Rushmore (1998) – Surface Divisions and Storytelling


Directed by Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums; Moonrise Kingdom). Written by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson (Midnight in Paris; Wedding Crashers). Starring Jason Schwartzman (Fantastic Mr. Fox; I Heart Huckabees), Bill Murray (Groundhog Day; Ghostbusters; Lost in Translation), and Olivia Williams (The Sixth Sense; An Education).

Surface divisions are obstacles/barriers placed in the frame such that two subjects/characters are physically separated in some way. These sorts of separations can enhance the director’s storytelling abilities in subtle ways. An example can be examined from a short but meaningful scene in Rushmore during which Max gets to know Ms. Cross, a first grade teacher.

The scene is primarily shot in one take on a dolly through a window (the window frames provide the surface division). In the screenshots to come, notice how the horizontals are bent, indicative of a very wide angle lens (classic Wes Anderson).

At first, Max and Ms. Cross are framed together. Max discusses how he saved the Latin program at the school, and he attempts to connect with Ms. Cross, asking if she needs an assistant. As they move down the line of fish tanks (I believe Ms. Cross is feeding the fish), they stay framed together:




When Ms. Cross mentions her husband, Max is isolated in the shot: Ms. Cross walks on as Max remains still, processing the information — Ms. Cross is taken.


Ms. Cross mentions that her husband passed away, and now, when Max walks on past Ms. Cross and the camera dollies, the window frame provides a surface division between the two characters. Ms. Cross has become vulnerable, and the two characters are no longer on the same level with each other (has Max ever experienced anything like the death of a spouse?).


Perhaps this surface division is not only to create disconnect but also to contrast with the sense of connection the characters feel when Max announces that his mother died when he was seven years old. After this comment, the characters are once again united:


Max says, “So we both have dead people in our families.” They lean down to view a fish tank, visually (through a change in framing and environment — their heads are now behind a tank instead of just a window) marking their newfound sense of connection.


Surface divisions and changes in framing can be powerful in shaping an audience’s understanding of the ever-changing relationship between two characters.

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