Criterion Cuts: “Rushmore”

Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.

So if you follow my work you know that I regularly have another series that looks at the filmography of directors (auteurs, hopefully!) called Directed Viewing. That stemmed out of the fact that I was mostly using my netflix queue to watch entire filmographies, and felt like I could turn it into a long-form project on the evolution of directorial voice. The thing is, I didn’t realize I could do this until four or so directors into the project, and so there are a few, often-requested directors that I already saw everything of and don’t really feel like going back and rewatching/writing up. One such director is the esteemed master of modern American cinematic affectation, Wes Anderson.

Thankfully, almost the entirety of Anderson’s filmography has made it into the Criterion Collection, so for better or worse over time you’re probably going to get that ‘lost’ season of Directed Viewing handed to you one movie at a time, in an order dictated more by whim than anything else. In this case, I was desiring to rewatch today’s movie, and picked up the Blu-Ray because why not? I wouldn’t go so far as to call this my favorite Anderson movie, but it’s certainly incredibly rewatchable. So let’s get right to it!

Rushmore (1998)

Let’s be honest with ourselves here: even as a Wes Anderson fan I can admit that all of his movies are incredibly similar. He doesn’t so much have an artistic trend as he does a fixation that he lands squarely upon in movie after movie. If you like that aesthetic, then his movies are comforting and wonderful. I know a guy who compares him to Tim Burton, and means it as unkindly as you might imagine. Some people have poor taste, what can I say? But let’s operate on the assumption that we all know and love at least some Wes Anderson films, and talk about the things that Rushmore does different.

Written in collaboration with Owen Wilson, Rushmore‘s story of aimless wunderkind Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) and his strange adventures interacting with the equally aimless and far more confused adults of Rushmore Academy comes from true life experiences. Wilson was expelled from his own prep school at around the same age as Max, and Anderson drifted around trying myriad things but never doing any of them fully. The script that they wrote first, Rushmore kicked around while they were getting their first film (Bottle Rocket) made and became the project they would make when they had the means to do it right.

Max telling you everything you need to know about him without realizing it.

So what Rushmore represents is the full flowering of Wes Anderson’s style, the first movie that really feels like an Anderson movie. And in some ways it does many of his quirks better than any of his films. In particular, there has not yet been a precocious child that’s anywhere on the level of complexity as Max Fischer, played by the then-unknown Schwartzman. He’s unlikable on nearly every level when analyzed specifically, but taken as a whole the mess becomes a charming sort of lost, where you want to give him a hug and then try to give him some profound wisdom. Which is why he spends the entire film being thrust up against adults who recognize in him an early version of their own existential crises.

While it would be easy to talk about Bill Murray (and we will) who I really want to talk about is Olivia Williams, who manages to become the lynchpin around which the entire plot revolves. Her character, newly arrived first grade teacher Rosemary Cross, quickly becomes the object of Max’s adolescent affection. And why not? She seems much less quirky than the other people at Rushmore, with a quiet confidence that belies a sense of sadness that she seems much more comfortable with than everyone else. Max is smitten, and in his graceless way quickly tries to sidle up to her in the guise of friendship, buying in fully to the idea that if he’s nice enough and adult enough, of course he’ll woo her. He’s the hero, after all.

The thing is, behind her careful air of British intrigue is a woman with her own problems. In fact, compared to everyone else, her problems seem much more profound and real. Her husband recently died, and she moved to Rushmore to teach primarily because he was once a student there, and she wanted to be closer to him and memories of him. There’s a real hurt there that Max interprets as a cry for help so that he can rush to save her, though he plays it so coolly at first she simply dismisses it as a student crush, the kind of thing that happens but will dissipate in time. Unfortunately, Max is dogged at the most subtle of times, and so when she shows up to his play with a date, Max’s whole world is suddenly upended. Obviously his subtle approach wasn’t working, so he switches to open hostility, treating her as if she’s already ‘his’.

Much of this movie surrounds Olivia Williams looking radiant and wounded and in need of saving. Good thing she’s amazing in everything.

What’s interesting isn’t how justifiably indignant she gets, but how much she endeavors to play peacemaker, and how pained she seems to be by the whole situation. But who can blame her? Dating again after the loss of her husband, while she’s surround by his memory, makes everything a reminder of what she had and lost. This extends even to staying in his childhood room, or Max pointing out things in the school that he finds about her late husband. He means well, but the obviousness by which these token reminders of his history wound her zips past him in his rush to prove that if he studies her hard enough, he can win some sort of romance game.

It’s a very childish way of looking at relationships, but honestly the adult world doesn’t fare much better. When Bill Murray’s Herman Blume, one of the main patrons of the school and Max’s erstwhile friend, ends up trying to intercede between them, he quickly falls for the wounded, beautiful Ms. Cross as much as Max did. The thing is, he ultimately doesn’t really do a whole lot better with it, showing up haphazardly to act awkward and struggle to open up in any meaningful way. The only difference is, Max is automatically off her radar due to being a kid and Blume isn’t. So even a less effective (and still troublesome, as Blume is married) wooing becomes something she can accept. Max, as one might expect, is devastated.

The thing is, the two end up treating it as some sort of boyhood contest to prove who is more ‘worthy’ for her hand, the kind of cheap relationship simplification that often happens when men are self-centered and women end up on pedestals. Never mind what she thinks, it would be far too awkward to actually talk to her, instead they’ll snipe at each other and tear each other’s worlds apart in order to make sure the other one can’t have what he wants. What starts out as friendship ends up a sort of war, both sides looking stupid and awful in their preconceived notions of how this picturesque romance is supposed to go. Ultimately Blume sums it up best with the plaintive excuse of “She was my Rushmore, Max.” Because neither person can engage with her as a person. She’s an idea, a concept that has become the vehicle to happiness they feel is just one accepted emotion away. If only she would deign to love them, both of them think in their narrow ways, the very obviously broken world will somehow fix themselves.

The dinner scene between the adults (and Max) is the first time his immaturity becomes really painfully obvious.

And all this leads up to my favorite scene in the film, where Max (who has already had his entire life thrown in disarray and is making one final appeal to Ms. Cross. Cross, furious at being harangued repeatedly after expressing her wishes clearly, finally cracks just enough to lash out at him. It’s the most painful, unflinching exchange in the entire movie.

Cross: Look, I’m sorry I hurt your feelings. I’m sorry I love your friend instead of you, but…
Max: You honestly believe you love Blume instead of me?
Cross: Yes.
Max: Well, you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t take your word for that.
Cross: Oh, stop.
Max: I got kicked out because of you. Rushmore was my life. Now you are.
Cross: No, I’m not. What do you really think is gonna happen between us? Do you think we’re gonna have sex?
Max: That’s a kind of cheap way to put it.
Cross: Not if you’ve ever fucked before, it isn’t.
Max: Oh, my God.
Cross:How would you describe it to your friends? Would you say that you’d fingered me? Or maybe I could give you a hand job. Would that put an end to all of this?

Only Max would work through his angst with a Vietnam parable.

Confronted with the reality of adult sexual dynamics, Max wilts. Because honestly, he is and was just a kid, and his feelings (while certainly intense and real) weren’t the kind that were equipped for what it meant to be in a real adult relationship. Suddenly confronted with her letting out the reality, his bubble pops. Ms. Cross isn’t some figure from romance, come to be wooed and rescued and in doing so fix his life. She’s just a person, a human being with desires and problems and fears and emotions of her own. But it takes so long for him to get to the point where he realizes that, that he nearly loses everything in the process, having to build back up from square one.

And ultimately I feel like that is the thing that sets Rushmore apart from Anderson’s filmography. His themes are always the same, but in none of his movies to date does he tackle this adolescent fantasy of women as romantic objects first and people second, and very few movies spend as much time setting up the situation that exists so often in the day to day. It’s ultimately a testament to the reality with which Wilson and Anderson write that Max and Blume are absolute jerks to her, but part of us often still wants to root for them (the insidious trend of nice guys in romantic comedies rears its head again).

And Ms. Cross, with Olivia Williams’ considerable poise, manages to be both that ideal woman and the justifiably outraged reality and never make either side feel unreal. We see through Max’s eyes this discovery of the reality of another person. It’s uncomfortable and unfulfilled and complicated and sometimes even a little off-putting, but for a director who is often accused of embracing artifice and stylism first and foremost, it feels truly and utterly real to the reality of the dynamics between boys and girls, men and women, everywhere and every day. It is the thing I love most about Rushmore, separate from Anderson’s other work.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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