Rushmore is my third or fourth favorite movie of all time, and I try to rewatch it once every few years. It captures so perfectly the agony of adolescence, the quirks of unlikely friendships, and the suffocating ache of unrequited love. In the future, I may publish a full review, but this month I'm positing a little theory in a piece I'm calling...
Rushmore was The Graduate for Generation X
How Max Fischer & Rushmore Saved Latin & Defined A Generation
"I'm gonna do another detour, unpave my path
And if you wanna make sense, watcha' looking at me for?
I'm no good at math"
Generation X came of age in a burst of spectacular angst. After a decade of cultural repression and absurd efforts by rank & file Reaganites to pretend that life in the 80's was just as LEAVE IT TO BEAVER as rank & file Eisenhowerians had pretended it was in the 50's, the children of MTV and Atari voiced collective discontent with force fed fashion and synthetic icons. They rioted loudly and raged hard. Seeking their own definition in the long shadow of Bombers and Boomers, the X-ers compulsively sifted through the rubble of contemporary America in music that screamed, literature that howled, and movies that roared.
Funny then that a film as sweet and sentimental as Wes Anderson's RUSHMORE should give these snarky, noisemaking rebels their greatest spokesperson. More than Kurt Cobain, Tyler Durden, or Enid Coleslaw, MAX FISCHER is the true epitome of the spirit of Generation X.
Drawing DNA from CATCHER IN THE RYE, LORD LOVE A DUCK, and HAROLD AND MAUDE, Anderson crafts a tale of youth in revolt that expresses not only the frustration and anti-conformity bent of Gen X, but also the sensitivity and sincerity that was just as common in the so called apathetic set. The story follows Max as he lives the life of a scholarship kid at a Richie Rich Prep School, the titular Rushmore Academy, and his personal struggles mirror the march down the "road to nowhere" that shaped many of the Young Adults of the 1990's. (I was one of those malcontent youths, you see, and I can attest that Max's story... was our story.)
Max Fischer, the son of a barber, is granted access to Rushmore because he shows the spark of creative genius at an early age. Like many Gen Xers, he was encouraged to follow his creative ambitions. When his mother died, he began to disappear into them.
Rushmore Academy eventually comes to represent a playground to Max, an escapist rabbit hole, a fantasyland where he's someone important, dynamic, magnetic. He thrives in an excess of extracurricular activities that
allow him to exercise his artistic inclinations. These invented activities assign meaning to a life that may otherwise be defined by the tragedy of an absent parent or the plain banality of life in the 9 to 5 workforce.
Max Fischer, youth in revolt
At Rushmore, within his own circle of geek followers, Max has a cool factor. The insulating crowd of kids that gravitate to and revolve around him allow Max to fade deeper and deeper into a construct of self-importance and indulgence. At Rushmore, even though he flounders in the left brain leaning world of academia (like many of us in those days were fond of confessing, Max is "no good at math"), he's a rock star among the misfits of Drama Club and the Kite Flying Society.
The middle class GX-er's childhood in the 70's and 80's had been a splash of video games, brightly colored cereal boxes, half hour toy commercials disguised as animated programming, and a wave of media and marketing that focused (for the first time) exclusively on the Kid Demographic. This was the first generation of kids to be catered to in such an aggressive manner.
They were also the first children to be routinely told that their individuality was as important as the greater societal good, that they could be anything THEY wanted to be. They were the first American kids who weren't groomed to take on family businesses or small town industries.
But the reality of life after college hit our generation hard as political and economic truths shattered the notion that the world might revolve around us and our feelings. Many longed almost immediately for the fantasy of all that coddling and focused media attention, but like all childhood matchstick houses, even the fantasy of returning to the womb would ultimately have to collapse. As we tripped kicking and screaming into the harsh light of day, Max Fischer, too, found himself being expelled from his cozy cocoon.
The first arrows he suffers come slung from bullies and those higher in the teen-age pecking order, then from the school's Head Master who is tiring of Max's inability to conform to the mold of a model student. But like many of us in that raucous decade, Max sees himself more as an artist than as a future cubicle dweller, so conformity does not come easy.
His art, like many Gen X-ers, gives him his identity. He takes the same visceral approach to his plays and after school clubs as Tarantino took to his cinema of cool and as Kat Bjelland took to her primal scream grunge-rock. Max's plays, like so much Gen X art, are guttural expressions of dark emotions and are related through fetishistic reenactments of the pop cultural movements of the 70's and
80's. (Ultimately, is there really that much difference between the Max Fischer Players' take on SERPICO and Barry Sonnefeld's adaptation of GET SHORTY?)
More of an icon of discontent than Tyler Durden
What also infuses Max's art, what gives it its edge, like so many creative works in those years, is a voice of rebellion. There's a defiance not only in his approach to staging and producing but in everything he says and does. Max's very existence at Rushmore is an affront to the school's usual standard of old world corporate ambition. Even as he fails in the classroom, Max carries himself through the halls of Rushmore with a self-assuredness that may be more about impression than reality but that rings as true as any act of insurgent fist raising. Like all the real life socio-political and pop cultural rebels of his day, Max Fischer shoots a middle finger to the middle class in his actions as well as his art. And in his own way, with his ever increasing collection of esoteric clubs and societies, he contributes to the rise of Geek Chic that will sweep the marketing, media, and mentality of the 2000's.
Eventually, though, his artistic talent and rebellious bravado cannot save him from throwing down the straw that breaks the camel's back and that finally sees him catapulted from his beloved wonderland. And like most boys, what propels him to more harrowing and foolhardy behavior is the beat of first love.
Early in the story, Max meets and falls hard for Ms. Cross, the new kindergarten teacher. He's immediately attracted to and quickly smitten with her kind, gentle way. He becomes emotionally entangled with her when they bond over the experience of losing loved ones (his mother, her husband). Soon, everything he does, he does for her.
Young love is certainly not unique to my or any other generation, but in Anderson's postmodern, post-ironic tale, Max's attempts to win his crush's affections range from absurd to anarchic. He approaches his version of courting with the same arrogance and bombast that he pours into his writing and extracurricular obsessions. He saves Latin Class, stages his most elaborate and ambitious play yet, and tries to build an aquarium without permission on the school's current baseball diamond. It is for this last act that he is expelled from Rushmore and banished to the wilderness of public school.
Even as he leaves the comforts of Rushmore, he keeps her in his heart and stalks her from afar. His infatuation becomes additionally complicated by Ms. Cross' mutual but platonic affections (he reminds her of her lost husband), a failed effort to force himself on her physically, and her developing
romantic relationship with Max's adult friend Herman Bloom.
All's well that ends well for Rushmore's lovable misfits
The friendship with Mr. Bloom easily represents the struggle between Gen X and their Baby Boomer parents. The cynics vs. the idealists, both cut from the same wave-making cloth yet separated by the tides of their times.
While Herman admires Max's confidence, snark, work ethic, and wise-for-his-years disposition, he doesn't entirely know how to process Max's more elaborate, overdramatic tendencies. And the two man-children fall into an easy rivalry when Ms. Cross (or their idea of her anyway) comes between them. They end up interlocked in an increasingly dangerous game of adversarial one-upmanship which finds Max, angry, dejected, creative, and at his most Punk Rockin'est. In one of the movie's best sequences, they engage in a full on revenge-a-thon that involves broken bicycles, buzzing bees, and brakes being cut. These creative excursions into lunacy and larceny facilitate the ultimate evolution of Max's egocentric extracurricular life in the same way that FIGHT CLUB eventually sprouted into the more dangerous Project Mayhem. And as Max is carted off by the cops in front of his new classmates, he completes the journey from precocious accidental rebel to proactive troublemaker.
In the less playful world of public school, Max eventually puts the pieces back together, finding his voice and discovering how it fits into this new environment. It speaks to the power of the smart over the strong and hints at the triumph of the nerd over those who once mocked them, just as Kurt Cobain avenged "Polly," "Molly," and all those other downtrodden kids who would, through the 90's, come to claim their underdog status as a badge of honor, worn proudly and heralding a new world order where "Square" truly became the new "Hip." The Nerd Revolution is indeed complete when even Max's bully admits to being his fan.
Max eventually finds age appropriate love with a girl at his new school. He also finds a renewed hope for the future, as do Ms. Cross and Henry Bloom. RUSHMORE, in the end, is the story of wounded misfits who find happiness in each other's hearts and camaraderie in their shared angst. And what's more GEN X than that?
I like to believe that Max Fischer grew up and continued to write his wild, wooly tales, producing loud, defiant plays, and maybe knocking out a movie somewhere along the way. Maybe even one as poignant and as beautiful as RUSHMORE. It's THE GRADUATE of my generation and the story that will always, to me, best represent my own journey from a young, awkward, accidental rebel to a slightly less awkward, occasionally rebellious adult.
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|They Called Them The Rebel Kind|
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The 90ís was one of the great decades in American Cinema, and I intend to explore it one film, genre, or director at a time.
Matt Berry is a copy writer, music journalist & occasional author of Weird Tales-inspired short fiction from Illinois who loves talking and writing about movies and music almost as much as he loves the music and the movies themselves. And the more coffee, pie, and cigarettes consumed during those discussions, the better!|
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