This essay explores Wes Anderson as an auteur director and how race and class are dealt with in his work. The narrative and unique hybrid genre of Rushmore will also be discussed.
Wes Anderson is an auteur as he has creative authority over his projects and is a hyphenate (he directs and writes all of his films). Additionally, he is constant in his visual approach. Anderson’s second movie, Rushmore, has his signature symmetrical and wide angle shots throughout. One of his distinctive slow motion shots happen when the protagonist, Max, comes on stage after his play ‘Serpico’ and there is another at the end of the film. Orgeron points out that “Anderson slows the images down as the film draws to its conclusion” to elongate the moment that we see Max’s “newly discovered extended family” (2007, p. 49).
Anderson is a lover nostalgic aesthetics, making his costumes, props and settings reminiscent of bygone eras. For example, Max’s Beret in Rushmore and Suzy’s records in Moonrise Kingdom. This could be because of the inspiration he takes from French New Wave films. Thomas (2012, p. 105) suggests “these are designed to evoke the cultural memories of Generation X spectators”.
The story of Anderson’s films are often centred around dysfunctional, white, middle or upper class families. Though Rushmore is not about a middle class family, it is about a boy from a working class background trying to find a family and fit into the middle/ upper class he is surrounded with. This storyline somewhat challenges class status. Dean-Ruzicka (2013, p. 30) understands that “Max lies to make sure it seems as though he comes from the right class to fit in at Rushmore, trying to keep up his position and whiteness.” Instead of admitting his father is a barber, he pretends he is as wealthy and privileged as “the rich boys” (Murray, B., Rushmore, 1998).
Many of the recurring themes and plot points in Anderson’s films are inspired by his own life, partly explaining his focus on white families. His parents got divorced when he was young, he misbehaved in school, he attended private school (part of Rushmore was actually shot at the school Anderson attended), and was known at school for his play productions.
Rushmore’s genre, and Anderson’s entire body of work has been much debated. Broadly speaking, they are comedy-dramas, but perhaps they can be catagorised further. Rushmore is considered a romance, coming-of-age and revenge story, but many claim that Anderson films should be in their own genre, because “the only movies Wes Anderson films look like are other Wes Anderson films” (Browning, 2011, p. ix).
MacDowell regards Rushmore as a ‘quirky’ film due to its comedy and visual style, along with its “ironic detachment”. He says that ‘quirky’ is comparable to film noir as it is viewed “not as a genre but rather as something closer to a sensibility, a particular way of looking at the world” (2012, p. 6-7).
Another word used to describe Anderson’s films is “melancomic” (Thomas, D. J., 2012, p. 98). This is a new term that comes from the melancholic mood and Anderson’s comedic style, which is called deadpan, “see: […] Herbert in Rushmore announcing coolly, ‘Mmm, I’m a little bit lonely these days’, while puffing on two cigarettes” (MacDowell, 2012, p. 8). This dry humour dates back to 1920s but is now often used in popular sitcoms like The Office.
The term “indiewood” has been associated with Anderson, too. King describes this genre as an area in which Hollywood and independent films overlap and argues that it has become a distinctive region of contemporary American film (King, G., 2009, p. 1). It is clear to see that this genre has evolved from the rise in popularity of indie films in the 1990s/ 2000s. The indie genre embodies individualism and authenticity, though it is acknowledged that these ideologies become hollow when the genre is combined with Hollywood. Adorno claims that mainstream films are “pre-digested” “baby-food” that boast of their likeness to other successful films rather than conceal it. Because of this, “all mass culture is fundamentally adaptation” (Adorno, 2001, p. 67). Meaning, a blockbuster filmmaker’s ideal is popularity and straightforward viewing; conflicting the ideal of an indie filmmaker.
Rushmore cannot easily be applied to narrative theories, though it can be attempted. Some of Propp’s character functions (1928/ 1968, p. 3-91) directly relate to characters in Rushmore, for instance, Max is the hero, despite him being an unlikable protagonist, much of the film is from his perspective. Cross is the princess as Max and Blume are in competition for her affections. Dirk is undoubtedly the helper as he assists Max consistently. The donor could be Margret as she gives Max the incentive to return to school and reconcile with Blume and Cross. Dr. Guggenheim, can be seen as the dispatcher because he puts Max on academic probation, which starts the storyline. The villain in Rushmore is less clear, some might say it is Blume as him and Max are in competition for Cross’s affections, however, they are not rivals at the beginning or the end.
There are two evident binary opposites, theorised by Levi-Strauss (1955, p. 428-444), in Rushmore. Youth is an apparent theme, and this contrasted against the old. For example, Max vs. Blume or Max vs. Dr. Guggenheim. Rushmore and Grover Cleveland High (the public school Max moves to after he is expelled) oppose each other because of the class and race of the students. The public school has students of varying ethnicities, but this simply emphasises the white privilege of the primary characters by marginalising the characters of other ethnicities. Rushmore underlines the advantage that comes with whiteness by showing all white students and faculty in the chapel scene at this elite school.
As well as being the hero, Max is also the narrating agent and the character-focaliser. He does not literally narrate, nevertheless he has most of the screen time and we see his classroom fantasy. There are also some point-of-view shots, for example, we look down at the yearbook and see Max’s hands as if they are our own.
Anderson has proved himself as an esteemed auteur director through his unmistakable visual approach and autobiographical subject matter. Yet, it is evident that he must become more conscious of how he is presenting race and white privilege.
- Adorno, T. W. (2001). Culture Industry. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge.
- Anderson, W. (Director). (1998). Rushmore [Motion Picture]. USA: American Empirical Pictures/ Touchstone Pictures.
- Browning, M. (2011). Wes Anderson: Why His Movies Matter. London: Praeger.
- Dean-Ruzicka, R. (2013). Themes of privilege and whiteness in the films of Wes Anderson. Quarterly Review Of Film And Video, 30 (1), 25-40.
- King, G. (2009). Indiewood, USA : where Hollywood meets independent cinema. London: I.B. Tauris.
- Levi-Strauss, C. (1955). The Structural Study of Myth. The Journal of American Folklore, 68 (270), 428-444.
- MacDowell, J. (2012). Wes Anderson, Tone and the Quirky Sensibility. New Review Of Film & Telelvision Studies, 10 (1), 6-27.
- Orgeron, D. (2007). La Camera-Crayola: Authorship Comes of Age in the Cinema of Wes Anderson. Cinema Journal, 46 (2), 40-65.
- Propp, V. (1968). Morphology of the Folktale (Wagner, L. A., Trans.). Austin: University of Texas Press. (Original work published 1928).
- Thomas, D. J. (2012). Framing the ‘melancomic’: character, aesthetics and affect in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. New Review Of Film & Television Studies, 10 (1), 97-117.