Rushmore, a 1998 American high school comedy, and director Wes Anderson’s second feature film following 96s Bottle Rocket, focuses on one Max Fischer. Max is a narcissistic high schooler who has a flair for the creative and the eccentric. Whilst on the verge of being kicked out of his beloved Rushmore Academy, Max is determined more than ever. This time, to win the hand of one of his teachers. In the Wes Anderson Collection essay novel (which we would highly recommend to any Anderson fan), writer Matt Zoller Seitz says simply: “There are few perfect films. Rushmore is one of them.”
After a comical back and forth between Max Fischer and Herman Bloom, the two have a chance meeting in an elevator, having just separately visited a mutual friend in hospital. Clearly beaten, Bloom simply confesses “I’m a little bit lonely these days.”
Max has won, having broken this man… but doesn’t get any of the satisfaction that he first thought he would. Herman leaves the lift, and Max, to dwell. This – is my favourite scene of Rushmore.
By this point, the downtrodden droopy-esque Bloom’s wife has left, having been informed of his infidelity, and Miss Cross is no longer in the picture either… adding insult to injury, surrogate son, Max, couldn’t be further away from him either right now.
Whilst Rushmore will more than happily juggle – and successfully keep balance of, no less – an often cartoonish tone inside the otherwise “High School/Coming of Age Movie”, this scene is restrained and follows after the one-upping montage as the two – often physically – try and hurt one another. Said montage has shades of Looney Tunes and Bugs Vs Elmer Fudd, only so far away from someone putting up a picket sign claiming some ridiculous treasure.
To frame this scene in a claustrophobic elevator, following such carnage, and away from the outside world, ironically gives you that space that we require as an audience. It reminds you of exactly where these characters stand. And in this case, together Max and Herman are quite literally at the bottom – for Herman, emotionally, and for Max perhaps through his sense of decision making and taste. This quite literal nowhere to turn location – alongside Murray’s honesty and the dialogue’s hushed understated tones is something that is real and stands out as such in a movie with such a broad tone. Bloom is broken, he’s done, and he’s not willing to play any longer. It’s candid and it’s really special.
Whilst Schwartzman carries this film, I can’t help but focus on Murray’s performance in this instead. And for better or worse, this role really started the trend of Wes Anderson and his featured guest star alumni. Something that I feel used to add to an Anderson picture – rather than supplement its own toy box pretentiousness. Proven character actors, performing intriguing and off-centre creations with real and sharp edges, none shown better than Murray’s listless and downtrodden Herman Bloom here. Rushmore being Anderson’s second feature, really cemented the kooky Anderson trademark style too, like its inventive use of titles, and symmetry in its framing to which he would only continue with to this day.
In 1996, two years earlier than the release of Rushmore, Bill Murray and his then wife, Margeret Kelly, would finalise their divorce. Earlier, having worked with Harold Ramis on 93s Groundhog Day, as Murray and Kelly were separating, Ramis would note of Murray’s difficulty on set. He said: “At times, Bill was just really irrationally mean and unavailable; he was constantly late on set. What I’d want to say to him is just what we tell our children: ‘You don’t have to throw tantrums to get what you want. Just say what you want.’ ” In 1997, Bill Murray remarried to Jennifer Butler after the two had had an affair.
This combination of emotions, so recent no less, would only greatly play into this role of Rushmore’s Herman Bloom, a man who was also wealthy, married and simultaneously having an affair. Infamously Murray even wrote a cheque for Anderson to be able to achieve a specific helicopter shot – just like his on-screen character writes a cheque for Max. Murray was essentially living the character, and I’m sure this elevator scene would have felt very, very real in the moment.
Finally, after the kiss-chase of the preceding montage, we’re back in the protagonist’s universe. And with that, we see the stakes entirely shift too. For the very first instance in the run time, we see Max actually feel some kind of guilt for what he’s done – and, as such, the viewpoint morphs and the film’s tone changes as its character does.
Finally, after all the warring, this gives our two characters a moment to realise their wounds. It’s an instance of hush for the narcissistic and power-hungry Max as he recognises the effect that his actions can cause.
Simultaneously, we are given both Bloom’s lowest moment and from that observation, Max’s turning point. His need, simply, to change his ways. This man is the only equal Max has ever come up against, not to mention a father figure and, for the most part, a friend… and despite all that, Max has only willingly participated in destroying him.
By now Max has accepted his own biological father for what he is and what he does too. Before this point, Max stood alongside his father’s barbershop unsure of its existence and so far away from his own viewpoint, to now, one hour into the runtime, as a humble employee. Ironically, it’s almost like a societal demotion for the boy; so ego ridden, this part-time job is a sobering slap in the face that was desperately needed for someone so drunk on his own need for domination. This, I imagine, is the first hard day’s work in Max’s whole life, and it finally gives him a taste of what actual reality is like, not to mention what it’s like to have to listen and take orders no less – in this case, from his boss – his dad.
Whilst both characters are pursuing the same woman, by this point, it’s only Max’s dogged narcissism and limited life experience that was keeping him in the running whatsoever. Whilst he believes he wants to sleep with Miss Cross – played by Olivia Williams – he is entirely unsuited as a current pupil, and decades her junior. He is instead simply trying to replace the maternal figure that he has been robbed of. In turn, the blow of Herman missing his shot with this woman hurts all the more for Bloom as, unlike Max, she is an actual real possibility of a worthwhile loving relationship. Something that will sting all the more after the infidelity of his current marriage and the clear distaste at the outcome of it.
Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch will be released in cinemas later this year.
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