Narrowing the Scope - Another Excerpt from the Introduction

Timothy Shary posits that there are six categories in which teen films generally fall. This system of classification is supported in part by Jonathan Bernstein in his mostly irreverent tome about 80s teen movies Pretty in Pink: the Golden Age of Teenage Movies. According to Shary the six general categories are: the horror film, the science film, the sex comedy, the romantic melodrama, the juvenile delinquent drama, and the school film (Shary, 8). Though Bernstein corroborates Shary’s opinion, Shary admits that the science film did not persist much past the end of the 1980s, which saw a string of almost inexplicable movies depicting young science whizzes at work and at play. While films like War Games [1983], Space Camp [1986] and Back to the Future [1985] were prevalent enough to demand genre-fication in the 1980s, they almost completely disappeared by the 90s. Hackers [1995] was quite possibly the last film of the genre, with nothing of the like appearing in the thirteen intervening years between now and then. The remaining five categories are still quite useful in understanding teen film even today.

Obviously, this inquiry concerns itself with what Shary calls the “school film”, and for our intents and purposes we will refer to as the high school movie. The school film is the most diverse and flexible of all the categories, often incorporating one or more of the other genres into itself. However, the significance of the high school movie is more than just the ready-made setting and social structure it provides. As Timothy Shary observes:
“What makes the school film a specific subgenre is its focus on the actual socialization process at the school, as opposed to other youth issues which are less integral to the school setting, such as crime, sex, terror, or family (although these issues are often developed in films around school settings).” (27)
Therefore, the high school is more than just the setting for the story, or rather in a high school movie the setting is the story. That being said, the movies that we will more closely examine in the following pages were chosen because they deal with a persistent aspect of both the high school setting and the “socialization process” that happens there. These films show teenagers in the midst of an often extremely hostile social environment, both because of their peers and their superiors, and in a time of life when they are still actively trying to determine who they are and who they would like to become.

The movies with which we will concern ourselves are movies that depict the genuine high school experience, from the point of view of the high school student, and for their ultimate benefit. There are any number of films that may fall under the general classification of “high school film” that will nevertheless be useless for our purposes. For instance, movies like Blackboard Jungle [1965] and Class of 1984 [1982] are undisputed classics in the genre of high school film, but they are ultimately of more interest and appeal to parents and teachers than the students themselves*. They are cautionary tales that come off sounding more like public service announcements than honest depictions of the trials and tribulations of your average high school student. After all, the public service announcement is a genre of film and television that any self-respecting teen considers laughable at best. We will also not be concerned with movies like Lean on Me [1989], Stand and Deliver [1988], or Dangerous Minds [1995]. Movies of this ilk are made for the enjoyment of teachers not students, and could, monetary limitations aside, quite possibly be financed by the teachers union in order to convince more brave young men and women to join the ranks of public school teachers. As we have already alluded this study will also not concern itself with vapid teen fare that just happens to take place in high school, nor horror films and sex-comedies that share the same setting, unless of course these movies have something compelling to say about the high school experience in between the time their characters spend running for their lives or trying to “get laid”.

The high school movies we will be concerned with will accomplish two primary goals: they will (1) offer valuable insight to the social dynamic of the high school experience as lived by the high school student, average or otherwise, and they will (2) depict a process of growth and transformation that is often executed in opposition to the protagonist(s) peers and/or superiors. We are of the opinion that this transformative experience, which scholar of mythology Joseph Campbell calls “the hero’s journey”, is of the utmost importance in the creation of our own contemporary “mythology”. In other words, stories that depict the hero’s journey, no matter how banal the external circumstances may seem, are the most powerful stories for the audience’s potential self-transformation, and are therefore the richest sites for deeper exploration and discussion.

It is practically unimportant that the movies at hand are for and about teenagers. Though they may also be classified as “coming of age” stories, there is no reason to limit this coming of age to a single point in the course of one’s life. Rites of passage occur throughout our lives, and we can therefore assume that we may “come of age” at virtually any age between the useful bookends of birth and death. Movies like The Big Chill [1983], American Beauty [1999], and Six Degrees of Separation [1993] all deal with this idea of coming of age at various points later in one’s life, and therefore also depict this process of transformation for the betterment of one person and the benefit of many. If these rites of passage are common to many different points in the human experience, then we can all benefit from these stories depicting the years of growth and change that take place during high school regardless of our age.

Furthermore, the changes that take place during our high school years are often the most significant changes we experience throughout our lives, and the decisions we make about who we are and want to be will have lasting effects, helping to determine the development of our personality. Those changes and the resulting decisions are largely the result of two dynamics that we will explore throughout the proceeding pages: authority and rebellion. We could also say that these changes come as a result of the single dynamic created by these two opposing forces. We could even say that these changes come as a result of the numerous dynamics created by these two opposing forces. No matter the perspective, the films we will examine all depict young people who experience a sense of tension from their innate resistance to the power and influence that others exert over their lives and personalities. The power and influence may come from parents, teachers and sometimes even fellow students, and the tension produces narrative interest by bringing about the many ways in which our protagonists attempt to rebel from these external influences and assert themselves as unique independent persons.

There are numerous high school films that concern themselves with the narrative opposition of authority and rebellion, but we will primarily concern ourselves with a small handful of movies that were released between 1985 and 1990, with the exception of earlier and later films that will be introduced on either end of the main discussion. The movies that will inform the majority of the text are The Breakfast Club [1985], The Chocolate War [1988], Dead Poets Society [1989], Ferris Bueller’s Day Off [1986], Heathers [1989], and Pump Up the Volume [1990]. The films discussed in this text are limited to a rather narrow five-year span because of the proliferation of high quality teen movies at this point and time, and also because they have each had a significant impact on the personal development of the author. The selection of films is also largely homogenous in regards to the race and gender of their protagonists. There are numerous compelling high school movies depicting female and/or African American or Hispanic protagonists that meet the criteria that we have already established. It is our conviction that films like Mean Girls [2004], Pretty Persuasion [2005], Boyz n the Hood [1991], and many others also deserve to be more closely examined with a critical eye, but it is also our own humble opinion that there are other authors who are better equipped to handle such a project.

The High School Film as PSA

I just revisited the "foreword" to the 1958 classic Blackboard Jungle:
“Today we are concerned with juvenile delinquency: its cause and its effects. We are especially concerned when this delinquency boils over into our schools. The scenes and incidents depicted here are fictional. However, we believe that public awareness is a first step toward a remedy for any problem.”
There is a similar foreword (and ridiculous afterword) in High School Confidential that refers to the "insidious menace" of "marijuana cigarettes" and teen violence that plagues our schools.

Class of 1984 has it's own foreword as well:
“Last year [1981] there were 280,000 incidents of violence by students against teachers and classmates in our high schools. Unfortunately, this film is partially based on true events. Fortunately, very few schools are like Lincoln High… yet.”
Seeing them all together like this makes me realize exactly why I can't take them seriously: they are perfect examples of the high school movie as public service announcement. The PSA is a genre of film and television that teens - and really intelligent people of all ages - consider laughable, almost without exception.

Sure, they often make an impression. Just repeat this line to anyone of a certain age: You alright! I learned it from watching you! Instant flashback. But like animated "crime dogs" films like Blackboard Jungle may make an impression, but they don't really speak to the high school audience in their own language.


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...


The Faculty

After yet another flick today - the delightful little sci-fi/horror/teensploitation mish-mash, The Faculty [1998] - I'm considering another short chapter: Conformity as the Ultimate Nightmare. It would also have to include another paranoid tribute to the evils of the in-crowd, also from 1998 oddly enough, Disturbing Behavior.

Am I the only person that has see both of these entertainingly horrible movies?

Not so perfect timing.

I just sent two pathetically desperate emails, trying to get copies of films that have not yet been commercially released: a documentary about the influence of John Hughes called Don't You Forget About Me, and another documentary, which looks nothing short of super-duper, called Billy the Kid. Both films look like they would be invaluable for my thesis.

Anyway, if you have connections, or if you are connections, drop me a line and add something singularly wonderful to this geektastic little tome in progress.

In the meantime, I'm going to pry my eyes away from glowing screens of all sorts and spend some quality time with the printed page. I've been waiting to read this book for months.

Class of 1984

What a way to start the day! This morning I watched the cult fave Class of 1984. Ouch!

A strange cinematic homage to the classic, but almost equally sensational Blackboard Jungle, Class of 1984 is a cautionary tale: a warning to parents everywhere just how senselessly depraved our schools may yet become. I'll save you the scene by scene comparison to Blackboard Jungle, and instead stress the complete outrageousness that infests this movie. Oh, and the total abandonment of subtlety. There's the scene where one student, high on angel dust, climbs the flag pole and then falls to his death wrapped in the American flag. Then there's the scene in which the biology teacher decides to "get through to his students" by holding them at gun point. It's the ending that really drives home the social commentary though. The selflessly heroic teacher, played irritatingly by Perry King, finally gets his revenge: severing one of the student's arms and then impaling him on a saw in shop class, setting another on fire, crushing two more in a car crash in the automotive shop, and then finally pushing his nemesis through the glass ceiling above the auditorium to swing by his neck on the end of a rope, all while his orchestra students plod through the 1812 Overture below. This is one classy movie (pun intended?). At least Glenn Ford knew to turn the other cheek.

Don't get me wrong, though. It was enjoyable. Entertaining even. In a kitschy time-capsule sort of way. The theme song, by Alice Cooper, is still stuck in my head. In another nod to all things subtle, the lyrics go something like this:
When does a dream become a nightmare?
I am the future, and you belong to me.
I am the future, the world belongs to me.
It reminds me of Richard Vernon and Carl sitting in the basement of Shermer High School sharing a beer. Vernon says: Now this is the thought that wakes me up in the middle of the night... That when I get older, these kids are gonna take care of me.

Ultimately, Class of 1984 falls into a category of high school movies that I have very little interest in. They are told from the perspective of paranoid adults who want to commiserate with each other over the terrible state of "these kids today". The only high school movies more annoying are the ones that the teacher's union bank rolls every few years in order to inspire would be public school teachers to take up the mantle of public education. You know the type: Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers, etc. These movies don't really interest me. At least not as much as the ones that actually depict the high school experience from the perspective of the students themselves.

Light It Up

Netflix calls Light It Up [1999] "Taps meets The Breakfast Club in the inner city in this late 1990s answer to the Brat Pack flicks of the 1980s". I didn't find it to be that, exactly. It was (again) melodramatic, and highly implausible - when the students get their demands out to every newsmedia outlet in the free world via internet access in the curiously operational computer lab, in a school that has neither text books nor heat mind you, I had to raise my objections - but I have to admit that it did tip its hat to The Breakfast Club once or twice.

There was a chubby and bespectacled Judd Nelson - Young man, have you finished your paper? - as the selfless martyr to education, Ken Knowles. Then there was the five, plus one, social caricatures brought together against their will in the school library. I thought that Sarah Gilbert may have been a half-decent proxy for Ally Sheedy's character in TBC, and Rosario Dawson could have passed for a less clueless Molly Ringwald, but after that the comparison sort of breaks down. And the movie ends with a freeze frame that was strikingly similar to Judd Nelson's upraised fist at the end of TBC, but that one may be a stretch. Oh yeah, and then there's the semi-omniscient narrator that bookends the action in both films.

By and large I thought Light It Up was pretty lousy in comparison to the teen films of yore. There is really much more sensationalism than substance. But hey, that Usher Raymond kid is pretty dreamy, isn't he?


Tentative Chapter List

“Does Barry Manilow Know You Raid His Wardrobe?”:
Themes of Authority and Rebellion
In American Movies About High School

Introduction – Lots of Whys and a Few Disclaimers

Vignette: Frederick Wiseman’s High School

The Teen Film Comes of Age – How The Breakfast Club Established a Genre

With Friends Like These – Authority and Rebellion Between Peers

“When You Grow Up Your Heart Dies” – Parents, Teachers, Principals and Other Full-Grown Bores

Truancy, Delinquency, and Dysfunction – Ferris Bueller and the Death of the Grownup

Over Your Dead Body – On Making Your Life Your Own

Vignette: Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and how today’s high school movies are missing the boat (aren’t school shootings the teen suicides of today?) Also: United States of Leland

Epilogue #1: From Porky’s to Superbad – The Present State of High School Movies, and the… um, Rise of the Teen Sex Comedy

Epilogue #2: Thumbsuckers, Chumscrubbers, and Bricks – The Proper Heirs to the High School Movie Legacy

Film List

One of the most difficult parts of this process is keeping the list of films that I intend to discuss under control. One of the easiest ways to do that is to have a very clear idea of exactly what a "High School Movie" is. For my intents and purposes, while "Teen Movies" and "High School Movies" may have some overlapping territory on the Venn diagram tip, teen movies occupy a much larger (and largely uninteresting) territory than I am willing to be responsible for. That being said high school movies are not just about kids who happen to be in high school. They should deal largely with complicated dynamic involved in being an inmate of the American high school. In that sense, the action in a high school movie doesn't necessarily have to take place in high school. For instance, Ferris Bueller's Day Off is, like, totally about high school, even though the main character never sets foot inside the place. On the other end of the spectrum, Rushmore is named after a high school, but doesn't represent any real world high school experience that I'm familiar with.

There are five movies that I originally intended to focus on in my thesis. They are:

The Breakfast Club
The Chocolate War
Dead Poets Society
Pump Up the Volume

I have added a few others while putting together my chapter list (see next post):

The Chumscrubber
Ferris Bueller's Day Off
High School (1968 documentary by Frederick Wiseman)
The United States of Leland

Here's the full list. Movies I haven't seen are in bold. If you have seen them and think that they are either not worth seeing, or won't fit the vague criteria I established above, please let me know so that I can save time and patience.

10 Things I Hate About You
All I Wanna Do
American Pie
Angel Rodriguez
Billy the Kid
Blackboard Jungle
Breakfast Club, The
Bring It On
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Can't Buy Me Love
Charlie Bartlett
Chocolate War, The
Chumscrubber, The
Class of 1984
Coach Carter
Cooley High
Craft, The
Crime & Punishment in Suburbia
Dazed and Confused
Dead Poets Society
Disturbing Behavior
Donnie Darko
Edge of America
Encino Man
Faculty, The
Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Ferris Bueler’s Day Off
Friday Night Lights
Freedom Writers
Ginger Snaps
High School Confidential
High School High
High School Musical
High School USA
How to Deal
Kids in America
Light It Up
Mean Girls
Napoleon Dynamite
Nearing Grace
New Guy, The
Newport South
Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon, A
Not Another Teen Movie
Outsiders, The
Pretty in Pink
Pretty Persuasion
Pump Up the Volume
Rebel Without a Cause
Red Dawn
River’s Edge
Rock N’ Roll High School
Rumble Fish
Say Anything
She's All That
Sixteen Candles
Some Kind of Wonderful
Squid and the Whale, The
Stand and Deliver
Summer School
Teaching Mrs. Tingle
To Sir With Love
United States of Leland, The
Valley Girl
Varsity Blues
Virgin Suicides, The
Vision Quest
Voices From the High School
Weird Science
Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael
Welcome to the Dollhouse
Whassup Rockers

Nostalgia Bites

Part of my daily schedule will be watching as many high school/teen movies as I can and still keep up with the actual writing part of the thesis. While I ate lunch I dipped into today's new arrivals from Netflix. ABC has released a sickeningly nostalgic series of DVDs collecting their "After School Specials" from 1974 to 1989. I just watched The Heartbreak Winner (listed as The Gold Test on the DVD). It was almost unbearably melodramatic, which after a moment's reflection seems entirely appropriate. In fact, that would be a decent description of high school in general wouldn't it?

The other thing worth mentioning - aside from the father's crazy-out-of-control Oscar the Grouch eyebrows - is how everything looked a little too era appropriate. I mean, that kitchen. I've been in that kitchen before.

Speaking of which (and please forgive the conversationally-stream-of-consciousness tone I'm taking right now), I finally saw Juno yesterday. It was great. Implausibly funny. Well acted. Perfect soundtrack, minus the Mott the Hoople song, which is awesome, but totally not "hard core". My only "complaint", which is really more like a metatextual observation, is: what's up with the new nostalgia? The characters in that movie weren't even alive in the 70s. Actually, if they are currently in high school, chances are they weren't even alive in the 80s. Why are they paying homage to slinkys and suspiria and iggy pop? Did it all start with Napoleon Dynamite and that feckin' tater tot intro? Do they even make trapper keepers anymore?

Not that I mind. I mean, who am I to talk? One of the reasons I'm writing this damn thing in the first place is because I still haven't gotten over movies like The Breakfast Club and Pump Up the Volume.

My geekiness is multi-dimensional.

I found this gem on YouTube a while back: the inexplicable dance scene from The Breakfast Club exponentially improved with a change in soundtrack. That's "From Nothing to Nowhere" from Pinback's latest album Autumn of the Seraphs.


Dear Mr. Vernon,

Yes, another blog. Proving that you never really kick the habit, I've returned to blogger to pour some amount of time and energy into another initially promising, but ultimately short lived self publishing venture. By curse or blessing I have found myself with the next four and half weeks to devote _all_ of my time and energy to completing my Master's thesis in English (with a focus on rhetoric and media studies).

That's the title up there. "Does Barry Manilow know you raid his wardrobe?": Themes of Authority and Rebellion in American Movies About High School. More details forthcoming.

I started up this here blog in order to keep my brain limber with a steady regimen of note taking and informal writing. Somehow, blogs keep my creativity in operational mode. I will probably be posting here several times a day. It is your responsibility, dear reader, to leave encouraging/discouraging comments/suggestions about this ridiculous work in progress so that it may quickly become a finished product.