Alexander Payne and Wes Anderson both make comedies, albeit comedies laced with strychnine and a dab of treacle. They are less than a decade apart in age—Payne was born in 1961, Anderson in ’69—and hail from regions far from the coastal culture capitals. They are both highly conscious of film history and their place in it, each in his way owing a particular debt of gratitude to the “Golden Age” of American cinema in the 1970’s. They have established records of popular success that give them cultural capital to burn on dream casts and studio concessions: Payne shot his sixth film, Nebraska, in black-and-white, which means that to 2/3rds of the moviegoing public its title might as well be Weird, Old, and Boring. Anderson’s eighth film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, looks to be another piece of spectacular artifice on a scale that, outside of fantasy and science-fiction films, has rarely been seen since the days of Louis B. Mayer.
I have been thinking about these two filmmakers a great deal lately: Nebraska, starring Bruce Dern and Will Forte, opens today, while I’ve just gotten around to reading Matt Zoller Seitz’s new book The Wes Anderson Collection, published early last month. And in re-watching their sophomore, breakthrough features, Anderson’s Rushmore and Payne’s Election, I noticed that the movies had a great deal in common—and, also, very little in common at all.
Rushmore officially premiered at the New York Film Festival in October, 1998, and opened wide in the US in February, 1999; Election opened wide in April of the same year. Both films were shot in the fall and winter of 1997, so the issue of which came first is strictly academic. For all practical purposes, they are exact contemporaries, twins—one is tempted to say one evil twin, one good, for they are a study of contrasting temperaments. Both films feature high school-age protagonists who are tireless over-achievers, Max Fisher (Jason Schwartzman) in Rushmore and Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) in Election. Both of these young people become smitten and in some way involved with faculty at their school—Max with Miss Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), a widowed first grade teacher, and Tracy with her geometry teacher, Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik), who is dismissed, divorced, and cast out of Omaha as a result. Tracy’s scandal is quashed, and only Dave’s self-described best friend, Jim “Mr. M” McAllister (Matthew Broderick), who teaches “civics, U.S. history, and current events” at Grover Cleveland High School, is burdened with the knowledge of it.
To a not-insignificant degree, both Rushmore and Election owe their existence to the renewed popularity of the teen comedy in the late 1990s—for even if we don’t think of them as teen comedies, both movies were sold as such. (Look no further than Election’s exhaustingly wacky trailer for proof.) After the John Hughes boom of the ‘80s, the TeenCom went into hibernation during the first Clinton administration, only to return with a vengeance in the second half of the decade. The bumper crop included Can’t Hardly Wait (1998), She’s All That (1999), and 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), as well as the first installment of the epochal American Pie (1999) series, whose ensemble included none other than Chris Klein, who had been discovered by Payne and cast in Election as Paul Metzler, an injury-sidelined jock recruited by Mr. M to play interloper in the student body election.
At this point both filmmakers were still regionalists, yet to shoot a feature entirely outside of their home states. A graduate of the University of Texas, Anderson returned to St. John’s School, the prep school he’d attended in Houston, Texas, to create Max Fisher’s Rushmore Academy. Payne, the son of Omaha restaurateurs who’d gotten his MFA in film production from UCLA, made over the Omaha-area Papillion La Vista Senior High School as Election’s Grover Cleveland. Based on a novel by Tom Perrotta, Election began Payne’s to-date-unbroken streak of basing his films on outside source material. In this he differs from Anderson, who has only once adapted outside material (Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox in 2009), though both men were alike in having symbiotic co-writer relationships that lasted through the first leg of their careers—Anderson with sometimes-star Owen Wilson, Payne with Jim Taylor. Payne and Taylor’s is the heftier of the two screenplays, complicated as it is by four separate voice-over threads introducing four different points of view, that of Tracy, Mr. M, Paul, and his lesbian sister, Tammy (Jessica Campbell), who joins the election out of spite when her girlfriend dumps her for her brother.
Max and Tracy are defined by their extracurricular excesses, introduced by a jaunty montage in Rushmore, and by a bouncy tour of fluttering yearbook pages in Election. (Clocking at 93 and 103 minutes respectively, both films move like a dream.) In Max’s case, his over-extension is the result of a hyperactive creative drive, so irrepressible that his grades are an afterthought–and they suffer accordingly. While Max talks loftily of Oxford and the Sorbonne, in actual fact he has little thought for anything but Rushmore Academy, an ideal canvas on which to paint his fancies. Tracy, by contrast, approaches high school as a proving grounds, a rehearsal for conquests to come. She’s also in drama club—we see her as Hodel in Fiddler on the Roof—but this is just so much padding for the college transcript, a means to an end. (Tracy will eventually graduate in the top 7% of her class, and get into Georgetown University “like I wanted—with scholarships.”)
Max and Tracy are the only children of single-parent households. Max’s mother died when he was seven, and this absence hangs over his pining for Miss Cross; Tracy’s dad has never been around, a fact she mentions in passing while recollecting her May-December affair with Mr. Novotny. “Since I grew up without a dad,” she says, “you might assume psychologically I was looking for a father figure, but that had nothing to do with it at all.” It all began one night after putting the school paper to bed, when Mr. Novotny took the kids to celebrate at Godfather’s Pizza—Payne is master of the depressing establishing shot, and this is one of his most brutal. “Dave and I were left alone and we got to talking,” Tracy recalls, “not like teacher and student, but by two adults.” Max likewise takes great pride in addressing adults as equals—“I got this one” he tells Mr. Blume (Bill Murray), the heartsick middle-aged steel tycoon whom he improbably befriends, picking up the tab for some popcorn at the concession stand during a wrestling meet that he abruptly jumps into. (He’s an alternate on the team.)
Both Rushmore and Election are cast with a mixture of professionals and amateur actors. They’re both shot in anamorphic Widescreen, a somewhat unusual aspect ratio for comedy and, even more unusual, both directors actually compose their films to use the 2.35:1 frame to their advantage. Anderson and Payne are both also fond of eccentric bits of film grammar like whip-pans and the head-on, straight-into-the-camera close-ups. In Rushmore this technique is reserved to isolate moments of sudden candor: Miss Cross’s “I think I can safely say I’ve never met anyone like you, either” or Mr. Blume’s “She’s my Rushmore,” both to Max. In Election, it’s used in quite a different context: we get Dave Novotny, grotesquely owl-eyed and moist-mouthed, staring right into the camera to say of Tracy: “Her pussy gets so wet you can’t believe it.” (Shout out to YouTube user “Landstrider” for putting together this 10-minute loop of the shot.)
As these quotes would indicate, the films take distinct approaches to sex. In Rushmore, it’s treated discreetly, even abashedly. When Mr. Blume and Miss Cross become clandestine lovers, we see little of them together, and their relationship becomes a farce when translated into the language of the schoolyard. “Dear Max,” chapel partner, Dirk, reports, “I am sorry to say that I have secretly found out that Mr. Blume is having an affair with Miss Cross. My first suspicions came when I saw them Frenching in front of our house. And then I knew for sure when they went skinny dipping in Mr. Blume’s swimming pool, giving each other hand jobs while you were taking a nap on the front porch.”
The word “hand job” appears nine times in the Rushmore screenplay. A hand job represents the outer limit of Max’s sexual imagination, his end-all be-all—for as fifteen-year-olds in 1998 go, Max is quite the naif. Miss Cross figures this out, and realizes that she has no better weapon to put Max off once and for all than calling his bluff. “Do you think we’re going to have sex?” she says, advancing on him. “That’s kind of a cheap way to put it, don’t you think?” he blanches. “Not if you’ve never fucked before, it isn’t.”
There’s no innocence to protect in Election. Paul talks blithely of having “a fuck and a hot tub” after school. Mr. M first has the idea to bring the ex-quarterback into the presidential race as he’s sucking on a Pepsi and dully watching a selection from his basement porno stash (titled Touchdown!) set in a high school locker room. This isn’t the last time that Mr. M’s mind will drift towards his students at an inappropriate moment; later, while he’s having perfunctory “Trying to have a baby” sex with his wife—Molly Hagan with her unforgettable “Fill me up! Fill me up!”—Tracy’s disembodied head floats into his mind’s eye. In Rushmore, the intergenerational attraction is almost entirely one-sided, and any ethically-dicey matters are smoothed over. Mr. Blume is justified in his extramarital affair because, as established in a scene at a pool party for his awful twin boys, his wife has begun cheating on him already. Miss Cross only seems as though she might cave to Max’s indefatigable-if-clueless campaign of conquest for one brief moment. This is when Max knocks on the window of her late husband’s childhood bedroom where she sleeps, pretending to have been hit by a car. While tending Max’s phony wound, Miss Cross allows him to kiss her, but we understand that this weakness only comes because she is thinking of her husband, the dead-but-much-spoken-of Edward Appleby, as a boy. The attraction is sentimental, not physical. For all of his romantic longing, awkward-age Max, with his oily cowlick and braceface grimace, is an unlikely lover.
Max’s pursuit of Miss Cross begins when, while reading a library copy of Jacques Yves Cousteau’s A Life Under the Sea, he finds a quotation written in the margin: “Whenever one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself.” This was Edward Appleby’s book; the quote is written in Miss Cross’s hand; the sentiment is Max’s and Anderson’s: Greatness and its helpmate ambition aren’t options, they’re duties! Max will trample other people’s feelings in pursuit of his extraordinary life, but this is just immaturity, to be worked through in due course. In Election, however, ambition is a gnawing, incurable disease, a discontentment that will never be sated. “I’ve come to accept that very few people are destined to be truly great,” Tracy concludes, “and we’re solo flyers.” Both Max and Tracy may double as self-portraits of their creators, for the fact is that no one just happens to become a film director without a modicum of ambition.
The voice-overs in Election relay the events of the story from a point a little over a year in the future. While each narrator, particularly Tracy and Mr. M, makes a pretense of older and wiser objective distance (“Now that I have more life experience, I feel sorry for Mr. McAllister…” “I don’t blame Tracy for what happened with Dave. How could I?”), the activity on-screen undercuts these grandstanding sentiments. Paul is the lone exception to this dislocation between self-image and action, for his privilege and stupidity allow him to be genuinely guileless, and so the butt of some of the film’s most irresistible punchlines. “I was so mad at God when I broke my leg at Shadow Ridge over Christmas break,” begins his voice-over, and existential crisis. Out for the football season and forced to be sedentary, Paul begins to look for new meaning. “Sometimes you can search everywhere for answers,” he muses, while the camera observes him sleeping through study hall next to a copy of The Celestine Prophecy. This is the first time that Paul has been called on to do any soul-searching, and will probably be the last.
Tracy Flick, by contrast, has never coasted for a day in her life. “You might think it upset me that Paul Metzler had decided to run against me…” she says after Paul has announced his candidacy, as we watch her churning out ‘Pick Flick’ campaign buttons, slamming the arm on the button-maker as though she was physically crushing her competition with it. “You see,” Tracy continues, repressed rage gradually taking over her voice, “I believe in the voters. They understand that elections aren’t just popularity contests. They know this country was built by people just like me, who work very hard and don’t have everything handed to them on a silver spoon. Not like some rich kids who everybody likes because their fathers own Metzler Cement and give them trucks on their 16th birthday and throw them big parties all the time, no, they don’t ever have to work for anything, they think they can all of the sudden one day out of the blue waltz right in with no qualifications whatsoever and try to take away what other people have worked for very, very hard their entire lives. No, it didn’t bother me at all.”
The crescendo of this monologue is accompanied by a dolly towards Tracy’s face in the school bus window as she glares across the parking lot at Paul, holding court by his immaculate extended cab silver Ford F-150. Tracy’s is the face of a young Richard Nixon pressed against the window of the Franklins clubhouse on Whittier College campus. The Franklins were the swells, big men on campus; when they denied Nixon membership into their ranks, he founded his own Orthogonian Society in defined opposition to the perceived privilege that had shunned him, in the process developing a strategy—flattering the grudges and resentments of an electorate—that would become his secret to future success.
Tracy’s outside-looking-in frustration is echoed in Election’s coda, during which each of the narrators bring us up to date on their lives since the events of the film. Mr. M is ousted from his job after fudging the election results to favor Paul, and has relocated to New York City to escape local notoriety. On a visit to Washington D.C., he spots Tracy getting into a limousine with an air of having finally arrived where she belongs, for she’s now acting as an aide to a Nebraska Representative. “I wasn’t angry at her anymore. I just felt sorry for her,” Mr. M says just a moment before losing his composure and launching the milkshake he’s carrying at the vehicle, turning to beat a retreat across Lafayette Square, the North Portico of the White House—the future home of President Flick?—visible in the background.
Shortly before this, Mr. M has, with a brave face, introduced us to his new life in NYC and new job as an educator at the Museum of Natural History. From Mr. M posing with his arm around his co-worker girlfriend, there’s a hard cut to a museum diorama depicting two Neanderthals in the same pose. “I don’t know,” continues his voice-over, “I’ve just never met anyone quite like her.” This cut illustrates something essential to the director’s worldview. I’ve never forgotten a statement that Payne made to me when I visited him in Omaha about the Japanese filmmaker Shohei Imamura, commenting that Imamura “just accepts the animal nature of people. He’s kind of a biologist, anthropologist.” Again and again in Election, Payne lets us see the biological imperative showing through the transparent drapery of higher sentiments. More than once we’re shown someone grimacing through tears, and whether the reason for tears is heartbreak or a broken leg, these moments register as images of animals in pain. (To recall the animal in man doesn’t mean discounting the human, but good luck getting that over to the binary minds who dismiss Payne.)
Anderson takes a higher view of Homo sapiens—or, if you prefer, a more squeamish one. “What do you think?” Miss Cross asks Mr. Blume of her conduct towards Max, to which Blume replies “I think you did your best.” As people generally do in Anderson’s cinema. Even when his characters are at their most vindictive and malicious, their creator can hardly wait to absolve them. Among other things, Rushmore was distinguished by its soundtrack of British Invasion nuggets—a montage where Max and Blume, now romantic rivals, take turns visiting escalating acts of revenge upon one another is scored to the last two parts of The Who’s six-movement medley “A Quick One, While He’s Away,” a tale of infidelity that ends with Pete Townshend’s repeated incantation: “You are forgiven.”
Fisher, President of the Rushmore Beekeepers, began his campaign against Blume by filling his hotel suite with soldier bees. There are no lasting repercussions for this—it’s a cartoon kind of stunt, strictly Looney Tunes. By contrast, when Mr. M is stung on the eye while trying to keep an adulterous appointment with Linda Novotny, his face swells grotesquely, a deformity to match his moral rot, which he’ll wear for the next half-hour of screen time. Election has a few wistful pop cues of its own, but they’re mostly used for queasy effect—Novotny playing The Commodores’ “Three Times a Lady” to set the mood before deflowering Tracy, for example. The exception is Donovan’s “Jennifer Juniper,” which plays as Tammy cavorts with the new girlfriend she’s met at Immaculate Heart, the all-girl’s Catholic school that she maneuvers her parents into banishing her to, in a Br’er Rabbit-with-the-briar-patch play. With her immaculate heart, Tammy enjoys the nearest thing to an unambiguously happy ending here, while all of Rushmore’s dramatis personae receive a final benediction, united in the last act to see Max’s latest opus. Once it’s done, they fill the afterparty dance floor to the tune of The Faces’ “Ooh La La,” credits rolling to the plaintive chorus: “I wish that I knew what I know now/ When I was younger/ I wish that I knew what I know now/ When I was stronger.”
The cast of Election are at least a little older as they look back to narrate their story, but it’s hard to say what, if anything they’ve learned from their comeuppance or lack thereof. While Payne’s film forgives its characters in a “What fools we mortals be” way, nothing is forgotten. In the scale model of American democracy that Payne creates in Election, the defining characteristic of American life is resentment—that is, the desire to undo whoever seems to have it better than you. In such a system, everyone must necessarily play the part of villain to someone else. At the beginning of the film, when Mr. M and Tracy are both among the first arrivals at the school, he punctiliously picks up a piece of trash on the floor and bins it in front of her, as though to prove some obscure point. This is, however, just after we’ve seen him cleaning out the refrigerator in the teacher’s lounge, obliviously letting a takeout box of Chinese noodles plop onto the linoleum in front of the janitor who silently registers the affront while watching unobserved from the hallway. The janitor won’t reappear until the last reel, when he produces the two missing ballots for Tracy that Mr. M had thrown out to alter the result of the election, paying back the insult with interest.
Let’s not lose sight of one other important disparity between these movies. Max, whose busybody domineering is seen as charmingly precocious, right down to the very first “little one-act about Watergate” that got him into Rushmore Academy, is a boy becoming a man. Tracy, whose will-to-power is seen as a joyless compulsion, is a girl becoming a woman. Her mother, who has made Tracy into a vessel for her own thwarted ambition, writes successful women like Elizabeth Dole and Connie Chung for advice, their responses invariably some version of “The pressures women face mean you need to work twice as hard, and you can’t let anything or anyone stand in your way.” As Mr. M sees Tracy, that pressure has distorted her into something monstrous—see the malicious freeze-frames inflicted upon her, as though Mr. M had temporarily taken control of the movie’s editing. (It’s a cheat from the template established elsewhere, where the narration and the visuals are interdependent of one another.)
The double standard in how we perceive ambition in women as opposed to men was much commented on in the 2008 Democratic primary, in which Hillary Clinton was cast as strenuous, shrewish Tracy Flick and Barack Obama as effortless, laid-back Paul Metzler. But rather than accuse Payne of sexism—and remember, no one comes off spotless here—better to say that Tracy embodies an attitude toward ambition that Payne holds throughout his films, regardless of the gender of the ambitious. In Nebraska, Bob Odenkirk plays the Forte character’s much more successful older brother, a TV newsman who’s finally got a shot at the anchor’s slot, but only thanks to a co-worker’s illness. “I’ve paid my dues,” he tells his brother, adding hopefully, “Plus Carrie-Anne’s got a pretty bad infection, so…” In Anderson’s universe, “the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life” is the opportunity to create something that everyone can partake in and benefit from, as in the conclusion of Rushmore. In Payne’s, no opportunity exists without someone else being stepped over.
Where are they now? Today Max Fisher and Tracy Flick would both be in their early 30s. Did their drive suddenly grind to a halt, as is the fate of so many wunderkinds—and the subject of Anderson’s next film, The Royal Tenenbaums, in which the Museum of Natural History appears as a symbol of lost innocence, not of man’s animal instinct. Is Max shooting lavish films in Europe now, still boundlessly imaginative, still slightly mortified by sex? Re-watch the video of Reese Witherspoon and her husband being pulled over by cops in Atlanta; you might imagine that it’s Tracy talking. It’s all mere speculation, of course—we have these two only as they appear on film, forever on the cusp of being unleashed on an unsuspecting world.
Nick Pinkerton is a regular contributor to Sight & Sound magazine and sundry other publications. He lives in Brooklyn, NY. Follow Nick on Twitter @NickPinkerton.