Prom or hell?

By Audrey Ann Bennett

In which Our Auds continues our discussion of movies, teenage years, and, of course, Heathers.

I’m a “late boomer,” born in 1960.  I went to high school in a misty, water-colored place where the US military was losing a war and the National Guard was murdering college students.  Children learned what to do when—not if—the Russians dropped the atom bomb.  Terrorists killed Olympic athletes.  A disgraced President resigned.  We waited in line for gas.  The cost of living skyrocketed and we learned the word “inflation.”  The “early boomers” experienced childhoods of optimism and growth, teen years of free love, LSD, and Woodstock.  Us?  We got the made-for-TV-movies about the inevitable fallout.  We got the fake diary of the fake Alice.

If high school and real life sucked, the movies were worse.  Sure, we feasted on cinematic excellence, but that excellence came with sides of pure malevolence.  We saw oral torture by a Nazi dentist (Marathon Man).  We watched a lonely man, obsessed with pornography, as he tried to “save” a young prostitute (Taxi Driver).  We tried staying awake during the bank robbery that would never end (Dog Day Afternoon), and we learned we could try to go where the sun keeps shining, but one of us would die on the bus to Florida (Midnight Cowboy).  We found out that radical agitators (Barbra Streisand) couldn’t live with conventional writers (Robert Redford).  We shrugged.  Might as well OD on LSD now and skip the disillusionment life had in store for us.

And then the tide turned.  Television news reported that lines for the new movie Star Wars extended far beyond the block and into entirely new territory.  People couldn’t get enough of The Force.  With The Force, we could win.  Not with strength, not with well-equipped soldiers under the command of George C. Scott or manufacturing might or economic superiority, all of which we’d apparently yielded to Germany and Japan, but with concentration.  Using The Force, kids from tiny desert towns in beat up vehicles could win.  We.  As in the rest of us.

But only in the movies, right?  Wrong.  In 1980, the United States sent a bunch of frat boys on hockey skates to face vodka swilling Russian veterans.  Boys who had dived beneath their desks, quivering with fear as the emergency sirens sounded.  Boys who had watched Russia snatch gold from the US in the most controversial three seconds of basketball ever.  Boys who had only one motive:  Beat the Soviets.  They believed in miracles.  They won.  And then they sang “God Bless America.”  A new hope indeed.

After Star Wars and the Miracle on Ice, the future, once so dark and mysterious and deadly, transformed into a bright and welcoming place.  Austerity was out.  Outrageous was in:  shoulder pads, neon colors, and a thriving economy.  Bill Cosby, in his cozy sweater, smiled and used rational discussion to resolve family problems.  Teenagers starred in movies about people like us, and heroes emerged not from the crucible of martyrdom (Serpico) but from gentle fantasy (The Princess Bride) and goofy humor (Ghostbusters).  To paraphrase one Obi Wan Kenobi, it was as if millions of voices suddenly cried out with relief.  The long, dark decade was over.  Bright and sunny was in.

You know someone’s gonna knock over that sandcastle.

The Eighties also brought us a suicide epidemic:  Teen suicides increased 40% from 1970 to 1980.  Never mind that the rate of teen suicide began dropping in the Eighties.  The news said teen suicide was increasing, and that’s what freaked parents out.

There went shiny and happy.  There went John Hughes, and his infinite capacity for making the same movie about the interesting, multi-dimensional poor kid and the rich kid who may or may not be interesting and multi-dimensional.  No more “…learning about Cuba, and having some food.”  Gone were the fantasies of taking down the Death Star just as easily as one might “bulls-eye womp rats back home.”  Whatever they were.

It looked like we were headed back to doom and gloom.  But then doom and gloom fought back…with darker doom and grander gloom.

J.D. and Veronica came to life at the hand of writer Daniel Waters in the movie Heathers.  Waters skewered parental fears of suicide by exploring the darkest sides of daily dilemmas.  We’ve all felt the pain of being an outsider.  We’ve all sat in a grungy lunchroom, watching the cool clique, contemplating two desires:  “I’d like to join them.  I’d like to murder them.”  We’ve all thought of a best friend as a worst enemy.  We’ve all wondered, funny or tragic?  We’ve all wanted to make our high school a nicer place.  But we didn’t do anything.  No one ever does.  Waters showed us what might happen if we acted out our worst musings, and no matter how many times you’ve watched, you’re still not sure when to laugh and when to cry.

Heathers, the movie, served as a “reset” button on the Eighties.  The Nineties brought us improved production values, prettier actresses and actors, bright white tennis shoes.   Veronica Sawyer and Lloyd Dobler were out.  Straightforward was in.  Ambiguity was out.  Clueless was in.

Maybe the movies of the Seventies had it right after all.  Maybe the world is a giant black hole of hopelessness and despair.  And maybe The Force of Obi-Wan Kenobi is a made-up story like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.  Maybe it depends on how old you are when you see them, or how much you know about current events.  But whatever constitutes the truth is the same thing that makes Heathers a timeless movie.  Because making high school a nicer place, that’s a made-up story.



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