The Rushmore Academy sign…
…based on the many similar signs at the real Rushmore, St. John’s School.
Rushmore is one of my favorite films from writer-director Wes Anderson. It was released in 1998, but I probably didn’t see it until about 2004, when I was living in the Houston Heights neighborhood. I had stopped in at a local, old-fashioned barbershop for a haircut, and the barber struck up a conversation with me. He asked me if I had been there before, and when I indicated that I hadn’t, he told me a bit about the place, including how it had been used as a filming location for Rushmore. After I paid for my haircut (cash only, even more than ten years later) I headed straight down the street to the local Blockbuster Video (RIP) to rent the movie.
I had previously seen Anderson’s Bottle Rocket, though I don’t know that I even made the connection at the time. So Rushmore was my gateway into Anderson fandom, and now I consider The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou probably my favorite film period, and I love all his films, though I am a contrarian to popular opinion in that I feel The Royal Tenenbaums to be his least successful work. It wasn’t only the quaint barbershop that was used for filming, though. Rushmore was shot on location in many places throughout Houston. I decided this week to revisit three of them that I have become personally familiar with since seeing the film.
Most of the time, a work of art–especially a dramatic work–is at pains to draw you into the story. In addition to the suspension of disbelief with regard to the story, there is a sort of suspension of the senses with regard to the technique, in which we enter into the world of the work of art on its own terms. The observer is not usually intended to focus on the technical means of producing the artistic effect, or the means by which the story is told. The tools used to create the work are not part of the work itself. Most of the time, these are means to an end. The viewer can of course be conscious of them, but they are still tools and techniques, and not the subject of the work of art.
Sometimes, however, an artist will employ a self-conscious or even self-referential display of these tools or techniques, intentionally drawing attention to the means of making the work, in order to convey a meta-message, or to enrich the storytelling in surprising and paradoxical ways. The medium of film has perhaps some of the greatest potential for showing the viewer the methods of its own production. But it is important to remember that the filmmaker, when showing you the “behind the scenes” footage as part of the main product, has made a conscious choice of what to reveal. Moving what should be behind the scenes in front of the camera does not make the product less scripted, more authentic, more real. No one is under the illusion that “reality” TV shows show us anything that isn’t scripted up front and then shaped in the editing room to form whatever narrative is desired. But should we not be just as skeptical about documentary films? And on the other side of the coin, are fictional films less true because they are made-up stories?