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.


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