Monday, August 1, 2011

Rushmore--For the Win!

            This film is at its core about people growing up.  Whether it’s Max easing out of childhood, Miss Cross coming to terms with her late husband, or Mr. Blume acknowledging his failing relationships, it’s messy and awkward and uncomfortable and the resulting conflagrations are hilarious to watch.  Hilarious and painfully awkward.  I don’t think you realize how much the term “hand-job” gets casually thrown around unless you’ve watched this in your High School Advanced English class with your teacher sitting next to you.  This is part of the movie’s charm, though.  My adolescence, much like yours I’m sure, was replete with situations that I wished I could just fast forward through, but if you did do that you wouldn’t catch the whole story. 
            Back in high school, I was extremely enamored of a girl.  And, being the sort of genius that I am, when we were hanging out I decided to show her my two favorite movies at the time: Rushmore and High Fidelity.  We eventually watched both and after finishing Rushmore, she turned to me and said, “I can see why you like these movies so much—you’re just like both of these characters.”  That always stuck with me.  And now, 13 years later, High Fidelity is still one my most cherished films, although no longer reigning on my Top 5 (ironic, no?), and Rushmore still remains my all-time favorite movie.  I fell in love with it from the first viewing, and in truth it did have a lot to do with how I identified with Max Fischer.  I just never realized until the moment she said it how much I wear my heart on my sleeve—that other people are capable of really seeing you.
            It wasn’t until my most recent rewatching of the movie a few weeks ago that I realized how many expressions I commonly use comes from this film.  I use Max’s opening line, “I’m sorry, did somebody say my name,” to make a comedic entrance into a room, literally, whenever applicable.  When being grilled by someone, I almost always shoot back with, “What are you, a lawyer?!”  I just have to own up to the fact that for better or worse this movie is an unconscious part of my life. 
            Rushmore in my opinion is still Wes Anderson at his top form.  When The Royal Tenenbaums came out, I remember trying to describe it to some friends after watching a screening and I said, “It was more Rushmore than Rushmore.”  All of Anderson’s movies have gotten progressively more and more idiosyncratic and surreal—not necessarily a bad thing, mind you, but it’s still there.  Recently, while talking this over my friend Rene made the observation that all of his post-Rushmore movies deal with ensembles rather than just a few individuals.  I think it’s that confluence of Anderson quirkiness and large casts that can make some of his other movies seem slightly less focused than this one. 
            The driving force in this movie is clearly Jason Schwartzman’s debut performance as the main character, Max Fischer.  Let’s take a moment to consider Max at face value: 5’6, 15, 112 pounds, oval face…  He gets punched twice through the course of the movie and butted once with a rifle and he treats each incident as a victory or moment of triumph.  When he gets laid out by Magnus Buchan with one punch, Max reaches up to his friend and says, “We got him, Dirk.  We got him.”  When fighting for the heart of the woman he loves, although the methodology is extremely ill-advised, he floods his rival’s hotel room with bees and even cuts his car’s brakes.  For being a mousy, unintimidating looking theater kid, Max stands up for himself even when the situation is helpless.  I know I’m always impressed by the gutsiness.
            When you read reviews or descriptions of this movie, people invariably use the word “precocious” to describe Max, but I think a more apt term is quixotic.  And much like that character, Max’s lofty dreams inspire those around him to attempt the impossible and defy reason.  He manages a skeet club and backgammon club at Rushmore.  Not to mention a calligraphy group, junior pilots club, astronomy, etc.  His interests seem to be everything except the ordinary things kids his age “should” be interested in.  I would say it is directly because of this bizarre collection of endeavors that he always has a retinue on hand.  He’s a little crazy and he dreams big, but most people won’t admit that they want to be a little crazy and dream big as well.  It just takes a spark to start that reaction.
How else can you explain a demolition company signing out dynamite to a 10 year old?  Or a construction crew taking orders from a 15 year old as they dismantle a baseball diamond?  What begins, though, as a mad list of extracurriculars in the beginning becomes something more focused and deftly used by the end.  I don’t think Max is that same kid who earlier on says, dead-pan, “My top schools where I want to apply to are Oxford and the Sorbonne. But my safety's Harvard.”  When he’s performing “Heaven and Hell” at the end, it’s with a driven purpose: the dedication he makes before the curtain rises, the seating he chooses, the casting…it’s all about bringing his circle of friends back together. 
            Wes Anderson really knows how to stage a scene, because this movie is a really wonderful collection of triumphant and quietly beautiful moments.  Max, bloody-nosed, while receiving a standing ovation, turning defiantly to look at the boy who punched him; Max giving his former principal the bird while burning leaves on the school lawn; him, disguised, sneaking into the service elevator of a hotel to torment Mr. Blume; laying a small, potted flower at his mother’s grave; and of course the final moment. 
            I’ve never seen a more sublime ending to a film.  The ending to this movie is so good I sometimes just put it on and watch the last 15 minutes.  The bridges that we once thought burnt have been rebuilt.  In the end no one is a bad guy; everyone gets their chance to be redeemed.  And it happens so organically that you almost forget how it was ever any other way.  Buchan, who had made tormenting Max a minor hobby now looks to his defense when Max gets rifle-butted.  At one point Max tried to fell a tree on Mr. Blume, he hated him so much.  But now, Max has written a play about the same war Mr. Blume found himself lost in as a youth and Max has given him the happy ending he must have wanted but could never have in real life.  War can give way to love, but perhaps only if we wish it, demand it.  And now, on stage, and in their own lives the fighting has stopped.   

I suppose that’s one of the most wonderful things about this movie.  It tells us it’s okay to dream big, but try to do it with a purpose.  The Max we meet in the first half of the film tries to do everything and succeeds in virtually nothing; he a charismatic, but ultimately, feckless leader.  By the end, he is a maestro of sorts.  He pulls on people’s strings and they can’t help but follow.
The penultimate moment is possibly my favorite instance caught on film.  Max and Ms. Cross are going to dance and she takes off his glasses.  She sees him briefly for the man that he might someday be—perhaps with an unexpected bit of Edward Applebee thrown in—and she has a sharp intake of breath.  If you’ve been as drawn into the movie as much I am, at this point you do too.  What if he was a few years older…what if she was a few years younger?  I think they both see it.  But this is perhaps what growing up and loving someone is really about.  Because it is true, sometimes if you really care for someone the only thing you can do is let that person go.  He’ll never be old enough for her and she’ll never be young enough for him.  But, they can still have that friendship.  And they’re both ready now to admit that.
When I think of the phrase “movie magic”, I often look here to these final seconds before the curtain drops, with the whole cast on screen dancing, brought back together, sparklers blazing in the background.  I feel transported; changed; better.  It is so beautifully done that I think I might get it framed someday.  It’s starts off standard speed and then drops into slow motion, so that each simple gesture becomes a lasting statement.  That last shot tries to stretch itself out as long as possible, because all of life’s truly transcendent moments feel that way.   Would that all of life’s dramatic arcs reach their conclusions so succinctly.  We could have music and fireworks and dancing nightly. 

And just to show you how much my friends and I like this movie, here's us from college:

And the trailer.