"Sic Transit Gloria...Glory Fades": Wes Anderson's Rushmore
In his second feature, Rushmore, Wes Anderson introduces one of the most instantly iconic characters in his rogue’s gallery of morally corrupt men: Max Fischer (played by Jason Schwartzman). Max is a cinematic symbol of teenage rebellion to many, and that nostalgic attachment comes from his charming underdog narrative within the wealthy world of his private school, Rushmore.
Unlike all the other students, Max doesn’t come from an affluent background. His father is just a barber, and his mother has passed away long before we join his story. His tuition is paid through a scholarship he won for writing a surprisingly astute play in second grade. He spends his time at Rushmore trying to make up for his disparity by throwing himself into extracurricular activities all over the school, which range from the athletic to the artistic to the academic. He leads and establishes a wide spread of new organizations and clubs for any imaginable hobby for any imaginable type of student at Rushmore, desperate to fit in and please his fellow students. His plays, too, continue to take up a lot of his time and energy as he sets up the incredible productions with his group of student actors, ridiculously over-the-top designs, and bizarrely age-inappropriate subject matter.
Despite everything he does for the benefit of Rushmore, Max fails miserably at the one thing school is ultimately meant for: his grades. Max is fantastically gifted with a wide array of impressive skills, but those talents lie outside the conventionally academic. He’s the kind of kid for which the educational system wasn’t designed, and that’s a big part of what makes him a lovable underdog…at first.
Because, yes, Max is far less well-off than the kids around him, and, yes, Max is struggling to get by on his social strengths alone. However, it doesn’t mean that he lives his life without considerable advantages all the same.
Throughout Rushmore, Max is given an absurd amount of second chances that stretch far beyond the realm of reason. The academic bar for Max couldn’t possibly be lower, but the meeting with Dr. Guggenheim (Brian Cox) suggests to the viewer that it’s been working its way down throughout Max’s entire time at Rushmore. His current status isn’t as unexpected as it may seem at first glance, but rather a product of ignored warnings. Yet, the staff of Rushmore still indulges Max in his distractions, as no one seems to stop him from lobbying for Latin class, creating new clubs, or creating new plays. No matter how bad his behavior or how obscure whatever his latest scheme is, no one stands in his way or holds him back. Undeserved opportunities keep being placed at Max’s feet simply for being a creative boy, and he’s unable to let a single one pass by.
It all creates a sense of entitlement that initially comes off as confidence, but things change when Max starts to get rejected in his attempts at romance with Ms. Cross (Olivia Williams). As she refuses to reciprocate his schoolboy crush, Max reveals the spoiled child that hides under the façade of an assured young man. Max treats Ms. Cross as if she owes him something simply because he likes her and has done uninvited favors for her. The men in her life, like Dr. Flynn (Luke Wilson) and, later, Herman Blume (Bill Murray, in his first appearance in a Wes Anderson film), are constantly harassed and bullied by Max. His romantic pursuit, if you can really call it that, is ruthlessly and desperately persistent. It’s led romantic and more about his irritation that Cross has not dropped everything and centered her life on Max’s wants and needs.
The film doesn’t forgive Max for his transgressions, though. He slowly loses everything he values in his life as he keeps behaving in such abhorrent ways. He’s expelled from Rushmore for trying to build an aquarium in Cross’s honor on school grounds without the school’s permission or knowledge. His repellent, foolish, over-the-top actions obviously repel Cross completely, and he loses a friend in Blume for similar reasons. At his lowest point, Max even loses the motivation to keep going to his public school and works full-time in his father’s barbershop. After this period of penance, things only begin to turn around for Max as he learns to humble himself and consider other perspectives than just his own male gaze. He apologizes to fellow students he mistreated, then works with them to use his greatest skill, producing plays, to make things right with those he’s wronged more severely. Through his Vietnam War piece, 'Heaven and Hell', he honors Blume’s military experience and gives roles to students with whom he’d once been at odds. The play also is dedicated to the memory of Ms. Cross’s deceased husband, Edward Appleby, as way of apology to Ms. Cross for his disrespect. Cross and Blume are sat together by Max’s arrangement, which allows them to discuss what went wrong in their relationship and decide to give it another try. Through his humility and repentant gestures, Max actually earns the trust that was freely given before, and that work is what makes it mean so much more.
Max’s journey in Rushmore is a fascinating coming-of age tale that demonstrates the convoluted nature of the many types of privilege that can exist and conflict within one person’s life. Though he doesn’t have the same silver spoon in his mouth as the rest of Rushmore’s students, there’s a certain liberty and entitlement that’s within him automatically by being a precocious boy. In an odd way, it even becomes a microcosm of the systematic privilege we see given to men within the entertainment industry at large: they receive numerous tries with seemingly unlimited budgets to make whatever comes to mind, regardless of how they treat their peers and, more specifically, women. But Max finds the solution that’s seemingly missing in the moviemaking machine: with empathy and respect for others, you can make a masterpiece.