Rich man, poor man
In his own day, there were a number of composers more famous than Beethoven in Vienna. Today their names mean nothing. If you saw the movie Amadeus, you may remember the scene where the Emperor listens to a vastly inferior opera by rival composer Salieri and declares it the greatest yet written. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences thought Cavalcade was a better movie than King Kong, and decided Psycho was not worthy of a single Oscar. (It’s tempting to mention how they were also asleep at the switch on Citizen Kane, but that undoubtedly was due more to politics than a misapprehension of artistic value.)
I thought of all this recently when I saw a review of the Burr Steers movie Igby Goes Down, a masterpiece (in my humble opinion) of wit and poignancy, chock full of crisp writing and keen insights. Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of it. Hardly anyone has. Even many “cult” sections in video stores don’t have it.
The review was luke-warm, and called the film “a poor man’s Rushmore.”
Both Igby and Rushmore are indie films about rebellious teens who don’t fit into the work-a-day world. I’ve seen Rushmore too and I enjoyed it, particularly for Olivia Williams’ finely-nuanced performance.
But I have to disagree about which film is the “poor man” here.
Despite its indie credentials, I think Rushmore is the more conventional film here, the simpler film, the more linear film, the film that tries to be arty but doesn’t go against the grain, not really. It’s the story of unrequited love with an older, wiser, more secure woman on the part of a sensitive kid who doesn’t fit in. It’s sweet. It’s also contrived and theatrical, while pretending to be “different.” The elements that make Igby different, meanwhile—the multiple storylines and location, the character who appears to be one-note but is actually deeply-drawn (the scenes near the end where he finally shows affection for his mother, and then his reaction after she dies, are some of the most amazing in recent memory), the richness of the characterizations, the abundant inside jokes (my favorite being an uncredited Gore Vidal as a Catholic priest) that don’t have to be gotten for the film to work, the wordless scene where Amanda Peete prepares to woo sufar-daddy Jeff Goldblum back, only to lose him, how the black eye he gave her is so underplayed (to the point that many critics didn’t even notice it!), it’s a much subtler film than the showier and flashier, I’m-so-hip Rushmore and its post-ironic humor. (One of the things that clues me in that anything is intellectually vapid is when its proponents describe it as “post-something,” saying in essence if you don’t get it you’re just…not getting it. Can’t explain it, sorry. I thought that explanation was shown for all its worth in the fable of The Emperor’s New Clothes.) Igby’s director, I think, has more confidence in (or was stupid enough not to worry about the fate of) his material, the same way the little tyke had confidence in (or was stupid enough not to worry about the fate of) his opinion of the Emperor. Since then Burr Steers has directly only two lame films, by-the-numbers studio hack jobs that, sadly, have done far better at the box office than Igby.
But we’re human. We tend to notice what stands out, the showy. The deeper, appreciated after only several viewings or listenings, takes longer.
And then, after that happens, we wonder why past generations “didn’t get it.”