11.20.2013

Heathers: What a Waste! Oh the Humanity!

This is pt. 2 of a 3-part overview. For pt. 1 ("Heathers, High School, and Saved By the Bell") please click here. For pt. 3 ("A Writer Finds Her Voice") please click here


Heathers has a few things in common with Robert Altman's MASH. Both films are acidic comedies that skewer the conventions of their respective genres and the social mores of their respective eras. (MASH - the hypocrisy of war and war bravado, racism, God is dead, etc. Heathers - the hypocrisy of high school, the homophobia and date rape under the surface, etc.) Both are held up as dividing lines within their genres, (i.e. films are referred to as pre- or post-MASH/Heathers) and, of course, both are prominently associated with suicide, in particular, an irreverent attitude towards it.

A more thorough compare-and-contrast of both films would be fun, but beyond my scope here. One for either a rainy day or the suggestion box over at The Dissolve. But there's an esprit de corps between the two films that I wanted to mention before getting into the mechanics of Heathers for today's go-round.

Heathers is one of the more quotable films ever made, right up there with Casablanca, The Big Lebowski or Big Trouble in Little China. We'd be here all day if I listed every line I find personally memorable, so I won't even try. But... can't resist a couple.


and in the same way I cannot pass a gazebo without saying the word in my head the way Frank Dodds does in The Dead Zone ("ga-zeeee-bo...") I flash back to Glenn Shadix

whenever I see this word in print. "Let's just hope she's rubbing noses with Jesus."
Almost all high school films or shows are very conscious of crafting stylized dialogue, whether successfully or not. Some choose to invent their own lexicon. Others attempt to appropriate real world slang, and the shelf life for such an approach is counter-productively brief.  Heathers is the best of both worlds - it's like eavesdropping on another culture's expressions, ("It'll be very," "What's your damage?" etc.) familiar but invented for the film, yet the satire of the film is served well for having them. In other words, the characters don't speak the way they do here just for its own sake; every line re-enforces the "staggering unreality" discussed last time.

The film is certainly not sparing in its broad strokes: 

1) All of the adults are completely self-medicated and/or out of touch.

"So what was the first day after Heather's funeral like?"
J.D.'s psychotic father, played by Kirk Scott, always cracks me up. He and J.D. converse with one another in role-reversal, which is both funny and brutally effective in establishing the toxic environment that spawns the J.D.s of the world. (Something we'll look at in a little more depth at the end of the week.)
Not the same actor, but he reminds me of this guy from Animal House/ One Crazy Summer. (And those Twisted Sister videos. Now that I line those roles up like this, I'm realizing he should form an 80s nostalgia band with William Zabka and William Atherton.)
I'm forgetting the stoned cops, who are perfect, and named after the lead characters in Adam-12. One for trivia night.
2) All of the traditional societal structures and rituals are so removed from their original function as to be meaningless. Something painfully obvious to every teenager who ever lived, and quickly forgotten as we inherit maintenance and upkeep of said structures and rituals as adults. Indeed, the idea of "cool adults," who claim empathy with this informs one of the film's more acidic swipes, in the form of the teacher / guidance counselor Pauline Fleming:

Played by Penelope Milford
She seizes the opportunity to "revel in this revealing moment" and transforms the school into her New Age fiefdom. Or so she thinks. It's a move anticipated and exploited by J.D., of course, in his jihad against the social order, the implication being that the Pauline Flemings of the world somehow never anticipate this, and that the only people who embrace this "New Happiness" do so out either out of following the herd or for less than altruistic reasons. (A point driven home through all of the rituals in the film: lunchtime poll topics, petitions, "I need a copy of this for my college application," etc. The mechanisms of working within the system are all hopelessly lame.) She is ridiculed both by her peers (who acquiesce to her agenda not out of compassion or enlightenment but out of convenience and a CYA mentality) and Veronica ("get a job.")

2.5) Another trope, I guess: only the uber-cynical/ socially marginalized can glimpse the truth to which all others are blind.

And, 3) all of the cool kids are actually deeply insecure, troubled or compromised. One sees a corruption of this trope all too often in social media in 2013, usually delivered with a forthrightness that would make Veronica Sawyer reach for her monocle and bottle of vodka:

I'd say it's due to the legacy of things like Heathers in my life that my immediate reaction upon seeing such things is to want to post this in response:
"Teenage suici-ii-ide, don't do it. Teenage suici-ii-ide, she blew it!"
Another reason people should study things like Heathers. In the same way that the measles and the mumps are making the rounds again thanks to people forgetting that mass vaccinations are a good idea, we're in a real danger of losing our cultural resistance to emotional infantilism altogether.

Let's have a look at the characters.

The Red Queen: Heather Chandler (Kim Walker.)
To borrow a phrase from Stephen King: "She's the Queen Bitch of Castle Hell." She channels her own self-loathing into ruthless control. She's worshipped at Westerberg, and she's only a Junior. Like Caesar, however, her time at the top will be short-lived.

Probably the most quotable character in the film. Not bad for someone who dies about a quarter of the way through.
As in this great cross-cut sequence at Heather Chandler's funeral. We eavesdrop on the individual "mourner's" prayers, all of which are amusingly self-serving or self-deflecting.

I'm surprised (though not really) there's never been a prequel The Rise of Heather Chandler of some kind. Like, a CW series or something. 

Nature abhors a vacuum, and so Heather Duke, (Shannon Doherty) as coached by JD, assumes the role after Heather Chandler's death.

Who isn't too mindful of the suspension he received earlier in the film, naturally.

To get there, she must step over Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk) The Cheerleader. All class advancement requires a blood sacrifice.

Trapped in her gilded cage.

Jason Dean, Trenchcoat Mafia Prototype:


It's implied he has run this murder-under-guise-of-suicide before. He last saw his mother waving goodbye from a window in a building his Dad blew up. (The aforementioned creepy aspect of he and his Dad's role reversal.) The scene where he yells after Veronica to "come back" really gets me thinking. He is trying to be a better version of his Dad and thinks he can save his mother by orchestrating these murders in a more poetic fashion, cloaked in half-baked nihilism soundbites. When it doesn't work, he has to kill Veronica, then blow up the school. That old chestnut!

J.D. is, outside of Veronica, the most important character of the film. But I'll be dealing with his (and Veronica's) story arc in a different post, so we'll just introduce them, here.

Which bring us to our heroine, Veronica Sawyer:

Our insider/outsider narrator and window on the Westerberg world.
Perfectly situated to be our guide. She "is allowed an understanding that my parents and these Remington University assholes have chosen to ignore."
She is the audience surrogate for both the "cool kid" experience (her parents are wealthy, she is attractive enough to merit inclusion in the "hot girls" clique as well as capture the eye of the school bad boy, she has a secret inner world where her brilliance soars unfettered and her kindness to those beneath her caste is given breathing space) and the anti-hero experience (murdering said cool kids and getting away with it, flaunting social convention in favor of her own moral throughline/ independence, etc.)

Mean Girls took this template, of course, and ran with it. More or less successfully, and while it's probably equally as entertaining, it's not as subversive or incisive as Heathers is. (Not that it has to be.)
Granted, some of Veronica's moral stances are a little undermined.

Her attempt to rekindle her friendship with Betty Finn is done in something of a smug spirit. But Betty is also an exaggeration of plain-Jane virginal purity/ the poor relation with the heart of gold.
And while the ending makes a lot of thematic sense (having journeyed through hell and back, Veronica seeks only a popcorn movie night with someone as far removed from all of it as possible, aka Martha "Dumptruck") there's something a little pandering about it.


Not Katy Perry-level pandering. (Along the lines of the anti-bullying stuff, above, somewhere between Heathers and "Firework" or "Roar," we lost a lot of depth perception on "empowerment.") More on this momentarily.

We can assume from the bad-ass way that Veronica disposes of Heather Duke that she is, as she proclaims, the new sheriff in town:


and her first act of office is to befriend the town outcast. But are we really to believe this one act will overturn the social order any more than Pauline Fleming's kinder, gentler administration? Veronica's is a less violent road than J.D.'s, to be sure, but one can't help but wonder if power will corrupt Veronica the same way it corrupted the other Heathers. It seems Westerberg has swapped one despotic ruler for a more benevolent dictator, but the power structure remains ultimately the same. (Veronica despises the way Heather abuses her power, but she's fine with bitchslapping her when she gets out of line.)

Perhaps that's the point. I'm not sure.

Speaking of Martha Dunnstock
She's the most obvious metaphor for adolescent cruelty, throughout, and the plot turns on several Dumptruck moments, from the lunchroom scene in the beginning, to her slowly following the popular kids' lead in trying to kill herself, then as the object/ reflection of Veronica's benevolence at the end.
It makes you wonder how the events of the story must appear from her character's point of view.
Incidentally, I hate "the fat suit." I'm usually fairly cavalier about the practicalities of make-believe and theatricality, and it's a thousand times less offensive here than it is in Friends or Shallow Hal. But there's something so weird about it. I don't know. A post for another day, perhaps.

To conclude, the script and characters are both perfect, but what really ties it all together is a sense of mise-en-scène that, as mentioned last time, has never appeared again in the director's work. (Or the cinematographer's, the art director's, or the production designer's.) But the stars must have aligned in 1988 for all of them, as this is one beautiful-looking movie. I watched this over and over again back in the day specifically to hunt for visual clues in the background. (Pausing a VHS tape wasn't always a good method of finding stuff, as often the image became blurred or obscured.)

So using the traditional ratio of worth re: pictures/ words, here are ten thousand words to showcase some of it:

I actually remember people dressing like this. It seems a galaxy long long ago and far far away, now.
Veronica's vodka-fueled funeral dream. I used to always wonder what the hell was up with this dude:
and still do.

I wish there was a way to screencap the score, which is a perfect example of 80s synth score this side of John Carpenter. And it suits the subject matter so well. Like the dialogue, it achieves in exaggeration and satire the truth of what someone once said, college isn't the real world; high school is the real world.

Next time, we'll look at Veronica and JD. After that, a wrap-up post about how this film could never be made nowadays. Our Week of Many Heathers marches on.

4 comments:

  1. Is there any truth to the rumor (that I just started) that Westerberg High is named for Paul Westerberg, lead singer of ... wait for it ... The Replacements?

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    1. I've often wondered that! It would make sense given the time frame. Never heard it confirmed or denied, though.

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  2. Urge . . . to . . . rewatch . . . INCREASING . . . !

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    1. When and if you do, please drop us a line with your thoughts, sir!

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