Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Rulebook Casefile: The Irresolvable Thematic Dilemma in Rushmore

When I was trying to identify Max’s false statement of philosophy in Rushmore, I settled on this exchange: “What are you going to do?” “The only thing I can do: try to pull some strings with the administration.” For this corrected statement of philosophy later, I chose “I’m just a barber’s son.” But what about the movie’s most prominent statement of philosophy?

Max’s obsession with Miss Cross begins when he’s reading a book on diving and he finds that she has jotted down a Cousteau quote in the margins: “When one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself.” Is that statement proven to be false or true?

This brings us to another rule: the ending should tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely. The central thematic dilemma in this movie is ambition vs. acceptance, and ultimately it tips towards acceptance, but that’s a hard choice.

Anti-ambition movies are few and far between. America worships ambition and our movies do the same. It’s hard not to root for Max’s wild schemes. It’s painful to watch him pour so much energy and optimism into things and then admit that his work is too ambitious and ultimately not very good. We want and expect to see those qualities rewarded.

And indeed the movie only barely tips towards acceptance. He accepts public school, and gives up on Miss Cross, and admits to everyone that his dad’s a barber, but he’s still making overly ambitious plays and collecting acolytes. So is that quote false or true? Max is not as extraordinary as he thought he was, but he’s certainly unique. How will his life change for better or for worse if he learns to keep that to himself, as least some of the time?

Most movies sell us the wish fulfillment message that there’s always something more waiting for us if we’re willing to be bigger and bolder. This is one of the few that raises the possibility that we may be happier and healthier if we learn to accept a life that’s smaller. It’s a painful realization, and that pain gives this movie its emotional punch.

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