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Wes Anderson’s Rushmore was a dark, daring turning point in his aesthetic

20 years on from his sophomore film about a precocious man-child, the moments and techniques that define the iconic filmmaker are quietly evident

Pastel hues, perfectly balanced mid-shots, carefully chosen set pieces and intricately detailed costumes – these are a few of the things that come to mind when we think of Wes Anderson. Now, his aesthetic is so easy to pinpoint there’s an entire Instagram account with almost half a million followers dedicated to real-world places that look like they’re straight out of his world. But while the filmmaker’s universe is so completely and aesthetically him, it wasn’t always the case. Anderson had to perfect his craft; the Andersonisms that would become signposts for a piece of his work from the first titlecard on the screen. Rushmore, a film about a failing student (Jason Schwartzman) obsessed with extra-curricular activities, who befriends an industrialist and becomes infatuated with his teacher, turns 20 this year. The film, Anderson’s second ever, is arguably a turning point in Anderson’s filmmaking; at least aesthetically, it sees him coming into his own and finding the conventions that would come to be recognised as his hallmarks.

Before Rushmore there was Wes Anderson’s first full-length film, Bottle Rocket (1996), where we do see some of those fateful Andersonisms: titles, precise shots, close-ups. However, these seem like experiments: he’s dipping his toe in things that he later wouldn’t dare to stray from. He also works with people who would become frequent players in his films: Luke and Owen Wilson. Nevertheless, Bottle Rocket, unlike later films like Grand Budapest Hotel, could perhaps be attributed to anyone else.

On the other hand, The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson’s third film in 2001, feels quintessentially Wes Anderson from the second the titles begin. It’s so meticulously shot and perfectly spaced that you could draw a line down the middle of the screen and everything would sit perfectly either side of it; its colours are crisp, bright, and carefully chosen within specific colour palettes for the character or scene, whether in Margot’s bathroom or the yellow tent. Nothing in a scene is accidental; narrative conventions are broken for aesthetic purposes, and this attention to detail along with the narration, interscene titles, and perfectly deadpan delivery aesthetically places The Royal Tenenbaums among later works like The Grand Budapest Hotel or Moonrise Kingdom.

Rushmore, however, sits snugly between two eras of Wes Anderson; Bottle Rocket as he finds his feet, and the rest of his career when his aesthetics are so immediately recognisable that they’re either beloved or irritating. Rushmore does open with an element of artificiality – literally, with theatre curtains that reveal a sign for both the name of the school and the name of the film. But from there, it becomes less Brechtian – there are words on the screen to indicate Max’s extracurricular classes and locations occasionally, but they’re not as frequent or intrusive as in later films. And while the shots are still precise, there’s room for some humanity and mess; characters don’t sit dead centre of the screen, but somewhere that they naturally might in real life.

Later Anderson films are notable for their specific, bright colour palettes and dominant hues, completely eschewing subtle shades. The Life Aquatic is blue and yellow, The Grand Budapest Hotel pink and pastel, The Darjeeling Limited is primarily yellow. There are colours that you can easily associate with Rushmore, but they can easily feel as incidental as curated, as a part of the setting as a part of Anderson’s vision. The colours are navy, deep reds, burnt oranges; collegiate and autumnal without being exaggerated – it’s simply school in the autumn. Rushmore’s colours – like the leaves on the ground – are present, but they aren’t oppressive; they don’t feel as if they are the narrative.

A trademark of Wes Anderson’s, and something that’s evident from as early as Bottle Rocket, is his actors’ deadpan, disaffected delivery. While the emotional distance from often serious subject matter makes his films darkly funny, it can also be abrasive, and gives his films the reputation for being flat and emotionless. In a film like The Grand Budapest Hotel, which has been engineered down to every last detail in the actors’ faces, this convention has been played out beyond the point of parody, making it difficult to relate to the characters. This is evident to some extent in The Royal Tenenbaums, but not in Rushmore; Anderson’s conventions, both aesthetically and in terms of the dialogue, aren’t yet so precise that they could seem lifeless.

A key theme in a lot of Wes Anderson’s film is childhood, and men who are stunted in their own adolescence – this all starts with Rushmore. Both in Max, who at 15 is keen to never leave school, and Herman, who can’t quite grow up and struggles with a midlife crisis. Anderson places children and adults on an even playing field, respecting them equally – in his world, both can be main characters and friends. Max and Herman aren’t close in age and both are incapable of making appropriate friends, stunted in their own ways. They aren’t in genuine competition for Miss Cross’s affections (and couldn’t be legally) but Herman treats him as an equal, with respect – he apologises for dating her at all. This children-as-adults – or at least as main characters with the narrative responsibility of adults – trope starts in Rushmore and is present throughout his oeuvre, as in Moonrise Kingdom, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Everyone is equal; everyone suffers equally.

“Rushmore, sits snugly between two eras of Anderson: Bottle Rocket as he finds his feet, and the rest of his career when his aesthetics are so immediately recognisable that they’re either beloved or irritating”

Rushmore’s un-Anderson-esque ability to be messy extends to the dialogue; though Bill Murray delivers his trademark deadpan lines, for the most part, the actors are emotive. The subject matter is realistic as the characters deal with the death of loved ones, growing up, and ultimately – which is arguably the point of Rushmore – learning to forgive one another and understand that we are all as stunted, messy, and immature as one another whether we’re 15 or pushing 50. Rushmore is as aesthetically pleasing as any other Wes Anderson film, but it’s arguably one of his most human films, one that is as much if not more about the feelings and depths of the people in it as it is about the set pieces. The Grand Budapest Hotel or The Royal Tenenbaums can at times feel like dollhouses full of 2D cutouts. Rushmore is still beautiful to look at, and its characters still do recount serious emotions and events in an affected manner that removes from the experience at times, it isn’t so specifically Anderson that it’s exclusionary for anyone not in on the joke.

Wes Anderson is equally revered and lambasted for his most recognisable techniques: his self-aware precision, crisp colour palettes, mirror-like shots, aching nostalgia, and an ironic detachment from the subject matter. But while those conventions are quietly evident in Rushmore, it’s not completely aesthetically dissimilar from other films of the late 90s. It represents a turning point in his work; a time when he was just starting to learn exactly what it is that makes him Wes Anderson. In the last 20 years the filmmaker has crafted worlds and communities underwater, in India, a fictional Eastern European country, New England, a dog-colony island. Rushmore is the last film of his that feels even a little bit gritty and uncurated, as if it could have actually happened – it’s of our world, and that could take away from its charm, but in Wes Anderson’s filmography, it’s what makes it special.