High School Confidential

Aside from a few inspiring distractions I spent yesterday reading this book and this book. I also revisited Ghost World, which was interesting, but largely off-topic. Today I finally started writing, taking a little time off for another sensationalized depiction of teen drug use called High School Confidential [1958]. Here are the first few, hopefully not too pretentious, pages of the introduction. What do you think?

(Btw, there is a TV show starting in March, also called "High School Confidential". It looks like it'll be worth watching, but not as good as a short-lived documentary mini-series/reality show called "American High" that aired on Fox back in 2000.)


In 1936, roughly forty years after the Lumière brothers first captured moving images on film, Jacques Lacan introduced the idea of the “mirror stage” to the world of psychoanalysis. Lacan suggested that there is a significant point in early childhood development, which he determined to be at six months old, when we are first able to identify our own specular image. At this stage in our growth the amount of control we possess over our own bodies is awkward and incomplete, but the image of ourselves that we encounter in the mirror is oddly “whole”. Lacan insists that we resolve this contradiction by choosing to identify with the reflection instead of the physical self. He considered this phenomenon to be the moment at which we first create a sense of our own identity; it is the moment in which we create ego, or our own sense of self.

As we mature, this dialogue with our mirror image continues as we attempt to negotiate some sense of resolution between what we perceive as a subject – where perception encompasses all levels of conscious awareness of self – and the image that confronts us in the mirror. Though we may come to take this experience for granted, this in no way devalues the significant impact it continues to have on our ongoing personal development. While Lacan first stressed the “historical value” of this experience – the effect that this initial experience has on our psychological development as a turning point in our conscious awareness of self – he later stressed it’s “structural value” – the dynamic impact that the initial experience, and future experiences with our own reflection have on our ever evolving sense of self.

Like Narcissus we may become obsessed with this reflection, unable to turn our gaze on anything else. In fact, even when we do look away, we will quite often see people and things in the world around us only as they relate to ourselves. That sense of self, initiated by our first encounter with our own mirror image, really only exists in relationship to other people and things just as that initial encounter takes our natural sense of integrity or wholeness and introduces an awkward separation. In other words, this identification with the mirror image is only possible when we are able to separate our “selves” as a subject, or a centrally located point of conscious awareness, from the physical representation of that “self” in a more corporeal form: the material body. Of course, in the moment Lacan describes, wherein we choose to identify with the reflection, that sense of the subjective self becomes indistinguishably tied to the physical body.

However, this awkward moment of tension between what we feel and what we see persists throughout our lives as we repeatedly try to come to an amicable agreement between the two. That process of tension and resolution is played out in all of our relationships, wherever there is a sense of distance between our “selves” and some “other”, and that tension exists in all of our endeavors to make the world conform to our own idealized image of what we feel it should be.

At this point, dear reader, you may well be wondering if what you are reading has somehow been attached to the title page of some other, entirely more interesting, and certainly less cerebral publication. What, if anything, does Jacues Lacan’s mirror stage have to do with Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall? Let’s hope there is some connection, that we may well come to in due course. First, let’s backtrack to the brothers Lumière and their monumental contribution to the complicated evolution of our contemporary experience.
After a few short years of research and development Auguste and Louis Lumière held the first public screening of “moving pictures” in December of 1895. The Lumière Cinématrographe was the refinement of a design patented in the same year by Léon Bouly, and enabled the Lumière Brothers to record, develop and project films that had an approximate running time of 40 to 50 seconds.

Among their first ten films, premiered in 1895, was a 49 second piece of comedy called Le Jardinier (l’Arroseur Arrosé), or “The Gardener: the Sprinkler Sprinkled”. It is a medium shot; a mustachioed man of middle age stands in the left hand side of the frame facing in the general direction of the camera. He is holding a garden hose in both hands and is presumably watering some nameless greenery that is just outside the general purview of the Lumière Cinématrographe. After a few moments, someone enters the right side of the frame, unbeknownst to our dutiful gardener. This blonde and spiky-haired antagonist places his foot firmly on the length of hose that lies in his path, out of view of the unsuspecting jardinier. Acting hastily in his confusion, though not convincingly so, the gardener commits an unfortunately comic error, looking directly down the nozzle of the hose as if to spy some obstruction. And ho! What antics follow as our young ne’er-do-well lifts his foot from the hose, releasing a powerful stream of water that soaks our protagonist. Never fear, shortly thereafter our mustache wearing protagonist deftly turns the hose on our youthful prankster and exacts his just revenge.

In his exhaustive survey, Teen Movies: American Youth on Screen, Timothy Shary suggests that this short film by the Lumières is proof that even, “the earliest motion pictures ever made featured youth at play” (Shary, 5). Therefore, even the earliest motion pictures depicted young people as irresponsible practical joke playing malcontents with little respect for their elders. Unfortunately, this shallow and uncharitable characterization persists up to the present day where teens on screen are largely witless sex-crazed ciphers that exist merely as spokespeople for thoughtless consumption.

And yes, dear reader, Lumière may well seem more apropos to the under-aged inhabitants of Shermer, Illionois and other fictional locales, but what about dear old Jacques? Let’s not leave Lacan aside just yet. The tension between self and other that is expressed in Lacan’s mirror stage exists just as palpably between the self and his fictional representation on the movie screen, as it does between ourselves and our mirror reflections. Therefore, those reflections of “self” we encounter in the simulated privacy of a darkened movie theater exert a force on our ongoing personal development that is every bit as powerful as the mirror image. Perhaps these “reflections” are even more powerful because they are able to depict not just our apparent state of being, but who we may wish to become, or even what we fear we may well be.

And so in this intersection Lacan and Lumière meet the long and sordid history of Hollywood teen film...


Amanda N said...

Well done.

Jenn said...

well done indeed. but there's a minor error. in paragraph 2 you have "he later stressed it’s “structural value”", and the apostrophe in "it's" should be eliminated.