Sunday, October 2, 2016

Joe Dante, part III: The music that expresses the culture, the refinement, and the polite grace of the present day


Gabba gabba hey.

Directed by Allan Arkush and Joe Dante
Written by Richard Whitley, Russ Dvonch, Joseph McBride, Allan Arkush, and Joe Dante
With P.J. Soles (Riff Randall), Dey Young (Kate Rambeau), Vince Van Patten (Tom Roberts), Clint Howard (Eaglebauer), Paul Bartel (Mr. McGree), The Ramones (The Ramones), Lynn Farrell (Angel Dust), Dick Miller (The Police Chief), Loren Lester (Fritz Hansel), Daniel Davies (Fritz Gretel), and Mary Woronov (Prinicipal Evelyn Togar)

Spoiler alert: mild

There just aren't many movies that pull off the trick of feeling like the most nakedly-transparent pandering possible, while (completely simultaneously!) still feeling like they came from a place of honest, even passionate affection on the part of their makers—but Rock 'n' Roll High School is one of them.  Better still, it manages the trick pretty much effortlessly—mostly by never attempting to hide the patently-exploitative artificiality of its construction, from its ramshackle narrative, to its aggressively old cast, to its absolutely rampant reductionism.  Every so often, it even punches right through its own silliness by being recognizably sweet—if not exactly insightful—in its fond examination of how sometimes kids wind up getting through adolescence by anchoring their identities to certain brands of disreputable music, as a form of hopeful rebellion against a world they never made.

Well, High School's schizophrenic constitution turns out to be readily explicable, for it had begun quite cynically enough—hardly surprising, given that it also began with Roger Corman.  His bright idea was to update the mid-century fad for making movies about teen hellions who listened to the devil's music for the new, contemporary era.  However, in case you've forgotten, the new, contemporary era of 1979 was an era where there were already millions of grown-ass adults walking around—with jobs and mortgages and everything—whose Goddamned older siblings had been conceived against the backdrop of rock-and-roll beats.  But, then again, as long as there have been teenagers, they've always thought that their sound was the most special one of all; and a surprisingly large number of adults have been willing to indulge this belief, by giving in totally to the natural human inclination to hate anything invented after one's own 30th birthday.

And yet, given this very late date, you'd think that Corman obviously must have always been contemplating punk, the only form of rock-and-roll left that still possessed the power to offend.  Well, believe it or not, you'd be wrong.  Corman, the showman, wanted a high-profile act to headline his musical endeavor—initially, his heart had set upon Cheap Trick, freshly returned from shaking Budokan.  In old man Corman's defense, it surely would've boosted High School's middling box office.  Fortunately, the more popular bands' indifference turned out to favor his movie's viability in the longer term.  Presently compelled to reach into the subculture, in the end Corman would make a movie that got the tiniest bit ahead of the sensibilities of his audience—and he did this, even though we can be positively certain he never wanted to.

Not that Corman had too much more to do with what High School would ultimately become, anyway, for he had given the project to one of New World Pictures' contract directors, namely Allan Arkush—whom we shall easily remember as Joe Dante's partner-in-sex-crime from his debut feature, Hollywood Boulevard.  To his credit, Arkush had never wavered in his first choice of stars.  These, of course, were the Ramones—a crew of gangly New York punks who also weren't even close to as universally popular in 1979 as their latterday status as rock gods, or as this film's own Ramones-worshipping fantasy, would tend to suggest.

In fact, in a turn that probably made Corman spit, High School raised the band's profile a whole lot more than they ever raised the film's.

But nonetheless, when Corman stopped caring, Arkush got his fondest wish: to make pretty precisely the movie he wanted to make, around the subjects he'd chosen.

...Except with one important caveat: he didn't get to make all of it.  Around the same time that production began, Arkush also fell incredibly ill.  ("Exhaustion," I believe, is typically a euphemism for "drug addiction," but I don't wish to start rumors.)  Corman kindly arranged for Arkush's old collaborator from Boulevard to share his duties.  And that's how High School bears Dante's imprimatur, if not his co-directing credit.  Fortunately—and as High School attests—Dante was at last starting to become good at being Dante.

So: welcome to Vince Lombardi High, where we find the usual assortment of teen comedy stereotypes in what I have to imagine is something very close to their most nascent and archetypal form, out-flattening and out-broadening American Graffiti and Happy Days and Carrie and everything else you can think of, when it comes to its own spectacularly-peculiar collection of high school icons.  There's Tom, the explicitly boring all-American quarterback (Dick Van Patten, digging deeply into Tom's essential blandness).  And there's Eaglebauer, the fixer who operates all manner of essential services from his office in Vince Lombardi's carcinogenic boy's room (Clint Howard, already deeply balding).  And there's Kate, the egregiously-faux female "nerd" who has a crush on Tom (Dey Young, the only top-billed actor who even appears young enough to be in college, and whose mortification-by-spectacles comes perilously close to making Rachel Leigh Cook look like a believable ugly duckling).

Above all, there's our heroine, Riff—and she really likes those Ramones.  Especially Joey.  Her goal in life is to get to the Ramones' show, where she can give the boys the songs she's written for them—notably, "Rock 'n' Roll High School," a Ramones song written for this film.  (Which was rewritten, during production, in order to be remotely singable for Riff's otherwise-able performer, P.J. Soles.)

But Riff's gallant punk heart will shortly be put to the test by the new principal of this failing edifice of American education, Evelyn Togar (Mary Woronov, managing the difficult prospect of pretending to be significantly older than her "students" with aplomb).  Riff makes an enemy out of Togar, and Togar proves to be a fearsome opponent, especially once she confiscates Riff and Kate's Ramones tickets, sending the duo scrambling to try to make the show anyway, with Togar and her gruesome little horntoad lackeys hot on the two young ladies' heels.

It is not much of a plot, even for a 93 minute film—though it's filled out a little bit with Kate and Tom's cute pseudo-romance.  It's filled out a whole lot more, of course, by a half-album's worth of Ramones songs, which dovetail perfectly with the abiding attitude that buffs up all the rest of it: the insane, anything-goes nonsense brought to the proceedings by Arkush and Dante.  Now, it's sad but true: comedy in the 70s could be a low, low thing.  Its shrill idiom had swallowed up bigger directors than them.  It had taken big bites out of both of these men before, too.

And thus I am beyond pleased to report that High School blazes easily past high-pitched, unpleasant farce and straight into the promised land.  One of the scenes that Dante directed himself, while Arkush was at death's door, more-or-less sums up the film's ZAZ-style approach to its own unreality: it's a long, weird gag, involving a message delivered by a most magical paper airplane, that dashes through classrooms and corridors and lockers for what seems like minutes—and when it does finally arrive, the real punchline is that its sender has gotten there before it.  The film excels at this exact sort of humor, taking the mundane oddments of high school life and heightening them until they're indistinguishable from a Warner Bros. cartoon.  And the cartooniness of it is where Dante's influence is most keenly felt—for sheer cartoon anarchy would never be too far from the screen, throughout his whole directorial career.

The point is, it's a funny film, replete with excellent gags—the best running joke, out of several, is just outstandingly stupid, involving the effect of Ramones music on laboratory mice.  But maybe it suffices to say that High School is the movie where Arkush and Dante first figured out how to make a Corman-approved rape joke actually work.  (Step one: bury it in enough goofy, lunging slapstick that nobody's likely to take it seriously.  Step two: don't linger on it like a fucking deviant.)  But then, High School is remarkably chaste by Corman's usual standards.

The casting meets us the rest of the way here, since part of the charm of our twenteens is that it doesn't seem overwhelmingly creepy for the camera to leer at their ice-cube-stiffened nipples underneath their gym clothes, whilst they do calisthenics and/or dance to punk songs.

Oh, and speaking of that camera—the quick-eyed will notice a very special name in High School's credits.  Yes, it's that Dean Cundey, taking a vacation from Carpenter's Halloween before returning for The Fog.  Clearly, neither the directors' vision nor Corman's budget gives the great cinematographer anything really special to work with; and yet there's noticeable artistry all over the damned place—Cundey's customarily expressive command of the focal plane, especially, but not to forget some splendidly weird lens choices, intended to make Joey Ramone appear even more bizarre than he already did.  It's good-looking while only occasionally appearing to look like a "real," proper motion picture that anybody spent actual money or effort on; and, frankly, that suits its punk pretensions perfectly.

Well, if all that direction is doing its part, then so's the acting: High School boasts energetic, funny performances from front to back.  Everyone I've so far named is superb more in their enthusiasm than their talent, but enthusiasm is everything in a movie like this one.  Meanwhile, Paul Bartel makes his penultimate appearance in a Dante joint, this time as Vince Lombardi's stuffy music teacher, who shall change his heart and declare the Ramones "the Beethovens of our time."  Of course, Dick Miller—his presence in Dante's films now made a permanent tradition—mutters sullenly to the camera, "They're ugly, ugly, ugly people."

I suppose it's all in the timing and the read, but it's just one fantastic line.

And that gets us to the heart of the matter: the Ramones.  First, the obvious.  If you don't like the Ramones' music, then you'll have no use at all for their movie.  I love the Ramones; and so, for me, the Ramones' (indulgent, somewhat runtime-padding) musical numbers are amongst the film's most vibrant parts, even when they advance no plot and reveal no character.  Then again, when they actually do, we get the picture's very strongest moment: the lovely reverie where Riff smokes pot and daydreams about her dear Ramones serenading her, in their own inimitable style—and it's bits and pieces like this where High School is more than just a comedy, where it demonstrates a real heart, and even gets within striking distance of having the slightest meaningful thing to say about teenagers, high school, or growing up, essentially by confirming that even our most outlandish fantasies do have meaning, because they're what make us who and what we are.

But that doesn't quite get at the Ramones themselves.  More than anything else, they're tremendous screen presences, in part because they indeed are so completely the opposite of anything you'd usually call "photogenic"—there's a hallucinatory quality to these boys even when they're not supposed to be dreams.  The participation of the real-life Ramones is the thing that makes the most lasting impression—and not just because they justify the small but devoted cult that's grown up around the picture.  There simply aren't many bands, not even many punk bands, that have this much instantly-recognizable personality; without wishing to derogate their accomplishments as musicians for a second, they're also such ideal visual objects, like living Mad Magazine parodies of dumbassed rock stars.

And, since this was to a huge degree intentional on their part, maybe it shouldn't come as a surprise that their performances are not just perfect, but also so generously self-deprecating—playing up the idea of these "brothers" as borderline-autistic savants, locked into permanent juvenilia and subsisting off stacks of pizza when they're not out rocking.  (Except for Joey, of course, whose own emaciated image is rather savagely mocked, when his manager won't let him have any pizza—grotesquely shoving whole handfuls of wheat germ down his throat instead.)

It's probably an even better showcase for this band than the benchmark of its genre was for its—and if the Ramones grant High School the same basic kind of rock star energy that the Beatles did in A Hard Day's Night, well, the Ramones are still doing it with more intensity.

Of course, Night didn't have such an unforgettable ending—its climax was "will the Beatles show up on time to play a show," which was never the most compelling question in the world.  This film, however, finally lives up to its punkest ambitions—after 80 minutes of entertaining but mostly-hollow posturing—and it gets there by engaging in straight-up terrorism, doubling as the most completely-unfiltered teenage wish-fulfillment you'll ever get to see.  It's genial and nervy, all at once, just like the whole film is exploitative and sincere all at once.  There were never many movies that would even try to get away with what this one does—hell, it would be totally unthinkable today.  But Arkush and Dante go for the gusto in Rock 'n' Roll High School, and they never stop till they get it.

Score:  9/10

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