Roger Ebert passed away last week. Other, more qualified people have written more about what he meant to the world of film criticism and cinema at large, so I’ll only say that Ebert was so big, I had grown to take him for granted, even when I knew his health was rapidly deteriorating, and had long since accepted that his days were numbered. He was such a towering, giant of his time and place that he faded into the background in his greatness, taken for granted as something we would always have around. As I said on the day of his death, he was the last of the legends, and we are worse for having lost him.
Looking back through his old reviews, the thing that struck me the most was Ebert’s love of film that shone through in his glowing praise of films he loved, films he would often return to after the fact, because the truth we often forget is this: great art needs to be written about, not just so you can make a decision as to whether or not you should go drop twelve dollars on a theater ticket, but so the testament to your love of the work can stand for time immemorial, for others to find long after you’re gone, and even long after the work in question has slipped from the public spotlight.
That said, I’ve been inspired by Ebert’s passing to write some essays about some films that are very important to me. Some, in fact, most, are quite mainstream. You’ve probably seen them. A few you might not have seen. Others you probably saw a few times and then never thought of them again. Whatever the case, I hope you enjoy reading my thoughts, because ever since I learned that there was a job that consisted of talking, gushing, and arguing about the movies, I wanted nothing more than to be a part of that.
Without further ado:
Directed by Wes Anderson
Written by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson
Wes Anderson is a filmmaker who has made a career out of being irreverent. He has an eye for anachronism, familial relationships, a love and nostalgia for things of great beauty and craftsmanship. Sadly, as of late he’s begun to slip into a bit of a pattern, and, dare I say it, bought into the myth of his own greatness. Anderson’s first film, Bottle Rocket is serviceable, if not a little unmemorable. The Royal Tenenbaums is a hilarious and cozy epic, the cinematic version of a dysfunctional Norman Rockwall painting. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which I originally hated, has grown on me with time, though it remains the first Anderson film I walked out of thinking the luster had come off the pearl. Darjeeling Limited, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and last years reprehensibly boring and relentlessly precocious Moonrise Kingdom are all one-and-done C-minus attempts to recapture the original flavor of the Anderson/Wilson team-up.
For me, Rushmore, Anderson’s second feature, remains the standard, a film that gave me the Anderson-high I’ve been chasing ever since walking out of the theater. It’s a story of an ill-fated love triangle, or at least, that’s what its protagonist, Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman, at his best), would call it. More accurately, it’s a timeless story about the angst and perceived Sisyphean nature of adolescence: a long and winding road to acceptance of self, made up of equal parts whip-smart humor and semi-tragic beauty.
The story concerns Max Fischer, a teenager who, on paper, seems like he should be breezing through his work at Rushmore Academy. As it stands, Max is a little too ambitious for his own good, belonging to dozens of esoteric clubs and organizations, many of which he has founded himself. As a result, he’s in danger of being expelled. Within the first few minutes, he meets Herman Blume (Bill Murray), a self-made millionaire who gives a rather unorthodox speech at a Rushmore chapel service and inspires Max to strike up a rather unconventional friendship. Simultaneously, a young teacher, Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), catches Max’s eye, and a second student/adult relationship begins, though this one isn’t reciprocated in quite the way Max would hope. As the film progresses, all three people find that their relationships are beginning to crumble, with sometimes explosive results.
This film was Schwartzman’s first thrust into the limelight, and since then he’s made a career out of trying to find similar roles, often as an Anderson regular, but he’s never quite re-captured the oblivious man-boy charm of Max Fischer, a character so completely earnest in his ridiculously delusional aims it truly breaks your heart. Olivia Williams is sweet and understated as the object of both Max and Herman’s affections, playing Rosemary cross with a sad optimism that allows her to remain sympathetic to audiences even as she breaks our (anti)heroes’ hearts. However, it’s Bill Murray who steals the show, resurrecting his career as the flagging business titan Blume, a man so lost in depression and faded glory that he remains stoic in the face of losing everything.
This is, ultimately, the theme of Rushmore, summed up neatly in a play that unfolds near the conclusion of the film (“Sic transit Gloria..Glory fades.”) Each character is involved in their own version of moving on, and accepting and making the best of how the cards have fallen. In many ways, the story belongs more to Herman and Rosemary, who, through their trials and dealings with Max, a teenager in the thick of it, recall the lessons of fading innocence and apply them to their own lives. For Max, the lesson to be learned is recognizing that disappointment and change is a part of adulthood, and it’s imparted through his expulsion from Rushmore and his gradual acceptance that a teacher in her late twenties isn’t going to start dating a fifteen-year-old student anytime soon. Overall, Max’s journey is the transition from the cushy comforts of the plush and expensive Rushmore Academy into the harsh and unforgiving world of public school, friends who betray friends, and “true” love spurned.