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They were individuals with distinct styles, a fondness for pop culture, and new ideas about the relationship between art and audience. Critic Armond White dubbed them the ‘American Eccentrics’ distinguishing them from other filmmakers saying they are “ drawn to exploring American experience and pop tradition in order to understand their place in the world” (2007). Although their styles and subjects differed, each of their films is a variation on the basic theme of identity. The overriding concern is a desire for a personal connection that is often thwarted by barriers of class and culture.
This sense of identity and these connections do not come easily to the characters and sometimes do not come at all. Many of the ways in which each of these themes are presented are through textbook postmodernism. Thus, the audience brings in a set expectation of style, genre, and meaning. These movies, therefore, spend little time explaining to readers the obvious and attempt, rather, to reach beyond and form a transcendent connection between the art and the audience. In order to accomplish this these filmmakers create certain aesthetics to reinforce the theme of identity. This paper will study the aesthetics of two films, Mistress America (2015) and Rushmore (1998), by “American Eccentrics” Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson respectively. Both of these filmmakers grew up during the 1970s and 1980s in an age where there was a “growing emphasis on individual achievement and self-realization…[which] changed expectations of what success meant”. There was a greater importance to understand what you were feeling and a growing consciousness over their meanings (2007). These influences are woven into both Rushmore and Mistress America.
How it works
The characters in each are battling between the self and world, and that tension is coaxed by larger social forces which govern the status of said character. They are continuously confronting their inadequacies, looking for some sort of meaning. This feeling of self-doubt is magnified by the unique aesthetics that create a individualized film experience. Rushmore tells a story of friendship and rivalry between Max Fisher (Jason Schwartzman) and Herman Blume (Bill Murray). Max is a teenager who attends local prep school, Rushmore Academy. He is an over-eager go-getter who is either president, vice-president, or founder of almost every club on campus. Blume, on the other hand, is a fifty-something unhappily married father of two and self-made millionaire. While the two live very different lives they both suffer from loneliness, inherent immaturity, and a desire to sleep with teacher Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams).
Over the course of the film, a deep bond develops between Max and Blume, which for a brief period turns into a comical rivalry ending with Max in jail, emphasizes the all-to-common struggle of individual and societal acceptance, which Anderson expresses through his own unique aesthetics. Anderson’s unique aesthetics can be defined as a opulent microworld with a focus on art. His productions are full of unique and idiosyncratic production design. Each of his individual films contains a singular color palette, specifically tailored soundtracks, and an all-to-carefully designed mise-en-scene. Together, his aesthetics and focus on the individual create the feeling of seeing a movie through a dollhouse where the characters in exist in a world that is reality-adjacent. One of the largest components that lend to Anderson’s distinct aesthetics is his precise and immersive mise-en-scene. The early montage scene which shifts through a series of images and clips of Max involved in all of his clubs is a clear example. Anderson’s font choice, perfectly crafted props, and the unimprovable track list that perfectly captures every feeling create a heightened sense of for his audience. Another important aspect of his mise-en-scene is his singular use of color.
In Rushmore, Anderson saturates the screen in deep red and forest green and dark blue. The coloring adds an overall flatness to the image that makes the scenes feel as though they have been lifted from a storybook. The coloring of the shots becomes its own chromatic language that adds to the imaginative realistic quality of the film. In Rushmore, every shot manipulates these colors in perfect coordination, creating a pensive and almost playful seriousness. For Max this chromatic language demonstrates that although may be a child but he is not to be messed with. Whereas, for Blume it showcases his unhappiness and dark view of his life. An example of this intensely powerful mise-en-scene is a scene that takes place at Blume’s children’s birthday party. In this scene, we are able to experience the dispiriting spirit of Blume as he ages and cannot seem to accept his life for what it is. His tired expression and the mutilated birthday cake on the table, which contrasts with joy of associated with a child’s birthday, illustrate the idea of aging as depressing and bleak.
A long shot includes Blume’s wife flirting with her tennis instructor, and the shot is positioned so that the audience is able to comprehend the experience from Blume’s perspective, he is alone -separated from the others- unable to form connections with those in his life. He throws old grayed golf balls into the murky pool, which stands in contrast to the can of shiny new tennis balls across from him. The use and position of these two props emphasize Blume as old and the tennis instructor as shiny and new. Blume sits shirtless with a faded tattoo visible on his chest, while the tennis instructor wears a collared shirt, further contributing to the notion that Blume is old and broken down. The colors used in the scene tie together beautifully to make this image appear dark and dim.
The murky green of the pool and the lack of direct sunlight provoke a feeling of sympathy toward Blume’s lethargy and desire to connect . Slow motion, in Rushmore, highlight symbolic moments. The use of slowness forces a heightened sense of celebration and triumph among a film’s audience. In the payback scene in which Max fills Blume’s hotel room with bees, Max is seen strolling out of the service elevator in a butler uniform with a bee farm in slow motion. In the scene, this effect enhances not only Max’s mischievous grin but also the grandeur of what he has done. Similarly, in the final scene, Max finally dances with Rosemary and the whole thing is shot in slow motion which builds the anticipation early on which leads to an elevated feeling of excitement for Max when the curtains finally close. In each of the instances, the use of slow motion helps to bridge the connection between the art and the audience, by forcing the audience to relate on an emotional level to the story, its themes, and its characters. Although Rushmore may not be as stylized as Anderson’s later works, it still showcases his early quirkiness and skill with a camera.
A signature of his is the use of the wide angle lens, combined with symmetrical, center frames and prominent lines create dynamic movement and forced perspective. Like the curtains and wings of a stage, the techniques contribute to an audience’s suspension of disbelief and play up the theatricality. Together his techniques provide a sort of stability, for an audience, in a film with an at times ridiculous plot. The aforementioned montage scene utilized all of these techniques in a single one-and-a-quarter minute scene. In this scene, we see a highlight reel of the numerous clubs in which Max belongs to. The clubs range from French club and debate to beekeeping and bombardment society. Each of these shots is a through a wide angle lens which allows us to peer inside the goings on in each specific club. The French club shot, for example includes not only the members of the club but in the corners, we get to see another random student, a broken desk, tossed papers littering a filing cabinet.
These wide angle shots allow the audience to get a real look at this seemingly perfect reality, which is created through the utilization of dramatic lines, forced perspective, and symmetry and gets a small glimpse of the imperfections that surround perfection – reinforcing the audience of the theme of identity and acceptance. Rushmore, though heavily artificial, has a sincere sense of heart. Anderson takes the generic theme of finding acceptance and meaning both internally and externally and attempts to present it as something new for his audience. Though his unique aesthetics a new perfectly curated world is created. In these worlds the problems of reality are altered and magnified, as with a children’s book, emphasizing the story and the meaning strengthening the connection between the art and audience. Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson’s films share some similarities in both subject matter and approach. Baumbach co-wrote Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and Anderson produced Baumbach’s The Squid and The Whale. But Baumbach is slightly more conventional than Anderson. What his films lack, however, in the distinctive visual innovations that occupy Anderson’s he makes up for in vibrant characterizations and unique pacing.
Baumbach’s harmony between writing and directing provides commentary on surviving the self-obsessed current reality and showcase the struggles of being young. Mistress America peers into the pressures of getting by in a world where everyone is against you. The film tells the story of aspiring writer and lost girl Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke) whose her first semester at Barnard College is not going as planned. She has few friends. The prestigious literary society on campus doesn’t want her or her stories. The classes she takes are uninspiring. Her crush, Tony, (Matthew Shear), begins dating her enemy Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones), and Tracy is all alone. Terrified of the city and getting lost in New York City, she calls her mother. Too occupied in her own happiness and approaching wedding, she encourages Tracy to reach out to her future step-sister Brooke Cardinas (Greta Gerwig). Tracy, suddenly immersed into the fast-paced, vivid world of color and wonder of Brooke, is entranced. Their meet-cute takes place in the middle of Times Square, with Brooke appearing to float down the red TKTS steps, while onlookers try to figure out if they should know her. Her future step-sister represents everything she imagines in a manhattanite and has all of New York City on a string. Yet, amidst all of this, she has somehow managed to maintain the charm of a small town girl. Mistress America is a film focused completely around its locale.
Without New York or later Connecticut, this film has little impact, and each of these locations become the most compelling antagonists in the film. The stresses of the city and the darkness of a city at night thrust the initial conflicts on the characters. Brooke has been morphed into a vision of the city. She has become fake and manipulative and obsessed with becoming a girl to be known. Tracy is drowning in this world. She doesn’t understand the pressures and demand of being a thriving NYC artist, but over time she starts to. Her dorm lacks decoration, save a stop sign and a handful of black and white photographs. Unfashionable puffy coats, scarfs that clash and too-big tweed blazers make up her wardrobe. Like her aesthetic, she is lost. On the other hand, Brooke always has a tailored outfit and almost perfectly done up hair, and her loft (though fake and commercial just like her) is modern and chic. She understands the importance of image and attempts to make sure hers reflects who she wants to be. Tracy, enamored with Brooke, spends their first night apart writing up the tales of this strange beautiful creature she has stumbled upon. This whole time Tracy has been in search of a story worth writing, and Brooke seems to be full of them. Her short story, “Mistress America,” a reference to one of Brooke’s many ideas, recounts these stories and adventure, though under the name Meadow.
Tracy’s take on creative license demonstrates that in the harsh reality of the world, sometimes you have to sacrifice your relationships and sever ties to get ahead. And, rather than romanticize this crazy artistic world, it’s showcased as a battlefield with everyone out to protect their own fame and fortune, prompting the debate between relying on friends or family, or fulfilling your own ambitious pursuits. Asking this question once again, Tracy, Brooke, Tony, and Nicolette travel to Greenwich. Desperate to finance her restaurant (a salon/gallery/bistro) Brooke goes to her ex-boyfriend who is now engaged to her ex-best friend, Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind). Mamie-Claire opens the door on the rag-tag group of kids with both a look of shock and disgust. Like with the city, Greenwich once again becomes its own character. It becomes the symbol of the rich and beautiful, and those who have everything they want. They don’t have to dream anymore and showcase their lives to those less fortunate. Fittingly, Dylan and Mamie-Claire have made a home in a huge glass mansion. Just like the structure of their home, they are shallow, transparent, live to show themselves off to others, and look down upon those they deem below them. They don’t have children, only plants.
And they have weed stashed in the freezer, because like Brooke, they still haven’t grown up. According to Brooke, Mamie-Claire stole her t-shirt idea, made a hefty profit, and stole her man in the process. When Dylan, the man in question who boasts a weak figure and personality to match, enters, it becomes clear this isn’t a fight over a boy, but rather once again about artistic integrity and pursuit. The three debate over whether an investment in Brooke is a good one, allowing them the chance to rip their old friend apart, exposing the real Brooke for the first time. Her connections and charms work against her, leaving her to be the mess she has worked so hard to hide. This rapid succession of events proves help bridge that connection between the audience the art. Baumbach ’s already fast pace becomes one of an Olympic sprinter – brilliant, steady, and perfectly executed – allowing his words to carry the film forward. Subsidiary characters and complications are thrown at the lead characters until they almost can’t take anymore. Cut to pregnant women and obnoxious neighbors interrupting with harsh one-liners. Cut to a pathetic Brooke left groveling for money from her old friends. Cut to Tracy trying to seduce Tony. Cut to Dylan refusing to invest in the restaurant but offering to pay off her debts. Cut to Brooke refusing, and Nicolette, furious at Tracy, bringing up her short story. Cut to Brooke yelling at Tracey and walking away.
This whole ludicrous succession of events occupies only a small section of the film but easily becomes the most memorable. Directed with a beautiful brilliance dominated by a few complicated long shots and reaction shots, the audience is forced to watch the epic downfall of its characters from the very center. The drama builds as the audience is taken from room to room, and up and down stairs, giving a little window into each other character’s mind, serving to connect the audience with art on an intimate level. Tracy’s portrait of Brooke switches between praise and criticism, ultimately landing with a seemingly positive assessment of her character’s potential: ‘She was the last cowboy, all romance and failure. The world was changing, and her kind didn’t have anywhere to go. Being a beacon of hope for lesser people is a lonely business.’ This dialogue is read over a scene of Brooke packing up her life into a few plain cardboard boxes. She is framed by a crumbling wall in her abandoned warehouse turned loft, wearing a frumpy oxford and ill-fitting pair of trousers. This is the first time in the movie when we see Brooke without any of her disguises.
This moment of recognition amidst the general distracted despair of the movie provides startling insights into postmodern life that connect with a certain audience through the use of vibrant characterization and quick pace that allow the audience to live in these moments with the characters. As filmmakers, Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, have embraced the endless possibilities founded through modern filmmaking technologies. And as storytellers, they have forged their own notions on genre and form, crafting their own unique stories. Much more than serving as a commentary on any particular their films illustrate their personal cultures and identities. Their range and use of distinctive techniques not only establish their own artistic style, but explore the social and emotional experience of millennial America through quirky, flawed characters, descriptive mise-en-scene, and interesting movement paving a new approach of depicting personal identity through film through a connection between art and the audience. Culture
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