When they call Election “wicked satire,” they mean it. Rushmore wasn’t half as crass yet twice as funny.
There’s a fine line that filmmakers walk between realism of story and grandeur of style. There seems to be two broad schools of thought regarding fiction, neither of which are mutually exclusive. One draws its characters as cold or vacuous. The air is noir and bitter reality, the likes of Hemmingway or Salinger. The other camp is more stylishly drawn or frivolous, as in Dickins or Jane Austen. It’s hard to judge one for not being the other, simply by means of taste.
The better question is what impact on society such stories leave behind, whether positive or negative. Still, a story’s level of redemptive qualities is not requisite for its existence. At least not in a society priding free press and free speech. Nevertheless, when it comes to Hollywood fiction, it’s hard not to be prescient about the necessity of some stories.
It’s a very old fundamental argument. Does life imitate art or vice versa (art imitating life)? It will not likely be answered anytime soon. Take for instance two recent films, American Beauty and Election, whose portrayal of middle America are at times unbearable, as opposed to the film Rushmore, a campy and prominently non-cynical look at high school life.
- High school satires
- Precocious lead characters
- Pitiful supporting characters
- Clever scripts and cinematography
Our two films under scrutiny are, on the surface, satires of modern high school. Together with American Beauty (which we’ll dissect later), they take aim at the gamut of middle America.
Rushmore was directed by Wes Anderson, who has only one other film to his name. Despite his obscurity, he came up with a solid winner the second time around. His new film is a fresh, engaging dramedy (drama/comedy) that takes a lighthearted look at high school life. Sneakily, his film has a lot to say about people and their motivations.
Election was directed by Alexander Payne whose other work includes Citizen Ruth, a similar biting satire about the Pro-Life and Pro-Choice movements. With Ruth being such a sensitive topic, it would seem that Election was a tamer outlet for Payne. Not even close. His critical eye is as sharp as ever, lambasting pretentious teachers and overachieving students alike.
Both films have lead characters that epitomize the precocious brat. For Carver High, that student is Tracy Flick, a know-it-all running for class president. As the school’s most gung-ho student, she’s on the yearbook staff, student council, and every other available club. More than merely active, Tracy is on a die-hard public relations campaign. Along the way, she even bakes brownies for the entire student body, and is most likely a shoe-in for the office.
Likewise, Rushmore Academy is the private school home to its very outspoken Max Fisher, a prolific if not entirely focused young student. Somewhat of a child protege, his grades don’t often reflect his zany genius, as he is distracted by many extracurricular activities, from apiculture (bee husbandry) to fencing to directing and writing full stage plays.
The secret to having everything figured out, relays Max to local industrialist Herman Blume, is “…you’ve just gotta find something you love to do and then do it for the rest of your life.” Coming from Max, this seems rather contradictory. But Max qualifies his statement with, “For me, it’s going to Rushmore.”
Both films also share a host of quirky, often pathetic supporting characters. In Rushmore, Blume (played with a masterful wry wit by Bill Murray) is a very dissatisfied man. A millionaire steel tycoon, Blume is the chief financial contributor to Rushmore Academy and his blunt speech in one of the school’s assemblies enthralls Max.
“Here’s my advice: take dead aim on the rich boys,” proffers Blume. “Get them in the crosshairs and take them down. Just remember, they can buy anything but they can’t buy backbone.” The irony is that Blume here seems to be lashing out at his own lifestyle. His unhappiness is gradually confirmed throughout the film. We see him interact sternly with his two hopelessly ungrateful boys, but in such a comic way that only Bill Murray could pull off without discrediting the seriousness of his character’s emptiness. Later at a private party, Blume becomes the wallflower and eventually dives into his bacteria-infested backyard Olympic-sized pool, seemingly to escape the outer noise of his everyday life. The drowning quiet under the surface of the water is more alluring than the noise above it, despite the pH of the pool.
Likewise, there are many desperate characters in Election. Teachers Dave Novotny and Jim McAllister are a couple of guys that graduated from Carver and never really left. McAllister is played by Matthew Broderick, reversing his Ferris Bueller’s Day Off persona, in which he played the rebellious smart aleck high school student. Here, he plays a naive good-intentioned instructor with an ugly set of closeted skeletons.
Then there’s Paul Metzler as the sweet, dumb jock who becomes convinced to run against Tracy. And don’t forget his younger sister, the disillusioned young aspiring lesbian, Tammy Metzler, who also is running for election. Her platform for the presidency is really veiled anarchy. She promises to disassemble the student government if elected, but then urges the student body to not even bother voting. Generation X rears its children.
Both Election and Rushmore have some fresh visuals. Election‘s cinematographer James Glennon uses some clever editing with very comical freeze frames in which the actors’ awkward expressions are frozen at length during narration. The effect is both visually witty as well as a great tool for moving along a clever script.
Rushmore too has some very inventive photography styles. Take for example an interesting parallelism throughout with its scene transitions. Separating the major acts, an ethereal curtain closes and opens between scenes. The curtain isn’t actually part of the set, but is a literary symbol for Max’s stage plays. By framing the scene (a Rushmore classroom, the grounds of the campus, etc.), Max’s early idea of finding something to live for is ingeniously perpetuated as an extension of Max’s loyal fondness for the school.
- Bitter reality vs. campy style
- Despicable or redemptive characters?
- Closure (or lack thereof)
- American Beauty and the moral of the story
Election is the second product from MTV’s movie arm this year and both incidentally take place in high school. Worlds away from Varsity Blues, when they call these “wicked satires,” they mean it. Rushmore wasn’t half as crass, yet it was twice as effective and funny as Election. The most noticeable difference is in presentation. Rushmore is Austen to Election‘s Salinger. And of course behind such bleak stories are particularly loathsome characters.
Election takes a nose dive with its characters in a way I haven’t seen since Fargo, Your Friends and Neighbors, or U Turn. It’s like classic Greek tragedy wherein the characters are destined for a dismal demise from the outset. We have the treat (or torture) of watching their fate unfold. I’m one of the few people who couldn’t stand Fargo, probably because I have many Minnesotan relatives. So for me, seeing the satirized nuances of Minnesotan life, both nostalgic and embarrassing, is almost too much to bear.
The same is true of Election. To be sure, it examines very intimate goings-on within the principle characters’ heads, the likes of which all of us have thought and would like to forget. It’s this unflinching look at basic human depravity that is so hard to cope with.
In particular is Mr. McAllister. In Election‘s opening sequence, we hear him narrating how he loves teaching for the pure idealistic satisfaction. He loves his job, and his students love him. But how very human he turns out to be. In an opening scene, ironically an “ethics” class, McAllister is explaining the difference between morals and ethics and it would appear deceptively that the character is laying the groundwork for his own belief system. But then we later realize as he explores various pornographic fantasies and infidelity that he doesn’t even hold stock in his own convictions.
While Rushmore doesn’t shy away from the plight of its characters’ real problems, it doesn’t wallow in them either. Max is a coming-of-age boy with an intense desire to make roots of his scholastic experience, to make Rushmore Academy his, despite his lower social status. He has an insecurity complex with his father Bert, the lowly barber. Upon meeting Blume, he speaks of his dad as a neurosurgeon. His crush, the widow Ms. Cross (Olivia Williams), can’t get over the loss of her recently deceased husband and retains a room in her house as a living shrine to him. Blume is at first Max’s mentor but slowly becomes the villain, vying for the same woman’s heart. Lots of confused people in search of fulfillment.
Another big difference between the two films is a disturbing bout with pedophilia. As Max has no more than an innocent crush on Ms. Cross, Election goes well beyond Rushmore‘s tactfulness. Tracy is already sexually involved with Mr. Novotny. No sooner than he is fired, Tracy sets her aim on Mr. McAllister who inevitably has similar disturbing fantasies of Tracy.
The biggest difference between Election and Rushmore however, is their resolutions. In Election, none of the characters found any kind of redemption for their pathetic lives and mishaps. All were introduced with a certain twisted mindset, and for the most part none of them changed their ways or even saw the light of their erred thinking. I suppose that’s where the satire comes in, but what an unsettling trip! Moral of the story: people are pitifully depraved.
It’s frustratingly painful to watch the piteous farewell of these characters. Mr. Novotny fades into oblivion, his marriage wrecked after the exposure of his student/teacher scandal. Mr. McAllister, following in his friend’s footsteps, relocates to Washington as a museum tour guide, bemoaning the temptress Tracy all the while. Meanwhile, Tracy’s maternally inherited perfectionism has her predictably chasing a political career in Washington, tormenting McAllister with her presence.
In Rushmore on the other hand, the characters find better ends. Despite his divorce and isolation, Blume finds platonic comfort with Ms. Croft. Max’s father tells him that he is satisfied with a barber’s lifestyle. We realize that for Bert, he has already found that one thing that he is good at and has done it all his life. Although Max hasn’t found his one thing yet, the lesson doesn’t fall on deaf ears and he later introduces his father by name and profession.
This brings us to American Beauty, the recent black comedy masterpiece by Sam Mendes. On the outside, Lester and Carolyn Burnham (the excellent Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening) are the perfect married couple, living in a perfect house in a perfect neighborhood.
But inside, Carolyn has alienated herself from her husband, putting all of her time into her abysmal real estate job (“The only one you can trust is yourself”), and Lester is slipping deeper and deeper into a hopeless mid-life depression. In similar fashion to Election, he snaps finally when he infatuates over his daughter’s friend Angela Hayes.
Meanwhile, daughter Jane distances herself from her parents in favor of her new neighbor/soulmate Ricky Fitts. Ricky is a deeply genuine person (“Sometimes I see so much beauty in the world that I just can’t take it”), the unlikely product of an abusively homophobic ex-military father. Being the only quality character in the film, Ricky makes for an ambivalent statement, since he is a shameless drug dealer. It’s sort of a modern version of the “noble savage” theory, the idea that what appears to be an uncivilized (in this case illegal) profession is actually the only self-aware. The dilemma is similar to the drug dealer in Bringing out the Dead.
If all this sounds a bit much to believe, it probably is. Beauty is more hyperbole than reality, although it’s a great mix of both genres. Its exaggeration lends perfectly to the quirky comedic style, yet its keen sense of society’s ails keeps the audience’s collective foot firmly on the ground.
Like Election, Beauty teeters disturbingly on the pedophilia line. Perhaps the saddest indicator of our times, child pornography is the last taboo to be smashed. With the recent film Happiness taking the cake, Hollywood’s tolerance for such adult/child physical relationships is fostered by the American Psychological Association’s questionable conclusions regarding child sexual abuse. The APA has posted a rebuttal to public allegation of their ethical ambiguity. Still, the power that the modern psychological establishment wields over society is amazing. Dr. Railly, played by Madeleine Stowe in 12 Monkeys, said it best, “Psychiatry. It’s the latest religion. We decide what’s right and wrong.”
Who’s at fault is actually insignificant. The bottom line is what is passing for story these days. Both Election and Beauty make for biting satire, but is it satire for its own sake? In the case of Election, it’s not hard to dislike it on those grounds; Beauty presents its case much sharper, so it’s harder to condemn it outright. Not every boundary is crossed, and we are at least given closure. Albeit tragic, most of Beauty‘s characters reach a sort of redemption in the last few scenes. Whereas, all of Election‘s characters lose in the end.
This desire for closure points to the myth that the general audience wants a tidy story, neatly resolved in the end (see The Green Mile). I don’t think that a filmmaker sacrifices artistic integrity in giving us some sort of tangible destination. Nor do I believe that the average moviegoer is afraid of reality in film. While drawn to these harsh paintings of reality (films like Election), I’m simultaneously repulsed by them — or perhaps by the “me” that I see in them? Nevertheless, film being primarily a form of escapism, I enjoy movies like Rushmore much more. Where the former comes off cold, Rushmore is full of heart. Somewhere between the two is American Beauty, part quirky black comedy, part vital indictment on the modern human condition.