Tuesday, March 31, 2009
When teen angst bullshit had a body count
"Dark comedy is a strange thing. What might strike one person as hysterically funny another may find just plain sick. There may be no better illustration of this fine line than Heathers, a very good film that can offend some just by a vague description of its plot."
By Edward Copeland
Greetings and salutations. Twenty years ago, that's how I began my review of Heathers when I was a sophomore in college. I hadn't heard much about the movie and there was no ad in the city paper, but I always tried to review EVERYTHING that opened in the metropolitan area, so I was there that opening weekend, though there weren't many others for the Friday matinee. As the film rolled and I watched in glee, I got a feeling that I don't think I've ever had before: I wish I made this movie. It's not that I thought I could do it better or that I thought it was the greatest film of all time, just that its sensibility seem to be so on my wavelength, that I could imagine coming up with something like it in a way I could never imagine dreaming up a Citizen Kane.
No matter how much I sang the praises of Heathers, few of my contemporaries had the chance to see it during its brief theatrical run, but once it hit video...there was no stopping it. People using lines from Daniel Waters' screenplay seemed to be everywhere. To this day, when the situation calls for it, I'll still ask someone if they had a brain tumor for breakfast or to call me when the shuttle lands. While the film doesn't feel dated to me (except perhaps for its reference to Swatches. Do they still make those?), it definitely was made at a different time. Unless you were around in the mid to late 1980s, you can't quite appreciate what a big deal the media made of teenage suicide at the time. Think of it as the missing blonde and shark attacks of its time. There were countless made-for-TV movies, the more tolerable playing like glorified afterschool specials, the worse somehow turning out to be all about boomer parents. The worst of the movies, Surviving, was filmed in my hometown of Oklahoma City and several of my friends got extra work in the movie which starred Molly Ringwald, Zach Galligan and a young River Phoenix. The end result of the film was one of the parents, played by Marsha Mason, deciding to leave her husband and travel the world to "find herself." I can't speak for today's kids, but it seemed as if my generation was born with innate gallows humor, so Heathers was made for us. We were cracking jokes in bad taste within hours of the Challenger explosion.
As a longtime student journalist, one of the lines in Heathers that cracked me up the most was when Veronica (Winona Ryder) was going to help Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty) regurgitate her lunch and Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) comments, "Bulimia is so '87." In the 1984-85 year in high school, we were doing a student paper centerpiece on anorexia and bulimia and we fought (but lost) to use the headline "Barfing for Beauty." So you understand the type of warped audiences that were there to greet Heathers while middle-age and older critics were dumbfounded. At least some were honest enough to admit it. Take the start of Roger Ebert's review for instance:
"I approach Heathers 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 movie is a morbid comedy about peer pressure in high school, about teenage suicide and about the deadliness of cliques that not only exclude but also maim and kill.
Life was simpler when I was in high school."
Lest you think my generation overflows with heartless bastards, when things do strike close to home, we do feel and we do get upset. We had a suicide in my high school class as well as a car wreck death and two heart-related fatalities and I don't recall much gallows humor related to any of those. The same
is true of Heathers, which did find brief moments of pathos within the dark comedy of the "double suicide" of Kurt and Ram (Lance Fenton, Patrick Labyorteaux) that becomes a double funeral where the corpses are decked out with football helmets and footballs and Kurt's dad (Mark Carlton) declaring that he loves his dead gay son while J.D. (Christian Slater) and Veronica, who killed the jocks, giggle about how he would react if Kurt's limp wrist had a pulse in it. Then Veronica sees what we assume is one of the jocks' devastated little sisters, clad in a letterman jacket, tears streaming down her young cheeks, and Veronica turns to stone and the deaths suddenly feel real and not a joke. The same thing happens when poor Martha Dunnstock (Carrie Lynn) aka Martha Dumptruck attempts her own very real suicide. Then it isn't funny. I'm curious not if Heathers is dated in the usual way (clothes, references, languages), because Daniel Waters' script was fairly clever in getting around that problem with the invention of his own slang ("How very," "What's your damage?" and "You're beautiful") and costumes that seemed to defy any era. However, without the precursor of the media obsession with teen suicide, how does it play? In fact, the landscape has changed in the 20 years hence. I remember when Columbine happened, with its report of a Trenchcoat Mafia with pipe bombs, the first thought that entered my mind was that the lazy media would figure out a way to lay the blame for the massacre at the feet of Heathers. Somehow though, they all glommed on to a brief segment from the movie The Basketball Diaries that I didn't even remember (and I bet even fewer saw) but, let's face it, Leonardo DiCaprio was a bigger star right then. Would it seem as funny after more than a decade of school shootings? When each new news report bring the same mock anchor shock that such a thing could happen. How many school shootings have to happen until newspeople have to admit that it isn't shocking anymore? We also live in a time where parents seem more obsessed than ever with their children's self-esteem. Talent shows have no winners. You are a winner just for being in it! When Tina Fey's Mean Girls came out and they compared it to Heathers, I was suspicious, especially with a PG-13 rating. Sure enough, that's as "mean" as we can be today. Then again, maybe not. In a recent Entertainment Weekly, there was a report about plans to turn Heathers into a Broadway musical. Director Michael Lehmann confirms the project via correspondence, though he's just a friend of the project. He says screenwriter Daniel Waters is more involved. I wish them the best, though I'm always skeptical of movies becoming musicals since far more fail than succeed and I wonder how the subject matter will play. It's not like they can approach it like Sweeney Todd, though I guess something akin to Little Shop of Horrors isn't out of the realm of possibility.
I've discussed so much of the background and the time that I don't want to neglect the movie itself which still holds up after 20 years. Watching it again, what really drew me this time were the bright color schemes, show mainly through the cinematography of d.p. Francis Kenny but also by the production design of Jon Hutman and costumes of Rudy Dillon. It also was nice to be reminded of the subtlety of David Newman's score, which never steps on scenes the way so many scores seem to do these days. It's also a refreshing reminder of how assured Michael Lehmann's direction was when his only previous film was a student effort called Beaver Gets a Boner, which I would still love to see. Daniel Waters' script almost goes without saying. I'm a sucker for any screenplay that has so many memorable lines that I can find myself repeating decades after the fact. I can only imagine how many great lines were excised from his original vision of a three-hour Stanley Kubrick epic (including a 20-minute long cafeteria scene). Personally, though I've never read the long version, I'm betting the Lehmann version is better, especially when you watch again the nearly eight-minute long cafeteria sequence that fluidly introduces all the teen characters, major and minor. Of course, there's always arguments about the alternate endings that Waters wanted, such as having the school blow up and everyone mingling in heaven or Veronica approaching Martha, who shoots her saying, "Take that Heather" while a dying Veronica gurgles, "I'm not a Heather." Now, I'm still a cynical man, but maybe it's just because I'm used to it, but I think Heathers has the right ending. Veronica takes the ribbon from Heather Duke's hair, declares herself the sheriff and makes nice with Martha. After all, Veronica said, she just wants her high school to be a nice place. Of course, while J.D. may be a psychopath, his point of view may be closer to correct than Veronica's utopian dream. The school didn't reflect society's ills, the school was society. While there seems to be more and more cases of bullying gone bad in the news these days, I have to wonder about decades before I was born, when parents urged them to confront their tormenters and it made them stronger for it when they had to move out to the evils of the real world. As Heather Walker told Veronica, "Real life sucks losers dry." I have to worry that some kids are being so sheltered and so coddled by squeamish parents that when they become adults, they will be stepped on time and time again. I know every time I turned the tables on someone who picked on me, I was usually the better for it, and I almost always used wit instead of physicality to get the better of jerks. Stymie their minds and their motor skills are hampered.
Upon looking at Heathers again, one thing that struck me that never had before is that, in a way, Heather Chandler and Jason Dean are two sides of the same coin. Both seek power through intimidation. While Heather would never actually kill someone, she has no qualms about destroying reputations. Both she and J.D. consider themselves superior to their victims. The major difference is that Heather is social enough to attract followers while J.D. prefers to keep to himself. The subordinate Heathers never quite have the thrill for the kill that Heather No. 1 has, that is until J.D. basically turns Heather Duke into the new Heather Chandler for his own twisted purposes after Veronica finally dumps him. Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk) never seems to easily fit into a category until Heather Duke decides to select her for victimhood. The move almost succeeds the way J.D. intended: Getting Heather Duke to have the school sign a petition that is really a suicide note, almost winning Veronica back and getting her to think of killing Heather Duke. Which really brings us to the film's greatest mystery: Veronica. She seems to be smart and strong, but why is she so susceptible to being a follower? Why does she want to be one? That's why I think the compromised ending works as well as it does: Veronica triumphs over the clique and J.D. and promises "to be the new sheriff in town." As J.D. says, "Color me impressed. You've got strength. Strength I didn't think you had." Will she succeed? Who knows? We do know she's traveled far from when Heather Chandler berated her for being a Girl Scout cookie until she expressed interest in being part of the most powerful clique at Westerburg High and Heather rescued her. Then, that got old. As she described it to J.D., "They're like people I work with and our job is being popular and shit." Of course, J.D. has the added appeal of sexuality to woo Veronica. "Our love is God. Let's go get a Slushie!" Part of what makes Veronica seem so strong throughout the film is Winona Ryder, who unbelievably turned 16 while making Heathers. She was coming off her breakthrough in Beetlejuice and her agent begged her not to make Heathers, for fear it would sink her career. Later in 1989, she shone again as Jerry Lee Lewis' young cousin/wife in Great Balls of Fire.
There are so many great lines in Heathers that I feel I should keep writing until I squeeze them all in, but let them be enjoyed for the first or 50th time. I haven't had time to sing the praises of Penelope Milford as the loony teacher who represents the teen suicide obsession of the time (though I still want to know how a teacher got hold of a suicide note). No time to discuss how they pull the rug out from under you by presenting Veronica's parents as one-dimensional and then suddenly giving them depth. I do have to mention my favorite sight gag, in case you miss it. J.D. gets the idea to fake Heather's death as a suicide when he spots the Cliff's Notes for The Bell Jar. Heather couldn't even read Sylvia Plath's work.