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The Road Wes Traveled 

Fourteen hours riding shotgun with the director of Rushmore

Wednesday, Jan 27 1999
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Photo by Ted Soqui

The driver is breaking the law again. Tearing like a tornado across the Mojave wastelands in a rented white Ford Explorer. Hands at 10 and 2. Chewing highway. Approaching his favorite speed: 90 mph. What would the honorable folks at Disney’s Touchstone Pictures think?

Had they done a background check before anteing up for this buggy, they’d have known it would be like this. Wes Anderson is a recidivist. The last time he blazed through the Southwest, the law finally caught up with him in Van Horn, Texas. When the cop ran the registration and discovered Anderson had another speeding ticket besides the one he was writing, he threatened jail time. But first, he thought, let’s check the trunk to see what kind of contraband this scofflaw is running across state lines.

In the trunk, the cop found a portrait of Herman Blume, the character played by Bill Murray in Anderson’s latest film, Rushmore. The painting anchors the film’s opening shot. In it, Blume sits in front of his disaffected movie family, looking like Ted Turner on painkillers. Set against a burnt-orange curtain, the Blume family portrait lingers onscreen an uncomfortable 10 seconds before the curtain pulls back and the movie starts. Clearly, somebody’s meant to get the picture.

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"Is that that guy from Groundhog Day?" the cop asked Anderson.

Anderson replied that yes, indeed, the face in the painting was Bill Murray’s.

"Then I went into my song and dance," he says.

The "song and dance" is that point during a pullover when Anderson humbly explains that he is a movie director on an errand of vital importance to the project. In this case, say, delivering the painting to Mr. Murray himself for approval.

"The cop ended up calling the judge at midnight, and I paid by credit card."

Then there was the time a couple years ago when a policeman in Tennessee pulled him over for doing 90 but knocked it down to 80 after the song and dance.

"The cop was really nice. He had a great accent. He thought it was really something that we were both the same age," Anderson recalls. "I thought he had some sadness about being only 27 and being an authority figure."

Anderson has learned that part of Hollywood’s magic is how it cools out the trigger finger of authority. The strategy in case we get pulled over, which seems like a safe bet given Anderson’s preferred speed, is for me to wave the tape recorder conspicuously and ask the officer if I can get the whole thing on record for the story I’m doing. The cop will ask what story, and . . .

"Then I’ll downplay it, like, ‘Oh, Jeez, I’m embarrassed,’" says Anderson. And the song and dance will be on.

Don’t blame him for planning for the inevitable. When you drive as much as Wes Anderson does, somewhere in the John Madden range, you’re bound to rack up moving violations. It’s best to have a strategy. Hot chicks cry. He does his song and dance.

Today he’s on the road from Los Angeles to New York, with a first stop scheduled for Amarillo, Texas. Any way you measure, it’s quite a haul, but it’s nothing compared to the larger journey of an artist who has come into his own. On that road, Anderson is somewhere between great expectations and deliverance. There’s a lot of emotional investment in how he negotiates this stretch, and not just his own. Many critics appear ready to anoint him as a favorite son. Some are even saying that Rushmore, just his second feature following the critically praised but largely ignored Bottle Rocket, marks his rise to the top of American filmmaking. Rushmore’s limited showing in December for Academy Award consideration earned it a place on dozens of 1998 Top 10 lists and serious Oscar hype. Premiere magazine has gone so far as to hail the somewhat gawky, 29-year-old upstart as the heir apparent to Allen, Brooks, Lubitsch, Sturges and Keaton. There are, though, dissenting voices in the chorus of praise, and among the naysayers one can sense an eagerness to lash back at whatever revenge-of-the-nerds factor Anderson’s work represents, like New Times calling the film "self-important" or Time saying it "delights in itself too much."

Even though this crisp Friday in December is a portentous one — the day Rushmore opens for a week in New York and Los Angeles — the driver is doing his best to ignore the signs along the big journey. Audience reaction? Critical response? Backlash from the early festival fawning? Full houses? Those are the questions crashing around in the world outside the speeding Ford Explorer. For now, Anderson is relieved they are off on the horizons behind and before him. For now, his song and dance is to keep his eyes on the road and his hands upon the wheel. For now, the smaller journey, the one that will take him to Amarillo for a short rest before he drives on, is posing questions.

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