Criterion Commentaries: “Rushmore”
I knew two things on the night of March 12, 1999 when I went in to see Rushmore. It starred Bill Murray, and my friend was eager to see it. For quite some time thereafter, all I could clearly articulate about Rushmore was that it starred Bill Murray and that my friend had loved it. Murray is terrific in it, reflecting that part of us that has become discouraged and worn down but still hopeful enough to root for others. Herman isn’t a misanthrope. He’s simply a guy who looks around and wonders how things got so off-track and whether he can ever get back to where he wanted to be.
Rushmore has the distinction of being one of just a handful of movies selected for inclusion in The Criterion Collection as a new release title. In his essay for the 1999 Criterion DVD release, critic David Kehr likened the film to Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, characterizing Rushmore’s Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) as “an American dreamer who refuses to allow reality to limit his aspirations.” Except where Huck gives us that terrific fist-pumping moment in which he declares, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell”, the noblest thing Max does is agree to exit through a window in the pouring rain.
Rushmore Academy, we’re told, is Max’s true love. He dedicates himself to so many causes that his scholastic performance is entirely unacceptable. Even in public schools, students are restricted in their extra-curricular participation to ensure a minimal conflict with academic work. It is so implausible that it may well be impossible that a place such as Rushmore Academy would ever have indulged a student to be stretched as thin as Max.
If Max’s problem was that he participated in so many different activities in the course of self-exploration, then why at no time does anyone say to Max, “Hey, you know what? You seem to really like making plays and you’re good at that. Do that. Actually do your class work, at least enough to pass, and make plays.” It’s as though writers Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson have resisted even that level of reality for Max and his world, where they just want their teenage protagonist to be given complete freedom to learn absolutely nothing about himself or his world.
Rushmore presents us with a love triangle of Max, Herman, and Miss Cross (Olivia Williams), wherein both Max and Herman are in love with Cross. She’s never in love with Max and only gives Herman a brief dalliance, so whether it constitutes a full triangle is a matter more for a mathematician than a film reviewer. When Max’s best friend, Dirk Calloway (Mason Gamble) discovers that Herman has been sneaking around and seeing her, he confronts Herman about the matter. Miss Cross was Max’s trophy to win, and as Max’s friend, Herman had crossed the line by also trying to win her. Herman concedes that he’s in the wrong.
This is not just a summary of the plot, but also the perfect microcosm of the film. Kehr calls Max’s fixation on activities at the expense of his studies “his one character flaw”, which in turn suggests that Kehr also failed to see what is so egregious with Max never seeing Rosemary Cross as a woman entitled to feel, or not to feel, whatever suited her, rather than to exist as Max’s muse or Herman’s mid-life salvation. Rushmore is ultimately a surrealistic “do-over” for a stereotypical straight white male adolescent’s fantasy.
Rosemary Cross fixates on her deceased husband, Edward Appleby, who graduated from Rushmore Academy in 1987 (more than a decade before the film’s 1998 release). Yet she’s stopped going by “Mrs. Appleby”? Moreover, “Miss” is a title for a young woman; at the very least, if she had reverted to her maiden name – which feels incongruous with the obsessive grieving of a woman who sleeps in her husband’s bedroom – she would have used the age appropriate title “Ms.” rather than “Miss”. This may seem like a matter of semantics, but Anderson’s storytelling prides itself on its specificity, which in turn invites scrutiny. The greater issue is that Rosemary’s grief and identity as a widow exists within the story as little more than an obstacle for Max and Herman.
HERMAN: “She’s still in love with the dead guy, anyway.”
MAX: “You mean Edward Appleby.”
HERMAN: “Oh. Yeah. She’s fucked up.”
Herman then starts lighting a cigarette, despite already having one going. The joke, of course, is that Herman is the one who has come unraveled, but whatever is going on within Rosemary Cross is simply too inconvenient for Max or Herman, or for Anderson and Wilson, for that matter.
Rosemary does chaff at the idea of being viewed as a trophy to be won by either Max or Herman, but apparently only on the basis that Max is too young for her, and Herman’s problems are “A. he’s married, and b. he hates himself.” At no point does she say, “I’m not comfortable developing another romantic relationship”, “I’m not attracted to either of you” or any other legitimate reason for not allowing herself to be someone else’s prize. It seems that Anderson and Wilson only even imbued her with the self-awareness to realize that’s how she existed for Max and Herman so that they would have to “work for it”. Rosemary Cross could have been the most fascinating character in the entire picture, and instead the only reason she isn’t even more vapid than Olive Oyl is that Olivia Williams holds the screen with such charisma.
Margaret Yang (Sara Tanaka) compounds the problem. In the end, she becomes Max’s girlfriend, but this is even more troubling than it is encouraging. Margaret is instantly smitten with Max, but he ignores her entirely, being fixated instead on Rosemary Cross. No one ever presses Max about it in the film, but it isn’t difficult to imagine that he would defend his indifference to Margaret as his right to feel, or not feel, but at no point is any such allowance extended to Rosemary Cross – who should have had the right to just not be into Max, Herman, or anyone else. Margaret “wins” Max by default, becoming a sort of second-place trophy prize – third-place if we continue to view Rushmore as Max’s “true love”.
“You two deserve each other,” Rosemary says to Max about Herman in the one moment that promises to finally penetrate the willingly unrealistic bubble in which Max has lived. “You’re both children.” Max doesn’t understand that what Rosemary wants is to be left out his competition with Herman for her. Instead, what he takes away from their discussion is that he can’t win her, but maybe Herman still can. An $8 million aquarium is financed to woo her, though she’s at least allowed to not attend the groundbreaking ceremony and to note that she never asked anyone to build her an aquarium. Not to be discouraged, Max then arranges Rosemary to be seated next to Herman at the opening of his school play. In the after party, we’re given to understand that Rosemary has relented and is giving Herman another chance.
So what did Max learn? What did Herman learn? What did we learn? Nothing, because apparently, neither Anderson nor Wilson were listening to what their own character had to say about not being a winnable prize. Instead, Max persists until he “wins”. By “allowing” Herman to be the victor, Max has displayed maturity in the form of selflessness. We’re meant to applaud his growth as a character, but the truth is, there is no growth to applaud. It’s one thing for the conceit of the film to be that an entire community has seemingly indulged Max Fischer so far, but it’s another thing to tell us that Max hasn’t really learned anything from that being challenged by reality.
The Criterion Treatment
The Criterion Collection gave the film a lovely home video release, first on DVD in 1999 and then on Blu-ray Disc in 2012.
Audio Commentary by Wes Anderson, co-writer Owen Wilson, and actor Jason Schwartzman
Commentary tracks where multiple speakers are recorded separately and then edited together are often a mixed bag, in part because the individuals often recall the same anecdote at different times in the course of viewing the film. Plus, by not recording together, the speakers have no actual chemistry with one another. Wes Anderson and Jason Schwartzman’s voices are easy to distinguish from one another, but they’re tonally similar enough that they create a sort of auditory monotony. Though for a nice insight into how thoughtful Murray is as an actor, just listen to Wes Anderson discuss the filming of the scene where Herman approaches Rosemary while her students paint.
Thankfully, Owen Wilson’s voice is distinctive enough, and he exudes noticeably more enthusiasm, that he rescues the track. Wilson expounds some on an idea he had about Max as a character, recalling how F. Scott Fitzgerald tells us that Jay Gatz “reinvented” himself as Jay Gatsby. In Rushmore, Wilson suggests, we’re seeing Max reinvent himself for who will eventually become later in life. It is for this reason that Max has experimented with so many extra-curricular activities and enjoyed the benefits of developing such a diverse network of contacts. No one will ever speak of Max Fischer, the kid who failed out of Rushmore Academy. Instead, they’ll one day recall Max Fischer as the bigger-than-life dreamer who exhibited “gusto” at every turn. It’s an interesting perspective to have about the character, and one that could very well be the basis should a sequel ever be made, now that enough time has passed to be curious what has actually become of Max.
“The Making of Rushmore” (16:46) was shot throughout production by Anderson’s brother, Eric Chase Anderson. It’s a typical Electronic Press Kit (EPK), amalgamating sound byte-reductions of the plot and characters with behind-the-scenes antics of the cast and crew.
“The Charlie Rose Show featuring Bill Murray and Wes Anderson” (54:16) substitutes for the kind of extensive original interview for which Criterion is well known, presenting instead an episode of The Charlie Rose Show in which Bill Murray (first half) and Wes Anderson (second half) give one-on-one interviews independent of one another. As tends to happen with bonus content, there is some redundancy of information presented to us. For instance, we hear more than once here as well as in the commentary that several efforts were made to bait Bill Murray into participating by sending him VHS copies of Anderson’s first feature film, Bottle Rocket. Murray never bothered to watch any of them, preferring instead to make Rushmore because he liked its screenplay and not to tap into a film he’d never seen.
Cast audition footage of Schwartzman (3:59), Ronnie & Keith McCawley (0:49), Stephen McCole (2:20), Mason Gamble (0:27) and Sara Tanaka (0:51) is interesting primarily for giving us a look at how Schwartzman won the role after an exhaustive casting search had already run for a year. McCole’s line reading for Magnus is amusing because the young actor himself finds the role so entertaining. Similarly perfunctory are Wes Anderson’s Hand-Drawn Storyboards, galleries of still images, and the film’s original trailer. Curiously, though the film establishes that Max’s climactic play is presented in January, still images clearly show a contradictory performance date!
By far the most entertaining bonus content is “Max Fischer Players Present” (4:10), in which we see the Max Fischer Players perform scenes from The Truman Show, Armageddon and Out of Sight. These clips were produced in support of the 1999 MTV Video Awards. It’s possible that these four minutes justify the existence of the MTV Video Awards.
Criterion gets extra credit for producing and including a map illustrated by Eric Chase Anderson of the film’s settings and key events. Anderson’s artwork also adorns the exterior of the package. Merely seeing a scan of the poster doesn’t do justice to it, and in an era where even commentary tracks are becoming digital copy exclusives, it’s increasingly easy to appreciate such a tangible feature.
Rushmore Re-Ranked on My Flickchart (#1241/1569)
Rushmore < Moneyball –> #1241
I don’t know if it’s because Rushmore plays like a stereotypical adolescent male fantasy or if it’s because I love baseball, but I’m going with Moneyball here.
Rushmore > Napoleon Dynamite –> #1177
Not big on either, but Rushmore features a fun performance by Bill Murray. It gets the nod.
These are the respective all-time favorites of two of my friends…and I’m more or less “meh” on both. I like the ideas in The Shawshank Redemption, but Bill Murray is more interesting to watch. Rushmore gets the nod.
I know Wes Anderson fans are all gaga over Rushmore, but I’m much more into Green Lantern than Wes Anderson.
Rushmore < Road to Bali –> #981
I’ll concede that Rushmore has the better music – and Bill Murray – but Road to Bali entertained me more.
Rushmore > The Big Tease –> #956
I really want to pick The Big Tease because I dig Craig Ferguson and I’m not big on Rushmore, but there’s enough wrong with the former and enough right with the latter that Wes Anderson wins this one.
Rushmore > BURN-E –> #944
BURN-E cracked me up, but it’s ultimately a glorified deleted scene montage. Going with Rushmore here. Max Fischer grates on my nerves as a character, but I love Bill Murray.
Rushmore < Aliens –> #944
I would love to see Max Fischer fixate on Ellen Ripley. She’d have put him in his place before the opening credits and I’d have been able to tolerate him.
Rushmore < The Wrestler –> #944
I’m not ready to commit to something as absolute as Aronofsky < Anderson, but it’s definitely true for me here.
Rushmore > Garfield –> #942
Rushmore was re-ranked on my Flickchart to #942/1569