Sunday, August 30, 2015

every update of reality

Let us leave (presumably) the evil high school girls behind. (Presumably because I haven't seen Struck by Lightning before.) Today, our focus is a high school boy, Carson Phillips (Chris Colfer).

(And, admittedly, this movie was recommended by my daughter a good while ago and I have put it off.

Which really shouldn't be parenthetical, actually, because I want to take this opportunity to a) write a bit about the movie as it plays and b) out my daughter as a crazy fangirl... except, as you will see, my point below is probably going to be that fangirls are not crazy. Plus it's a bit sexist to separate fangirls from fanboys, anyway.)

Carson is rather amusingly sardonic and sarcastic--i.e. the best kind of cinematic high school character. I don't need someone who is you know, nice, and genuine. Less Rita Hanson, more Phil Connors. Just how I like a character... at least a comedy.

(So, Saer--my 12-year-old daughter, for those of you who have not been following along--found this movie (and the book,,, that came after (?), written by star Chris Colfer, who you might know from the television show Glee. And, trust me, Saer definitely knows him from Glee. Last month, she got to meet him at a book signing and she tweeted--

Meeting @chriscolfer was literally the best day of my life. He's so kind and sweet in person!!

Followed by a few hearts, but I'm not sure emojis work here.

She has watched many of the episodes of that show numerous times (and has, as any good fan, written off a few episodes as not worth watching again). She can quote lyrics and dialogue from that show better than... well, most anyone (though, there conceivably are more obsessive Gleeks, but she probably knows them, and they probably follow her Klaine-centric Instagram account...

Klaine: n. The pairing/ship for Blaine and Kurt Hummel in Glee.
Blaine is played by Darren Criss
Kurt Hummel is played by Chris Colfer

When a friend asked why I had so many pictures of Darren Criss and Chris Colfer on my phone I replied, 'Because Klaine is sexy.'

For the record, Bradlee Scott over at hypable apparently thinks fandoms like Klaine can ruin a television show... but, it's more like one fandom didn't like his fandom and he got bitter. Thus goes society, thus goes the world, and wars were made over less, I'm pretty sure.)

The movie is straightforward enough. Starts with Carson being, well, titled. He dies, and he narrates us back into first his childhood then more recent events in his high school life. Not a lot of voiceover, just enough to direct us backward, then the story gets going.

(So, I'm reading through some of Scott's piece and I had to ask Saer what Seblainers were--he writes:

I remember the world in an uproar when the Klainers and Seblainers would get into fights over the validity of a relationship. Klaine fans weren't satisfied that they ship was canon--they would rip anyone a new one if they didn't like it.

--and 1) she was horrified by the mention of Seblainers, 2) she told me that's the ship name for Sebastian and Blaine then 3) she laughed knowingly as I read her that quotation out loud and she understood it all too well... though 4) she vehemently denied the canonicity of Seblaine.)

Carson starts a literary magazine at his school because his submission of his journalism pieces with his application to Northwestern University wasn't good enough.

(And, I still haven't gotten to the point today... which will probably continue into tomorrow. And beyond, because really, why else do I watch movies if not for the parasocial relationships?

Actually, research suggests that parasocial relationships are perfectly normal, roughly equivalent to IRL social relationships. In fact, Tsao (1996) found that "parasocial relationships do not compensate for any social deficit" (Cohen, 2003, p. 191). And, Caughey (1984) found that "parasocial relationships complement [IRL] social relationships and are better understood as part of a viewer's social life" (ibid, p. 192).)

Carson blackmails other students to get involved with his magazine. If this were a more serious film, he might be setting himself up to be killed by one of these student rather than lightning, the way he's going at this.

(Some of you might now know what I'm talking about--parasocial relationships, I mean. I'm sure you can guess what a fandom is. What it means:

Horton and Wohl (1956) first described the idea of a king of face-to-face interaction between the performer and the audience member as parasocial interaction. They borrowed Kenneth Burke's (1937) phrase "coaching of attitudes" to explain that through various televisual techniques, television [and I would add movie] audiences are encouraged to feel as if they are a part of the world taking place--

And, I go back to the Lost Experience in between seasons 2 and 3 of Lost. I followed the crap out of that thing, sought out clues with others in that fandom, and wished I was at Comic-Con when the game played out its climax there.

(Sidenote: I wish every year that I am at Comic-Con, but it has become tradition that I never go, ever. I have been to smaller comic book conventions--even had a table at the Alternative Press Expo in 2003--and a few The X-Files conventions, and at least one Star Trek convention... plus there was that weekend (starting with Day 183 - where are you going?) in Woodstock, Illinois for Groundhog Days for this blog.)

I've been a Star Wars and Star Trek nerd, I've read more than my fair share of comic books--still read a few regularly--and I've obsessed over plenty of television shows: Highlander, the aforementioned The X-Files and Lost, more recently Doctor Who, and probably a few others. I've had my parasocial relationships. Oh... back to Horton and Wohl:

...on their television [and I would add movie] screens. The television persona is relatively consistent and stable from episode to episode [from resumption to resumption], and audiences quickly form attitudes about particular television [and movie] personalities via a form of Burke's (1950) "collaborative expectancy" (p. 58). The audience must accept the explicit and implicit terms of the program and must be able to "play the part" that those terms require. (Schiappo, Allen & Gregg, 2007, p. 302)

Perfectly normal to form relationships with the fictional characters with which we spend time. And, far easier than with IRL characters.)

Meanwhile, in the movie, Malerie (Rebel Wilson) had a great bit that fits with so much I've said in this blog over the past couple years--and this topic, this movie, will definitely continue into tomorrow... (or possibly the next day [I'll link to it when it happens so future readers will have it far easier than my loyal readers] because I think I've got something (slightly) else to write about tomorrow). Anyway, Malerie's response to Carson asking why she records everything with her video camera:

What isn't worth remembering? With good memories come bad memories and I've got a lot of both. At least this way I can fast-forward through all the bad stuff.

More on this movie on another day. More on parasocial relationships tomorrow.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

i'd like to see you have a little direction

Though it came out four years earlier, Clueless is the counterpoint to Jawbreaker. Cher (Alicia Silverstone) and Dionne (Stacey Dash) are the nice version of the Flawless Four, the Plastics, the Heathers. They may be friends because they both know what it's like to have people be jealous of them, but they also care about other people.

Plus, Cher is awesome. Like her debate speech about Haiti:

So like, right now for example: the Haitians need to come to America. But, some people are all, "What about the strain on our resources?" Well, it's like when i had this garden party for my father's birthday, right? I put RSVP, 'cause it was a sit-down dinner. B ut, some people came that, like, did not RSVP. I was like totally buggin. I had to haul ass to the kitchen, redistribute the food, and squish in extra place settings. But, by the end of the day it was like, the more the merrier. And so, if the government could just get to the kitchen, rearrange some things, we could certainly party with the Haitians. And, in conclusion, may I please remind you that it does not say RSVP on the Statute of Liberty. Thank you very much.

I wish some of our rookie debaters on the speech team would have as good a grasp--if seemingly unresearched--on the logic of food redistribution. An Amy Heckerling-written debate case would be a thing to see, for sure.

Like this one later:

Until mankind is peaceful enough not to have violence on the news, there's no point in taking it out of shows that ned it for entertainment value.

(I saw parts of this movie--especially the ending--far too many times as I worked at a movie theater in '95. It was #2 at the box office opening weekend. Our theater--the now-nonexistent United Artists Marketplace in Old Town Pasadena--had Clueless, Apollo 13 (#1), The Indian in the Cupboard (#8), Batman Forever (#10), Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers (#11), The Bridges of Madison County (#12), Judge Dredd (#13), Casper (#14), and Braveheart (#15)... except that doesn't make any sense. We had six screens. So, I suppose a couple of those were gone by then. But anyway, my point--I've seen this movie maybe a handful of times all the way through but dozens of times in parts.)

The structure of Clueless is interesting. I'd forgotten just how far into the movie Tai (Brittany Murphy) was introduced. Act One, Cher fixes up Mr. Hall (Wallace Shawn) with Miss Geist (Twink Caplan). The introduction of Tai pushes us into Act Two. The story is not about Cher helping out Tai; that's just one chapter in Cher's story (and Josh's (Paul Rudd) gradual attraction to her). The midpoint is the introduction of Christian (Justin Walker).

And, it looks like Act Three is going to be all post-Christian.

The interesting thing here, taking this movie in hand with Mean Girls and Jawbreaker, is that Cher is the popular girl being surpassed; imagine Mean Girls as Regina's story or Jawbreaker was Courtney's story.

Except, Cher is... Well, she's just as self-centered, but it's like she doesn't want to be. And, like some of the great heroes inn fiction, like Phil Connors, she figures out she was a better person on the inside all along.

Friday, August 28, 2015

if you're going to rule the school

A subversive eye-candy explosion of Clueless, Heathers and Carrie gleefully detonated by sex bomb Rose McGowan.

That is Crackle's description for Jawbreaker. If you don't know the movie, imagine if the spiritual successor to Heathers had seen The Craft a few too many times but didn't like witchcraft, and just couldn't be bothered to be audience friendly enough to make Mean Girls.

The Heathers, the Plastics, the Debbies (bonus points if you get that reference)--here, the Flawless Four. We begin with a little voiceover--gotta have some voiceover because the audience needs things spelled out--then it's the morning of the birthday of the nice one of the Flawless Four--Liz (Charlotte Roldan). The other three, disguised with masks and hoodies staged a kidnapping to surprise her. The titular piece of candy in her mouth and some duct tape over it and when they go to open the trunk of the car (oh, they also tied her up and stashed her in the trunk), turns out she;s dead. This is the setup. None of the humor of Heathers--so far--and way darker than Mean Girls even tries to be.

Interesting juxtaposition under the opening credits, photos of the Flawless Four as they grow up next to footage of jawbreakers being made in a factory. The jawbreakers are basically the same on the inside, but a splash of color on the outside makes each one unique. The thing is, is this movie going to uphold the idea that these girls are all the same on the outside or the inside? Mean Girls suggests a sameness to all the teenage girls. The surviving three, having decided to hide Liz's death for now, have themselves a synchronized makeup application bit going on, except Courtney (Rose McGowan) is clearly more of a sociopath than the other two. She doesn't want her day ruined because she was nice enough to plan a surprise for her friend.

Essentially, you could see these three films--Heathers, Jawbreaker and Mean Girls as three versions of similar stories. Heathers is the 80s version; sure it's got some violence and murder, but it's all over-the-top and satirical. The darkness and death is all for fun. Like so many movies (in numerous genres) in the mid-80s; the tail-end of the Cold War had us stuck on violence. Mean Girls is the 00s version, a bit more fun, and jettisoning the darkness for some good PG-13 fun. (The other two are rated R.) But, Jawbreaker is the dark 90s version, a bit more existential. The Cold War is over, the internet hasn't really arrived yet, and we just don't know who we're going to be just yet.

Meanwhile, Fern (Judy Greer) is the mousy Carrie-type. Not one of the Flawless Four. And she finds Courtney and Marcie (Julie Benz) and Julie (Rebecca Gayheart) staging Liz's bedroom to look like Liz was raped and murdered (Courtney's idea, of course). Yeah, that's how dark they take it. Courtney makes Fern an offer--don't tell anyone and they will turn her into Liz's replacement (and Fern becomes Vylette). It's more a deal with the devil than Cady's infiltration into the Plastics... and really, Veronica's trajectory in Heathers is the (sort of) opposite, with her position between the Heathers and J.D. as rock and a hard place, the devils she knows and the devil she doesn't.

Marcie goes along with Courtney's plans, but Julie feels guilty (and sad) and separates from the group. To make things more complicated, Julie was friendly to Fern before Fern was popular.

"This is High School," Fern/Vylette tells Detective Cruz (Pam Grier), "what is a friend, anyway?" She couldn't claim Liz as a friend, but she (Fern) clearly had a thing for Liz, connecting the dots on the skin on the back of Liz's neck during class. It's a nice obsessive detail. Thing is, as much as she thought, as she told Ms. Sherwood (Carol Kane), Liz was the "cat's meow" she never really knew the girl. As easily as Fern transforms into Vylette and as psycho as Courtney clearly is, maybe none of these girls knew any of the rest. At least, not since adolescence.

Like Heathers the "drama" here needn't actually involve anyone dying. Teenage drama is all life-or-death all the time. Making or breaking the new popular girl can be literal or not--same basic idea.

Footnote: I just glanced at the box office for the weekend Jawbreaker came out--not sure why I did that, the movie failed at the box office--and was surprised how many movies on the list I'd seen. Then again, February is Oscar season, so a lot of movies are lingering, and some throwaway (i.e. not award hopefuls) movies are just coming out. Two new movies in the top ten--October Sky and Office Space> --saw those that weekend, too. But, another interesting thing was that She's All That and Varsity Blues, and The Faculty, three very different high school movies, were also in theaters at the time.)

(Footnote #2: The prom is far too easy a setting for the climax of a high school movie. But, it's also probably far too easy a climax for the teenager's year in reality, too.)

Thursday, August 27, 2015

you're not pretending anymore

The Heathers evolved into the "Plastics" and, I've only seen this movie one time. Cady (Lindsay Lohan) is like Roger Ebert (yesterday) going into a high school movie. Her inability to fit in and her lack of knowledge about how the school works means the movie starts on a reset. It can accept whatever high school movie tropes it wants to accept and reject whichever it wants to reject. It's a good position from which to deconstruct the genre.

(To be fair, since I've only see the movie once, I cannot recall just how much it is going to do this.)

"Pretending that nothing was wrong turned out to be surprisingly easy." That's an interesting line given the subject of teenagers. All performance and face, rarely the reality. You are who you pretend to be in high school (especially, movie high school). Cady's problem, here, in fact, is that if she hangs out with the Plastics enough, she might actually understand them, even like them.

(Sidenote: the choreography in the "Jingle Bells Rock" bit is interesting--Cady is the only one who seems relaxed or comfortable doing it. The other three have been doing this routine every year. And, they've also been doing the routine of the Plastics. Who they are in front of everyone is just something they've put on. As a result, they are a bit too stiff, too practiced. Cady is just having a good time...

Or maybe Lindsay Lohan was just better at it than the other three actresses.)

...maybe that wasn't a parenthetical.

Like this: "I know it may look like I'd become a bitch. But, that's only because I was acting like a bitch." Cady is what she pretends to be.

(An aside: maybe I shouldn't have skipped Jawbreaker. I was going to watch that in between Heathers and Mean Girls but my daughter Saer wanted to watch Mean Girls with me (and Hayley wandered in to watch it as well) so I skipped ahead. Thing it, Cady's transition into "Queen Bee" is more an echo of Fern's transition in Jawbreaker more than Veronica's in Heathers.)

And, let's leave it at that.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

the answers can be found in the mtv video games

Take Heathers as a metaphor instead of a dark comedy (or rather both) for the moment. In context, the deaths are real, but the point is not about life or death, not literally. Think in adolescent/teeanger terms, instead. This is about that life or death. Veronica used to be friends with Betty, still sort of is, but now she's with the Heathers, and that limits access. High school cliques, when they are clearly drawn--i.e. especially the cinematic incarnations of high school cliques--don't mix well. Watch that bit in... it's either 10 Things I Hate about You or The Faculty--or maybe both--where the cliques are spelled out in front of the school, and each one has its own space apart from the others, and it's all neat and discrete. The population of the school seems a little small, of course, with a singular popular girl clique, or a singular jock clique, or a singular stoner clique, but if movies dealt with public school student numbers realistically, there would not be room for story.

Anyway, my point, because for a change I don't feel like belaboring it, is this: for someone like Veronica, being in with the Heathers is life or death, social life or social death. I don't speak much from experience, though, not real-life experience, anyway. MY school was miniscule. But, on the other hand, I do speak from experience, inasmuch as I've seen so many high school movies... Just off the top of my head:

Heathers
10 Things I Hate about You
The Faculty
Pump Up the Volume
Mean Girls
She's All That
Can't Buy Me Love
The Breakfast Club
Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Porky's
(and its sequels)
Can't Hardly Wait
American Pie
(and its sequels, though I think I've only seen one of the sequels)
Some Kind of Wonderful
Jawbreaker
Clueless
Pretty in Pink
Sixteen Candles
Say Anything
(sort of)
High School Musical

And, I'm sure I'm forgetting something obvious (and a whole lot of not-so-obvious ones). Nevermind the implication of cliques in the stereotypes in slasher films, as well. In cinematic terms, we need cliques. We need characters to be easily definable right away so we can get on with the plot. Even if they are going to buck the system and step outside the clique boundaries, you gotta define those boundaries first to let us know that anything untoward is going on.

Of course, then you've got outsiders like J.D. who don't have a clique. Mark Hunter. Kat Stratford. John Bender. If the outsider is lucky, there are other outsiders with which to spend time. Lloyd Dobler's got a few friends. Jim, Oz, Kevin, and Paul have each other. As do Tommy, Billy, Pee Wee, Meat, Mickey, Tim and Brian. Be outsiders together. Get into some hijinks and pranks and whatnot and you've got a movie plot.

Roger Ebert begins his review of Heathers by describing how he approaches this type of movie "as a traveler in an unknown country, one who does not speak the language or know the customs and can judge the natives only by taking them at their word." The thing is, in movies, the customs are pretty much the same, and the language varies a bit, but it's easy enough to get the hang of. Something might be "very" or it might be "fetch" or, hell, it might be "station." We get it as much as we need to get it.

It's a movie. We're supposed to understand. Even if only in context.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

are we going to prom or to hell?

I love the way Veronica writes in her diary, not just angrily but so inefficiently--writing so large that each page has maybe a dozen words. It makes for a nice visual.

Watching Heathers, by the way.

Might have to watch this more than once because I'm enjoying it too much to write anything...

...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seriously.

you think this one will be different

The whole point to movies like Pump Up the Volume or The Legend of Billie Jean (watching again today), is that not only is the system broken but the measures to fix it are broken as well. That Mark's father, the school commissioner, does his job only as his rebellious son is being arrested and Lieutenant Ringwald only tries to do his job after its too late here... and manages to do the right thing in the end by specifically by not doing his job when Billie Jean confronts Pyatt--this is a measure that things are not really working. There's no legitimate oversight...

Of course, that brings up an interesting point about Pump Up the Volume--imagine if, instead of broadcasting that letter about Cheryl Biggs under the guise of Hard Harry Hard-On, Mark had pointed out the problem to his father. He wouldn't have garnered the interest of Nora, of course, would have remained the quiet nerdy guy. But, he might have save the school without some of the trouble--Paige blowing up her microwave, for example... actually, the only example, really. It may have been too late for Malcolm, Mazz was already expelled, and Cheryl didn't really make any trouble. The only other trouble was kids playing Hard Harry's show at school. The idea of the trouble was bigger than the actual trouble.

Not unlike this movie, actually. Billie Jean gets credit for shooting Pyatt even though her brother did it, accidentally. She and her "gang" then get credit for various robberies around the state.

(You know the biggest weakness in this movie? The chase scenes are lacking tension. The editing could use some work or the actors could use some urgency, or something. You get "Rebel Yell" playing over your chase, it should look like Billie Jean is not just going for a casual jog through the mall.)

This movie is trying something interesting. There's a hint of class warfare, sexism, a critique of sorts of capitalism and the media. It's a feminist action film, just with poorly staged action, which is too bad. Similarly, the capitalism stuff seems pointed enough to warrant far more attention than it gets. Same with the feminist stuff--no bra, hair cut short, Cutter's pride over getting her period. The movie is ripe for a much stronger feminist message than its got.

I suppose, in 1985, it was doing just fine on that note. No need to get too much into it. Just establish the theme and move on with an arbitrary scene saving a kid from his abusive father, a guy who not only carries a gun--it's 1980s Texas so that's believable--but is eager to shoot at a car full of teenagers with almost no hesitation.

I only just noticed that the car they've been driving was the community car for the trailer park--a pseudo-socialist detail to go with the anti-capitalist (anti-consumerism, anyway) theme... neither of which get as much play as they could. Billie doesn't run into enough of the merchandise before the ending. Fans, sure. But, not the merchandise, and that only finally when she sees Pyatt again, and her brother has just been shot. The scene doesn't even necessarily put Billie Jean against the merchandise until the moment she tears that poster and questions if Pyatt paid for the new scooter. Ultimately, she refuses Pyatt's money. And the fire that burns his sales tent is an accident.

There is a nice sense of overall structure to the film in how it deals with heat and fire--The opening of the film, Jimmy J. Judge on the radio, and he says:

They say, "some like it hot." Well, some of you are going to burn today.

End of the film, the statue of Billie Jean burns over all the merchandise... It's actually too bad that the "legend" burns because the idea of some continuing sense of rebellion, or feminism, or something--like the new pirate radio shows at the end of Pump up the Volume--would have been nice. Instead, it's back to normal but in Vermont instead of Texas. George isn't even there. "Billie Jean" doesn't matter anymore. And, while they presumably did get a scooter, they never got the money (well, as I said above, she gave it back), she's hitchhiking at the end of the movie, so maybe not even a scooter. The last scene is not only pointless (except for the most minimal joke about the temperature), it kind of makes the rest of the movie pointless.

I still like it. It just needs some editing work.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

we don't do schools

Feel like drifting. No school. No teachers. Just an old movie that might not even be any good. The Legend of Billie Jean. I remember enjoying it years ago, but I'm watching it because right after I mentioned it a few days ago I happened to see the DVD for sale cheap. Can't pass up coincidence.

I was just reading about how in the commentary track (to which I have not listened), Helen Slater and Yeardley Smith didn't remember how the movie ended as they were watching it years later. I, too, do not really remember where this movie is going. I know something's gonna happen to Billie Jean (Helen Slater, no relation to...) and her brother Binx (...Christian Slater) kills someone--

Which is happening now as I type about not remembering the details. So, Hubie (Barry Tubb) stole Binx' scooter and Pyatt, Hubie's father (Richard Bradford) just tried to rape Billie Jean, sort of, rather than pay the money she demanded for the damage done to the scooter. Now, they're going to go on the run along with Ophelia (Martha Gehman) and Putter (Smith) and... become famous somehow. I guess I'll just watch for a bit.

(And then I get sidetracked in my head thinking about how Facebook conencts us with people. See, on Facebook, I'm friends with Peter Coyote, who plays the Detective in the film. On the down low, I'll admit, I've never met the guy, but he's a cool actor and an awesome sixties guy, and then that gets me to thinking about how I should get some good 60s radicals films into this blog, because as a history major, sixties radicals were my thing and just this past spring I got the chance to write another paper about the Weather Underground. Outlaws interest me. Have for a long time. If you were following along in June as I watched a whole bunch of Westerns, you might have noticed... for example when I watched Billy the Kid films (675, 689, 693). Maybe soon.)

Billie and Co. try to make a deal with Pyatt--contrary to my memory, he didn't die--with the detective there. It goes badly because Pyatt has Hubie and his friends there to... I'm actually not sure what he was trying to do, but it didn't work out. Now, Billie and Co. broke into a house to get some food and some preppy 1980s guy with a lot of AV equipment lives there and saw them on video. And, the movie takes a turn to the other part I remembered--something about the media...

A news report puts them at the scene of a truck stop robbery where they never were. Then, a Joan of Arc movie is on and AC guy--Lloyd (Keith Gordon)--tells them all about Joan and I'm wondering if we're supposed to be surprised that Billie Jean is going to have a makeover to become a proto-Imperator Furiosa.

Weird thing--Lloyd says Joan dressed like a man, but Billie Jean's short haircut coupled with the wetsuit (?), open in the front--

--does not make her seem very "dressed like a man."

....

And, I just learned there was a stage musical made from this story a few years back. I have got to hear that... or not. Photos from the show make it look very much like a parody:

Billie, with a whole bunch of kids following her around because she's famous now, just happens by a house where a father is abusing his kid right then. Convenient for the plot, a little arbitrary. Guy lets his kid leave with her once he realizes who she is.

Then another guy shoots at their tires--he says--but hits the back window because there's a reward. The movie has the beats of a nice outlaw story but is lacking most of the detail. It's like a string of random events... rather than an actual plot.

Similarly, the Joan of Arc impulse, or Putter's first period being mistaken for her being shot (not to mention her asking when she can get a diaphragm in the very next scene)--these things just sort of happen, like someone wanted to make a feminist outlaw film and maybe nobody polished the script or something. It wants to be good. It just isn't quite managing...

And then it gets more interesting. I spoke too soon. The sequence with Billie Jean getting rides from a series of Billie Jean-lookalikes is actually a pretty good montage (with Pat Benatar's "Invincible" playing over it) for establishing her fame and her disciples of sorts. Beneatar's lyrics evoke a tone the film isn't quite achieving, but it works in a mid-80s kind of way...

This shattered dream you cannot justify
We're gonna scream until we're satisfied
What are we running for?
We've got the right to be angry
What are we running for?
When there's nowhere we can run to anymore

We can't afford to be innocent
Stand up and face the enemy
It's a do or die situation
We will be invincible

Overall, I guess the whole movie is working in a mid-80s kind of way. The setup for the finale on the dunes is pretty good, too. As is Billie's Jean's confrontation with Pyatt.

All in all, I still like it. Very 80s, but pretty damn good for it.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

we are all really scared to be who we really are

Okay, this is really me, now. No more hiding. Listen--we're all worried, we're all in pain. That just come with having eyes and ears. But, just remember one thing: it can't get any worse, it can only get better. I mean, high school is the bottom. Being a teenager sucks, but that's the point; surviving it is the whole point. Quitting is not going to make you strong. Living will. So, just hang on and hang in there. You know I know all about the hating and the sneering. I'm a member of the "Why bother?" generation, myself. But, why did I bother coming out here tonight and why did you? I mean, it's time. It begins with us, not with politicians, the experts and the teachers, but with us, with you and with me, the ones who need it most. I believe with everything that's in me that the whole world is begging for healing' even the trees and the earth itself are crying out for it. You can heart it everywhere. It's the same kind of healing I desperately needed and finally feel has begun with you.

Everyone mix it up. It's not "game over" yet. It's just the beginning, but it's up to you. I'm calling for every kid to seize the air. Steal it. It belongs to you. Speak out. They can't stop you. Find your voice and use it. Keep this going. Pick a name, go on air. It's your life. Take charge of it. Do it, try it, try anything. Spill your guts out and say shit and fuck a million times if you want to, but you decide. Fill the air, steal it. Keep the air alive...

Talk hard! - Mark Hunter nee Hard Harry Hard-On

I just had to include all of that final speech because Mark's whole point there at the end is like an argument I'm making in my thesis... And, today I finally wrote an introduction to the thesis that I like; I had written a previous version of the introduction and I've got notes for all the sections but the actual beginning, the tone of it, was eluding me. Today I got it. I figure, as much as I write, the pieces I've got put together should stitch together easily enough now that I know the tone. And, this isn't just a personal aside; it's kind of the point here. My master's thesis is primarily autoethnographic which means a) I did not have to just go with a nice scholarly tone; I got to pick, and the tone I'm going with is actually pretty close to the one I use here in this blog--proper grammar, proper syntax (generally), complete sentences, not too formal, a bit rambly sometimes. But, ultimately, it gets to the point, throws in some outside references, but has a good time doing it. (My thesis voice'll use fewer contractions, I'm guessing.) b) it's all about my voice in getting to the idea that you can get your voice out, too. Like Mark telling his listeners to go out and be heard, one of the ultimate points to my thesis is to suggest that everyone should do such a thing, especially someone going through--in my thesis' terms, a life crisis. Or, what Weick (1995) calls an interruption, or what Louis (1980) calls a surprise--the shit that happens that you can't prepare for, the shit that happens and it tears pieces of your life away. Whatever led Malcolm to kill himself, maybe. Whatever finally pushed Paige too far. Whatever drives Mark to keep being Harry... Well, no maybe not that vague, not that... big. The life crisis, the interruption, the surprise--it's not about the big motions of the universe, the big motions of the world, of society, of all of those adults telling you what to do. It's more specific, more finite. But, when faced with finite difficulty, you've at least got the option to fix it, rather than scream into the void.

If Hard Harry said that last line, he'd label it "deep" then fake masturbating on the air to brush away the seriousness.

For me, an aside. A few minutes ago, as I was writing that long ol' paragraph, this happened in the movie:

Check the sign outside Hubert H. Humphrey High School. BE A WINNER. As if the students will see that and think, Nevermind all the bullshit in my day, I'm going to be a winner, now. Like it's a novel idea that comes from reading it on a sign.

Of course, I'm saying speak up, speak your mind, be heard, like my words will accomplish anything.

Maybe I should get a sign outside instead of blogging. Put up some new message every day, a couple sentences on either side of the sign. Then, someone will put it on Twitter or Instagram someday, might even get on Fox News if I put the right sort of controversial message out there. The benefit, and the curse, of blogging is nobody's listening (reading) most of the time, so I can say whatever I want, pretend I can inspire more than I will, and pretty much just do whatever.

Like that. That's an angry-looking lemming. nothing to do with my topic today. Just something I felt like including because, why not?

(I really need to watch S.F.W. It's been a while.)

The lemming is my thing, has been for over a decade and a half. Lemming Drops Studio--that's me. Even got a tattoo of the LD logo. This:

It's small, but hey, so are lemmings. So are each of us.

Friday, August 21, 2015

who has no interest in education

You ever get the feeling that everything in America is completely fucked up? - Hard Harry Hard-On

Pump Up the Volume is not about the stuff that's wrong with the whole country, or society as a whole. There are hints of bigger stuff (especially in Mark's final speech) but mostly, Hard Harry's broadcasts keep spiraling around Hubert H. Humphrey High School, where Principal Cresswood (Annie Ross) is following in Joe Clark's footsteps (a la Lean on Me), weeding out the bad students rather than making them (or at least helping them make themselves) better. (Plus Murdock (Andy Romano), the Vice Principal does his own locker searches without anyone around and eventually gets into a fight with a student.) Meanwhile, the lives of many of the teenagers at the school... welll, they suck. They live in Paradise Hills, Arizona, suburb of Phoenix. (And presumably the equivalent to Paradise Valley, that includes eight resorts; it's a tourist town.) And, they're living in America at the end of the millennium, so they're on their own. Or, as Hard Harry puts it:

I just arrived in this stupid suburb. I have no friends, no money, no car, no license. And even if I did have a license all I can do is drive out to some stupid mall. Maybe, if I'm lucky, play some fucking video games, smoke a joint and get stupid. You see, there's nothing to do anymore. Everything decent's been done. All the great themes have been used up. Turned into theme parks. So, I don't really find it cheerful to be living in totally exhausted decade where there is nothing to look forward to and no one to look up to.

That was deep.

And, then, having gotten too serious, he fakes masturbating on the air and moves on. For the hormonal teenager, of course, these two things are both vitally important to life. And, the latter is, perhaps, a cure for the former. At least temporarily.

As Malcolm (Andy Romano) talks to Hard Harry about killing himself, I've gotta turn to Laura Clawson at Daily Kos, who has a great line: "[Harry] becomes a voice for teenagers being abused by each other and, most of all, by their school." Hard Harry's problem there with Malcolm wasn't that he, as he laments later, didn't tell him "Don't do it." It's that he turned it into a conversation about himself. In trying to relate to Malcolm--not that there isn't a place for that--he said too much and let Malcolm say too little.

But, I wanted to bring this back to education. We should all know by now that teenagers' lives suck and they use and abuse one another just like the rest of us. Some are able to handle it long enough to survive it, some are not. Arguably, it's the school's job to make this process easier, better, more successful... something. There's a provocative exchange between Harry's/Mark's father (Scott Paulin)--remember, he's the District Commissioner--and Principal Cresswood late in the film:

Principal: You can't run a top school with troublemakers in the mix.

Commissioner: Okay, so what exactly is a troublemaker?

Principal: Someone who has no interest in education.

Commissioner: Oh, come on, that includes every teenager I know.

Principal: Can't you understand that nothing is more important than a good education?

Commissioner: Except the basic right to it.

Principal: The point is, I have the highest average SAT scores in the state.

Commissioner: Yeah, but how?

Pause for a moment as Chris (Matt McGrath) tells his story and an 80s movie (released 1990, but produced, written, etc. out of the 80s) is surprisingly understanding about homosexuality. It's teenage characters (and those of us in the audience as well), at least. The adults are a mixed bag--the school counselor calls the discussion pornography, one detective is understanding, another makes an offensive joke.

The problem is there, actually. It's not an aside. School is not built around the students and who they are, who they want to be. Instead, the twists and turns of their personalities, the bumps and scars that make them individuals are filed off, if not hidden, so they can fit into the school around them. The holes are round and the pegs are not just square but triangular, pentagonal, hexagonal... octagonal, or what have you. Take this metaphor further and think about it this way: if you make those round holes big enough, any shape peg will fit through them, will take the curriculum you put before them and take it in along with all the other material that fascinates them, remain the shapes they are, or change into brand new shapes, and your circles still remain. Just make room for more than some narrow definition of good student.

If we've got a public school system--and I think we should have such a thing--then it needs some core subjects, some central tenants to the education we decide is important. But, push too hard on either end--on the students or the administration--and it becomes something unwieldy.

It becomes something that keeps needing reform, keeps needing overhaul. And, it remains a varied beast, with too many goals. Tyack and Cuban (1995), in Tinkering toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform list the things we think and have thought school is supposed to do...

to socialize them to be obedient, yet to teach them to be critical thinkers;

to pass on the best academic knowledge that the past has to offer, yet also to teach marketable and practical skills;

to cultivate cooperation, yet to teach students to compete with one another in school and later in life;

to stress basic skills but also encourage creativity and higher order thinking;

to focuse on the academic "basics" yet to permit a wide range of choice of courses. (p. 43)

Is it any wonder that it has trouble being so many things to so many people?

Thursday, August 20, 2015

high school is the bottom

"Feeling screwed up at a screwed up time in a screwed up place does not necessarily make you screwed up." - Hard Harry Hard-On

No teachers today, again, except as antagonists... Well, I suppose my take was that Joe Clark was the antagonist of the larger story if not the throughline of Lean on Me. And, for so many high schoolers, plenty of teachers are the antagonists. Not just teachers--parents, other adults; like they're all the phonies Holden Caulfield saw them as. The perspective here: this movie puts us on the side of the teenagers. Hard Harry Hard-On (Christian Slater) starts us out with the radio show we will learn is an unlicensed broadcast--that's the basic setup for Pump Up the Volume. Hard Harry Hard-On, of course, is also Mark Hunter, a fairly shy (meek may be a better descriptor) high schooler.

Mark's parents grew up in the sixties but have turned establishment--his father is the "youngest school commissioner" in Arizona's history. Mark is tried of a system that wants everyone to be establishment. That's why Nora's (Samantha Mathis) poem/letter gets his attention...

Every night you enter me like a criminal. You break into my brain, but you're no ordinary criminal. You put your feet up, you drink your can of Pepsi, you start to party, you turn up my stereo. Songs I've never heard, but I move anyway. You get me crazy. I say, "Do it. I don't care, just do it. Jam me, jack me, push me, pull me, talk hard!"

He likes that. I like that. "I like the idea that a voice can just go somewhere uninvited and just kind of hang out," he says, "like a dirty thought in a nice, clean mind." He continues:

To me a thought is like a virus. You know, it can just kill all the healthy thoughts and just take over. That would be serious.

Lesley at xojane describes nicely what this film means to her...

I remember "Pump Up the Volume" as speaking to my teenage experience in a voice so familiar it was almost painful to hear. As an adult, I see a lot of this as fairly universal adolescent melodrama, and yet the film captures it with such warmth and sympathy that instead of rolling my eyes at these overwrought shenanigans, I really feel for the kids involved, and their flailing efforts at survival in a world they only partly understand.

Let's backtrack slightly to lump these ideas together. When I was in high school--I saw this movie somewhere near the start of 10th grade--I was like Mark except nowhere near as hot as Christian Slater. I was more like that one overweight nerdy kid who they show listening to his broadcast. I would have loved the chance to have a show like Hard Harry's, to have an outlet for a voice I didn't know I had. I wrote stories. A few people read them. I had friends (but no girlfriend to speak of, certainly none as hot as I thought Samantha Mathis was back then). I was liked well enough, but only because my school was tiny. There just wasn't room for cliques that were too exclusive. But, there were popular kids and unpopular kids, kids that were far too happy, kids that were far too depressed (not that happiness and (real) depression are strictly opposite). As we learned in our week with The Breakfast Club, it can be hard for any teenager. Some have it better, some have it worse, they all have it hard. It's a twisted set of years full of raging hormones, a sense of your own (nonexistent) immortality, and a whole lot of folks telling you what to do and who to be and how to be it. It could easily be generic melodrama--this movie--but it's not. As Lesley puts it, it's got "warmth" and it's got "sympathy" for the characters, for the plight of all the teenagers who can relate.

The school in question here--Hubert H. Humphrey High--was maybe going to suspend a girl over her attitude. As Harry quotes early on, a note from the guidance counselor--

Cheryl refuses to accept suggestions of a more positive mental attitude towards her health and her future. I'm afraid I find no alternative but to suggest suspension.

They suspended Mazz (Billy Morrissette) for his clothing. Half the students, according to Paige (Cheryl Pollak), are on probation of some kind. This seems like a more appropriate response to an administration like this than, say, the student body in Lean on Me, loving their abuser and marching to free him when his extreme methods get him in trouble. Those students needed a guy like Hard Harry to inspire them to act up, to do something other than just worry about test scores and conforming, turning establishment like their parents have...

Okay, maybe the comparison isn't fair. The problems in this very white (nevermind fictional) school and the mostly black school in Lean on Me are different. The parents in Paterson, New Jersey are not as well off as those in this Phoenix suburb. The lower class, economically downtrodden students at Eastside High--they've got bigger problems than Hard Harry's "usual band of teenage malcontents." Bigger, but also just different. The difficulties of life are relative.

Between his supporting role in The Legend of Billie Jean in '85, his lead roles in Heathers and Gleaming the Cube in '89 and then Young Guns II and Pump Up the Volume in 1990, Slater had a good thing going for him playing a rebel. It is appropriate that I will be watching the latest episode of Mr. Robot right after this movie tonight.

And, I think I want to watch this one again tomorrow. More to say, especially since it actually links into the teacher/school/education movies I've been watching lately more than I remembered it would.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

speak a little truth and people lose their minds

The reality behind Lean on Me, the truth in Dead Poets Society, the story of Stand and Deliver--truth and fiction twist together. If we take something meaningful from a film, the reality behind it doesn’t matter so much. Truth comes in the experience. And, truth is subjective.

For example, one reviewer on IMDb asks, “What is the theme of this rubbish movie?” Follows that up with: “Those five Black narcissistic individuals do not respect themselves, nor [sic] they respect others and they shamelessly act (swearing, acting like horny sex maniacs and perverts).” Don’t forget the guns and the drugs. I mean, if you’re going to be dismissive in such broadstrokes, go all out. If you’re going to conclude, as that reviewer does, “This was the worst move I have ever seen!” maybe you should put a little more thought into your critique than some reactionary, presumably (but not overtly) racist bullshit. To counter that review, another reviewer on IMDb says,

All five members were uncompromising, never giving into pressure from institutions, (including the FBI), the press and other external forces to tone down their rhetoric, many of whom were shocked by the unrelenting capacity of street vernacular to propel the public into social awareness.

A bit more positive, without cheering (like a few obvious fans of N.W.A. amidst the review). Hits on a theme I have loved to touch on in this blog, too, finding and exhibiting one’s voice. Whether it’s for some social awareness or just awareness of self, that “uncompromising” can be everything.

But, I’m digressing a little, because a) I’ve never been much of a fan of the music featured in Straight Outta Compton, b) I wasn’t as impressed by the film as some people have been; rather, I found it to be a fairly straightforward music biopic with all the structural issues that generally might entail, but c) the themes in that music, and some of the themes in the film are vital to the health of this country, and it’s important that we keep talking about them… and it’s too bad that this film will be dismissed out of hand

(and even almost was dismissed by me because 1) I don’t readily head for music biopics and 2) most early reviews I’d seen were by reviewers who were fans of the musicians so it was hard to tell how, objectively, the film might be.)

because somehow the usual tropes of musicians making it big—the drug use, the violence, the casual sex—becomes something more horrible than usual when it’s a bunch of black youths doing the drugs, committing the violence, having the sex. As Travis Hopson, the reviewer for the Examiner, puts it,

In the wake of the rash of police brutality cases exposed across the country, Staight Outta Compton feels especially timely and relevant. It was the veritable battlefield of drugs, poverty, and police misconduct on the streets of L.A. that forged the group into a band of brother ready to inflict some lyrical punishment.

And, it doesn’t matter what you think of that “rash of police brutality” cases. It doesn’t matter if you see the victims as thugs who got what was coming to them or as the latest casualties of a society split on race lines long after we should have gotten the fuck over it. What matters, again, is truth. And, truth is subjective. Maybe criminals or suspects are justifiably killed. But, to what end? At what number is it too many regardless of who was killed?

I’m not making the sense I want to make.

As of today, 19 August, police in this country have killed 745 people. Forget race for a moment. That these many individuals are being killed, are in situations where this is even an option, means our system has something seriously wrong with it. Cops going too far, this many criminals running so rampant we have to put them down—either option signifies a break.

One weekend last year, 7-9 August, 2014, police killed 12 people in this country. In all of last year, police killed 7 in Germany. All of last year. In Norway last year, police only fired two shots, and neither one injured or killed anyone.

In Straight Outta Compton, the members of N.W.A. are forced to the ground by cops (not all white, by the way) because they happened to go outside while on a break at the recording studio. They’re suspects just for their dark skin. (The scene also offers an early positive moment for their white manager (Paul Giamatti) who is mostly an opportunistic sleaze the rest of the time.)

I try… oh, I try not to get too political in this blog. It’s about the movies. It’s about upbeat messages about figuring your self out and making your way through the world. But, I want to list some of those victims of police violence, not just the ones who have been killed, but those detained without cause, those suspected of criminal behavior for, say, wandering through a neighborhood with a hoodie on. But, the list would be so long I’d not have room to say much else.

So…

The movie. It’s produced by Dr. Dre and Ice Cube and Tomica Woods-Wright (Eazy-E’s wife at the time of his death), so the film focuses on just three members of N.W.A. And, it leaves off some of their bad behavior, like Dre’s violence toward women. One of those women, Dee Barnes, wrote a piece for Gawker in which she says,

That event isn’t depicted in Straight Outta Compton, but I don’t think it should have been, either. The truth is too ugly for a general audience. I didn’t want to see a depiction of me getting beat up, just like I didn’t want to see a depiction of Dre beating up Michel’le, his one-time girlfriend who recently summed up their relationship this way: “I was just a quiet girlfriend who got beat on and told to sit down and shut up.”

But what should have been addressed is that it occurred.

One problem the frightened white folks have with these guys is that they spout lyrics about violence and misogynist lyrics like in one of Barnes primary examples, “She Swallowed It.” She points out, though,

I heard the material like everybody else, when I was listening to the albums, and I was shocked. Maybe that was their point. Maybe they said a lot of that stuff for the shock value. There were always other girls around, like Michel’le and Rose, and we never heard them talk like that. We never heard them say, “Bitch, get over here and suck my dick.” In their minds, only certain women were “like that,” and I’ve never presented myself like that, so I never gave them a reason to call me names.

And, I’m drifting away from the movie itself again, as I am wont to do. But, Barnes next bit is important:

Accurately articulating the frustrations of young black men being constantly harassed by the cops is at Straight Outta Compton’s activistic core. There is a direct connection between the oppression of black men and the violence perpetrated by black men against black women. It is a cycle of victimization and reenactment of violence that is rooted in racism and perpetuated by patriarchy. If the breadth of N.W.A.’s lyrical subject matter was guided by a certain logic, though, it was clearly a caustic logic.

I have a habit of arguing politics on Facebook and a thought occurred to me during the film when Eazy-E and Ice Cube were putting their personal feud into their lyrics. My thought went something like this—of course these young men are going to act up and take offense when what power they have achieved is threatened, why wouldn’t they want to fight it out in their lyrics, with their fists, with guns, when the world has been keeping them and theirs down for so long, and who are any of the rest of us to want them to stop when we do the same damn thing against Islamic terrorists or whoever the latest enemy of the state is? We’re all stuck on cycles of victimization and violence. Some foreigners take up arms against us and do we make an effort to see what their cause is or try to fix the problem? No, we take up arms and we strike them down, and fuel the next wave by stomping our boot down a little too indiscriminantly. Like those cops forcing the N.W.A. members to the ground. Arbitrary force creates an atmosphere in which those without power will have to take it by force, because what else are they learning? Power is being able to put someone on his knees and control what he does next.

Hell, is it any wonder that N.W.A. might have lyrics that suggest the same thing with women? If the only way to have power is through words, your words have to shock people, have to offend people, have to hurt people, have to poke and prod at the tears and the wounds in society and maybe incite a little violence if it comes to that.

As for the movie, it cleans up some details to make its leads look nicer than they may have been (and yet, they will still be taken for degenerates), it glosses over some of the other characters integral to the story, and it suffers from the translation of real life to a pseudo-act-structure that makes for an amazing first act, a pretty good middle, and a final third that sort of drags then ends on an arbitrary note. Will it offend people? Of course it will. It’s got those lyrics that frighten a whole lot of us white folks. It’s got drugs and parties with nudity and (for some reason, this one gets specifically noted by several reviewers on IMDb) at least one implied blow job. Also, it might make you think about how violent lyrics (not to mention actual violence) might be the only options for someone cornered by poverty and a racially segregated society. I once wrote a review defending A Serbian Film in all its disgusting excess because the message might just be that out of a damaged locale, with people raised around violence and, in the case of A Serbian Film, war, their way of expressing themselves might be limited by experience. Straight Outta Compton will not be as offensive as A Serbian Film, not by a long shot. And, if it is, you—not the movie—are probably the problem.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

mugged by a gang looking for money... and homework

Taking a break from seriousness with Summer School.

Not that this movie doesn't demonstrate one of the points I've been trying to make--students have reasons beyond their attitudes that get in the way of schoolwork. Or, the usual Hollywood take on teaching, as Shoop (Mark Harmon) just said, "Inside every so-called bad kid is a good kid just waiting for someone to reach on down through the sleaze and the slime, pick him up and hose him off." It's a nice thought, but a teacher's gotta have a really powerful and long reach to get past the personal obstacles--like Rhonda's (Shawnee Smith) pregnancy--economic issues--like Larry's (Ken Olandt) night job--or other outstanding hinderances that have nothing to do with the kid's attitude or, necessarily, the teacher's ability.

But, I said this was a break from seriousness. You know what amuses me about this movie lately? I read Roger Ebert's review of the film today and he hated this film. He calls it "a comedy so listless, leisurely and unspirited that it was an act of the will for me to care about it, even while I was watching it." I think he was just offended because Chainsaw (Dean Cameron) and Dave (Gary Riley) ape the thumbs up/thumbs down bit from At the Movies.

The idea that all of the "basic types of movie teenagers" here are "equally forgettable" is just crazy to me. I've been quoting lines from this movie, especially from Chainsaw and Dave, for nearly three decades now. A few of them barely register as far as their personalities go (Larry, on purpose, of course), but Denise (Kelly Jo Minter) and her attitude certainly register--her brief rant about menstruation, alone, offers up more personality than some characters have through entire films.

As with any good teacher film, Shoop gets involved in his students' personal lives, even goes to jail for two of them.

Ebert dismisses Shoop's relationship with Robin (Kirstie Alley), as well. "Some so-called love interest," he writes, "is provides by Kirstie Alley as the sexy teacher down the hallway." Then, he does make a point about cinematic romance, generally; "She and Harmon perform the basic romantic three-step from Screenwriting 101: (1) She can't stand him..." And, I gotta interrupt there. She immediately responds to his flirting, and is only hesitant to actively respond to his advances because she's dating Vice Principal Phil Gills (Robin Thomas), who she hasn't realized yet is a bit of an ass. She agrees to help him right away when he decides to actually teach his class instead of going on field trips. She can definitely stand him. But, Ebert continues: "(2) she learns to accept him..." See above. "...and (3) they fall in love." Assume Ebert's take on 1 and 2 is correct, it's the same trajectory as in Groundhog Day. Shoop clearly cares about his students, he's just not used to having an "actual" class. When Denise "reads" her essay, he notices immediately that there's something off about her reading (later, it turns out, she's dyslexic, and in response to her slipping through the system, he asks, "What happens when she gets out into the real world?"). But, he learns here to be a better teacher, and to get past his initial bribes to actually want his students to do well. He becomes worthy of Robin's attention. "It amazes me," Ebert writes, "that filmmakers will still film, and audiences will still watch, relationships so bankrupt of human feeling that the characters could be reading dialogue written by a computer." It just takes being cute together, like just now as Shoop tried to get Robin to admit she wasn't in love with Gills. It doesn't have to be deep; it just has to work.

And then, there's this:

The movie contains: practical jokes, field trips, rebellion, acceptance, evil [vice] principals, absent girlfriends, a birth, a scene involving lots of special-effects makeup, a display of total teaching ineptitude, and some very mild sex.

He says that like it's a bad thing. And, he forgets the stripclub, the couch on fire, and Shoop actually teaching. "It doesn't even have the nerve to be vulgar," he complains, because it was the raunch that made Porky's good, or Fast Times at Ridgemont High good...

Okay, there are surely a lot of people who think that is what made those movies good, but come on? Fast Times presents sex in a negative light, primarily, to make a point. Porky's ends up being, though shallowly, I admit, about loyalty and camaraderie over the sex stuff. That Summer School could be PG-13--those other two movies came out before that rating existed or they probably would have been a little tamer for this very reason--means it could have a bigger audience, potentially. It was #3 at the box office ($6.01m) behind Robocop ($6.3m) and a re-issue of Snow White ($6.04m).

Despite Roger Ebert, Summer School may be slight but it's entertaining. And just this past January at the Complex in Hollywood, they did a stage version of this "most underrated movie of the 80s." Sure, it billed itself as a "parody" but it was a parody of a classic.

And, the students wanting Shoop back here was more believable than the students marching for Joe Clark in Lean on Me, for sure.

Monday, August 17, 2015

already been expelled from someplace else

Then, there was The Principal. Actually, in movie terms, this movie came before Lean on Me.

It's a different beast, perhaps, because it's fiction. Doesn't start with school. Rather begins in a bar. Rick Lattimer (James Belushi) is clearly an angry, violent man. Making that clear right away, as he goes after his wife's divorce lawyer/new boyfriend with a baseball bat.

Afterward, cop asks him his occupation. Wait for it--school teacher. We're supposed to be surprised. I'm not sure why we should care (except of course we know already this is a movie about a principal (who could very well also be a teacher).

He's also a disgusting bachelor-type. Smells the bad milk, is revolted, puts it back in the fridge, for example.

(Box office aside: I saw this movie at The Academy, a second-run theater in Pasadena, so I'm not sure when I saw it. But, looking at the weekend it came out, I like that I saw all of the top 12 (The Principal was #4), but only about half in the theater.

  1. Fatal Attraction - saw the beginning of it in the theater, saw the whole on cable
  2. The Pick-Up Artist - cable
  3. Hellraiser - saw part on cable, saw the whole on video
  4. The Principal - saw at the second-run theater
  5. Stakeout - cable, but saw the sillier sequel in the theater
  6. Dirty Dancing - theater, for sure
  7. No Way Out - theater
  8. La Bamab - theater
  9. The Big Easy - video, I think
  10. Can't Buy Me Love - theater, and way too many times on video
  11. Hamburger Hill - theater, I think
  12. Robocop - theater, definitely

I thought I remembered a double feature of The Principal and Lean on Me at The Academy, but as far apart as they were released--a year-and-a-half--that's really unlikely. Maybe I just hoped for it.)

Joe Clark (the principal behind Lean on Me) would have already made headlines, so I wonder if there isn't some deliberate coopting of his story here, except it got twisted; the black guy (Louis Gosset, Jr. as the head of security, Jake Phillips) is sidelined a bit for some other script about a hapless white guy who is going to have to be the savior of Brandel High. The worst students are, of course, darker than Lattimer. Then again, so is his love interest (even though the first act almost sets the stage for a redemption that will earn him back his wife), Ms. Orozco (Rae Dawn Chong).

I wonder if a script about Joe Clark wasn't making the rounds in Hollywood, and someone thought it was a better sell with a white guy center stage.

Of course, there's a home visit. And, I get this feeling that Hollywood thinks you are a failure as a teacher or a school administrator if you cannot a) remember everyone's name or b) visit them all at home or place of work to demonstrate explicit caring and make everyone's lives better individually. Nevermind how many students that instructor might have (and certainly nevermind the number of students an administrator has), of course. I don't know about 1987 numbers but I know when I was observing high school classes two years ago, I observed four different instructors, each of whom taught six classes a day with close to 30 students in each of those classes. Make one home visit a day (and take the weekends off for, you know, writing 30 lesson plans a week) and you might get to each student by the end of the year.

As The Principal sets itself up to be a straight action movie in the vein of a Steven Seagal film or Death Wish or Dirty Harry film, I'm less interested.. Instead, I'm looking to Robert C. Bulman's (2010) "Class in the Classroom: Hollywood's Distorted View of Inequality," in which Bulman says,

Many of the urban school films do acknowledge that inner-city students face the challenges of poverty, racial discrimination, and poor schools. However, the films portray the individual attitudes of the students as the primary obstacle to their academic achievement. These students don't have the right manners, the right behavior, or the right values to succeed in school. They have low aspirations and a low self-image, and they believe the odds are stacked against them. (p. 52)

This is America, of course; we must ignore the reality of the situation, the economic, social, and cultural factors. If you are not succeeding in school, it is your fault for not rising up above your circumstance. The problem is not the decaying infrastructure, nor the defunded school programs, certainly not the focus on standardized test scores. The problem is your attitude. It's Joe Clark's motto writ large--"If you do not succeed in life, I don't want you to blame your parents. I don't want you to blame the white man. I want you to blame yourselves. The responsibility is yours."

It's a fucked up policy that negates the urge to offer help. (And it's contradicted, in Lean on Me when Clark worries about Kid Ray or Kaneesha.) Here in The Principal, Lattimer tries to care, but only about certain individuals, a few tokens so he comes across as a better man than the drunk baseball bat-toting guy we saw at the start of the film. When he's got to turn violent, riding like a badass outlaw on his motorcycle, we can understand he's not just a sociopath; he's got feelings, he cares.

Bulman continues: "The schools, therefore, cannot effectively educate these students. The reproduction of their low social status seems inevitable." In reality, we don't expect things to get fixed. We just hope we can get our kids into a better school. In the movies, those token students are what matter. One is beaten nearly to death, here. One dies in Dangerous Minds, but just so we know this is serious. A few others succeed and in movie terms, that's enough. Test scores are good. Some high schoolers can appreciate poetry. The world has righted itself. It's just that simple.

References

Bulman, R.C. (2010). Class in the classroom: Hollywood's distorted view of inequality. In J. Sutherland and K. Feltey (Eds.), Cinematic Sociology: Social Life in Film (47-63), Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

locked out of that american dream that you see advertised on tv

(I'm not done with Joe Clark.)

"...any school must deal with the student as they receive them, no more and no less" (Clere, 2015, April 1). An interesting line from an article at ethosreview.org, this past April, that is partly about Lean on Me and partly about recent North Carolina policy that grades schools based on standardized test scores (not a novel idea, certainly). And, I both agree and disagree with the sentiment.

On the one hand, yeah, a student comes to school with certain values and beliefs instilled in the home (or from the places outside the home where they spend time). A student is limited by his or her socioeconomic conditions. All students are not created equal. Case in point: Kaneesha (Karen Malina White) was a student at School 6 where Joe Clark (Morgan Freeman) was previously principal, she seems set up in the film as one of the good students. Yet, at the end of the movie, she's the one who has gotten pregnant. Children make stupid decisions. Children make mistakes. Joe Clark's solution (for every other student) is to throw them out.

On the other hand, there must be consequences for troublemakers, consequences for disruptive individuals. As Joe Clark says in the movie, this is a war for the other 2700 students; he throws out 300 to save 2700. If the one act guarantees the other, if ridding the school of those 300 troublemakers guarantees the success of the other 2700 (and, I mean on more than just some basic skills test), then really, fuck those 300 students, kick them out and forget them... except for a couple things: 1) you have a responsibility to those other 300 students as well and 2) you have guaranteed nothing; rather you have set a precedent that will only instill fear in the hearts of the 2700 remaining.

Clark just called out, in front of the full cafeteria, Thomas Sams (Jermaine "Huggy" Hopkins) for looking slovenly at school. He says,

I want all of you to take a good look at this slovenly, sloppy boy--as an example of how not to dress. If you look like this in the morning, find some other clothes to wear. Self-respect permeates every aspect of your existence. If you don't have respect for yourself, you're not gonna get it from anyone else.

He may be right about that last bit, but shaming the kid in front of the school? That's a bully tactic that will at best help Sams figure out how not to get noticed, not necessarily how to actually be better... Maybe the clothing thing is a bad example of that--plus Sams is dressed "better" when next we see him. But, a) his outfit in the cafeteria is not bad, except for a stain (which actually looks fresh, but that may be a costuming mistake). Like the multiple choice question problem yesterday, there's a presumption here of circumstance that simply might not exist. Sams might not have a choice what he wears. He might not have much else.

I gotta come back to a bit from Utopia (after a long bit about economics):

If you do not find a remedy for these evils, it is idle to boast of your severity in punishing theft. Your policy may have the appearance of justice, but it is really neither just nor expedient. If you allow people to be badly brought up and their habits to be corrupted little by little from childhood, and if you then punish them for crimes to which their early training has disposed them, what else is this, I ask, but first making them thieves and then punishing them for it? (More, p. 11)

"Performance gaps in education are directly correlated with gaps in socioeconomic status" (Clere, 2015).

But, the same tactics continue. The northjersey.com piece I referenced yesterday describes Eastside High School in 2009 (20 years after this film). The methods are little more high-tech than Clark's...

Administrators are responding and will start installing cameras inside Eastside Friday, said Superintendent Donnie W. Evans. Violence is rising at Eastside, with an "unusually large number of incidents, student on student," Evans said.

... In addition to the security cameras, which will monitor the nearly 25 exit door, the school will increase police presence inside and outside the school. Long-term, Evans intends to open two new alternative schools for some of Eastside's most challenging students; a place where they can learn better social and behavioral skills.

"Until we can control them, we can't teach them," he said.

Until we can control them, we can't teach them.

As a parent, I know the temptation of control. It's easier sometimes to come down hard than really dig in and fix the problem. Ideally, you'd like every student to understand why things are the way they are. But, when you've got 3000 (or 2700 after you weed out the bad apples) students, you might be able to learn their names (and, real-life Joe Clark as well as his cinematic counterpart make a good practice of this) but you cannot make personal time for them all. And, even if you could, you cannot guarantee that they will all understand or agree with you. Just like the rest of the education process, you cannot simply pour information into the empty vessel of someone's mind and be understood, be liked.

The ending of this film, with the kids coming to the jailhouse (or whatever building that is) to protest Clark's arrest--that never happened.

(If it had, it would just reveal more hypocrisy on Clark's part--those protesting students are troublemakers standing up against the law; he should not be a supporter of that... except he has been consistent in only being against those who stand against him. He stood up to the administration at Eastside when he was an instructor there, but when he is the administrator, no one is supposed to stand up against him.)

Instead of one black teacher standing up to him, a group of them met in secret to get rid of him and Clark transferred them to other schools. Instead of a trap to arrest him over the chained doors, Clark stopped chaining them as soon as he was challenged on it.

Even Clark has his limits when it came to the law.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

you treat them like animals, that's exactly how they'll behave

Naught but a few seconds into Lean on Me and I had to pause the movie and do some factchecking. I already knew there were some factual problems with this "true story"--and I'll get to some of those below--but right away, the opening text crawl quotes an "official report" that called Eastside High a "cauldron of violence." I was curious what kind of "official" report said this. According to a piece at northjersey.com, 22 October 2009, it was a county prosecutor in the 1970s who dubbed Eastside a "cauldron of violence." A prosecutor.

So the evidence here in the crawl that Eastside is bad--and trust me, the movie is going to offer up some more evidence as soon as the crawl gets done--is a man or woman... I tried to check who specifically said it and found a New York Times piece that says it was Joe Clark. I.E. the protagonist of this film. Not a prosecutor. So, 1) if it was a prosecutor, then it was a man or woman who was legally responsible for proving on a regular basis that crimes were taking place in the area; I imagine that quotation coming up as a bit of self-serving rhetoric in a press release or something; 2) if it was Clark--who says (in an Los Angeles Times piece, 3 March 1989) that "despite some of the movie's factual shortcomings, he believes it is '95% accurate'" when it portrays him--as I remember it, obviously, since I haven't even gotten past the opening crawl yet today--as an angry black man who just happens to find a place he can direct his anger and be lauded for it... if is was Clark, then it is a pointless detail to include in the opening crawl. Seriously, the protagonist who is about to go clean up the school thinks the school needs to be cleaned up. No shit.

And, you know a great way to oversell your success in fixing a place up. Make sure you get the blurb on the cover... of the movie version of your story.

By the way, another Los Angeles Times piece, 27 December 1987, backs up the prosecutor source.

I suppose I should let the movie play.

But, then factual inaccuracy #1 happens over the establishing shot of Eastside High. It tells us the story begins in 1967. According to the first Los Angeles Times piece above, Clark didn't get there until 1972. I suppose that saying it took "about twenty years" in the opening crawl sounds better than "fifteen" except a) the movie came out in March of 1989, so it was filmed in 1988, 21 years after its own starting point, and b) fewer years to fix up this "cauldron of violence" is a better story. It's actually a strange detail to get wrong.

"Welcome to the Jungle." Really? Nice transitions shot, though, from the clean Eastside to the graffitied version. White girl gets her shirt ripped off in the bathroom, drug deal is going on out in the open (with a teacher?)--the shorthand is almost too short. The now almost entirely black school has gone to hell. (Nevermind that in reality, Clark's class he was teaching when he was transferred out of Eastside was remedial reading and his students were mostly black already. Hell the school as a whole was 46% black.)

Fact problem, again. Clark throws out 300 students--"drug dealers and drug users"--during an assembly. In reality, in his first couple months, he did get rid of 135 juniors and seniors over poor attendance records or poor grades. By years, end, the total would be around 300, but officially, those were all over attendance or grades...

I've got a problem with just kicking out the drug dealers and drug users, as it's presented, really. Throwing out the troublemakers does might help those left behind... It might. But, what about those troublemakers? Where do they go? Kicked out of this "cauldron of violence" do they have anywhere else to go? Do they just end up on the streets, desperate for crappy jobs at best, turning to more crime at worst. What's the point in improving a school when its neighborhood is full of 300 freshly pissed off criminals? Clark warns the remaining students that if they do not pass the basic skills test they will be locked out of the American Dream. He just locked 300 students out of that dream.

This mother--Mrs. Barrett (Lynne Thigpen)--in the resulting "emergency meeting" has a point--

What happened this morning is an outrage. My boy is no criminal. He and those children belong in school, not out on the street. Our kids don't deserve this. Some of those children are smart. They're just discouraged about what chances they got out there, what kind of jobs they got waiting for them. Now, what kind of chance do they have?

He throws out the old adage about bad apples spoiling the bunch, as if an idiom justifies ruining lives. His preaching isn't getting anything done.

(But, damn, is this role a meaty one, and Morgan Freeman is killing it.)

Clark gets upset when the chorus teacher, Mrs. Elliott (Robin Bartlett) goes on with her chorus after saying she will instruct the students in the school song as Clark has demanded. At the start of the movie--but maybe he forgot about it since it was twenty years ago--he continued with his lesson about the word "imbrue" before going into the hallway to even listen to Dr. Napier (Robert Guillaume). Add hypocrisy to his bullying. Elliott's got a point about her job and he fires her. Mr. Darnell (Michael Beach) is next to fight back and he's suspended.

There's an interesting moment when the students are taking the practice basic skills test. One young woman is faced with the following question:

Each morning Bernard has his customary breakfast of oatmeal, toast, and juice.

A. fancy
B. special
C. usual
D. strange

She marks D for strange and Clark shakes his head. But how usual is a breakfast of "oatmeal, toast, and juice" for this inner-city, Paterson, New Jersey teen? She lives in the neighborhood of this school, as bad as it has been presented here (nevermind the reality); I'd guess she probably doesn't get breakfast at all, or if she does, it's something quick and cheap. I'm not particularly poor, I live in a good neighborhood, and I don't eat two different things (oatmeal and toast) for breakfast. It's practically un-American, unless you're at Denny's or IHOP or some other breakfast joint that you'd have a breakfast with more than one section to it. And, juice ain't cheap, or if it is, it's probably full of added sugars and not much use anyway. But, I don't have enough facts ready to prove the nutritional value (or not) of breakfast foods), so I will clarify the point I'm trying to make with this example--this "basic skills" test is not exactly universal. There's opportunity here--if this were an entirely fictional story, for Clark to notice this question and get mad at the system instead of these kids, to rage against the social, economic, and cultural biases in standardized tests rather than rage at students who don't necessarily need to know any better.

But, this is a true story. And, the system is too big, and really, Clark is a tool of the system. Fighting the teachers and their union, throwing out students as readily as the system will imprison them once they're out there on the streets, alienating people rather than working with them... Napier's yelling at Clark now for all of his "crazy" behavior. And, it's remarkable how much Clark would (presumably) side with that mother from Dangerous Minds; he tells Napier: "Mrs. Elliott's missionary zeal about Mozart's got nothing to do with our problems. Nothing. What good is Mozart going to do a bunch of children who can't go out and get a job?"

(First, another factual problem. Yes, Clark chained the doors shut, but as soon as he was told that wasn't allowed, he unlocked them. Here, he gets arrested for keeping them locked.)

(Separate issue: Clark tells Kid Ray (Alex Romaguera), who he has just learned is dropping out, that he'll be dead in a year out there in the real world. What about the 300 other students he put out there? 2700 students saved is worth 300 dead, I suppose.)

Now, how about an answer for Clark. What good is Mozart going to do? I don't know--how about links between music education and better academic performance. I'm not sure what the attitude on that was in the 1980s, though. Clark, I suppose, subscribes to a back-to-basics theory of education, the same idea that fueled the removal of music programs and other arts from publics schools in the 70s and 80s... and 90s and 00s... and still?

In his assembly speech earlier--the one during which he expelled 300 students--Clark offered this bon mot:

My motto is simple: If you do not succeed in life, I don't want you to blame your parents. I don't want you to blame the white man! I want you to blame yourselves! The responsibility is yours!

Unless, of course, it is the job of Clark and the rest of the faculty to help you succeed. Unless, of course, it is the job of your parents to make sure that happens. Unless, of course, it is the job of certain white men in your state capitol or Washington to make sure your school has the money to pay its teachers to do their jobs and the money to make sure schools have music programs and art programs and don't just focus on the basics and test scores as if that is all that will keep you off the street.

I wish this film were satire, proving the extremity of approaches like Clark's. But, it's not. It's couched quite comfortably in the "true story" of some test scores going up, because, of course, that's all that matters.

Friday, August 14, 2015

you don't come from where we live

Return to teachers. Get a little Roger Ebert in at the top for the transition back to the sort-of-ongoing theme...

"Dangerous Minds" tells another one of those uplifting parables in which the dedicated teacher takes on a schoolroom full of rebellious malcontents, and wins them over with an unorthodox approach. Movies like this are inevitably "based on a real story." Maybe they tell you that because otherwise you'd think they were pure fantasy.

He calls "this version" of the story "less than compelling." I mostly remember this movie in pieces. I worked at a movie theater in 1995 when it came out (20 years and 3 days ago). The movie opened #1 at the box office. If I remember right (and I probably do), our theater also had Something to Talk About (#4), The Net (#6), Casper (#13), Batman Forever, and Braveheart at the time. (Saw a lot of movies in the six months I worked there because in addition to being able to see our own theater's movies free, we had a deal with a theater a block away, as long as we arranged it ahead of time, to see movies there, too.)

Oh, this bit with LouAnne Johnson (Michelle Pfeiffer) reading about assertiveness--she's a marine, so it's hard to believe that the real Johnson put into her book, My Posse Don't Do Homework that she went out and bought a book about assertiveness; hell, movie Johnson abandons the book for a bit of attitude... and some karate. (In an English class. Hence why TV Tropes calls her a Badass Teacher as well as a Cool Teacher.) She basically challenges the students to some karate then tell them she's not allowed to touch them. So, she teaches them a few moves... definitely different from John Keating wandering out of class and getting the boys to follow.

Ebert is cynical about Johnson's teaching style. He writes:

What, exactly, will these disadvantaged inner-city kids accomplish by being bribed with candy bars and the "relevancy" of Bob Dylan? Can they read and write? Can they compete in the job market? An educational system that has brought them to the point we observe in the first classroom scene has already failed them so miserably that all of Miss Johnson's karate lessons are not going to be much help.

My bleeding-heart-liberal side is rearing his head, here. Because, a) can they read? Well, they managed pretty well with what she wrote on the board before the karate bit--

I AM A US MARINE
ANYBODY KNOW ANY KARATE?

--and Callie (Bruklin Harris) not only knows what a verb is (Johnson's first actual lesson), she's already mentioning possessive pronouns that day. b) Can they compete in the job market?

Can they compete in the job market? Is that really the measure for success? Is that what a high school English teacher is supposed to be worrying about? I prefer John Keating to Roger Ebert's (apparently) ideal teacher. LouAnne Johnson is closer to the former, getting her students to read poetry to get them figuring out basic sentences. If you can read poetry, she tells her students, you're ready for anything. Of course, they've still got violence to deal with. They don't just have overbearing parents who want them to go to medical school--that's the white privilege version of these kids' problems. They've got gangs to worry about.

The Bob Dylan lines (which the real Johnson didn't use; there was no Dylan-Dylan contest, she used rap lyrics) that finally get the involvement of Emilio (Wade Dominguez)--

I will not go down under the ground
'Cause somebody tells me that death's comin' round
An' I will not carry myself down to die
When I go to my grave my head will be high.

--are all about dying, and death is on the minds of these students, implicitly. But, so is life. It's like Johnson and Keating are on opposite ends of a spectrum; there are still universal problems shared by their students, teenagers trying to figure their lives out, but the specifics separate the films for sure. Ebert makes an interesting comparison, Bob Dylan in the 1960s to the rap music in 1995, "giving voice to the hopes and angers of a generation." The film is friendly to the white audience, of course, because it's really just got that one rap song ("Gangsta's Paradise"). With more palatable music, and Bob Dylan instead of rap music, the movie starts to seem a little self-indulgent and celebratory of white privilege, like LouAnne Johnson is just the latest to take on the White Man's Burden of educating the lesser races... which kinda bugs me now that I think about it that way. Ebert says,

The movie pretends to show poor black kids being bribed into literacy by Dylan and candy bars, but actually it is the crossover white audience that is being bribed with mind-candy in the form of safe words by the two Dylans. What are the chances this movie could have been made with Michelle Pfeiffer hooking the kids on the lyrics of Ice Cube or Snoop Doggy Dogg?

And, I'm just going to let him have this one.

The answer to that question is in the absence of rap from the movie, and the way the score swells shamelessly when Emilio the rebel finally hears some Dylan he likes, and stirs from his insolent sprawl to say, "read those lines again." As a graduate student I was on a year's fellowship at the University of Cape Town, and taught once a week in a night school in a black township. The students were preparing for an examination that might get them into university classes. The syllabus was the same as for the white students, and we studied Shakespeare's The Tempest. There was irony there: young people living under apartheid, in a township where the necessities of life were scarce, after a long day of manual labor, studying Shakespeare so that they, too, could take a test that for white students would be second nature.

Compare Dangerous Minds to Stand and Deliver. Both based on true stories, both about underprivileged teens working with a teacher who figures out how to get to them, as if it's magic. But, Jaime Escalante isn't some white guy coming into a neighborhood that isn't his. LouAnne Johnson is.

The moment where "Gansta's Paradise" comes back into the movie is telling. Right after the line "You're dead." And, right before Johnson visits the mother of two boys who have been taken out of school... That exchange:

Hi. I'm LouAnn Johnson. I'm the boys' teacher.

I know who you are. You're that white-bread bitch messin' with my babies' minds.

I beg your pardon?

My boys don't go to your school no more, and that's gonna be it.

You took 'em out of school?

You're damn right, I did. I saw what they were bringing home--poetry and shit. A waste of time. They got more important things to worry about.

Don't you think that finishing high school will be valuable to their future?

That's not in their future. I ain't raising no doctors and lawyers, here. They got bills to pay. Why don't you just get on outta here. Go find yourself some other poor boys to save.

My thing: I gotta wonder which one of those two the audience agreed with. Did the audience in 1995 think these kids had a future in which poetry mattered? Did the audience think Johnson was nobly wasting her time? Did the audience care about poetry at all? (Honestly, there is hardly any poetry in the film, unlike Dead Poets Society.)

A piece in Think Progress just yesterday (it's pretty good, and has links to an amazing, and somewhat disturbing two-part This American Life podcast) argues that, despite our national mythology, and the idea that we desegregated schools decades ago, "desegregation did not begin in earnest until a decade after Brown [v. Board of Education], and the Supreme Court started putting limits on integration a decade after that." Not to mention the white flight to better neighborhoods, better schools, community resistance to bussing...

Forget 1995. Do we care today that our schools are still segregated, that some schools will fail their students. (And, I don't mean giving them failing grades, of course; I mean not giving them a reasonable, useful education.) Some schools just can't help it. There is not always a Jaime Escalante or an LouAnn Johnson or a John Keating waiting around to inspire an interest in education. Too often, that mother above ends up being right--this stuff just isn't useful to the reality of some of these kids' lives.

Do we care?