not in our stars, but in ourselves
37/52: A movie about high school
Philosophical question: was high school really such a dark, terrible time? Is one of Heathers‘s characters’ mother correct to imply that adulthood, too, is just as savage and cruel, that it never gets any better? Uh, DUH. I don’t mean to imply that this is true of everyone; the misfits and outcasts in high school, I think, tend to fare better in adulthood. But this country – if not this planet – is controlled by the kinds of people who peaked in high school, and who see the rest of their lives as an interminable extension thereof. Whether the rest of us like it or not, they run this show.
Westerburg High School, located in an affluent Ohio suburb, is run by the Heathers: Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty), and Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk). They recently admitted brainy Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) into their clique, but there’s a clear pecking order: first Chandler, then Duke, then McNamara, then Veronica. Veronica, for her part, is fed up. The film opens with a croquet match in Veronica’s back yard. The Heathers, each having selected a ball to match her outfit (red for Chandler, green for Duke, yellow for McNamara), take turns trying to hit Veronica, who’s buried up to her neck. Nice girls. The Heathers use Veronica’s gift for handwriting forgery to play cruel pranks, such as a “love letter” to Martha Dumptruck (Carrie Lynn) from football player/idiot Kurt Kelly (Lance Fenton). When Martha brings the letter to Kurt, he laughs it up with his equally idiotic and mean-spirited teammate, Ram Sweeney (Patrick Labyorteaux) – and the Heathers laugh hysterically from afar. Veronica does not join them. She makes eyes at Jason “J.D.” Dean (Christian Slater), who pulls a gun on Kurt and Ram when they try to insult him. Nice guy. After Chandler takes Veronica to a college party, where Veronica refuses to have sex with a disgusting (40-year-old-looking) frat boy and then vomits up whatever roofie she’d been given, Veronica burns for revenge. J.D. is all too willing to help, making murders look like suicides – of Chandler, of Kurt and Ram, and of anyone else he deems unworthy of life. Veronica realizes that, however horrible Heather Chandler and the jocks were, J.D. is an unstoppable force. She tells him he’s not a rebel, but a psychopath. Tomato, tomahto, he replies. After a fiery denouement, Veronica establishes order once again (“there’s a new sheriff in town,” she tells Duke) – but it’s one hell of a process to get there.
It’s funny. Last night, I was talking to a friend, and I referred to someone as “basic,” and he said he wasn’t quite sure what that meant. (He did, I think, but he was encouraging my drunken discourse, because it tends to be funny.) Now, I’m sure you internet-savvy readers know what it means, basically (ahahaha, get it??), but I expanded on the definition a bit – and I think it applies to the Heathers: to be basic is to accept and celebrate the status quo, to reject change, to avoid critical thought at all costs, to accept without question the lies that advertisements and politicians spew, to consider keeping up to date with whatever is trending on Buzzfeed the same thing as being informed, to think of themselves as A Good Person even if they regularly sneer at the less fortunate and avoid making charitable donations at all costs. If they believed in anything, they’d believe deeply in poshlost – but they don’t believe in anything, so poshlost is simply a guiding force rather than a source of meaning. The Heathers celebrate basicness, and enforce it ruthlessly. To be unattractive, unadorned in designer clothes, unwilling to let men use their bodies however the man wants, is to commit an unpardonable sin. It’s never made clear why they invite Veronica into their clique, but it’s probably because she’s sharp and pretty. (And she is really, really pretty. Ryder is, and always has been, beautiful enough to be counted among the pantheon of Great Screen Brunettes, right along with Elizabeth Taylor and Ava Gardner.)
The Heathers are as sadistic as they are basic, of course, but it seems that everyone at Westerburg High School shares that former trait – or, if they’re not sadistic, they’re forever bullied and tortured. J.D., for example, is a trenchcoat-wearing, gun-toting, bomb-planting maniac. It’s strange to watch a pre-Columbine movie so long after Columbine; while there have been too many school massacres since then, Columbine still has the dubious distinction of being the most shocking, the most horrifying. It’s facile to compare two real people to a fictional character in a black comedy – but J.D. operates on the premise that he’s eliminating bullies, that he’s acting as a sort of vigilante, when in fact he’s just found an excuse to act on his rage and psychopathy. I’m no psychologist, but I imagine you’d find similar traits in most mass murderers.
While Heathers is definitely dark, it’s still a dark comedy – and yes, it is funny. It plays like some sort of absurd dream about high school, with lots of neon light and bizarre fashion, so it’s easy to settle in and mostly just laugh at the jokes while you watch. There’s more to it than that, however. Screenwriter Daniel Waters initially wanted Stanley Kubrick to direct; while Kubrick probably would have swollen the story beyond what it could comfortably sustain, his mordant, morbid style of humor is in every scene: the kind that makes you snicker, and then realize how fucked up you are for laughing. Lick it up, baby.
Heathers is a satire, but it’s not inaccurate. High school is a microcosm of the adult world for plenty of people, just with more hormones and fewer responsibilities. People like Veronica, Martha, the nerds, the geeks – they all realize that it’s four years, after which there are many more, during which real life can finally happen. But for the popular girls, the jocks, the people who peaked – morally, emotionally, physically, intellectually – between the ages of 14 and 18, high school is real life. The rigid caste system lasts forever, even if they hate themselves as much as they hate everyone else. The caste system is the rules. Those who try to deviate from the norm are, like, deviants. I’d feel sorry for those people, since they’re missing all the real fun…but people like the Heathers and the Kurts and Rams and J.D.s of the world don’t deserve pity. Detention will suffice.