So Sad About Max
I'm disappointed that RUSHMORE didn't get a better reception. It did get a fair amount of attention, so that might seem like a strange thing to say, but to me it's the kind of film that should have galvanized movie audiences the way that THE GODFATHER, NASHVILLE, and TAXI DRIVER did 25 years ago. "Should have galvanized movie audiences"--that's my bad Pauline Kael imita- tion, and it's probably from having read so much Kael that I still root for my favorite films to make hundreds of millions of dollars and become big topics of conversation everywhere you turn. I don't feel the same way about my favorite music, where I'm more or less indifferent to whether it makes #1 on BILLBOARD or has an audience of me and five others. (With me the range is more like #1 in BILLBOARD to #93 in BILLBOARD--me and 500,000 others.) With films, though, I turn evangelical, as I have recently with RUSHMORE. It's a film that brings together a number of things that at one time or another made a lasting impression on me: THE GRADUATE (THE GRADUATE specifically, but THE HEARTBREAK KID, THE STERILE CUCKOO, NOBODY WAVED GOODBYE, YOU'RE A BIG BOY NOW, and--I'm guessing, I haven't seen it--HAROLD AND MAUDE are there too), THE CATCHER IN THE RYE (RUSHMORE is as much of a film version as you could ever hope for), and the handful of early Who songs I'm most in awe of ("Substitute," "I'm a Boy," "Circles," "Don't Look Away," "Pictures of Lily," "See My Way," "I Can't Reach You"). Especially "I Can't Reach You"--when Pete Townshend sings "You're so alive and I'm nearly dead," he could be RUSHMORE's Herman Blume standing at a distance and looking at Max Fischer, or Max looking at Rosemary Appleby, or Margaret Yang looking at Max, or Herman looking at Rosemary, or maybe even Rosemary looking at Max. In the end, as it should be, it's Max looking at Margaret. "You fly your plane right over my head/You're so alive and I'm nearly dead"--when Max opens his eyes and sees Margaret for what amounts to the first time, one of his three or four great moments of acceptance in the movie, she actually is flying her plane right over his head. I don't know if Wes Anderson had "I Can't Reach You" in mind when he envisioned the scene on the tarmac, but RUSHMORE is so steeped in the spirit and the fact of those early Who songs-- "My name is Max and I'm a head case" would have worked as the film's opening line--he might have. RUSHMORE's connection to THE GRADUATE and THE CATCHER IN THE RYE is no less overt, but Anderson plays around with them and, in many ways, makes them better. Besides its basic premise, RUSHMORE lifts specific images and effects from THE GRADUATE: Herman disappearing into himself as he floats to the bottom of the family pool, Max lying in wait for Herman inside the car, Rosemary's "Goodbye, Max" perfectly echoing Mrs. Robinson's "Goodbye, Benjamin," the close parallel between the "I Am Waiting" and "April Come She Will" sequences. But outside of Max's shared weakness for half-baked ideas (where he goes Benjamin Braddock ten better), he couldn't be more unlike Ben. I can understand why some people have no patience for Ben's doddering around in THE GRADUATE, where Hoffman seems to be working out his RAIN MAN character 20 years before the fact; for me, it's all of a piece with everything I love about the film, but if I were seeing THE GRADUATE for the first time today, I doubt I'd find Ben so endearing. Some of Ben's mannerisms linger on in Bill Murray's sad and rumpled Herman Blume, who is more a version of Ben 30 years later than Jason Schwartzman's Max is of Ben five years earlier--Ben gone on to the world of steel instead of plastics, but still hiding behind trees and still unable to put together a sentence when he stands before Rosemary in front of her house. Max, on the other hand, never dodders. He's on overdrive all the time, brilliant and emphatic and spinning off into 30 different directions at once. He's Holden Caulfield, not Benjamin Braddock--a creative whirlwind, a force. But Max isn't really Holden, either. I last read THE CATCHER IN THE RYE over 10 years ago, and it's not a pleasant memory. The book's unrelenting sourness was hard to take; it is what it is, but the way that Salinger was so quick to close off every last chance for Holden to find his place in the world--for every Phoebe, there'd be a wall with "fuck you" scrawled over it-- felt suffocating. RUSHMORE doesn't punish Max the way that Holden's punished in THE CATCHER IN THE RYE. Max shares Holden's misfit/outsider status, and he thrives on the same kind of healthy loathing for the Magnuses of Rushmore Academy, but Max is able to come out the other side of his breakdown in a way that I don't remember Holden doing. Taking Herman in to meet his father, understanding how mean he's been to Margaret, orchestrating Herman and Rose- mary's reconciliation--these are profound moments, and they give RUSHMORE a sympathetic lift that's absent from THE CATCHER IN THE RYE. That's not something you need from Salinger's book when you're 15, but 20 years later, it's a difference that means a lot. For me to love a film as much as I do RUSHMORE, there's a good chance that pop music's going to figure prominently. There's music all through RUSHMORE, a mid-60s mix of second-tier hits and semi-obscure album tracks from Britain, and as is true of all the best pop directors--Rule Number One-- Wes Anderson puts the music front and center, sometimes for minutes at a time. Along with a spare-sounding Kinks song I'd never heard before (just right for the image of Herman tossing golf balls into the pool) and Cat Stevens' original "Here Comes My Baby" (also a discovery: it's always been a Tremeloes song to me), RUSHMORE has three musical detours that are epics unto themselves. There's the Who, of course, a couple of minutes from "A Quick One While He's Away." It's used as counterpoint--"You are forgiven" over and over again at the very moment when Max and Blume are ready to kill each other--but it's also an inspired match for the look on Max's face as he emerges, slow- motion, from the hotel elevator after funnelling honeybees into Herman's room: an expression of adolescent hate as fixed and as blank as the one worn by Pete Townshend on the MY GENERATION LP cover. It's the look you hear in "I Can See for Miles," but that would have been too easy a choice. "A Quick One" functions as a more abstract backdrop to the same feelings. After Max concedes Rosemary to Herman, he turns away--from them, from Margaret, from school, from himself. He's George Minafer towards the end of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS: he's gotten his comeuppance, ten times over. What follows, as the Rolling Stones' "I Am Waiting" plays (I've never owned AFTERMATH, so that was new to me too), is as affecting a snapshot of self-pity as I've ever seen in a film. I've always thought self-pity the most underrated of emotions--you don't want it to overtake your life, but every so often, it's not a bad thing. As much as anger or revenge or anything else, it's an emotion that cleanses. Anderson apotheosizes self-pity for the duration of "I Am Waiting": Max closing the drapes on Margaret is an image of tremendous purity. Best of all, just as RUSHMORE's getting underway (so don't show up late, which I hope you wouldn't consider anyway), is the montage of Max's extra- curricular activities set to the Creation's "Making Time." Again, new to me; I'm not even sure if I'd ever come across the group's name before. You can find singular depictions of hate and self-pity in other movies, but I don't know that there's ever been anything like the "Making Time" sequence. The choreography is stunning--each tableau more intricate than the last, every- thing culminating in the shot of Max leading the "Bombardment Society." I can't give a name to whatever it is that this sequence gets at. It gets to the core of something. My favorite student in my own class the past two years has been Ranger Buck Goyette (I had him as a 3 last year and asked to have him back in the 3/4 split I'm doing now). Ranger doesn't know he's my favorite student, because two or three times a day I'm yelling at him. He's exasperating. He reads about three grade levels ahead of the rest of the kids, and he's intensely interested whenever I'm talking about Richard Nixon or Aretha Franklin or CITIZEN KANE. Last year, as part of a newspaper unit, I had the class trying to write editorials on whether the younger grades should be allowed to attend school dances; yes, wrote Ranger, because all kids need to "feel the flow of freedom." Meanwhile, his marks are average or worse because he just doesn't care, and he's not much past the kindergarten level when it comes to the social graces--he's still eating snow and rifling around garbage cans for fun. I told his mom that she needed to see RUSHMORE, that it was about a kid who was Ranger in five years. (Quickly adding that I meant that only in a good way, that I wasn't saying that Ranger would be pulling down 40s and 50s in high school--the truth is, that's in part exactly what I meant.) I hope Ranger sees RUSHMORE one day; I know he'll see himself up there, and if he catches it at the right moment, I'm sure it will affect him like THE GRADUATE and THE CATCHER IN THE RYE affected me. And if I were 15 myself right now, I'm guessing that RUSHMORE would have the capacity to permanently shape how I viewed the world, or at least how I viewed myself. I'm not, so that's already been taken care of by other films, books, and records. But RUSHMORE touches something inside me that comes from the same place.