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Framing the ‘melancomic’: character, aesthetics and affect in Wes Anderson's Rushmore

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Using Wes Anderson's Rushmore (1998) as a case study, this paper will examine the relationship between irony and affect, and the way the tension between these aesthetic modes destabilises normative assumptions and expectations in relation to character engagement and what Murray Smith refers to as ‘the structure of sympathy’ (Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion and the Cinema. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995, 3). Anderson's films could be described, at a tonal level, as ‘melancomic’. They are undoubtedly unorthodox and idiosyncratic, displaying a perceptible, but gentle irony, levels of artifice, and a ‘weird’ self-aware precision that encourages a cognitive and affective distance. By a close examination of a specific set of stylistic practices and formal modes of address, this paper will argue that Anderson develops a symbiotic relationship between character and screen aesthetic that results in a dialectic between affective dissonance and arousal. It will examine the way cinematic conventions are defamiliarised in Rushmore utilising a series of strategies in relation to framing, camera angles, shot scales, sound and performance that are designed to unsettle the audience's experience of proximity to, and hence intimacy with, the characters. This paper will also address the way in which, paradoxically, this distanciation is offset by the inclusion of other formal and narrative devices that convey momentary touches of affect, which imbue the film with a degree of psychological realism and authenticity in relation to character development and also encourage a discernable sense of spectator allegiance towards character.
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Keywords: Murray Smith; Rushmore; Wes Anderson; aesthetics; affect; character engagement; irony; melancomic; structure of sympathy

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of English,Media Studies and Art History, University of Queensland, St Lucia,Qld,4072, Australia

Publication date: March 1, 2012

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