There are moments in a cineaste's life you dream about. But just like dreams, they're elusive and unreliable, so counting on them is just a heartbreak waiting to happen. The thing you find yourself longing for, the thing you desire most is hoping to find that filmmaker who has got something special going on.
When I saw Rushmore the first time over ten years ago now, I did not really know much about its director Wes Anderson, beyond the fact that he was young (still only in his late twenties at the time), he was from Texas, and that he'd directed one film, Bottle Rocket (1994).
Bottle Rocket, a funny, silly, modest comedy, in no way prepared me for the genius of Rushmore, a movie that strikes me today, as it did then, as perfect, in the way a dream is perfect. I don't mean flawless. Rushmore has its fair share of awkwardness. Anderson had not yet mastered the rhythmic shifts where comedy elegantly segues from tragedy and back; and nor had he really worked out the ethereal, storybook, it-looks-like-reality-but-isn't visual style he perfected in his later movies like The Royal Tenenbaums.
But Rushmore was the moment that announced an American original, a comic talent as great as Woody Allen and as important, as Film Comment's Kent Jones wrote, as Preston Sturges. Anderson has turned into a filmmaker with a vision deep and rich and personal as say Martin Scorsese (who once put his admiration for Anderson in writing in the form of a fan letter, published in Vanity Fair!)
The plot is too dense, witty and clever to do justice to but essentially it involves a precocious teenager called Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) an obsessive hobbyist at a posh private school called Rushmore. He falls in love with a schoolteacher, Miss Cross (Olivia Williams) and befriends a millionaire, Blume (Bill Murray). His life falls apart when he gets kicked out of Rushmore for poor academic performance and he gets his heartbroken when Blume starts dating Miss Cross. Everybody dreams of seizing control of their life, but few of us have the courage (or the demons) to act on the impulse. Max Fischer does. The second half of the movie is about how Max puts his life back together, at first by seeking revenge and then by making amends for the chaos he creates. Max is a wonderful creation; in horn rims, and a truly daggy school blazer, he looks like a nerd and talks with the polished sheen of a TV newscaster (which has an un-nerving effect on most adults).
Equally brilliant is Murray's Blume, the role that help re-invent the actor's career. As childlike as Max is adult, Blume's face is a road map of loss; there's a life of missed opportunities in every glance. It no wonder he saw a friend in the unstoppable Max. “What's the secret Max?” he asks at one point. “I think you've just got to find something you love and then do it for the rest of your life,” Max reasons.
Those key notes and stylistic riffs we now think of Anderson's style are here in Rushmore; the brilliant use of pop and rock to make a joke or underscore a re-action; the exquisite attention to detail that gives us everything we need to understand a character and their unique take on the world.
I haven't even talked about the gags, but Anderson and his frequent collaborators, Owen Wilson (who co-wrote Bottle Rocket and Rushmore) and Noah Baumbach, aren't exactly kings of the one-liner. The humour is more about attitude and style. But then every time I think of Rushmore I crack up at the thought of Max and the school plays he stages – like 'Shakedown in Alphabet City', his version of Serpico or his spectacular version of Apocalypse Now (in which he uses real dynamite). Anderson once said he thought of Rushmore as a movie about characters whose ambitions were completely out of proportion to what they could realise. He would know – Anderson, like Max was fond of staging screen pop classic for his class mates; he once did a teen age version of Star Wars for his school drama class.
Today Anderson laughs at his teenage ambition but there's a sincerity there that's telling. What makes Rushmore great in its complete and total conviction in the power of imagination to challenge the bleak and tortured nightmares of the soul.