Gapers Block has ceased publication.

Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Tuesday, April 16

Gapers Block

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I've never experienced such a striking validation. The value of four years of film school and thousands of education dollars realized in seconds. This, I thought, is what it was all for. And then, tragically, it fell apart.

I spent much of 1998 watching Wes Anderson's Rushmore repeatedly. Filled with oblique references and symbolic meaning, I came away feeling that this was my film. My Casablanca, my Citizen Kane, I had Rushmore figured out.

That scene where Max Fischer is talking on a pay phone in his fencing outfit? I recognized it immediately as a straight crib from High School, Frederick Wiseman's extraordinary 1969 cinema verité masterwork. All the under water stuff? That took more study. I'll leave the careful deconstruction aside and stick it to you in an aphorism: The seas can be rough. Not everyone makes it through.

I felt smart. I was smart. Friends were assaulted so they'd know of my extraordinary ability.

Did you see that? Did you get it? Diving for Sunken Treasure? Yes, I liked the 'O R they?' line too, but what of all the fish tanks in Miss Rosemary Cross's classroom? That's where we discover that her former husband, the unfortunate Edward Appleby drowned at sea. Don't you see the connection? Wasn't the cinematography extraordinary?

This was met with rolling eyes. Film snobbery is not widely tolerated.

I waited. Someday, I'd be of means sufficient for the purchase of a DVD player and a copy of Rushmore, complete with director's commentary and various supplemental materials. Then they'd know. Then they'd appreciate this film that I, and I alone, was sophisticated enough to follow.

Years pass.

While technophiles hawk its superior sound and image quality, self proclaimed film enthusiasts (of the sort who wasted their college years debating the merits of Fellini and Eisenstein) appreciate the Digital Video Disc for its incredible capacity.

No longer bound by the limits of the film itself, viewers are privy to  hidden and deleted scenes, alternate camera angles and special 'making of' documentaries. For those looking to bolster their cocktail party conversation chops, there is no greater boon.

And for me, I knew the time had come. Surely, Anderson would validate my keen observations and leave me flushed and aglow with intellectual preeminence.

He came through. That scene from High School was acknowledged and I felt a gentle warmth spreading through my extremities. Who needs the Criterion Collection when you've got film analysis skillz like mine?

But the commentary soon began to deviate from expectations. Time and again, the recurring underwater motif was ignored. Finally, at the point where Bill Murray asks a student of Miss Cross what he's painting, Anderson (or perhaps it was Owen Wilson, I'm too traumatized to go check) speaks to it.v

He said that he wasn't sure where all the water imagery came from. It was, apparently, just an accident.

An accident. Happenstance. Not an intentional effort on the part of the director to communicate something extraordinary within the context of the film. A painful revelation, this meant that all of my film schooling was for naught. I'd discerned a symbolism that wasn't there. I'd manufactured significance where there was none intended.

Though this was difficult for me, it was undoubtedly a great relief for those who tolerate my company. Shamed, I stopped foisting my film theories onto unwilling ears, and limited my commentary to simple platitudes: Yes, that was a good film. I enjoyed it very much.

The advantageous muzzling of an over eager film critic aside, commentary tracks on DVD titles can be quite damaging. The enjoyment and interpretation of a film is not for a director to dictate. Attempting to do so via bonus audio track can cripple a film. Though they might wish otherwise, once a film hits the tiny screens of the local megaplex, it no longer belongs to its director.

The rough seas of Rushmore still exist, even if Anderson didn't mean for them to.


Next week: The Three Investigators and the decline of Hitchcock

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Phineas Jones / October 6, 2003 10:35 AM

Geez Dave, I'd think you of all people would be aware that no critic work the name has ever given half a crap about what an artist (or director or writer or whatever) says about his work. They just make the stuff. Critics get to decide what it *means*.

Without critics, Jeff Koons would still be a commodities trader. Which would, of course, be a good thing but, oh never mind...

Cinnamon / October 6, 2003 1:51 PM

You aren't the only person I know who read a lot of meaning into little bits of Rushmore. And I heard a lot about it. He also mentioned the prevalence of water imagery. I'd say chalk it up to Andrerson's subconscious, or God.

dce / October 6, 2003 4:42 PM

What the artist says about her work *doesn't* matter, it's that commentary often demonstrates that I can't attribute an aspect of a work back to the director herself. While I can still analyze and appreciate aspects of Rushmore, I can no longer assume that their significance was intentional.

Another example: I was watching The Magnificent Seven the other day, and was struck by the way Steve McQueen's character was constantly figeting with his hat. I thought it suggested a certain underlying nervousness. Even though this man is a confident killer and adventurer, he still gets the jitters every now and then. It was the sort of thing Kurosawa would have appreciated.

But after watching all of the commentary and bonus tracks, it was revealed that McQueen's actions were mere histrionics. He was mugging for the camera as he didn't feel he had enough lines to stand out in the film.

How much better would my world be if I didn't know that?

Joe / October 9, 2003 10:54 AM

I tend to avoid commentary tracks as a rule, unless I'm sure there's going to be something *really* amusing on them.

They're very rarely (probably never) rehearsed or planned in any way, the directors often don't speak very well, and they're constantly fishing for something to say. In extreme cases, they're drinking while they watch the movie, but at least that's funny.

If I ran the world, the director would have to watch their own movie twice. The first time to watch it and take some notes on what they're going to say, the second time to say it.


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