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The Essential Geek #15: "Rushmore"

The Essential Geek #15: "Rushmore"

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"She's sweet, but she's f***ed up."

That's one of my favorite lines ever. It's from "Rushmore," the sophomore effort from writer/director Wes Anderson. It's one of Bill Murray's lines; he plays Herman Blume in the film. As he says the line, he's on a hospital elevator with a couple lit cigarettes in his mouth, looking horrific.

What follows that line is one of my favorite moments in all of moviedom, but it's more than just words; it's a look, a jump cut, then a line. Here's how it reads in the script:

Max waves good-bye. But Mr. Blume does not get off the elevator. He bends over and puts his hands on his knees and takes a series of deep breaths. The door starts to close. He reaches out and holds them open. Max looks concerned.

Are you OK?

Mr. Blume looks up at Max. He laughs and shakes his head.

I'm kind of lonely these days.

Mr. Blume sighs. He gets off the elevator. The doors close behind him as Max watches him walk down the hall.

That's essentially how it plays out in the film, but minus one vital detail. Murray never "laughs and shakes his head." He speaks that last line, "I'm kind of lonely these days," with a gutwrenching pathos. The cut jumps; we miss a second. Murray's character probably misses a second too. Then he staggers off the elevator.

Reading this moment in the script after seeing it in the movie makes me realize just how much of the greatness that is "Rushmore" lies in those devilish little details, those extra steps Anderson takes to emphasize and underline every nuance of his vivid, vivid characters. We know Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) is obsessively involved in extracurriculars at Rushmore Academy, but Anderson shows us a hilarious parade of yearbook-esque shots in the film's opening moments, each one depicting Max enjoying one of his favorite hobbies, and each one more ludicrous than the one that came before. It immediately sets the tone of "Rushmore," which becomes a contest of one-upmanship between a teenage boy who thinks he's middle-aged and a middle-aged man who thinks he's a teenager.

There's a sense in which the film is constantly trying to one-up itself as well, each new bravura filmmaking flourish topping the previous one. For Anderson, it's a matter of being a great director. For Max Fischer, Herman Blume and Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), it's a matter of loneliness, and a matter of fear.

I don't know about you, but the most prevalent emotion I recall from my high school years is a healthy, vibrant fear. I feared women, I feared bad grades, I feared failure in general. Most of all, I feared that I'd never make it into a good college and become a mature grown-up human with a job and kids and wife. While my body transformed and my attitudes fluctuated daily, fear was just about the only constant.

I don't want to speak for every geek in the firmament, but I'm betting at least a few of you out there in Readerland identify with that, and thus you can't help but identify with Max as he stumbles through the marathon of transformations between childhood and adulthood. His Buddy Holly specs and killer one-liners ("I got punched in the face. What's your excuse?") have made him a deserved geek icon. But it's that raging fear gurgling beneath his somewhat composed surface that places him so close to so many geek hearts. In Max Fischer, we see some of the high schooler we'd like to have been, and a lot of the one we know deep down we were.

All the funny gags about Max and his extracurriculars are just prelude to the real meat of the film, a bizzare love triangle if ever there was one. Max crosses paths with Miss Cross, a beautiful young first-grade teacher, and becomes quickly infatuated. He enlists the help of Herman in his schemes to seduce her, and the trio quickly form one of the aforementioned three-sided objects, building their shape out of deceit, affection and confusion.

Herman falls hopelessly in love with Rosemary, but Max is obsessed with Rosemary, so Max lashes out at both when he discovers they've been secretly conducting an affair behind his back. As they trade off vicious and dangerous pranks, Herman behaves as childishly as Max, ultimately driving Rosemary away. Losing Rosemary forces Herman to confront his own behavior; he seems to realize he's been motivated by a massive black loneliness that's poised to consume him. Likewise, Rosemary is forced to confront her sorrow about the death of her husband, and whether that might be her true motivation for fearing a relationship with Herman.

Yet at the conclusion of "Rushmore," it's not even clear if the central character has learned anything about coping with his own fears. Though there is a tidy resoultion for Herman and Rosemary, Max finds no such happy ending. He's found a girl his age to fall in love with and he continues his outlandish writing and performing in school plays. But his new love interest, Margaret Yang (Sara Tanaka), behaves as childishly as he does, and though the two seem to find a merging in their spirits, they never seem to realize that said spirits require much more growth and change to reach maturity.

But hey. Any geek out there who's not still a fifteen-year-old at heart sometimes, raise your Gamecube controller. I thought so.

In that sense, Anderson hits the nail right on the head. The adults grow up, because that's what grown-ups do; Max remains immature, because he's got a long way to go on the road to "maturity." And if he never really gets there, so be it. That's the price you pay for the life you choose. Or as Max himself quotes, when one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself.

Part of the credit for the film's complexity goes quite rightly to Anderson, but heaping gobs of it must also go to the actors for amazing performances across the board. Murray's failure to gain a Best Supporting Actor nomination from the Academy Awards for "Rushmore" might be the biggest Oscar tragedy of all time. He dominates the film with his most dangerous and edgy role since the early eighties, one that's enhanced by a healthy dose of humanity. He's as fascinating to watch as he was in "Caddyshack" or "Stripes," but this character has more soul than either of those purely comedic performances. One look at his hangdog face pining after Rosemary and your insides melt for the man.

Schwartzman is exceptional as Max, somehow managing to turn this potentially grating character into a compassionate figure, full of life and humor alongside the bitterness. Great work is also delivered by Williams as the infinitely patient teacher Rosemary and by veteran character actor Seymour Cassel as Bert Fischer, Max's long-suffering father.

The Criterion Collection has made a cottage industry out of delivering exceptional special editions of titles that most studios would simply gloss over. They did it on laserdisc, and they do it on DVD. "Rushmore" is a great release from Criterion, featuring a commentary track, documentary footage, some hilarious mock productions filmed for MTV, and an awesome poster illustrated by Wes Anderson's brother. It's a great package and it belongs on the DVD shelf of every sentient being.

"Rushmore" is a joy to watch, because details big and small keep it funny. At the same time, there's nothing all that funny about it, because it offers no easy answers to the predicaments of its characters. The movie is character-driven in the most affecting way. It's a sympathetic portrayal of three people who face fear every day, and learn through each other how to deal with those fears...or not, as the case may be. Every geek worth their salt must see a tiny reflection of their adolescent self in the x-ray specs of Max Fischer, so certain that he knows how to deal with the adult world, and so very wrong.

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