Viking Night: Heathers
By Bruce Hall
January 11, 2010
There are many reasons that certain films achieve what we call "cult" status, but one of them is that they tend to deliver their message in subversive or controversial ways that don't appeal to everyone. While it's true that most people do not like to work for their entertainment, is it possible that even the most unusual films can have something to offer everyone? When I was in college, a group of friends and I would meet regularly to ponder this very question. Beginning with Erik the Viking, we gathered once a week to watch and discuss a different cult classic, but we decided to keep the Viking theme. Now, I'll be working without a turkey leg or a goblet of mead, but with each installment of Viking Night I still seek to examine the same question: Can a film with such limited appeal still speak to us all?
High school wasn't the easiest time for me, mainly because I disliked the clique mentality that defines those years. But much of the social interaction we have during adolescence is about dividing ourselves into tribes, and if you prefer to judge people on merit instead, you're going to have a hard time fitting in anywhere, let alone in high school. Some would argue that adults aren't much different, and in many ways they're not. But if adults treated each other with the same consistent level of cruelty that their children do, there would be no need for nations to go to war - nations would never form. The young are indeed almost uniformly naïve, making it the duty of every adult to set an example of civility. Because while no child can yet understand what it is to be an adult, every adult has already been a child - which should give them a reference point when it comes to relating to adolescents. But sadly, most grown ups quickly forget what it was like to grow up, self sabotaging their interaction with the younger generation. This is the essence of the prototypical teen movie - the crucible of anxiety in which we mature juxtaposed against chronically insensitive adults who've forgotten what it all means. And without a doubt, some of the best known examples of this are the handful of well loved high school comedies written by the late John Hughes. Films such as Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink have become genre synonymous, and are still widely used as benchmarks today.
Peppered with outsized teen protagonists, oblivious parents and witless authority figures, Hughes' work collects a lot of mileage from the very real disconnect that often exists between generations. But more often than not, it's mined for comic irony, sometimes so much that the ultimate dramatic climax feels forced. Hughes also had an undeniable flair for capturing at least the casual nuance of middle class teens. But his movies often struggled to illustrate their true depth, frequently weighed down by simplistic metaphorical contrivances. Almost every character was an archetype whose supposedly earth shattering problems were painfully incidental - and the solutions were usually painted with an implausibly broad brush. The idea that the presence of adults and the existence of rules are the only things keeping teenagers from understanding themselves is a bit of a stretch. And I don't know where you grew up, but if a group of obvious caricatures like the Breakfast Club had been forced to spend eight hours together at my school, I promise the results would have been infinitely less cathartic. But Hughes' gift for conveying simple truths through gentle farce was always well intentioned and it endeared him to millions. It was rarely meant to be taken literally, and I think the majority of the people I went to school with rarely did. But his success spawned legions of imitators; many of whom did cinema more harm than good. There was bound to be backlash, and leading the charge was a shameless little film called Heathers.