Ode to Rushmore

Alexander Atienza - November 14, 2016

In the middle of a geometry class, a student brings to his teacher’s attention a problem that is written on the board. The teacher tells him that it is the hardest geometry problem in the world, and if anyone in the class solves it, he promises never to assign them homework again. One of the students nominates Max Fisher to solve it, and to the teacher’s shock, Max effortlessly solves the problem in front of his classmates, and they raise him on their shoulders in congratulation.

It turns out Max is dreaming, and he has fallen asleep during a sermon by Herman Blume, a benefactor at Rushmore Academy, an elite private school that Max attends. As Max wakes up from his fantasy, Blume remarks that some students at Rushmore were born rich enough to afford tuition. Reflecting on how he never had the chance to attend a prestigious school when he was young, he advises the rest of the students to “take dead aim at the rich boys.”

In the first 5 minutes, what would typically be the punchline of a joke about elite schools lays out the thematic material for the rest of the film. The opening dream sequence parodies the fantasy perpetuated by Hollywood in which a singularly charismatic figure can rouse students to scholastic curiosity. Max's perception of himself as this charismatic figure gives us a glimpse into the psychological motivations for his actions in the film. Max's ambitious stage productions reveal a perceived need to legitimize his existence at an elite prep school as the only child of a working class family. His unrequited love for Rushmore professor Miss Cross, the film's central conflict, is largely motivated by this insecurity regarding his social status and the adult roles it forces him to take.

Max's self-consciousness manifests in his interactions with his classmates and characterizes the film's music, editing, and set design. For instance, the fact that he behaves in ways that code as stereotypically older is reinforced by the film's appropriation of older iconoclastic imagery and music, which lend authority to Max's grievances. Because of this, Rushmore distinguishes itself from similar films that romanticize the affirmation of one's peers in that it is committed to a sympathetic depiction of growing up an outsider.

Though the director’s eye-catching visuals are absent, the music video-like panache and editorial precision of his sophomore effort convey a personality that is equally charming and self-deprecating. Anderson highlights the intergenerational pretenses of the fifteen-year-old Max Fisher’s relationship with his muse, the Harvard-educated elementary school teacher Miss Cross, by drawing from the visual vocabulary of the French New Wave and the music of the British Invasion. The anachronistic union of style and content emphasizes the clash between Max’s vulnerable romanticism and calculated effortlessness, creating a unique blend of nostalgia, cynicism, and social perceptiveness that boldly introduces viewers to Anderson’s world.

The fact that Max was admitted to Rushmore on scholarship because of a play he wrote casts a shadow that looms over the rest of the film and brings into focus the emotional core of his actions. When he goes home to help his father at the barber shop after being expelled, it is evident that his family is not well off, and the significance of Blume’s speech in the beginning of the film becomes clear. Scenes that take place in Max’s house depict it almost exclusively from the exterior, deliberately hiding his private life from the audience's view and visually establishing his withdrawal from the public due to embarrassment at his expulsion.

Given his insecurity about his low socioeconomic class, his subsequent actions are understandable. With the breezy, offhand mannerisms of a young Tom Cruise, Max brags to Blume and Miss Cross that his father is a neurosurgeon, that his top choices for college are Oxford and the Sorbonne, and that he wrote a hit play. However, it becomes clear that other students at Rushmore detected his bluffing when the headmaster’s son sarcastically remarks that “the son of a brain doctor doesn’t need to impress anyone,” implying that Max's family is not as affluent as Max claims.

It's only when he meets fellow classmate Margaret Yang after he enrolls at the nearby public school, Grover Cleveland High, that he encounters someone who can appreciate his ambitions. Introducing himself to his new colleagues, Max humbly adds that he “wasn’t born with a silver spoon” in his mouth. On several other occasions, he is clearly sensitive to how others perceive him. When Miss Cross introduces Max to her boyfriend, Peter, backstage during Max’s play, Peter makes the unintentionally patronizing complement that the play was “very cool.” The ensuing tension between Peter and Max is exacerbated when she brings Peter to an invitation-only dinner to celebrate opening night, and “I wrote a hit play” is added to Max’s repertoire of refrains that reveal his desire for credibility. By aspiring to legitimize his enrollment at Rushmore in spite of his working class background, Max becomes the archetypal overachiever.

The Graduate and Harold and Maude, which also depict relationships between young men and older women, are often compared to Rushmore because of the dramatic age difference between its romantic leads. However, the affairs in those films border on sexual deviance, whereas Max’s infatuation with Miss Cross is hardly lustful. He socialized mainly with adults before they met, so his attraction to a schoolteacher is unsurprising. He does not court her due to peer pressure, as do the protagonists of many coming-of-age stories. Rather, his precociousness responds to the expectation imposed on young men that they act older than they are, reflecting the same idealism one might experience when applying to a top university.

Few contemporary films deserve as much critical reappraisal as Rushmore does. Max may be too young for Miss Cross, just as he might not have the grades to get into Oxford or the Sorbonne, and the credentials that had been so effective in helping him dodge the ire of school administrators will be ineffective in winning her heart. However, as they dance with each other in the closing shot of the film, it appears that Miss Cross and Max both remain on cordial terms with each other despite their differences and agree to put their past behind them. With her support, Max comes to terms with his shortcomings and achieves a lifestyle in which his talents can truly flourish. Only by doing so does he earn Miss Cross's respect.

Alexander Atienza

Alexander Atienza is a junior studying cognitive science. Raised in Maryland and educated in Washington, DC, Alex is the Marketing Director for PCI. In addition to the Penn Cinema Initiative, Alex is also a board member of the Penn Philippine Association and the Polybian Society, Penn’s largest nonpartisan intellectual society. He enjoys creative writing between classes, dinner, and board meetings. Alex’s interests include aesthetics, filmmaking, and philosophy of mind, and his favorite films include Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Rushmore. You may find him wandering around campus with his camera or a book on film theory.