November 1, 2014

65. Rushmore (1998)

2000: 065 box 1 2011: 065 box 2


written by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson
directed by Wes Anderson

Criterion #65.

Let me say at the outset that I really like this movie and have seen it many times because it’s in my personal collection. Along with the Criterion Brazil, this is one of the very first DVDs I ever purchased, more or less immediately upon its release in 2000.

Instead of trying to sum up my long-term opinion of the movie I’m just going to follow the train of thought that arose during this particular viewing.

A few weeks after Rushmore came out, Wes Anderson wrote a little piece that appeared in the New York Times, about the screening he arranged for an ailing Pauline Kael (“I don’t know what you’ve got here, Wes,” was her only response). It’s the anecdote of a slightly off-kilter visit with one of his heroes, narrated with amused detachment and a focus on minutiae. Just as you’d think he’d write it.

David Edelstein, a Kael protégé, took umbrage at the essay: “A person with even a trace of decency would not have turned around and written up the encounter in a way designed to make sport of her infirmities.” And then he took professional umbrage at the movie. To Edelstein the two sins were the same. Of Max Fischer he writes: “His churlishness isn’t compelling, it’s just an embarrassment, a callow cry for attention,” and then he ends his review by referring to the Kael incident:

Given the state of her health at the time, it was gracious of Kael to entertain this chucklehead for even a minute — a mistake she probably won’t make again. Anderson, meanwhile, probably doesn’t realize that he did anything unseemly. “What do you expect?” said a friend. “He’s like the kid in Rushmore, a callow narcissist.” At least the kid in Rushmore confines his aesthetic offenses to high-school auditoriums.

Below Edelstein’s letter to the Times, you can read Anderson’s public reply: “The suggestion that I wanted ‘to make sport’ of Ms. Kael’s infirmities causes me great pain and embarrassment. I thought it was clear in my article that I not only deeply respect Ms. Kael but that I very much enjoyed meeting with her.”

This is all background. I had already read all this stuff when I watched the movie yesterday and it was in my head.

So many things in Rushmore have been put there simply for us to share in the noticing of them: The moment when the barber shows you the back of the cut by angling a mirror at the mirror. The first piece of 3M tape with the plaid tab on the end. The act of positioning and then opening a typewriter case.

These are the same as the whimsical details in Anderson’s Kael piece — the exchanges that went nowhere, the fact that the door was stuck, the question about butter — that Edelstein wrongly took to be “sport.” The spirit of this kind of reportage is joyful, in a very basic way. Art is about sharing experience, and this is art at its most essential. Like stand-up comedians’ observational “have you ever noticed” jokes that don’t really have punchlines: the audience laughs because they have noticed. Previously they were alone with it, and now that it has been named, they are not. That’s a feeling of joy.

This is the Wes Anderson mindset. To accept his movies one must be inside it.

The spiritual value of all the bric-a-brac is that freshly shared observations are a taste of freedom; they belong to no order, are not yet claimed by any political powers. A disconnected detail hangs in the air with a quizzical functionlessness. It is out of such things that real experience is built — at least if we are happy enough to allow ourselves to see things in this pure state.

Perceiving detail in this way means remaining unbeholden to any system of rational meanings, values, or ethics, and just seeing things themselves, pristine in the halo of their subconscious associations. Edelstein senses this in Rushmore and calls it a “narcissistic trance,” which is a terribly hostile name for it. He is right that it is a distinct state of consciousness, and one where the self is the ultimate source of meaning. He’s wrong to imply that it’s a morally bankrupt position. It should be held as a state of grace.

This is the moral framework of the movie. Max is utterly unprincipled; he exasperates and hurts and endangers the people around him. But the movie does not tell us that he is wrong. In fact it tells us that there is no wickedness in the world, only chaos, an acceptable chaos in which can be discerned all these fond familiar things: library checkout cards, piranhas, fencing helmets, whipping by like the rowboat in the twister.

I was touched this time around by the movie’s portrayal of what it is that Max falls out of, emotionally, and then back into: his “spark and character and imagination” are exactly in his commitment to lies. In the scene where his vitality visibly returns to him, it takes the form of an ever more absurd performance of the excitement of kite-flying. At first he is somberly simply holding the kite reel, which is of course sufficient, but as he begins to feel that there are things worth pursuing in life (“Take dictation, please: possible candidates for kite-flying society”) he starts to weave and dodge and imagine himself catching sudden gusts off guard, performing a fantasy of supreme kite-flying savvy. The idea of the movie is that this performance may be a kind of lie — there are in fact no such gusts — but it is also the source of all true happiness. Certainly it is the source of the circle of happiness into which all the characters are gathered at the end.

The turning point in the script that immediately precedes his revitalization comes when he learns that Margaret Yang, straight-arrow honor student, faked her science project results because she too is a fantasist and a liar. Whether Max grows up to be “a senator or a diplomat” or not is beyond the movie’s purview, but it is clear that when, at the low point, he says of his former wild ambitions: “Pipe dreams, dad. I’m a barber’s son,” it is the sense in which this is true that is the villain of the movie.

I was touched also by the premise that Mr. Blume takes Max seriously as a person exactly because he is more interested in being alive than in truth or ethics. “You seem to have it pretty figured out,” Blume says admiringly, and it’s not because he has fallen for any of Max’s posturing. He sees Max for exactly what he is, and really believes that this, eager self-delusion with gusto, is what it means to have it figured out.

Later, Max hides in the back of Blume’s car, waiting for Blume to emerge from Miss Cross’s house so that he can make a calculated dramatic appearance: asking “Was she good?” with worldly bitterness and tapping cigarette ash out the window, like in movies he’s seen. The beautiful thing about the scene is that Blume responds seriously, rendering Max’s absurd performance real after all. Blume knows that the borrowed forms of Max’s self-image, the constant recourse to phrases he’s heard and mannerisms he’s seen, are really no more absurd than anyone else’s performance of adulthood. Max, wanting to blot out his feelings of shame and loneliness, dreams of being a great man, and so goes through the motions… yet lo and behold, this manic devotion to fantasy does in fact turn out to be his entrée into the real lives of the adults around him, which are themselves just a set of motions being gone through. That is to say: childhood’s absurd imitations of adulthood are not a mistake that will later be corrected; they are adulthood itself in embryo.

In my junior year of high school, standing in the parking lot at some evening event, I saw that a classmate of mine was, like Max Fischer, “casually” smoking a cigarette with great conspicuousness. I had known this guy for years and saw him around all the time. I had never seen him smoke before. Clearly he had just started recently. He dropped the cigarette, and, grinding it out with his shoe, said wearily, “I really need to quit.”

I saw the absurdity, but I had no audience to share it with me. At the time, in fact, it infuriated me, because it seemed like I was surrounded by this sort of thing; I felt like my real social world was slipping away into make-believe.

Now I see that actually what bothered me was not the make-believe itself, but rather the feeling that this make-believe was very brittle, and would explode into the fury of the humiliated if I were to call it like I saw it. I felt that I was being extorted into collaboration: “Act like I am a mature smoking-type adult-man, or I will cut you.” And I may have been right about that. But certainly I was wrong to grow sour about role-playing itself. I could have stood to allow myself a bit more.

Rushmore stands as excellent encouragement in that direction. Or, conversely, it stands as a caution that “maturity” is no antidote to absurdity; just the opposite. Max ceases to be absurd not when he outgrows his illusions — that’s actually his low point — but rather when they cease to be illusions because the community has been drawn into their circle, as in the final scene.

The happiness can no longer be said to be founded on a lie once the happiness becomes general. This is the meaning of the slow motion in the last shot of the movie. The imaginary is now real because it encompasses everyone.

Maybe I haven’t quite articulated it, but I think this is a profound philosophical message about the nature of society.

It also connects to one of my recurring fixations, about “outsider” aesthetic value. The movie asks: is it not good that Max puts on these crazy plays? And are they really crazy as all that? Or are they perhaps actually excellent, by the other, secret standards of art? Perhaps Pauline Kael wasn’t sure how to respond to what she’d seen because she was never truly comfortable confronting this question. For my part I am unable to watch the Max Fischer Players and not be sincerely pleased. As I said in the Carnival of Souls entry, I take very seriously the idea that the hometown auditorium might be the site of profound artistic experience.

The first time I saw the movie I thought it was funny that Mr. Blume, a Vietnam veteran, is moved to tears by “Heaven and Hell,” Max’s pyrotechnic extravaganza. Now I find it touching. Blume/Bill Murray has no use for superiority. He would always rather watch the show. The absurd can always be enjoyed truly, without “making sport” of it.

Then on the other hand witness David Edelstein’s contempt. (Anger always gets stuck in my head and I can’t help but keep turning back to it.) I feel for Wes Anderson as the victim of that particular scorn, because there is no defense against it beyond the state of grace itself — and we all know what a dangerous position that can be. “Innocent delight in the self” is a very hard stance to maintain in the public culture, because it is vulnerable to any and all resentful attacks — moral, political, intellectual, personal, everything. I can only wonder at how much further “pain and embarrassment” Wes Anderson must have had occasion to suffer in the 16 years since this movie came out.

And yet he — and Bill Murray — seem to have made it through, somehow (or close enough, anyway), and in the process laid out a vast slimy snail’s track behind them for the legions of wannabe innocents to loll around in. I daresay Rushmore singlehandedly changed American culture more than any other movie in recent decades. Go ahead, tell me I’m wrong.

As regular readers will know (not because they are regular readers, just because they know me), one of my freshman-year roommates in college was seen for the lead in Rushmore because he had been a kind of Max Fischer Player at his prep school. After the audition he confidently reported that it had not gone well, and apparently he was right. But he got to keep the sides, so we had three script pages from the upcoming film “Rushmore” in our room for a while afterward. It was the “Has it ever crossed your mind that you’re far too young for me?” scene.

When the finished movie arrived in theaters a year later, we had the sense that this was “our” movie, come back to do its part in rounding out one of our self-delighted freshman year anecdotes. And the movie was surely satisfying on that first viewing — I absolutely recognized with pleasure all of the doodadery it wanted me to recognize — but only at that gleeful remove. I felt the sentiments in aesthetic terms, but was not conscious of any meaning. It wasn’t until now, so many years later, that it has become possible for me to see what kinds of people, which is to say what parts of me, this movie is really about.

Then again I don’t think a gleeful remove is any sort of mistake. A pleasure jaunt through a cyclone full of goodies is at least as valuable as self-recognition. All I’m saying is I was there then and I’m here now. (Tomorrow the world!)

I don’t think Wes Anderson did anything quite this direct and true again. (I know a lot of people prefer The Royal Tenenbaums but I certainly didn’t at the time. I’ll reconsider it in due course, just 92 movies from now.)

Before I go on, I want to say a word of praise about Olivia Williams, in the least rewarding of the lead roles, for managing to get us to accept a whole series of extremely unlikely things so that the scenes work. Miss Cross makes no real sense as a character, and yet we do feel that there is a human being onscreen and that the story is revolving around her sensibly. Williams makes Anderson’s pre-teen obsessions feel less outlandish than in his other movies, by playing the part as a genuinely composed adult, and allowing the strangely childlike details about her character to emerge around her, rather than on her face. I think the whole thing would have fallen apart if she wasn’t as clean about it as she is.

Obviously the movie would fall apart if not for Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray too, but everyone already knows that, because they are full of character, whereas Miss Cross fades away as soon as the movie is over. Wes Anderson seems never to have invited Olivia Williams back to play again; maybe he had hoped for Miss Cross to put off more of her own sparks. But I think the movie functions as well as it does exactly because she’s so unremarkable, because she approached it as a sort of featured workhorse role. And maybe Williams hasn’t been in another Anderson movie for her own reasons; it seems like maybe this isn’t quite her scene. Which is part of what I’m praising.

Hey, I didn’t realize she and Bill had a reunion after all: she was his Eleanor Roosevelt!

Okay, that’s more than enough Rushmore for now. “That’s a long ‘Rushmore.'” The time has come to address the bonus features and then move on.

I’m really getting into these horizontal lines. They help me reassure myself that readers will not drown in the overkill. Your head will always be above water, because your feet can always rest on the next horizontal line. Easy. Here, take another breather.

The commentary is Wes, Owen, and Jason. It has been very well assembled from separate interviews — and possibly from two separate passes for Wes Anderson, since sometimes his voice seems to come from a different distance. The flow never feels forced, and the relationship of what’s being said to what’s on screen is organic throughout. My compliments to the editor. This is how it ought to be done.

The easy enthusiasm of the movie comes across in the personalities. Owen Wilson in particular comes off as sensitive to the nuances of what they’ve done; if you listen past his creaky voice, he really doesn’t seem anything like his standard stoner screen persona. In fact it is strongly implied that most of the emotional framework of the movie comes from his life rather than Wes Anderson’s.

All three guys seem like just guys who are alert to their own feelings about life and about movies and thus were able to make a movie. I was inspired.

Criterion’s covers these days regularly feature fancy new illustrations, but in 2000 that practice was still a long way off. (I just went through the covers thus far and the only ones that could conceivably be original illustration work are the paired first editions of Branded to Kill and Tokyo Drifter, and even those are likely derived from existing materials.) So this is probably the first original illustrated cover, and certainly the only one for a while. It’s of Max on his go-kart (with cigarette added), a shot designed to mimic a photograph by Jacques Henri Lartigue that actually appears in Max’s dream sequence as part of his classroom corner, which he has apparently decorated with favorite images like it’s his bedroom. (I didn’t work any of this out for myself; it’s known.) That the source image is already specifically derivative makes this sort of an odd choice for the cover, but no matter.

The illustration is by Wes’s brother Eric Chase Anderson, who also provides a “Collectible poster” for the package. The style — which is referred to in art circles as “Maybe I’m anxiously affecting like I’m as innocent as an 11-year-old or maybe I’m doing deliberate homage to how 11-year-olds draw or maybe I’m genuinely still in touch with the same aesthetic ideals within myself as when I was 11; there’s no way for you to know which!” — bears an obvious relation to Wes’s style, which has increasingly posed the same quandary over the years. It also bears a relation to Wes’s storyboards, some of which can be seen on the disc. They are, as you’d imagine, thoughtful and also not a little precious.

I guess my thought of the day about the Wes Anderson preciousness is that scoffing at it just alienates us from the creative impulse that allows him to make these impressive movies. If one of the symptoms of having the aesthetic vision to plan an effective sequence is that he also takes pleasure in his own quirky quirky handwriting, what’s wrong with that? The only thing that’s wrong with it is the shadow it casts: it seems to reveal that he must worry about himself too, and nobody likes to be around worry.

A general psychological principle to which I am constantly returning: what’s off-putting about vanity is not the outward display, it is the underlying shame. The thing that grates about twee-dom is the sense that it is a show of comfort put on by the uncomfortable. As I said above, the lesson of Rushmore is that even such a show can stop being denial and start being real, once the community joins. So the thing to do with Wes Anderson, and with all hipsters, is to take as much authentic pleasure in what they’re doing as possible.

The problem with hipsters is “the problem with hipsters is.” Being scrupulous about not aligning ourselves with any happiness that shows anxiety through its seams just propagates the anxiety rather than the happiness. The disdaining/distrustful observer is just one more person who, in turn, won’t seem happy enough to be trusted. Despite its best efforts, an anxious society just gets more anxious.

This is to say that since trust has to start somewhere: sure, Wes Anderson’s quirky handwriting is kind of fun to look at. And I also think the shuffleboard place in Brooklyn is cool. That wasn’t so hard, was it? No.

I mean, in the long run, yes, it has been very very hard. But today it was not.

Back to the bonus features. In addition to the illustrations, Eric Anderson also supplies 16 minutes of on-set video, which is appealingly unguarded and makes the circumstances look pleasantly ordinary. As you know, I always like this stuff. I could have gone for a lot more than 16 minutes.

Then we have Charlie Rose segments with Bill and Wes, which are fine, but unfortunately also feature Charlie Rose. He’s sort of a Max Fischer of the airwaves, isn’t he, saving Latin weekly.

There are bits of audition video for the various kid roles. I guess that’s interesting too, but of course they only show you the winners, and, no surprise, they seem like themselves. Auditions are fascinating in their natural state, in parallel, but unfortunately that’s something the public can never see.

The main kids in the movie were reconvened to make three Max Fischer Players segments for the 1999 MTV Movie Awards, doing scenes from Max’s hypothetical stage adaptations of The Truman Show, Armageddon, and Out of Sight. They feel like an essential pendant to the movie, since they are fully-produced bits of Rushmore-world. And they’re cute enough.

Then finally there’s the trailer and a few sort of random still images of props and stuff.

Overall I’d say the amount of bonusage is just right. You flip through with interest, recognize there to be a generous assortment of goodies, and then after an hour or two find you’ve finished, well before experiencing “extras ennui” (the feeling that maybe you’ve been suckered into pretending to care about stuff that nobody could possibly care about, not even Michael Bay himself).

Relation to the previous movie: a major character called “Calloway.” For all I know this may not be a coincidence.

The music is great. Rushmore was the one and only time that I went out and bought a “mix”-style movie soundtrack. Admittedly I bought it for the score, but more than half of the album is the licensed 60s pop songs. I didn’t know any of them previously, so for me they emanated from the movie, and I came to feel fondly toward all of them. Yes, even the whole sprawling 9-minute thing by The Who.

By contrast, at the beginning of The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson uses the Ravel string quartet, which I already knew, and on hearing it my immediate response was, “ah, I see, okay, well… I guess you can use it for this.” A little grudgingly. I couldn’t really get all the way to feeling it purely — couldn’t get all the way into the narcissistic trance, which knows no culture. Even though that’s where the best listening takes place.

That’s what I like about movie soundtracks: they come with their own pocket-sized culture and otherwise leave you free. Yes, they might be pre-listened by the moviemakers, but that’s what all good artistic experience is: something passed on. I am grateful to Wes (and/or his music supervisor Randall Poster) for passing on some good experiences they had. The problem with the solo-traveler library-going approach to culture is that everything reminds you a little of the library, and of loneliness. Whereas movies are full of people, more than any other art. (Well, so is theater, but because they’re real people, you have to be aware that they aren’t your friends. Whereas Jason Schwartzman may as well be my friend from college. That for some reason I never talk to.)

Even more than the song selection, I love the original score by Mark Mothersbaugh (of Devo fame). This is really one of the all-time best displays of creative instrumentation, every bit as strong a thing as the zither in The Third Man. In the commentary Wes Anderson reveals that the temp track was a Vivaldi mandolin concerto (surely this one — you can pretty easily figure out which parts temped which cues in the score), and there is indeed often a suggestion of Vivaldi under the surface, but Mothersbaugh has concocted a very special kind of play-baroque that corresponds perfectly to the play-reality of the movie. The toylike instrumentation is simultaneously sparkling and exposed, which suggests jazz and its characteristic pleasure of being at play in the arbitrary real world.

In the score as it works in the movie, the classical elements don’t seem to come direct from Vivaldi in the 18th century; they come from the classical music that filters down to kids through a loving, simplifying, school culture, which constitutes a kind of institutionalized narcissistic trance. This is sit-in-a-circle-and-space-out “ta ta ti-ti ta” music. And, I have to assume, sit-in-chapel-and-space-out music, for kids who went to a prep school with a chapel.

But those are really only extra-musical associations. In the pure state it’s just a kind of warm, twinkling, well-ordered happiness. Here is the End Credits (on the soundtrack for some reason called “Margaret Yang’s Theme,” which it is certainly not).

I could go for much more of this than there is — the complete score as heard on the album comes to less than 10 minutes. Someone should transfer whole real baroque concerti into this kind of sweet tinkertoy sound world; I would gladly listen.

You have now reached the end.


  1. I could go for much more of this than there is, too; it was not a long enough “Rushmore” for me. Thank you.

    Also your mobile image size problem is fixed now. You’re welcome.

    Posted by Beth on |

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