...love, sister, it's just a kiss away.
(an informal ramble inspired by three teen flix.)
Highschool is a battlefield. That point, touched upon before in dramady satires like The Breakfast Club and Heathers, and since kicked in the arse with movies like Dazed and Confused and Welcome to the Dollhouse, has never been more apparent than today. Ever since Columbine and similar tragedies, it's "the thing to do" to tie in some sort of shocking climax to fiction dealing with the stresses of adolescence and resulting horrors. Hard to believe such a practice would almost feel like a cliche in the year 2004, at least in lit terms, but here we are vividly exploring the social chasms separating students in our schools and doing so with a disturbing frequency.
When I was younger and a few notches dumber, I used to get into trouble--sneak out the car, go to rowdy parties, abuse substances, drink Mad Dog--you name it, and my Dad would always come at me with these stock responses, "I swore to myself when I was your age, I'd remember what it felt like...But I don't." See what an adulthood of voting Republican can do for you? He's right, he didn't remember what it felt like, but at least he tried to. Even if he did, who's to say his experience was in any way similar to mine some 40 or more years later? Who's to say that the experience of the homely, nerdish girl with splotchy skin is even remotely similar to that of the Homecoming queen, or the most eligible bulemic, or even the captain of the girls volleyball team?
School is much like any old country, divided into sections and subsections of haves and have-nots. Some of those in the higher positions have earned it, maybe worked hard and forged some kind of romantic public persona in the process that people respond to, envy, even despise. Others have inherited lofty ranks with a sense of entitlement reserved for royalty. And still others have simply attempted to be themselves, and received a charge comparable to treason in the teenage world for their efforts. The punishment could be swift, over in seconds, or drawn out over months, even years. And this goes both ways, mind you.
Three recent films explore the battlefield with a nice mix of anthropological observation and occasionally some good old fashioned humor: May, Suicide Club and Elephant. May is what could be called a thinker's B movie, arriving a notch or two above exploitation, and tiptoeing along the line between arty integrity and pure tripe ever so gracefully with images that alternate between maudlin sentiment and spectacular violent outrage. Suicide Club, a recent entry in Japan's arty/mega violent new wave (Audition, Ichi the Killer, Battle Royale), is mostly a satirical dissection of herd mentality, always a welcome subject in any time or place. And Elephant is a plotless snapshot of a day in of the life of Anyschool, USA, but it just so happens that this day is a day to end all days. You don't have to guess what happens.
May's plot breaks down like so: May is a frail white ghost of a girl (probably 19) who doesn't have much luck making friends. Botched makeout sessions, jilted lesbian experiments and more lead our fare heroine to do the unthinkable after she accidentally kills her cat (kill a person in a movie, you're deemed violent, possibly insane--kill a kitty, and you are evil or seriously fucked up.) May is seriously fucked up, and in a nice modern twist on the Frankenstein myth, she starts killing her emotional victimizers and makes a patchwork best pal/flesh-and-bone dummy who will simply see her. He/it doesn't see her though, and she's forced to cut out her own eye in an effort to complete the puzzle. This is one of the most shocking scenes I've ever seen in any movie, and given that it's played straight and really quite hard to take, it gives a mostly disposable (but occasionally straight on) teen slasher flick some staying power and thematic resonance.
The kids in Suicide Club are a conundrum of sarcastic flippancy and wiggy conformity. The opening sequence is a mind-boggler with 50-plus teen schoolgirls approaching a subway platform in downtown Tokyo, all holding hands, and counting off before they jump in unison into an oncoming train. Why on earth would they do such a thing? Bet ya it has something to do with Dessart, the new hip girl dance pop group that's currently taking over the world. Are their songs rousing calls to personal indentity and strong willed independence, or is there something else hidden between the audible lines? One scene in Suicide Club gives no easy answer, as a gaggle of students joke and brag about the recent suicides with cocky bravado during a recess like any other. It's so obvious that each is just attempting to impress the other, none really saying what he/she feels or thinks. They're more concerned with saying what's expected, or being witty. They take it a step further, "let's join the suicide club!" one shouts. Others laugh, "yeah right!" they say. But they take hands and step to a nearby ledge, count off and jump anyway. Cut to two kids, in tears, left standing on the ledge. It was just a joke wasn't it? They jump this time though, as if they've betrayed their sarcastic brothers and sisters and have a pledge to honor, or maybe they just did it because their best friends did too. This chilling scene embodies the theme of copy-cat conformity much more realistically than the silly explanation the plot delivers: "But are you connected to yourself?" the same, frail, anonymous child's voice asks the cop assigned to the case.
In Elephant, there is no discernible event or subliminal pop message giving our young antagonists a nudge out the door (though the Acid Mothers Temple are featured on the s/t). In fact, it's questionable whether there's any antagonist at all, aside from general apathy. The events of a seemingly normal day are presented from a variety of perspectives in a highly visual style. Dialogue is kept to a minimum. We see the school hunk, school sluts-in-training fawning over him, an overly dorky girl who refuses to wear shorts in gym class. There's the impossibly cute, conscientious blonde guy, a short fleeting kiss, another kid with a camera who seems like the ultimate likeable artist-to-be. A series of vignettes are shown and revisited from various perspectives, like a teen rendition of Rashomon, each revealing a different version of the puzzle of truth. The beauty comes in realizing that the fleeting throwaway moments in one person's life can be the life-changing turnstiles in another's. Director/writer Gus Van Sant's "villains" are, not surprisingly, probably the most sympathetic characters in the movie (this is the guy that gave us Drugstore Cowboy after all). One of them goes home after school, after wiping a gross clump of wet spit-wads from his jacket, and plays Beethoven on the piano for an audience of himself. It's a poignant, sad scene that hints at the inevitable violence, but more importantly it shows the humanity of this kid, and the beauty that literally lies at his fingertips. But for some reason, he rejects that world, and chooses to treat his highschool like a the final level of the video game Doom. As Van Sant did in his earliest, and greatest films, he points no fingers here, assigns no blame. The culprits are apathy and despondency, the hero is a gauzy view of the blue sky, and that's why Elephant is so hypnotic and frightening at the same time.
All three of these movies have something to say about the lost souls that populate our hallways and break down sobbing in dimly lit corners. May's desire to be seen destroys her, by her own hand no less. In the more outrageous Suicide Club (which features a transvestite glitter glam rocker/Charles Manson wannabe as one of its antagonists), there's more than a hint of cultural satire driving its message of personal independence, but it's Elephant's vagueness and open-ended nonresolution that hits harder, deeper and truly leaves us at a loss. Like the characters that populate it, it is confused and alienated, lost in the clouds of what could be, failing to miss what's standing right there in the middle of the room all along.