Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson, 1998
#2, 1998 Skandies

So far the 1998 Skandie list is two-for-two in offering up movies that are well-made, entertaining, and seriously objectionable in their blithe willingness to forgive unforgivable conduct on the part of their male leads. I'd disliked Rushmore when I saw it in a theater a decade ago, but was kinda liking it this time due to different expectations: when I first saw it I was disappointed that it wasn't as awesome as the reviews I'd read had suggested, but this time I was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn't nearly as crappy as I had remembered. Ah, but then came the ending, when the film brings all the characters together and lets them all take a sort of final bow. As if we were supposed to have become so attached to them over the course of the previous hour and a half that we needed a chance to say our goodbyes. I was more inclined to say good riddance.

What's especially curious about the concluding love-in is that the filmmakers have been fairly bold in making their characters unlikeable. This is, I have gathered, a very touchy thing in the screenwriting trade. Not to say that characters can't have flaws, or can't come into conflict with other characters we like, but you have to be very careful about crossing the event horizon into the boo-hiss zone from which your character can never return. Example: one of the scenes I was assigned to write for the Photopia screenplay involved two characters, related by blood but not really close, dutifully trying to talk to each other in a car. There are some awkward conversational dead ends; one offers to keep trying, but the other flashes a sad smile and turns up the radio. This version of the scene was emphatically vetoed by my co-writer: "She turns up the radio? Now I hate her." Just for that? In his case, yeah, just for that.

Returning to Rushmore, take Margaret Yang, the girl with a crush on protagonist Max Fischer. Max, if you haven't seen the film, seems to be an overachiever — like Tracy Flick he's a participant in every extracurricular activity on campus — but has terrible grades, displays flashes of embarrassing ignorance, and in his primary avocation, playwriting, proves to be a budding Ed Wood. Margaret initially appears to be the real deal. But when Max asks about her science project, which had attracted interest from the Navy, Margaret confesses, "It was a fake. I faked all the results because it didn't work." I guess this is supposed to be endearing — she isn't an intimidating prodigy after all! — but personally, I fucking hate cheaters. You know who "faked the results"? Bernie fucking Madoff faked the results. Margaret Yang may not deserve 150 years in prison, but expulsion from school for academic fraud would be a good start.

Why are audiences so quick to write off movie characters the way I just did? I mean, every time I log into Facebook or Twitter, among the various thoughtful and funny posts there are frequently a couple of people complaining about yacht repairs, or making jokes that I find hurtful, or referring non-derisively to astrology, and yet I generally don't defriend or unfollow on that basis unless it becomes a pattern. But a movie character who acted the same way? First offense, bang, onto the hate list. I think there are a couple of reasons for this. The obvious one is that movies just don't contain all that much narrative material! Pick a character, even a fairly major character, and count up that character's lines, list that character's actions. When you boil it down that way, you'll find that there's not a lot there! Margaret Yang may seem like an established character at the time she reveals herself to be a scammer because she's appeared in a number of scenes, but I timed it and it turns out that she is in literally her third minute of screen time. So she doesn't get the leeway that comes with twelve or eighteen years of acquaintance.

But I would contend that there's another reason we turn against movie characters so quickly: because we can. Again, take the example of the annoying Facebook post. My immediate impulse is to strike back with a snarky comment. But then my thought process goes as follows: first, will making a snide remark actually make me any less annoyed? No. Will it make the poster any less inclined to lament the travails of the wealthy, or revel in past slights, or flaunt her ignorance? Highly unlikely. So what's the point? To try to make the poster feel bad, as punishment? That'd pretty much always constitute worse conduct than the original post, and set me up for retaliation when I inevitably post something obnoxious myself. And — twirling the Primo Varicella moustache I have suddenly grown for the occasion — why poison my relationship with someone who may be of use to me in the future? A friendly acquaintance is an asset: a potential source of favors, or advice, or company in a faraway city. Why sacrifice that over transient dislike?

One problem with this sort of calculation is that it kind of destroys your soul a little. There's a reason that the "take this job and shove it" fantasy of movies like Office Space has such wide appeal: a lot of people are forced by self-interest (economic and otherwise) to maintain civil relationships with people they have come to despise: bosses, parents, friends-of-friends. But there's no need to maintain the fiction of cordiality with movie characters. As observers, we're free to feel how we really feel — and the fact that this is a rare luxury might explain the phenomenon of villains "you love to hate." The audience's eagerness to experience the relief of unmixed feelings makes creating a villain really easy. Creating a hero isn't too tough either. But creating a character who does contemptible things but whom we still like? That's harder.

And, for me at least, Rushmore failed on this count. The primary engine of the story is that Max Fischer falls for a pretty young widow who has become a first-grade teacher at his school. One of the best aspects of the film is how well it observes the way 15-year-old boys (or at least Max and my 15-year-old self) think courtship works: find out what she likes and somehow give it to her. So when Max finds out that Miss Cross is fond of Latin, he gets Latin reinstated as a required course, and later growls "I saved Latin! What did you ever do?" at the man he thinks of as his rival for her affections. Similarly, the girl I had a crush on when I was 15 liked hair ribbons and calligraphy, so I gave her hair ribbons and a calligraphy set. She also liked the Lakers, whom I loathed, but I bit the bullet and started wearing a Vlade Divac t-shirt to school. Somehow this failed to seal the deal.

Interestingly, I recently read an article that pointed out that romance in computer games often takes the form of a mission or series of missions undertaken for the sake of the love interest. "In the worst of these cases, especially in games aimed at a heterosexual male player controlling a heterosexual male protagonist, the player is effectively encouraged by the gameplay to regard the Other as a cold-blooded manipulator who is withholding gratification in exchange for goods and services," the author notes. I'd go even further — these sorts of games encourage players to view women as locks. From the dawn of the medium, adventure games have been full of locked doors. Want the treasure behind the door? Find the key. Non-player characters often function along the same lines: they yield to the application of the correct object. Want to get past the troll? Give him the fish. Want the monkey to follow you around? Give him some bananas. Want the girl to love you? Give her the right object, and just like the door, surely she will open up and yield her treasure.

When Max Fischer discovers that this is not true in real life his response is to switch from early adventure game mode to Grand Theft Auto. In the ugliest scene in the movie, he gets Miss Cross alone in her classroom, advances on her as she backpedals away from him telling him to stop, then grabs her head and attempts to force himself on her. To say "now I hate him" would be an understatement. And in 35 minutes I'm supposed to happily watch the two of them share a dance? Not a chance. Being clueless about courtship I can forgive a character for. Behaving like the world's biggest ass in the dinner scene, maaaybe. But physically assaulting a woman? In a medium in which turning up the radio is beyond the pale, I'm supposed to watch the love-in at the end of Rushmore and forget about the fact that 35 minutes earlier the main character physically assaulted the woman he's dancing with? Not a chance. Rushmore shouldn't have ended with Max's crappy play. It should have ended with his arraignment.

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