Celluloid High

Several CN&R staffers pick their favorite ‘school films’ of all-time

Photo 2 caption

Photo 2 caption

Summer heat waves seem to be waning in length, the streets are crowded with zooming cars, and lunchtime lines are forming inside downtown eateries, all of which can mean only one thing: the students are back in full force.

In honor of our annual Back to School issue, members of the CN&R editorial staff picked some of their favorite “school” movies of all-time. Many of the picks are time-proven classics, but in an age when Hollywood has no qualms flooding the nation’s theaters with horribly written tripe like The New Guy or National Lampoon’s Van Wilder (both recently in video stores), or even creating a whole new genre of teen parody borne of vapid MTV programming, we figured it couldn’t hurt to pay homage to some of the more respectable “coming of age” fare.

Blackboard Jungle

MGM. 1955.
What most recommends this mid-'50s thugs-overrun-school flick is Bill Haley and the Comets performing “Rock Around the Clock” over the title credits. (The historical importance of this fact should not be underestimated, rock-'n'-roll-wise: No less than Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones and Pete Townshend of The Who have each cited this film’s soundtrack as a musical turning point for them.) Regardless, it is a high-school film classic that, for its day, realistically depicted the problems of inner-city violence and bigotry (it was actually forcibly withdrawn from the 1955 Venice Film Festival for “misrepresenting American schools” or some such).

Nice guy Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford) goes to the big city for the purpose of improving the minds of a bunch of ‘50s gangsta boys in a remarkably devoid-of-female-students high school. Typically, his good intentions are frequently scuttled by the shenanigans of all the young punks. The late Vic Morrow does his best Marlon Brando impression as semi-psychotic gang leader Arnie, while a young Sidney Poitier meticulously plays the teacher-baiting-wiseguy-who-changes-his-delinquent-ways character (who also just happens to sing Negro spirituals with his homies after school—OK, so the film is not entirely free of stereotypes). And a probably-in-her-mid-20s-but-looks-like-17 Anne Francis is great as Dadier’s young bride and eventual damsel-in-distress.

Photo 3 caption

Sure, a lot of this is corn, but it’s impressive just how many still relevant social issues the flick manages to touch on.

To Sir, with Love

Columbia. 1966.
Sidney Poitier as Mark Thackeray is everything you’d want your high-school teacher to be in this film about British teens coming of age in the “bad kids” class of the mid-1960s.

They taunt him, they tease him, a lonely student wants to get in his pants. Poitier plays it all off with grace and aplomb. After realizing that traditional teaching methods won’t suit this surly bunch, he tosses the textbook and guides the class of throwaways into the more realistic pursuits: street smarts over book smarts. But somewhere along the way, they get interested in museums and compassion, and the class collectively undergoes an all-around transformation.

And every so often, Lulu lets loose with the movie’s eponymous hit.

The main thing I think To Sir With Love does today is point out that, while the angst of previous generations may seem insignificant compared to the troubles of today (James Dean becomes a rebel without a cause because his Thurston Howell daddy wears an apron—what’s up with that?), it’s really all one and the same. You hurt, I hurt, they hurt, life sucks; it doesn’t matter if it’s 1966 or 2006.

CHECK YA LATER Matthew McConaughey (right) and Rory Cochrane portray two of the many characters that populate <i>Dazed and Confused, </i>Richard Linklater’s ode to the last day of high school, 1976.

An addendum: Be sure to ignore the weak made-for-TV sequel of 1996.

The Breakfast Club.

A&M/Universal. 1985.
Admit it: you were one of the characters in the The Breakfast Club.

You didn’t just identify with the nerd, the jock, the stoner, the preppie, or the freak. You actually were one of those characters, and that’s what makes this movie such a classic.

Me, I was a bit of a blend. Maybe one-half freak (I did, after all, go through a listen-to-the-Smiths-and-wear-all-black phase in high school), but I must admit that I was peppered with equal amounts of preppie (oh, how I loved the Esprit outlet!) too. What a mix.

CHECK YA LATER Matthew McConaughey (right) and Rory Cochrane portray two of the many characters that populate <i>Dazed and Confused, </i>Richard Linklater’s ode to the last day of high school, 1976.

But I love this movie because it felt somehow … true. Stuck in all-day Saturday detention with a motley band of misfits from every rung on the high-school social ladder, the detainees find out that they’re more alike than they are different. A syrupy lesson, to be sure, but the deft way it’s handled here is fantastic.

Some of my favorite scenes: lunchtime, as the characters set out their meals, each one reflecting its owner (popular Molly Ringwald gets the fancy sushi, nerdy Anthony Michael Hall gets a super balanced lunch of soup in a Thermos, milk and a sandwich, jock Emilio Estevez carbo-loads, neglected stoner kid Judd Nelson gets nothing, and weirdo Ally Sheedy tosses her lunch meat and pours cereal and Pixie Stix sugar onto her sandwich); watching nerdy Hall (who plays Brian Johnson) get so stoned that he falls over backwards on his chair; the characters bonding over stories of their common teenage alienation and parental neglect; and Nelson’s deadpan delivery of the famous (at least in my generation) line “Does Barry Manilow know you raid his wardrobe?”

If the test of a classic movie is its ability to universalize its themes, then The Breakfast Club gets an A+.

Dazed and Confused

Alphaville/Detour Film Productions. 1993.
No matter what clique you counted yourself in during high school, chances are when Friday afternoon rolled around and the last bell rang, you were ready to get the hell out of there.

Its success at capturing the dichotomy of drudgery and promise many feel during their teen years is why I consider Texan director Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused one of the best films about high school, deserving to rank alongside American Graffiti, The Last Picture Show and Fast Times at Ridgemont High as part of a youth film pantheon that reflects American culture so well, it actually becomes part of it.

With an anthropologist’s eye for social detail and a connoisseur’s appreciation of ‘70s pop culture, from music to muscle cars, Linklater follows interlinked groups of suburban teens throughout the last day of school in 1976—a blitzkrieg of hazing freshmen, smoking grass, chugging beer and looking for parties. That’s your plot.

And like Ridgemont High, Dazed and Confused features an uncannily loaded cast of fresh-face actors in debut roles—with many going on to achieve greater fame, including Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Milla Jovovich and Matthew McConaughey, who delivered a pitch-perfect performance as older townie David “I love them redheads” Wooderson, stuck in the party days of his high-school past.

One of Linklater’s underlying themes is reiterated from his earlier, more seminal work, Slackers—namely, disassociation with an American culture built on image and instant gratification; a consumer culture that diverts attention from the here and now, always promising something that is never delivered.

His main characters lament the decade and their high school years as boring—looking forward to a youthful freedom they cannot see they have already. Others, like Cynthia and her nerdy friends, yearn for something else. As she says, “I’d like to quit thinking of the present, like right now, as some minor, insignificant preamble to something else.”

Perhaps the final irony is that the movie inspired not only hordes of cultish fans but also a successful, though hackneyed, television sitcom, That ‘70s Show, a co-optation of pop culture that perfectly illustrates Linklater’s point.

The Paper Chase

20th Century Fox. 1973.
The first time I walked into a lecture hall in college, my mind flashed to The Paper Chase. It’s a movie that, in these times when it seems like everyone and his brother is going to law school, invokes the tension of hard-core studying and classroom competition such as was faced by first-year students at Harvard Law School. After facing—on-screen—the looming form of John Houseman as unforgiving Professor Kingsfield, my college classes were cake.

Timothy Bottoms’ (my first crush, by the way) character James Hart performs exceedingly well at Harvard, especially compared to his study mate, who prefers suicide over having his family find out he’s flunking out. The Paper Chase is like the flip side of the ditzy Reese Witherspoon vehicle Legally Blonde.

The most memorable scene, which loses a lot of its punch in this age of computers, is of Hart and his girlfriend—who turns out to be Kingsfield’s daughter—chasing down sheets of paper from his wayward assignment. But the floating papers turn out to be a metaphor: A diploma, no matter how hard-won, is not the key to happiness. The message holds true, and I suspect this movie lent as much intrigue to the study of law as All the President’s Men did to the practice of journalism.