It is a threadbare premise, for a medium still in its pull-ups. When we think of greatness, whose face goes on the largest of sculptures—formed by God but finished by men—vandalizing the Dakotan landscape?
For the field of American humor I’ve had one year to think it over. Last September my friend Steve (whose real name is Mark, but in these kinds of online articles an alias is typical) said to me:
“Twain is sort of the great white whale of American literature. Dickens assumes the same type of stature for 19th century England. And Tolstoy (sorry Mr. Dostoyevsky and my beloved Mr. Chekhov) occupies the place for Russian literature. Who for France? Hugo? What a Mount Rushmore for 19th century literature.”
I agreed with Steve, but turned the direction of our conversation to something even more trivial: American humor. Putting very little thought into it I said:
Of course, the problem is limit. I immediately regretted the absence of George Carlin, but I didn’t know if he trumped Pryor. I couldn’t remove Groucho to include both influential standups when Marx represented the long stretch of Vaudeville and Jewish humor that shaped early Hollywood. And Franklin? You don’t see a lot of comedians today reference Ben Franklin as a significant influence on their craft, but then again what politicians model themselves after Washington? At the time it didn’t matter. Steve agreed with my list.
“I think you’ve nailed the Mount Rushmore for humor…Franklin is the headwaters. Essential. But you’ve got a nice spread of eras there, too. If we were confining this to movies and television, we could throw out Franklin and Twain and make room for Charlie Chaplin and Lucille Ball (hate to leave Fields out). But they don’t make the cut if we’re looking to represent all of American humor. Groucho is one of the few humor masters, by the way, who mastered almost every medium available to him: vaudeville, Broadway, movies, radio, television, books. And he could get laughs in a stunning variety of ways: monologues, acting, singing, dancing, ad-libbing, sophisticated word play, low slapstick. Pretty remarkable career.”
The first time that I watched Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, I was recovering from having my wisdom teeth extracted, and I was on a lot of drugs. Apparently there had been some complications during the procedure, and when the doctor finally got in there, what I had were closer in size to wisdom tusks. The resulting painkillers were, as they say, the good stuff, and I headed back to my parent’s house to recover and watch some movies. What I remember next is being about halfway through Rushmore, and apparently I was crying uncontrollably and screaming at the screen: “Why are they taking this kid so seriously?! He’s just a kid! You’re an old man, Bill Murray, why are you friends with a kid?! Attractive British lady whom I don’t know: are you, like, dating this kid?! What is wrong with all of you?!?” Someone in my family was kind enough to turn the movie off for me at that point.
I can’t remember what exactly I was on, but it was an oddly emotional weekend. I also remember having a serious conversation with a Slurpee – also while crying. I thought that it thought that it was better than me because I was having such a hard time actually getting it into my mouth.
So… I may have missed a little of the nuance of Rushmore the first time around, but I eventually watched it again in a less chemically-outmatched state, and was deeply moved by its story of the danger of trying to do everything that you can. But while the character of Max Fischer is forced to exfoliate the many obligations that keep him from ever getting anything real accomplished, Wes Anderson has always struck me as a director whose own precision (although his critics tend to call it “preciousness” with alarmingly unoriginal frequency) is constantly at odds with this central lesson of his second film. As is widely known, Anderson’s attention to mise en scene, props, set decoration, and design makes any other definition of “minutia” seem like something closer to “carpet-bombing.” Anderson is the kind of director who puts things that will never be used in drawers that will never be opened. It is for this reason, though, that his films are unparalleled in their sense of texture and depth, their luxurious albeit impossible touchableness. Like the famous large-scale, long-take, cut-out tour of the good ship Belafonte’s quarters in The Life Aquatic, there is something undeniably special about many of Anderson’s designs. As with much realistic dollhouse furniture, for example, our relation to the original object is changed by seeing the detail with which it can be made small. Likewise, Anderson’s aesthetic requires us to accept the artificiality of stage construction as a precondition for having access to what we would have otherwise just assumed would be there.
For example, within the first moments of Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson’s seventh feature film, anyone attuned to the director’s fastidiousness will have noticed a pair of scissors hanging on the wall, which – regardless of whether they do or do not play a role later in the film (they do) – are as important as anything else. This is not to say that they are or would be symbolic, signifying, or necessarily indicative of anything other than themselves. Rather, they are just so. One of the most visually appealing (and frequently humorous) features of Anderson’s films is not exactly what is there, but that what is there is there. This does not mean that nothing has been left out, as though he were a bitter neo-realist kneeling at the death-dusty bedside of verisimilitude, but that Anderson’s surfeit of objects and documents and little homemade things contributes to an architecture of fantasy wherein what seems so very unreal about this films is the result of too much of life. It’s a little like the difference between looking at your apartment and thinking, “Hey, there’s my stuff” and looking at the same space and thinking “Now that is what I call a scrapbook!”