Monday, December 11, 2006


This evening I watched a movie I was fairly certain I would never see in this lifetime when Jamie unleashed "Mean Girls" from the DVR. This makes it (I believe) three Lindsay Lohan movies I have seen in my life.

I recently read a Time Magazine interview with Frank Portman, the former front-man of 90's alt-punk band "The Mr. T Experience" (and current successful young-adult author of "King Dork") who said something along the lines of "Our entire popular culture's about high school. It's this thing that most people suffered through terribly or like to think they did."

If "Mean Girls" is any indication of the small, untreatable pettiness we're all carrying around, I have little hope for the human race.

Ostensibly, the movie was for tween-girls, or, possibly, teen-age girls. Actually, when I think of some of the content, I hope it was intended for teen-age girls and not those 5-8th grade girls. But, let's be honest, it's the tweens who will buy it on DVD.

The movie came out during the "Hilary Duff is Everywhere" phase of movie-making between 2003 and 2004 (which you may not have noticed, but as there seemed to be two or three of the same movie running at all times at my local cinema, I took note). I think I probably lumped this one in with those movies in my mind. What I DO remember was that adult reviewers were suggesting that, maybe, you know, THIS one was okay... I also recall hearing how this movie was surprisingly good, how the zoological observations of the protagonist reflected the absurdities of American high-school culture, blah blah blah...

The movie is far better than most for the first thirty minutes, then sputters as it falls into a predictable "beat the snob girl at her own game" pattern which these movies seem to thrive on, and, of course, pretty much finds it's denouement by telling not just our protagonist, but every character, to love themself (an unsatisfying message as Tina Fey's character admits aloud that none of these girls seem to have any problems with self-esteem). Tucked in there is a rare shoutout to also love the girl next to you, and I guess that's what they're hoping to sow.

If the first third of the movie seemed to be giving me hope by stealing from anything, the first reel actually seemed to mirror 1989's "Heathers", right up to "the lunch time poll" (which made me wonder aloud if that wasn't a wink and a nod of an homage). In a post-Columbine-era, it's impossible to imagine a film like "Heathers" receiving funding, and it may be best not to consider how many pipe bombs and trench coats Christian Slater may be tangentially responsible for. But in a post-Columbine world, the ending of "Mean Girls"seemed like a cop out. It was far more fluffy bunnies and rainbows, as if there was line the producers finally settled upon which they would not cross before having the guts to be a black comedy. We discover our alt-rock disaffected girl just needed the love of a good Mathlete, and it really is all about how big your ass is in high school, even when the movie is trying to say otherwise.

Aside from a few funny moments (mostly brought by adult players, Tina Fey and Tim Meadows) I didn't find much to latch on to. All of this, in part, because the "high school is hell" model of cumpolsory education doesn't jive terribly well with personal experience.

If Frank Portman is right, and we are all still hung up on a locker-room wedgie or some girl pointing out our acne on the bus ride home, it's a pretty sad indictment of pop culture and culture in general. How many adults are walking around with unresolved vendettas and revenge fantasies that should have been swept up with the mortar boards from the gymnasium floor?

Really? That many?


At least in the entertainment industry, I am led to believe it's a hell of a lot of people.

Tina Fey, screenwriter for the project, has dovetailed a bit of the insecurity of her character from this movie with her work on "30 Rock", and one almost wonders about the Jack Donaghy/ Regina George paradigm of Fey's worry about alpha-dogs. Or maybe that's just the well-spring of comedy. I don't know. But she seems hard-wired into the idea of "I was such a geek back then", and "what a loser I am now... despite my success".

These days, I am sadly hard pressed to remember names of teachers, administrators, and especially fellow-students, although a few clues can usually set me straight. I am inclined to remember myself as a "nice guy", but, heck, I don't know. I might just not remember giving some poor freshman noogies everyday, for which, even now, he's plotting his revenge. (Actually, that seems entirely plausible.)

The stuff that sticks out in my mind about that era is how aware I was that because I had not graduated, I was never to be trusted. I do not remember anyone making fun of me (perhaps I was blissfully ignorant), but I have very firm memories of hitting three bathrooms before I found one that was unlocked during a particular potty emergency in English my senior year. When I asked about it, I was told that they always locked the bathrooms on the first floor during periods that coincided with lunchtime, because they'd once caught a kid smoking in the bathroom. So, you know, your bladder be damned.

"Mean Girls" actually has a montage, including the "why do you have to use the restroom?" dilemma of public ed, and this was where I connected. The prison mentality of lowest-common-denominator rule application is a good bit, and is one of the stronger segments in the film. This is the high school that I remember.

Or that you had to leave class and stand in line for twenty minutes in the office to collect a "tardy" pass if you were ten seconds after the bell. Or being told to sell cakes out of a catalog to raise money for prom. Or the monitor refusing to let you go to your locker to get your own textbooks to work on assignments or study, because it was before the first bell (and you could see your locker from where you were standing, and you'd gone to school forty-five minutes early, just for this).

Perhaps "3 O'Clock High" utilized some of the bureaucratic insanity to best advantage, but was that was certainly not the central conflict.

There are high school movies I like. When I was of the right age, and before it was marred by outbreaks of genuine school violence, I found "Heathers'" black humor and deadly pragmatism to the "Mean Girls'" central issues to be pretty funny, but understood that this was a hyper-reality of Archie-Comics-like parody of high school. At the time I'd also liked "the Chocolate War" and "Heaven Help Us" (which I give myself a pass on if it's bad as I haven't seen it in 16 years), perhaps because they skewed male-centric. "Election" was frustratingly fun. "The River's Edge", while morbid and depressing, had a certain reality to it, that if you heard it had happened at another nearby school, you wouldn't bat an eye. "American Grafitti" captured some of the freedom and opportunity of summer nights in high school.

However, these days few movies seem to be willing to do much but find some variation on the "serve uppity snob girl her comeuppance". Which is kind of silly, especially when nothing can top John Waters' "Hairspray".

These days, for me, the high school character that reminds me most of an actual high school kid is Zach Gilford's portrayal of Matt Saracen on NBC's Friday Night Lights. Where other storylines on the show have already spun off into hour-long prime-time soap opera territory, and kids have mostly fallen into the parentless world of TV high schoolers, Gilford's Saracen is somehow still grounded in some sort of reality. Not presneted as a macho jock stereotype, nor the well-coiffed bad boy/ artist, he's the guy trying to figure out how to be the best man he can be, while trying to figure out what that means.

Anyway, this went on way longer than I meant for it to, so I guess I'm curious:

Interactivity time:

What "high school" movies or TV do you like? What "high school" movies or TV do you feel are ridiculous? Which ones do you think cut closer to the truth than they let on? Am I completely full of it?

Your opinions, please...

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