Fifteen years ago, I swore in front of my English professor’s children. Not a proud moment, but an honest one. Part of the final exam for our Chaucer seminar class included a fourteen-line recitation from the Canterbury Tales in Middle English. My section was the introduction to the Pardoner from the General Prologue. I had been poorly managing a balance between studying for finals, selling portable electronics at Circuit City, laying out the university’s literary magazine and yearbook, as well as djing at a local radio station. In what has become my standard boilerplate operation, my ambition overwhelmed the skillset. Not only could I not chew what was bitten off, my teeth hadn’t fully sunken through cleanly enough to call what I was doing a bite. So, like any twentysomething who thought he’d become an Asian Bukowski, I was coping with it through a series of blurry decisions. While most of the days between Black Friday and my Eng 340 final sloshed along like an unbalanced washer, those fourteen lines of Chaucer had somehow managed to stay with me. Until, of course, the final.
Presenting at our professor’s home, in front of class full of students who were way sharper than I was, I got severe performance anxiety. Fifteen years ago I was still fairly self conscious about being in front of people. Even though I was doing radio, it was radio–faceless- commercial-holy-shit-I-just-played-Smash-Mouth-AND-Christina-Aguilera? I hadn’t really read my poetry out loud outside of my creative writing classes and really had zero confidence in what I was saying, let alone believing anyone would want to hear it. So, I panicked. I choked. I Donovan McNabbed. I flat out forgot 13 ¾ of the 14 lines from the General Prologue. Then, I dropped the F-bomb. In front of my professors children, ages six and nine. I proceeded to do what any reasonably embarrassed twentysomething would do–I sat on my professor’s front porch and had a long conversation with my senior advisor, Tullamore Dew.
When I climbed out of the wreckage of the shame fog, the holidays had come and gone. I had spent most of the month staying on campus alone since I worked through the semester break on campus. It wasn’t until the second week of February where I had back to back days off. This break coincided with the wide release of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. Over the Christmas holiday, I had seen Bottle Rocket in a last minute Blockbuster (that may need to be footnoted for the Millennials) Christmas Eve Lonerthon binge. I was stunned that an indie film was actually coming to NEPA, let alone to the diviest theatre in town. It was Sunday afternoon, and I found myself absolutely alone in Theatre Two at the Gateway Cinema of Edwardsville, PA for a matinee showing of Rushmore. Even though I thought I was a hip little indie film kid and movie geek, I felt like someone flipped my apple cart. From that opening montage with The Creation’s lost Mod classic “Making Time,” to the curtain-drawing ensemble close with “Oh La La” with the Faces (featuring Rod Stewart before he became Rock n’ Roll Judas although this song was sung by Ron Wood), Rushmore spoke to me in a way that no other film had ever spoken to me before. It was as if Wes Anderson quietly slid a folded note across a crowded bar of angst and anxiety with a simple message, “yes.” Imagination cascading over imagination poured by some ambitious hand blissfully aware of pretense and tenderly careless with allowing joie de vivre to spread across Max Fisher’s landscape. I hadn’t discovered French New Wave or The Criterion Collection yet. I had seen Wings of Desire and a handful of foreign films I knew were important, but I had no idea a film like Rushmore could be made here, today. While I liked Reservoir Dogs, Dazed and Confused, and Clerks, Rushmore was different. The color, composition, and sound gave perspective to the withering pale of a coal town winter or my own prospects as someone trying to figure out whether what I writing was going to be anything other than kitchen table hobby. I think it can be difficult to see the love of creating within the object you create–doubly so when you are in the throes of discovering how to live the life of a working writer. Slipping from the world of musty books or obscure records and transitioning into a nine to five reality can leave you with some decent scars, or even worse, arrested development. It’s easy to get caught up in the denial of a world beyond your navel gazing as much as it is to outright forget what makes you tick creatively. Strip away or overdose creativity–neither are particularly better ways to be and ultimately equally unrealistic. Under the weight of doubt and expectation, I felt what I could create or could possibly be were anchor wrapped around my ability to be happy. I wrote ugly and joyless with a fear of accepting a job copyediting instruction manuals for DVD players. That was, until Rushmore.
I walked out of the theatre alone and headlong into a blizzard–the kind where it looked like the snow was falling up as much as it was coming down. With zero visibility and nary a snow plow in sight, turned right around, walked back into the Gateway, and watched Rushmore again. For me, the moment before Max and Rosemary dance–when Rosemary slides Max’s glasses off and she shudders–is as naive and wonderful and honest and unrealistic and beautiful as anything I’ve ever seen. It’s crossing a threshold of potential into a place where what happens next is not only unknown, it doesn’t matter. It’s moment as pure and crystalline as any I could hope to have or be mindful of having. It’s the linebreak against the spine of the best poem I’ve never written. It’s the message written on the imagined note Wes Anderson passed to me in the theater.
Fifteen years later, not only does it still hold up, its impression sinks deeper into my marrow. The universe of possibility and the joy by which Wes Anderson invites us into his shared vision radiates with influence and charming pretense. Like all good art, not only did Rushmore speak to me, it introduced me to other conversations and rooms rich with life, propping them open even still.
Jim Warner is the Managing Editor of Quiddity International Literary Journal and Public Radio Program at Benedictine University and the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared in various journals including The North American Review, PANK Magazine, and Drunken Boat. Jim received his MFA at Wilkes University. He lives in Springfield, IL. Follow him on twitter @whoismisterjim.