peellaert, who designed album covers for the Rolling Stones and David Bowie), handwritten drafts of Max's speeches, and so on. A nice touch is that each subsequent piece of material appears superimposed over the previous one, so it looks as though you're forming your own pile of memories from the film.

And it wouldn't be a Criterion special edition without a commentary - and, sure enough, Wes Anderson, co-writer Owen Wilson and lead actor Jason Schwartzman are on hand to talk us through it. I loved the personality contrast: Anderson as neat and precise as his compositions and storyboards would suggest, Schwartzman bearing a strong resemblance to the geeky Max Fischer, and Wilson as laid-back as the character he played in Shanghai Noon - and it makes for an enormously entertaining track that reveals the heavily autobiographical basis for the film, as well as numerous anecdotes about its production (Brian Cox was cast as the headmaster precisely because he'd once played Hannibal Lecter, and Schwartzman had to undergo an extremely painful wax treatment because Anderson decided Max needed an entirely hairless body, only to find that the only actual shot of said body was a long shot - Schwartzman says he didn't mind, though: "it was method waxing").

The comments don't overlap, so I suspect they were recorded and edited separately - but the advantage of this approach is that it ensures a continuous flow of information with none of the usual pauses, hesitations and rambling trivia. Like the rest of the disc, it's pretty much exemplary - and comes with its own 24-chapter index.

And I shouldn't forget the non-electronic parts of the package - a printed essay by Dave Kehr and a lovely fold-out "map" (slightly bigger than A3 size) of the world of Max Fischer, sketched in pastels by Eric Anderson. It's pretty incomprehensible if you haven't seen the film, but an absolute delight once you have: it's crammed with subtle, memory-jogging touches.

All in all, this is a magnificent DVD, and one of the best all-round single-disc packages I've ever come across - the transfer is peerless and for once the extras score full marks for both quantity and quality. Even the admittedly hefty price tag is justified, because if you're not interested in the extras there's a bare-bones alternative from Buena Vista (which is also out on R2 and widely available for rent if you're not yet sure whether Rushmore is for you).

As a footnote, I should add that as soon as the end credits started I went online, and by the time they'd finished I'd placed an order for the DVD of Bottle Rocket, Anderson and Wilson's debut feature - of which more anon.

9 out of 10
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