Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The League Revisits: Pump Up the Volume (and DITMTLOD)

In 1990 the Steans Clan packed up our stuff and moved from Austin to Houston. The Admiral had transferred to what turned out to be a pretty good job. Like a lot of high schoolers, I was less than thrilled to change schools. I'd already put in the leg work with three years of middle school and a year of high school with the people I'd expected to endure until I escaped to college. Now I'd have to start all over again.

What would be odd, as per my living situation, was that we were leaving Jason behind in Austin. It was sort of like deciding the family dog was too old and wouldn't like the new arrangement, so you leave it with the neighbors. He was to finish out his Senior year rather than slog through a new school just in time to graduate.

Shortly after we arrived in Houston, the newest Christian Slater flick "Pump up the Volume" made its way to the Loew's theater a few miles from the house, right by the blimp hanger. It piqued my interest for two reasons (a) I was a big fan of "Heathers", and (b) it featured Pirate Radio.

Jason had spent some time in prior years trying to figure out how to set up a pirate radio broadcast out of his bedroom. Eventually, he abandoned the idea, I think due to legal concerns (not wanting to go to jail).

At the time, I loved the movie. It had teenagers talking about teen-agery type stuff. It had a pirate radio station. Christian Slater stuck it to The Man (ie: the crusty principal), and mostly, circa 1990 Samantha Mathis.

Oh, Samantha Mathis, your art-school girl chic made my heart pitter-patter

"Pump up the Volume" may or may not have been the original name for the movie. But it's a terrible title and suggests a late 80's break dancing movie. I have suspicions this was some MC Hammer-inspired tweaking when someone from marketing realized that they were marketing a movie to teens that didn't feature music that it was, at the time, perceived that teens listened to.

The soundtrack features Concrete Blonde, Leonard Cohen (I think), the Pixies and others of the late 80's, early 90's, pre-Nirvana music scene, and starts by establishing Slater's character's cred with his record collection. All on cassette. Because I think in 1990, I knew one person with an actual CD player.

The movie, really, hinges on technology and the Newsweek-covered hot button parental issues of the era. Today's teens would see a neolithic world before cell phones, internet lines, and when teenagers with their own computers were a pretty darn rare commodity. Only one character has a computer in their room during the course of the movie (and he dies!).

Re-made today, no doubt the idea would basically be a well-run website with illegally distributed MP3's, a chat room, some e-mail, and podcasts of Mr. HHH. At the time, the idea of just anybody taking to the airwaves was considered extremely difficult and illegal. (I should pause here to give a mad shout out to the 1993-1994 residents of Jester West, 12th floor. Patrick and Jeff put together a small radio broadcaster from scrap parts and their TV antenna. Jester briefly enjoyed the rockin' tunes of Jester Pirate Radio. Until, that is, we wanted to watch TV again. And, yeah, they let me on the air once or twice. And I was awesome.)

The hot button issues of the day were teen pregnancy and teen suicide. The suicide angle kind of also explains the entirety of "Heathers", and the tune from Heathers: Big Fun's "Teenage Suicide (Don't Do It)". Anyhoo, the switch to the real drama of the movie occurs when some kid kills himself because Slater didn't tell him not to. The witch-hunting overreaction by parents as part of the sequence is still actually pretty darn accurate.

As a 33 year old watching this movie, one winds up feeling less like Christian Slater is speaking for you (or anyone). It comes across more as a lot of teen angsting, talking about how the whole world is screwed up and needs change, but there aren't a lot of specifics regarding what needs changing. Slater eventually winds up spouting this really crazy diatribe about how the earth and trees need healing... and uncensored pirate radio, I guess.

None of it really makes a lot of sense, unless you consider Slater's character was just moved from NYC to what was a stand in for Paradise Valley, Arizona circa 1990. In which case, the dissatisfaction is all too rational.

In order to provide the audience with an actual antagonist that isn't just Slater V. Society-at-Large, there's a cockamamie scheme cooked up in which the Principal is magically expelling teenagers with lower SAT scores so she can keep up some sort of public funding for the school. It's a little convoluted, and really tangential to whatever is supposed to be going on with Slater's pirate radio show. And suggests that this is a school in which no parents are involved, and nobody fears a lawsuit.

Probably the two weirdest moments in the movie belong to Samantha Mathis, whose character suddenly goes topless in one scene (something I cheered during my first viewing as I believed the movie to be PG-13). And, as a plot point, we learn she's failing high school math. Which... is unintentionally hilarious.

Failing math = Not terribly attractive

The movie is oddly ham-handed in other ways.

-Hip-hop is used as a sign that the kids are getting too rebellious for the likes of the ever-crusty faculty.

-Slater's character drops a half-dozen clues that would immediately identify him as HHH. Mr. Magoo could unravel the mystery.

-And there's a lot of insinuations that (a) this is the least happy bunch of privileged kids EVER, and (b) something is very, very wrong at Harding High, but they manage to make it through the 102 minute runtime without ever saying WHAT is wrong.

In many ways, I'm left peppering the movie with the same "What?" that I usually reserve for movies like "D War Dragon Wars".

The ending is absolutely ludicrous, with Slater and Mathis hauled off in a paddywagon, sure to go to jail for some vague moral victory. I'd worry more about her future, but with that "F" in Math, I'm not sure that Mathis's character couldn't use the focused environment of prison in which to get her GED.

And, of course, a million kids supposedly take to the airwaves with their own pirate radio shows... The end

The Internet has, of course, taught us what teenagers and adults will do with a public forum. If this blog is any indication, it hasn't healed the rocks and trees, and its mostly given nutjobs like myself a bull pulpit from which we can espouse our half-baked sasquatch theories.

Still, it's got Samantha Mathis.

This look of loving concern at our hero's exploits is the opposite of what I was used to from the ladies of KOHS. Change this more to a look of disapproval.

A brief DITMLOD: Samantha Mathis as "Nora Diniro"

I'm not ashamed to admit that in middle and high school, I had my eye on the stripey sock girls. Give me a girl in an over-sized black sweater and clunky black shoes, and any young lady automatically got a second look (this predates all the Marilyn Manson co-option of the art-school girl stuff, which... doesn't work so much for me).

The look showed up in a few movies. Sort of sported by Winona Ryder in "Heathers". Absolutely seen by the female lead in cult classic "Three O'Clock High". But I still think Mathis does it best.

Despite 13 long years of loyalty, Jamie seems to get a little jealous whenever this previous fascination is brought up. I think Jason initially revealed my old achilles heal to Jamie, and every once in a while it becomes a point of contention that I did not fancy Jamie before I had, in fact, met Jamie.

Whatever. Jamie loves 1988 Greg Louganis.

Anyhoo, yes. As a teenager I thought Samantha Mathis was the bee's knees. She was cute, did the stripey sock thing very well, was occasionally topless, and, to a kid who'd just moved and went weeks in a new school without talking to anyone... the idea that such a girl was hiding under a rock somewhere at KOHS was deeply appealing.

That is not to say that KOHS was devoid of awesome ladies (you know who you are). But, you know, we were sadly lacking in Samantha Mathisii.

I should of just learned that the girls who smoked behind the school at lunch were more fun...


I salute thee, Samantha Mathis as "Nora Diniro". You left an indelible impression upon my youthful psyche.


mcsteans said...

I can't believe out of all my dudes you select Greg Louganis. Actually I can.

The stripey sock jealousy I think stems not from 'oh you liked other girls before me' but from the fact that I was decidedly NOT a stripey sock girl and what would have happened had you met me back then? I would most definitely have not been deemed cool enough.

The League said...

I think that's crazy talk.

Anonymous said...

There is a song played in that movie ... briefly, when someone was going through a drive-thru. It was a guy shouting orders to the beat of a rock/metal song. Do you know the scene I'm talking about? I've always wanted to track down that clip.

Oh, and Hollywood totally needs to remake this movie as a guy with "a well-run website with illegally distributed MP3's, a chat room, some e-mail, and podcasts of Mr. HHH".

In fact, I'm surprised that it hasn't happened yet.

And finally, I also knew of a student in my high school whose parents left town and left him alone in an apartment for his senior year. I think all he ended up doing was smoking a lot of pot and getting drunk. And somehow ending up with a girl totally out of his league. I always thought he was a douche, but then again, I might have just been jealous of his hot, red-headed girlfriend.

The League said...

I'm going to leave Jason to describe his Senior Year. He shared a room with one of his friends and the friend's brother. It was pretty close quarters and in no way landed him a cute red-head (as far as I know).

Regarding the song:
I wouldn't know this if I hadn't watched the movie last night, but I think the clip is (I'm lifting from Wikipedia here):
"Weinerschnitzel" by The Descendents from their 1981 EP "Fat"

I'm almost positive Slater's character identifies the band as The Descendants before playing the clip.

It's my opinion that Hollywood would avoid this movie at this point. That's something I forgot to mention.

A) The movie is trying to be a message movie, but its impossible to figure out what the message is supposed to be. Wrap that in a teen suicide, and the nervous lawyers of the studio would pull what few teeth the script originally had

B) It's a movie for teenagers which, by its content, is rated R. Back then, ratings didn't mean much for distributors. But consider the recent release of "Prom Night" was PG-13. I mean, yeah, they could water it down, but then that raises the question of why anyone would be listening...

C) I don't see a media conglomerate/ movie studio funding a movie that would romanticize behavior (free media online) whose logical extrapolation would take money out of their pocket

D) I'm not sure a movie aimed at the righteousness of teen angst would play as well with today's "party like a rock star", The Hills-derived culture of $400 Coach purses. Sure, that's one end of the spectrum. But I also am positive that today's kids are media and technology savvy enough to come up with all sorts of ideas why the premise, even web based, was ridiculous.

Actually, it raises an interesting question, because its not like radio-waves have gone away. Perhaps a mix of the two?

And... given how "No Child Left Behind" has been implemented, the crusty old principal's scheme is now all the more plausible.

Maybe a re-make would work? I'll talk to my people.

Anonymous said...

Filmed in Santa Clarita, where I lived for a time and went to grad school. Along with another movie featuring weirdos in suburbia, Edward Scissorhands. I think they screen these movies every year at Calarts for nostalgia's sake.

J.S. said...

Jamie- just because Ryan liked the stripey socks girls doesn't really mean he was fantastically successful with them. And trust me- I've known most all the ladies who've been in The League's life, and you're totally his type. He woulda found you eventually.

Anonymous said...

I like how these teen angst movies (which pretty much were the sounding board of the generation that went on to fill the ranks of the grunge movement and the alt rock genre) are filled with all these middle class and upper middle class suburbanite kids who seem to have some kind of hang up that they live in the suburbs and go to school with other upper middle class kids, and feel like nobody around them gets it, that only they get it.

I think that is the genious of Pump Up The Volume. It is a movie mocking the HHH types with their philisophical pinings of a "different way, a better way" as a platform to complain about anything and everything around them while doing nothing meaningful to change anything themselves. The movie never stated the "what" was wrong and the "why" of our suffering heros, because there IS no what or why. They are a bunch of little spoiled kids who think anyone who conforms is a slave to the system, meanwhile not acknowledging that they conform in about 99% of what they do besides their music collection and wardrobe.

I think tese movies serve as a kind of a gauge about the whininess of American society. It's reflected in politics, media, pop culture, and about anywhere there is a medium to be heard. It's all bad, and THEY are to blame. Who the THEY are just depends on your particular tastes and affiliations.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Ryan! Here's a video someone made for the song.

The League said...

I'm trying to piece together what you're saying here Peabo, so stop me if I'm wrong.

I think you're suggesting that the movie is intentionally undermining the HHH character/ alter-ego Mark with its weak argument regarding the need for a non-conformist approach.

While I absolutely agree that the movie makes a weak argument for the why's-and-wherefore's of change, it DOES make the point that HHH has to be the change he's waiting for. That's sort of the final character moment for HHH.

I'd love to think the movie is a double-agent actually making fun of mopey teen-agers (I count myself as one who can recall a certain dissatisfaction with the world at a certain age, and agree that many need a kick in the shorts, to a certain extent). That would be delightfully screwed up in a way that I can scarcely imagine.

But I think that's giving the movie more credit than it deserves.

I DO think the movie was certainly asking for teen-agers to be their own change agents (thus the millions go on the air at the end of the film), and, in fact, they suggest that many are finding specific issues to address in their shows beyond "wow, Paradise Valley, AZ blows...".

I'm reluctant to condemn the young folks getting passionate about seeking a change in their world, even the privileged kids. Sadly, this movie went so far over the top with its depiction of some suburban malaise that it did mopey teen-agers everywhere a disservice (for an even more embarrassing flick, I suggest "Suburbia").

All this is not to defend "Pump Up the Volume" (geez... that title). But to suggest that the failure of the movie on so, so many levels winds up making a mess of whatever the best intentions might have been.