Letter from the Editor

Consider for a moment the impossible loneliness of being fifteen years old. The way so little makes sense. The big wide open world and your small little self, trying to make sense of a hundred different things. The way your mind, your moods, scatter about—high, low, and everywhere in between—within the space of even a single day. Consider how much you don’t know about things, but how much you think you do, and how frustrated this makes you. The way childhood evaporates, slowly then oh-so-quickly, while adulthood remains some far distant horizon. How you feel perpetually stuck in between, expected to keep moving forward despite shoddy directions and fallible guides.

Remember how you were once so young and full of something like promise. Think about how hard you tried to seem older, to make it all make sense. How you didn’t understand kissing, or how your body worked, or what it meant to feel like you loved somebody so much that you almost couldn’t stand the weight of it. Think about how you stood in front of the mirror and nearly cried some days, hating the reflection but feeling powerless to change it. How nobody understood what it felt like to be you, to be a teenager, anchored and unmoored and ever-changing. How you promised you would never forget the way this felt, mpt ever, even when you got old and married and had kids of your own. But how of course you did, because it’s impossible to hold onto an urgency like that once you’ve seen enough of life and your hormones have settled down a bit.

Think about how much you loved your parents, but felt the urge to push away from them. That aching need to somehow define yourself in the world. How they were all you knew, but how that limited you in some indescribable way—how their protection came to feel like a confinement, something you needed and hated in the very same breath. Think of all the secrets you started to squirrel away like treasures; all the things they didn’t know. The sneaking out and the trying cigarettes and the friends whose parents left town for entire weekends. The wide open feeling of a brand new night, the hope of something happening, and the way it so rarely did. The freedom and the boredom of it all. The way music felt as you started to really connect with it, and all the books and movies that started to matter so much more. How important everything felt some days, everything, all of it.

Do you remember what it feels like to grow up?

Because this month, we’re here to remind you. We’re diving headfirst back into that teenage world, looking at how movies have tried to capture adolescence on screen over the past few decades. Our essays this month attempt to navigate and explore familiar teenage milieus—high school (Pretty in Pink, Charlie Bartlett, Elephant), the suburbs (Superbad), social cliques (Heathers), self-acceptance (My Mad Fat Diary), summer vacations (Stealing Beauty), and menial jobs (Empire Records)—while offering new perspectives on old tropes. It’s incredibly difficult to write about teenage life, or "coming-of-age" films, without falling into a whole host of terrible cliches and traps, but our writers this month were more than up to the challenge. The resulting issue, we hope, captures a felt sense of adolescence, in all its confusing, awkward glory.

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But first, a couple of housekeeping notes. We’ve started up a free biweekly newsletter, helmed by Elizabeth Cantwell, our managing editor extraordinaire. The newsletter is a way for us to try and connect a bit more with you during the month-long gap between new issues and to let you know what the editorial staff is watching and reading and thinking about—as well as to keep you in the loop about all things BW/DR (news, podcasts, film recommendations, calls for new submissions, upcoming issues). If this sounds like something you want in your inbox every two weeks, you can sign up for free here.

We’re also currently attempting to raise some money to cover our operating costs, via Patreon. Most of us who work to put this magazine together each and every month do so for very little, if any, money. Bright Wall/Dark Room has always been a labor of love, but as we continue growing—while remaining independent and committed to an ad-free reader experience—we need to figure out a way to make what we do here a bit more sustainable for all the writers, editors, and artists who give large swaths of their time to us each month for free. So, check out our Patreon page, and please consider donating even just a couple of dollars a month if you can—every single dollar really and truly helps us keep this whole thing going. We’re also working on some cool donor rewards (gift subscriptions, original artwork, special issues) to make it even more worth your while, because we really want to be doing this whole magazine thing for many years to come.

And finally, this month we’re excited to welcome a brand new Senior Editor into the fold. Kelsey Ford, long-time contributor and all-around wonderful person, is dipping her toes into the water, and we hope she settles in for a long time to come. Kelsey made her first appearance on our podcast last week, edited a couple of pieces in this issue, and already feels like part of the gang.

So, let’s get our teenage angst on. Here we are now, entertain us.


—Chad Perman, Editor-in-Chief


Living In The Sprawl: Coming-of-Age in the Suburban Void

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Bill Hader and co-scriptwriter Seth Rogen appear in the high school comic odyssey Superbad as a pair of aloof, fun-lovin’ cops who take chronic third-wheeler Fogell (alias: McLovin, played indelibly by Christopher Mintz-Plasse) out for the night of his life in a freewheeling B-plot. Look closely at their costuming and you’ll see that the patches stitched onto their uniforms read “CLARK COUNTY POLICE DEPARTMENT,” in reference to the sprawling Nevada county that contains the greater Las Vegas area. This easily-missed detail constitutes the lone means of determining where, exactly, Superbad is supposed to take place. Fogell and soft-spoken niceguy Evan (Michael Cera, attaining some lofty Platonic ideal of Michael Ceraness) plan on shipping off to start their freshman year at Dartmouth College in the fall, and a cokehead at a party mentions that his brother came in all the way from Scottsdale, Arizona. But apart from those fleeting, inconsequential markers, Superbad is a film that exists outside of place, unstuck in America, nowhere and everywhere.

Though audiences walking out of Superbad may have difficulty pointing out where it takes place on a map, all viewers recognize the setting immediately as The Suburbs, the faceless expanse of middle-class flatland that encircles every major metro area and stretches across the landlocked states for uninterrupted miles. Small-time consumerism defines the face of the town, and the time not spent huddled around glowing TV sets in cool basements or in bedrooms full of stale air is instead squandered at convenience stores or malls. It’s like a Norman Rockwell painting, but without the delusions of genteel small-town values; kids loiter outside the liquor mart, needling strangers to buy them beers, while seniors play hooky during fourth period.

The thematic, capital-S Suburbs also exist as a distinctly teenage milieu, inviting the sort of adolescent perspectives that only Evan and his inseparable best friend Seth (multiple Academy Award nominee Jonah Hill) can offer. We all know the darkly existential suburbs that provoke crises of identity in married couples like Lester and Carolyn Burnham (American Beauty) or Frank and April Wheeler (Revolutionary Road), but the ennui of Superbad’s suburbs signifies mere dullness, not hollowness. After all, for Seth and Evan, life has yet to start. The faceless setting of the film acts as a holding zone, a sort of purgatory in which they must toil before the wonders of college—and, more critically, excursion into the outside world—may begin. Evan’s got a big bright future ahead of him, and the frightening realization that Seth may not share those prospects threatens to tear their friendship asunder. They generate drama through their ability (or failure) to grow out of the suburbs; while Evan’s somewhat prepared for the wide road before him, Seth’s a little too content in his own enclave.

Superbad’s suburban milieu holds onto its resident nobodies by its very smallness and insularity. This type of neighborhood breeds lifer types—it’s not hard to imagine that Hader and Rogen’s cops once pedaled trikes around the very same streets that they patrol during the film, as they confide in Fogell that they miss their own days of mischief-making. There’s comfort to be had in knowing just where everything is in a town, as if a community bubble could slow the crazy inexorable march of time to a standstill.

Director Greg Mottola’s editing strategies, along with Rogen and Goldberg’s day-in-the-life plot structure, underscore the spatial relationships between the settings of various scenes and convey the coziness and constraint that characterizes the ‘burbs of Clark County. At its essence, everything in Superbad revolves around transportation. Like American Graffiti—the Rosetta Stone of teen coming-of-age films, if ever there was one—personal agency hinges entirely upon the ability to get from one place to another. (Superbad’s slice-of-life hangout vibe evokes the feel of another high school classic, Richard Linklater’s epochal Dazed and Confused.) In metropolitan areas, everything worth going to beyond a walkable radius can be easily accessed via a public transportation system. But in the loosely-connected network of third spaces that makes up the suburbs, a young man must have a car if he wishes to do—or be—anything. In their script, Rogen and Goldberg expend no shortage of effort depicting the various methods by which Seth and Evan amble their way from locale to locale. Seth picks Evan up to drive him to school in the morning. From there, they park at the corner convenience store, and then walk to school, taking Seth’s car to Evan’s house after class gets out. They have to take the bus to the supermarket, then again to the liquor store, all before hitching a ride with the squeaky-voiced weirdo played by Joe Lo Truglio. Goldberg and Rogen want the audience to be aware of the paradoxical geographical outlay of Clark County’s suburbs, where everything’s simultaneously too close together yet far away enough to be inaccessible. The rhythms of the film’s edits reflect the vital necessity of transportation as well. Instead of cutting away from one scene to an establishing shot of the next location and placing the characters directly into the new space, the scenes bleed into one another. The state of being in transit is a location all its own, a zone into which the camera follows Seth and Evan.

But that sensation of general smallness extends beyond Superbad’s roadmap into the film’s overarching stakes. As films that center on climactic parties go (a teen film genre with no small number of entries), Superbad keeps it comparatively low-key. Unlike the earth-shaking centerpiece of Project X, the bash late in Superbad’s second act kind of, well, sucks. By the time Seth and Evan make their delayed arrival, the scene’s crawling with over-inebriated teenagers. Rogen and Goldberg waste no time in dismantling the one force that’s driven the motion of the film—Evan’s crush Becca (Martha MacIsaac) couldn’t care less that he’s failed to bring her her prized Goldslick vodka. Seth and Evan both strike out in comparably spectacular ways, with Seth inadvertently headbutting Jules (an early-career Emma Stone, a treat) and Evan narrowly avoiding a shotgun blast of projectile vomit from Becca. They don’t lose their virginities, and it’s not a night they’ll cherish for the rest of their lives. It’s another deadbeat summer night in a town where not much of anything happens.

Rogen and Goldberg also use subtler methods to convey the intrinsic smallness of Seth and Evan’s hometown. One specific detail—slight enough to be written off as a quick gag—speaks volumes about the suburban sprawl’s sensation of enclosure. During Fogell’s first unsuccessful attempt to purchase liquor, he nervously drops a sixer of beers, and they explode all over the floor. The attendant who comes to clean them up looks forlornly down at the floor and groans, resigned to his fate, “fuck my life.” It appears to be a one-off laugh until Seth and Evan make it to the seedier party later on. The same attendant bursts through the door with a box of liquor bottles in hand and excitedly announces his intentions to get fucked up. This is precisely how life works in the suburbs; you keep running into the same people everywhere you go. The likes of The Simpsons and Parks and Recreation have pulled this same trick to establish a sense of continuity and familiarity that both rewards repeat viewers and creates the illusion of a living township. It’s tougher to do on film than in television, which has the benefit of longevity on its side. But with this peripheral detail, the film cements its own sense of suburban realism.

For many suburb-dwellers, the cumulative effect of all this smallness is a sense of anticipation, an eagerness to go out into “the world” (anything from military service to the workforce to higher education) and begin life proper. For some, however, a suburban neighborhood can become womblike—comforting, warm, and nurturing while also retarding meaningful growth. Seth falls into the latter category and Evan the former, and the film’s emotional crux hangs on the friction generated by that difference. Seth constantly bitches about their suburban enclave’s lameness, but it’s not hard to see that he’s extremely comfortable. He’s got a handle on the terrain. He understands how the system works and how to game it (as we can see from his brash choice to park in the teacher’s lot in the morning). He’s riding high as a senior coming up on graduation week, flouting school rules at every turn. The prospect of an impending change-up is threatening to him—it would disturb his happy stasis. Doubly so, since his other half Evan plans on expanding his personal sphere all the way out to private college in another part of the country while Seth sticks around at a state school.

In their climactic confrontation, Seth accuses Evan of not being a supportive friend, and Evan counters with the far more reasonable accusation that Seth’s holding him back. Seth’s underlying excess of fondness for his neighborhood turns high schoolers into townies, and Evan’s bound for greater things. Not coincidentally, the film ends with the pair moving in opposite directions, their lines of sight slowly severed as the camera moves down the escalator.

It’s a rather mournful ending for a film as funny as Superbad. Rogen and Goldberg find so much humor in the particulars of life as a bored seventeen-year-old, from the discreetness of porn site titles to denim tightness. They’re experts when it comes to crafting the disposable babble that bored kids use to kill time until something—anything—happens. Superbad exists in the time directly preceding that moment when things begin to happen, spinning the ennui unique to the suburbs out of drunken adolescent ramblings. To crib a phrase, it’s only teenage wasteland.


Charles.jpeg

Charles Bramesco is a writer living in Washington, D.C. He's employed as a staff writer at Random Nerds, and his work has also appeared in the Guardian, Newsweek, The Dissolve, Forbes, Nerdist, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, Consequence of Sound, The Gambit, and DigBoston. He's secure in his knowledge that Boogie Nights is his favorite film of all time, but second place is a real toss-up.


Me in Pink

by Courtney Duckworth

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

In one of Pretty in Pink’s most iconic sequences, Duckie (Jon Cryer) enters a record shop where Andie (Molly Ringwald) perches atop the counter like a teenage sphinx. Just before, Andie’s female friend Iona sets the tone while placing the record needle: “One more tune and it’s off to enjoy a terrible relationship.” The tune is Otis Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness”: a prayer and, in Duckie’s case, a possession followed by an exorcism. He lip syncs within Andie and Iona’s view; Redding’s voice flowing through him, and the movie’s complete surrender to the song’s length, lends everything a jarring, fantastical quality.

As a teenager, I loved Duckie for this moment, and admired his dedication to Andie—and to the performance. But watching it now, the scene saddens me: its early, easier pleasures dissipated. Duckie pirouettes, shimmies, tap dances in sneakers, hurls himself against record shelves and an iron staircase. He flops to the ground and ricochets back up. His song is a plea begging Andie’s mercy, if not her romantic attentions. (Fat chance: Leaning conspiratorially towards Iona, Andie asks, referring to Duckie’s persistence, “Have you ever had one of these?”) Love is awful, the movie asserts again and again. See what it does to people.

If this seems cynical, remember teen movies cloak their toughest conversations in quirks or fantasy, because to be a teenager means to live in a world you do not yet devise. In another iconic John Hughes picture, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the charismatic title character draws his town’s animated concern for an illness he fakes to skip school; later, he dances atop a parade float to “Twist n’ Shout” within full view of his unsuspecting father, before whom he is magically invisible. It is redundant to point out his maleness; by contrast, Andie is simultaneously hypervisible and read as unappreciated by those around her. Popular boy Steff (a golden-haired James Spader) and friend Duckie lust and love after her, respectively; each feels he’s the only one who values her properly. And Andie does wants to be seen—in a way of her choosing. She doesn’t desire the exuberant freedom of Ferris’s invisibility, but a gaze that encompasses her completely, that understands her as she is, without assumptions: “I wanted him to love my body forgetful of what one knows of bodies” (Elena Ferrante).

*

Redheads are so alien that people often familiarize us: the bully in an afterschool special, Pepper Ann, Little Orphan Annie. At sixteen, red hair suddenly shorn a dramatic ten inches, I often caught Molly Ringwald comparisons, not least of which because at school I wore multiple layered skirts, clashing patterns, or 80s brooches pilfered from my mother. Now I tramp New York in jeans and oversized sweaters like the rest of the winter-dogged crew, but back then standing out was important to me, and my greatest anxiety seeming too normal. I didn’t look down on others for their side of the coin; those costumes simply didn’t suit my character.

But I was neither committed nor brave. Halfway through some days I would dart into the bathroom to lose a brooch, ditch an extra skirt, untie a knotted shirt so it didn’t bulge playfully like before’s bargain Comme des Garcons. In other words, I hedged. I never stopped coming to school in elaborate outfits, nor did I ever stop sabotaging them. For a teenager, the greatest sin is visible effort, and the theology of high school hallways compelling. Wanting to be both myself and desired by others, I felt forced to choose. And at sixteen years old I arrogantly imagined myself the only one pressed to make this choice.

If Pretty in Pink were the imagined fable of those high school days, the moral would perhaps be: Someday someone will appreciate you for who you are. But that platitude is simplistic: ill-fitting for the movie and myself. Despite Andie’s floral tights, circular wire glasses, and door knocker earrings, Steff and Duckie pursue her unceasingly; her crush Blane (Andrew McCarthy) soon follows. As a teenager, boys stammered that I was “intimidating” before fleeing, passed notes asking for dates only to rescind when I laughed out loud. I wasn’t mean, only stubborn; like Andie, I wanted to know the rules of engagement. Desire without respect seemed irrelevant.

When Duckie sees his offbeat humor has not, in fact, charmed his childhood friend Andie—and that she truly intends to date Blane, whose riches lay outside both their orbits—he confronts her. This revelation follows his song-and-dance number, deepening its sting; Duckie empties himself of everything via performance and still loses. He turns Nice GuyAndie! You really piss me off. They shit on everyone, even you. I can’t believe you’d be this stupid. Andie rebuts: Who’s shitting on me? I’m not going to let anyone shit on me.

She’s right; thus far, she hasn’t. If Pretty in Pink favors one character trope, it is the disappointing man. In this world, men are types (remember: “Have you ever had one of these?”), and Andie practices first on her unemployed father (Harry Dean Stanton). In a reverse echo of Paris, Texas, Andie’s mother walked out on the family years before and—unable to contend with this lack of love from someone he loves so much—her father buckles, avoids work, reverts to a child. In the first scene, after Andie has armored herself in one volcanic ensemble, she goads him from bed to seek a job. She often prepares his breakfast; in one revealing scene, she pleads that he get over her mother, only to grasp said mother’s photograph and burst into tears the moment he leaves.

On the same day, at school, she wards off attentions from Steff, who evidently not for the first time wants what he insists is “more than sex.” So it is a surprise, then, that Duckie doesn’t trust her. Ironically for Andie, not letting anyone shit on her is a full-time job—from her father, to Steff and even Duckie, to the platinum blonde Mean Girls who mock her visibly working class clothes. Lacking much else, she guards herself and prioritizes the future. No one can touch her who she does not care for; meanwhile, she cruises by rich houses and selects her favorite, imagining decorations and the man who could ferry her there. If the math problem is How can Andie dodge these disappointing men and avoid working in a record store forever?, the solution is a better man or the scholarship to which her principal alludes.

The movie doesn’t reveal its hand. The final scene, Andie kissing Blane in prom’s rain-drenched parking lot, is a teenage Cinderella story but not The End. Her friend Iona is a warning, also imprisoned by male typologies: the deadbeat BDSM fetishist, the pet store owner she loves but who alters her. Andie’s escape isn’t so much a particular path; it is her assertion, after Duckie’s song, that she will not let anyone shit on her (the true moral).

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As a senior in high school, the same age as Andie in the film, I dressed as her character for Halloween. The outfit was a collaboration with my mom: free or thrifted. Andie rattling off the prices of each item of clothing to her dad in a wry but proud way is a familiar exercise to me. My favorite boutiques were Goodwill, Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity; they undercut any anxiety I felt about using my parents’ hard-won money for “frivolous things”, and deepened my creativity. Even now I brag “only two dollars!” without anyone having asked, chest swelling at how nimbly I can ape style, cultural capital, at bargain prices.

The costume, however, was easy; my mother was in her twenties in the ‘80s and, among other things, lifted a clear plastic box of chunky earrings and brooches from the top of her closet. A button-up pink shirt followed (in the movie, Andie’s father about her mother: She always wore pink); a black blazer with considerable shoulder pads and gold buttons at the cuff; a brooch fashioned like a trippy, multicolored coat-of-arms; a hat with artificial flowers pinned at the brim; a tweed pencil skirt; white patterned tights; booties paired with colored socks (Andie’s favorite). Pearls, too, which Andie often wears (a drunk girl mocks them at a house party while she’s on a date with Blane), and which I like to imagine were her mother’s.

At school, I fielded questions. I don’t remember who anyone thought I was and, glancing boys in Superman T-shirts and girls in cat ears or bunny tail poofs, I felt somewhere between shaken and brave. Invented problems; in retrospect I was insecure; no one who mattered mocked my costume and, in fact, a few girls approached me in admiration, fingering the pearls or asking where I’d purchased this or that. Still, I encountered ogling eyes. As a teenager you mimic apathy out of necessity, not nihilism: Oh, yeah, I threw this together (the truth: my mom and I had carefully selected each element the night before). Creativity requires effort; effort is not considered an attractive quality by teenagers; I faked effortlessness.

Andie, who at that age I viewed as brave, seems vulnerable in retrospect. She can’t quite decide if she desires popularity. When rich girls bite, she defends them or bites back in turns, frustrated with “the way that we get treated.” On a date with Blane, she attempts to sidestep him driving her home, only to sob when this insecurity over her house and neighborhood is incomprehensible to him: a language he not only fails to recognize in her, but also would not know how to employ himself. On the same date, trapped by his insistence at Steff’s house party among the young elite, Andie finally begs to go, again with tears, and only smiles when Blane offers that she hit him for his mistake (she doesn’t). At prom, when Blane has dumped her to keep his rich friends, to theoretically please his parents, even with Duckie at her side she wavers like a mirage in the doorway. The prom’s wealth intimidates her; only those with money can afford hotel suites above for sex and camaraderie, dresses elegant enough to withstand ruthless teenage critique.

I didn’t care a whit for Halloween, instead jumping at a day to be acceptably, publicly creative. Andie’s battleground is not prom, though her ability to attend is a point of pride. Instead, Blane disrespected her; she sought respect: I just want them to know that they didn’t break me. To be a teenager sometimes means only to escape alive. To kiss in the parking lot. To reunite with your friend, who could never leave you in truth, even if you broke his heart.

At prom, when Blane half-heartedly apologizes (You couldn’t believe in someone who didn’t believe in you. I believed in you. I always believed in you. I just didn’t believe in me. I love you) and exits the ballroom, stage right, Duckie interjects: Andie, he came here alone. Okay, you’re right, he’s not like the others. Blane is different; while Steff feeds his blonde fuck buddy by hand like a demented child or future Trump, Blane grows, if only incrementally. He is Andie’s charming prince: handsome, popular, admiring. In an earlier scene, he whisks her away to a stable as in a fairy tale without deflowering her like some dime novel wastrel. Yet his tendencies remain the same, his worries about his parents, his shyness and hesitancy in defending her the unspoken privilege of a rich body.

And so I like to think of Duckie as a Nice Guy deprogrammed. He voices what the story needs. From Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn: “The true secret in being a hero lies in knowing the order of things.” Teen movies are often fairy tales whose villains are caricatures (the Mean Girls), with heroes overcoming a series of obstacles (Steff, her lax but loving father, even Duckie’s overbearing love) or laboring secretly (designing her iconic prom dress) to achieve happily ever after (a kiss), if just for a moment.

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Sometimes equations are simple; Andie pursues Blane because he is what she desires. (And famously, Molly Ringwald altered the ending of the movie because she preferred Andrew McCarthy to Jon Cryer.) This desire, unpacked, could be as naive as his floppy hair and soft lips, or as tangled as the sense that he can provide her the house to decorate, the security to create. Viewing the movie as a high school student, I admired Andie’s obstinacy and pride, but mistrusted her choice. I loved Duckie’s song; I had never been pursued so insistently, and reveled in it vicariously. Watching now, however, I read his entitlement (they are childhood friends; he has been by her side and believed in her for years) as little different from Steff’s. Longevity versus status: both currency to buy her love.

Whether Andie marries Blane, dumps him for some college boy (or girl!), or ends life joyously alone, contented with her creations, it doesn’t matter. The teen movie is above all dedicated to the Cinderella story; what matters here are the triumphs among childish hierarchies, romantic fumblings, and grim fluorescent lighting. In this sense, Andie wins; she asserts her dignity and acquires a prince in one movement. She demands appreciation on her terms, in a prom dress handmade and spliced from two gifts: one from Iona and the other from her father.

At twenty-two, I like to imagine Iona’s dress is a hint. The design is pure A-line 60s: bubblegum pink and polka dots, purchased by her mother, Iona’s hair done up in a beehive. Iona is older than Andie, and years later she remembers: It would have been a fairytale if my date hadn’t been the only one at the prom with a wife and two kids. The comment is a punchline, and perhaps Andie’s completed fairytale presages something different. But Iona’s dress outlives the relationship, outlives old versions of herself, is transformed by Andie. Scrolling back through the photographs of me dressed as Molly Ringwald’s Andie, I feel no embarrassment (except for my embarrassment), only smile. The boys, the onlookers, those with the ogling gaze, do not matter. They pass away. And at the end Andie has her creation of gauze, tulle, and floral appliques; she has her vision for the future; she has her desire for respect. Whatever the ending, I trust her.


Courtney “Kit” Duckworth lives and writes in Brooklyn, though her heart remains in North Carolina. Her work has appeared in Film Comment and Slate, among others.


Chaos, Order, and Death

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Heathers is not a movie about teenagers having teen problems. It’s the story of kids dealing with very adult problems that they’ve inherited from society. In the Heathers universe, high school is society’s playground.

The set-up is familiar: at Westerburg high school, there are jocks, nerds, cheerleaders, overachievers, stoners, and sycophants. Anyone who doesn’t fit into a specific category ends up in the merciless reject pile, where friendless rogues like Martha “Dumptruck” Dunnstock (Carrie Lynn) or Betty “Dweebette” Finn (Renée Estevez) battle to survive. It’s business as usual until some of the school’s most popular kids start dying by apparent suicide. Thanks to dramatic irony, the audience knows full well they’re actually being murdered by rebellious Jason “J.D.” Dean (Christian Slater) and his girlfriend Veronica (Winona Ryder).

Westerburg’s kids may have grown-up problems, but the actual grown-ups around them don’t offer solutions. Nobody stops football players from beating up on geeks; people stand by as Martha is humiliated with a fake love note she thinks comes from one of the jocks; even Veronica—the movie’s moral compass—abandons her friend Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk) as sporty Ram (Patrick Labyorteaux) prepares to date-rape her in the middle of a pasture.

The adults in Heathers are either unaware of or simply indifferent to their childrens’ struggles. Even when they try to help—like when the school’s faculty finally lets hippie teacher Pauline (Penelope Milford) host a love-in following the spate of teenage “suicides”—they’re ineffectual.

Screenwriter Daniel Waters drives this detail home during the exchanges between J.D. and his father (Kirk Scott), in which they blatantly switch roles:

J.D.
Hey son! I didn’t hear you come in.

FATHER
Hey Dad! How was work today?

Gosh, Pop. I almost forgot to introduce my girlfriend.

J.D.
…Son, why don’t you ask your little friend to stay for dinner?

The world is topsy-turvy in Heathers, but J.D. revels in it. He’s the one character prepared to balance out the high school’s inequities—embodied by the eponymous, uber-popular Heathers—with the only thing that puts every single human being on an even keel: death. After killing the top-ranking Heather (Kim Walker) with the unwitting help of Veronica, J.D. embraces his role as judge and executioner of Westerburg’s cruelest kids, moving on to slay football heroes Ram and Kurt (Lance Fenton).

“Chaos is great,” J.D. tells Veronica. “Chaos is what killed the dinosaurs, darling. Our way is the way. We scare people into not being assholes.”

The scariest thing about J.D. isn’t his homicidal streak; it’s that his violence isn’t entirely unwarranted. If the chaos he represents gets rid of the world’s assholes, then order lets them live. Order creates those assholes and allows them to thrive. Westerburg isn’t just full of them; it’s prepping them for adult asshole-hood.

Before attempting to blow up the school, J.D. prophesies:

“People are going to look at the ashes of Westerburg and say, ‘now there was a school that self-destructed not because society didn’t care; but because the school was society.’”

The Problem With the Middle Ground

Our protagonist Veronica isn’t necessarily trying to counter J.D.’s chaos with order; it’s more like she wants to establish a new order that finds a way to deal with chaos. To do that, she has to tap into her innate ability to have it all ways.

Unlike the Heathers she befriends, Veronica is something of a dweebette herself—excelling in school, hanging with the likes of Betty Finn. When she eventually discovers the woes of popularity, Veronica doesn’t necessarily want to return to her nerdy roots. Rather, she hopes to navigate Westerburg’s social ecosystem freely, with no preference for one clique over another.

“They all want me as a friend or a fuck,” Heather Chandler, the nastiest of the three Heathers, explains to Veronica. That statement contains the structure of the obstacle Veronica has to confront. Being renowned doesn’t mean being liked, but being nerdy means no one can even admit they like you for fear of becoming a dork by association.

So, by the film’s end, having rejected the reign of Heathers, Veronica’s first task as “new sheriff” is making sure loners like Martha have a friend, an act that’ll give losers a bigger shield when peers throw malice their way. It’s not the same as eliminating the assholes outright, as J.D. would do, but it might give assholes a chance to learn not to be assholes anymore.

Like Heather C., J.D. isn’t remotely concerned about what others think of him. But he still cares enough about the messed up nature of social statuses in school that he wants to dismantle it, violently, from within. And his ways are legitimately efficient.

As he rightly points out to Veronica after killing Ram and Kurt, the two had “nothing left to offer the school except date rapes and AIDS jokes.” In an alternate universe where Veronica spares them, what does Westerburg gain?

It’s also curious that Veronica is so quick to dismiss J.D.’s methods. Even if what she wants is for her “high school to be a nice place,” the only way she can keep the peace at Westerburg is first by destroying J.D. (or at least trying), and then by ripping the red scrunchy—perhaps the movie’s version of a superpower-granting talisman—out of Heather D.’s hair, and tying her own with it.

Like her main antagonists, Veronica has to take power away from others to institute the order she thinks is best for everyone. The fact that she may be right separates her from the homicidal boyfriends, rapey football players, and conniving cool girls—but she still has to usurp her foes just as mercilessly.

The Redshirts of Westerburg

Heathers isn’t interested in subtle symbolism, even occasionally sauntering into surreal territory. There are the croquet matches, which foreshadow (or mirror) the characters’ various triumphs, methods, and relationships. In another visual cue, seemingly hollow Heather C. owns decade-old fashion magazines, but she also has copies of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Harold M. Voth’s The Castrated Family.

And then there’s the bold color-coding, introduced to us from the first scene, with Heather M. dressed in yellow, Heather D. in green, Heather C. in red, and Veronica in blue. The only person who transitions is Heather D., who adopts Heather C.’s trademark crimson after she dies.

Like Star Trek’s redshirts, red is the movie’s way of foreshadowing death, or at least warning us that it’s always around the corner. The color is prevalent throughout: Westerburg’s school jerseys, flags, posters, and even its very footballs. It’s as though the school is doomed—and, if J.D. had his way, it would be.

Though his logic may be twisted, J.D. genuinely believes he’s doing a world of good by blasting Westerburg. “The only place social types can genuinely get along is in heaven,” he says to Veronica.

But she’s banking on the alternative. Maybe people don’t get along, and maybe they won’t, but to Veronica, what matters is that they live to try.


Olivia Collette is a journalist and writer based in Montreal. She contributes to the Montreal Gazette, The Huffington Post, RogerEbert.com, and Urbania, among others. Most recently, she wrote an essay in Matt Zoller Seitz's book, The Wes Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel, in which she closely studied the film's score.


Time is a Flat Circle

by Nate Fisher

© New Line Cinema

© New Line Cinema

A lot of people measure the value of movies about teenagers by assessing how “accurate” they are. The agreed upon triumphs of this form—your Dazed and Confuseds of the world—supposedly capture exactly what it was like to be a teen, both then and now. “That’s me up there!” the nostalgic adult exclaims at 90s Ben Affleck. Nostalgia isn’t even the prime mover here; you can find your teen self in any teen movie from any time, at any time. Whatever informs this pathological need to see our most unfortunate years splayed up in front of us—pointing to the screen as a way of giving ourselves a trophy for having survived adolescence , the “Finally, somebody GETS me!” moment—said need draws me repeatedly back to Gus Van Sant’s Elephant.

Films like Dazed and Confused have always been, for me, too Lucid and Articulate. Where are the people who can’t string two sentences together, the cool kids and outcasts alike who can’t express the complex web of feelings they’re going through? Where is the experience of teenage monotony and aimlessness not spoken but truly felt, and not just by hot people? Others may find it there, but I find it sewn into the very fabric of Elephant. Though Gus Van Sant’s film is ultimately a meditation on the Columbine disaster (and, unknowingly, on the similar disasters that have occurred since), his film is at its best when embodying the realities of every day teenage life. For all of its high art heft, Van Sant’s flashy stylization serves to reinforce cornerstones of a young person’s world. In his particular aesthetic choices, the director gives shape to the universal, capturing—in only 80 minutes of chopped up, replayed time— elements of recurrent, timeless experience.

At its loftiest and most theoretical, Elephant is a film of extreme stylistic affectation, aiming high with its geometric artfulness of movement. It is a film containing abundant evidence that it was designed a certain way (the film even nods to its own god’s eye affectation with a physics lesson about orbitals and electrons, the blackboard circles diagramming the movements of the camera throughout the film.) There are nuclei and pivot points—the gay/straight alliance meeting, the cafeteria—and paths that spiral out of and around them. Van Sant’s long takes circle the school elliptically, from the outside, gradually careening in, and then outward again.

We are treated to a vast array of teenage characters, both primary and peripheral, floating in and around the edges of these long takes, which guide us through the school. Van Sant’s framing and blocking of the students gives numerous small samples of life around the ever-roving camera, hinting at and acknowledging the humanity of everyone involved. These wide shots drink in the surroundings, experiencing the full properties of space—and how people move through it—that only years spent walking in and out of these spaces could ever reveal.Elephant captures what a high school student sees, these same things and same moments, over and over, from different perspectives. And as it does so, film time starts to loosen. Van Sant incorporates more and more slow motion and the experience of routine teenage life slows to a deceptive halt, stopping time as it projects out to infinity.

These techniques add a layer of humanism to the story to go along with its psychological evocations. Each character has their presence and humanity validated by the layered, subtly-mannered depictions in the frame and on the soundtrack. Each struggles and deserves to be acknowledged, repeatedly entering the frame to prove it. Van Sant allows the superficial realities, along with the casual tragedies of teenage life—bulimia, chronic bullying, alcoholic parents, and all the other unmentioned ones by association—to flow in and around each other on an equal, flat plane. By doing so, he captures the teenage crises inherent in dully managing these same traumas day after day. The film is able to hurdle over its own finite runtime and evoke in equal parts the feeling of universal applicability and infinite time, the feeling of a shared teenage soul.

Until it all comes crashing down.

Elephant is hyperaware of the presence of its own time on the micro and macro scales, from the relationship that fleeting moments have to one another to the management of time and narrative in the film’s brisk 80-minute runtime. If the film manages to languidly depict a lived-in teenage experience which, in its first hour, circles around just about half an hour of narrative space, then the final twenty minutes alters and deconstructs that existing structure with its sense of accelerated time. Elephant builds its tempo with the beautiful and chilly fugue-like repetition echoed in the Beethoven sonata which haunts the soundtrack. The final twenty minutes, though, strip down every artifice presented up to that point with precise stings, ranging from a perverse reclamation of the first hour’s slow motion to a garish snap of the first-person shooter aesthetic.

The Gordian Knot of Elephant’s densely woven threads is sliced apart crudely and irrevocably by the two gunmen moving in a straight line (tracked linearly by the camera) through a side entrance right into the heart of the school. The final twenty minutes feature lots of aggressive cutting as the film settles into playing out its final moments with direct, linear editing. One of the practical effects of this type of editing is to establish causality from one shot to the next, the movement from one shot carrying over to or influencing the movement in the second shot. Standard gunfight film grammar is a clear example of this, and it’s telling that these kinds of cuts on action appear only during certain moments of violence within Elephant.

The linear nature of the film’s violent final twenty minutes reminds the viewer that all the ethereal stuff in the first sixty minutes was just as capable of providing a springboard for major horror as it was for carrying along the everyday hauntings of any teenager. By the time the long-awaited violence finally concludes, we realize that the first hour’s set-up has supplanted our conceptions of causality, while attuning us to the humanity and individual experiences of both perpetrators and victims alike. But the shared teenage soul, stretching across the flat expanse of the high school, becomes forced apart by the resulting aberration, and we force it to stand accountable for what it may or may not have caused, for some as-yet-intangible reason.

Moments which, upon first glance (or in a different editing pattern), could be construed as “causes” were merely evidence, neutral in their origin and limited in their interpretive potential. You can try to apply hindsight to some of this, and point to the bullying which occurred in equal parts towards the shooter and the innocent victims who happened to be in the library on Wednesday mornings. But none of it convinces. Maybe that’s why Van Sant peppers Elephant with those greenish shots tilted to the clouds, along with no less than three moments of teenage characters looking to the sky. What they see, or why they look, remains hauntingly private when considered in comparison to the limited perspective we share in assessing the aftermath of these events. Each one of us close to and far away from the moment (inside and outside of the film) engages in some kind of immediate interpretive act. We read the event in the same manner as the film does, panning and scanning horizontally across the information. We assemble evidence from our various experiences, hoping to establish connections, causalities, reasons. We attack it from any side possible and, if nothing comes of all that, we turn away, staring into empty space, looking up.


Nate Fisher is a comedian and writer out of New England with degrees in film and history from Boston College. His mother wished for him to make his fortune as a perennial Jeopardy champion, so this is just a side gig. Outspoken fan of Buster Keaton, Juicy J, and artichokes.


You’re Not One of Those Moralistic Young People, Are You?

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

In 1996, I was fifteen years old, living in a travel trailer without running water or electricity, parked on the steep mountainside in a nowhereplace between Wilburton and Buffalo Valley, Oklahoma. When we wanted to make a phone call, we drove ten miles to the payphone outside of a convenience store. Our land was adjacent to a highway, and there were no houses within reasonable walking distance: walking was pretty much impossible anyway, since there were no sidewalks, no shoulder, just the road and then a steep eruption of trees and rock. Two years before, we had moved from Vermont in a cross-country flight of desperation, my mother looking for some mythical Western place where she would finally be happy and completely left alone by the world, burning through the 40,000 dollars she’d received from selling land in Vermont so quickly that, by the time we reached Oklahoma, we had almost nothing. She hadn’t gotten what she wanted in the end, and neither had I.

I’d arrived in Oklahoma excited about starting over. In 1994, I finally had some idea of who I wanted to be. I loved books and art and film, I’d discovered Hole and Belly and Tori Amos, I bought a plaid miniskirt and a pair of Mary Janes: I was ready to be a new person in a completely new place. This didn’t end up happening, though. I stepped into my first class at Buffalo Valley School and realized that my new self was not going to do much good here. Everybody wore Wranglers and multicolored Western shirts with pearly buttons or sweatshirts and t-shirts emblazoned with the names of sports teams. People listened to the Garth Brooks’ Greatest Hits album and the 8 Seconds soundtrack. I felt like I’d landed on the moon. So I went inward.

Around this time, we started to get magazines in the mail, dozens of them every month. My mother had agreed to several subscriptions through Publisher’s Clearinghouse in hopes that it would make her more likely to win (gambling, in all of its sad forms, has been the drug of choice in my family for generations), and so we got GQ (I’m not sure why she chose that one), Parenting, Self, and Premiere—a glossy movie magazine that I’d take to my room as soon as it arrived. In one issue, I read about Stealing Beauty, a new movie starring pillow-lipped Liv Tyler, about a girl trying to lose her virginity—trying to become real and adult—during a vacation to Italy. I remember ripping out the page and adding it to a paperclip full of other films I intended to see, someday, when I was finally free and adult and in charge of my own life. I wanted to know how to become a real grown-up, how to have some elegance and sex and excitement. I knew I wouldn’t get any of that from my actual life, stuck in a desolate place where one near-empty highway joined another near-empty highway in a T, a place where, every week, it seemed some drunk driver blew through the guardrails and wrecked on the rocks below.

*

By the time I finally watched Stealing Beauty, I was living in the married housing of a Baptist college I was attending with my husband. In a short time I had gone from a teenager who never thought she was going to get married (I could see myself alone in an apartment, reading books by a window that looked out on a busy street, but never with somebody else in a suburban house) to a married teenager—and a married Southern Baptist teenager at that. I was eighteen, poor, riddled with social anxiety, and too afraid to use the telephone, but I was finally free from that trailer, free to get on the internet and talk to other introverts on message boards, free to watch all those movies on my movie list.

I must have seen Stealing Beauty when we got cable (as an aside, we were also a “Nielson Family,” though how the Nielson people found a couple of married teenagers in on-campus housing at a Baptist college is still a mystery to me). I can’t remember exactly when I finally watched this film I’d been waiting to see for so many years, but I do know that once I did I was transfixed, though in a completely different way than I’d expected. I was surprised to find that Lucy Harmon (Liv Tyler) was utterly boring, and a terrible poet. The whole time I kept thinking THIS SHOULD BE ME. I SHOULD BE HANGING OUT WITH JEREMY IRONS. I SHOULD BE WRITING POETRY IN ITALY. I SHOULD BE SWIMMING IN A POOL WHILE RACHEL WEISZ LOUNGES NAKEDLY NEARBY. My lack of interest in Liv Tyler, though, didn’t much matter: for me, Stealing Beauty was all atmosphere and heat, like the scene in which Lucy rolls around restlessly on her white sheets as a Cocteau Twins song plays, only to be interrupted by Alex (Jeremy Irons), a dying playwright, who asks her to have a smoke with him. I had a notion that life could be like this, full of elegant set pieces, interrupted only by cigarette breaks.

At the time, I felt starved of beauty. I mostly loved my new life, my little apartment filled with cheap furniture we’d gathered from Goodwill and nearby garbage bins post spring move-out. I loved my new freedom to read, to take photographs, to write, to stay up late with Zach and talk about anything and everything. But I was also increasingly realizing that Southern Baptist life was not going to make me happy. We went to a squat, aggressively ugly church every Sunday, the walls adorned only with a campy rendering of a white Jesus, sitting amongst some equally white sheep. I was starting to push against the moral strictures, too, the idea that there was only one acceptable way to live, that there was no gray area, and that one must hold tightly to boundaries or risk letting in the devil, a concept I never could believe in, since so many things that I loved were apparently his domain. Stealing Beauty presented all these lovely in-between places not as the devil’s snares, but as opportunities for growth, for experience. I wanted the world to be like this, open and elegant and full of potential, not fear.

*

For years, I’d watch Stealing Beauty every few months. It was soothing, a film I knew so well that I barely had to think about it. Then, it dropped out of my life for a while; I became obsessed with Mulholland Drive and horror films. But a few years ago I watched it again, and was surprised by how much it had soured for me. Stealing Beauty is utterly voyeuristic: in fact, the film begins with Lucy being filmed without her knowledge by an older man. He lingers on her fingers, her lips, her crotch. As the film goes on, everybody is obsessed with Lucy’s virginity and how she will lose it. The group of European artists, who you’d imagine might have other things on their mind, can talk about nothing but her body, her beauty. Although she wants to be a writer, nobody seems particularly interested in that: she’s all surface, upon which (mostly) men project their own fantasies of youth. Even the man she discovers is her biological father seems obsessed with her image, not her, as he insists on creating a sculpture of her during her visit. Although the moment of recognition between the two of them is sweet, it’s hard not to feel disappointed that all he’s willing to give her is a version of herself filtered through his own art.

I recently re-watched Stealing Beauty again, after going years without seeing it because of that sourness, and was happy to find that I still get a thrill of recognition when I see Lucy in her updo, wearing her mother’s flowered dress, or think about the landscape, green and flower-dappled, or the pool scene, where Lucy swims in her very American (or so it seems, compared to all the Europeans) black, one-piece bathing suit. Stealing Beauty is still about a kind of freedom, certainly, but it’s tinged with sadness. The film never lets us forget that Lucy has just lost her mother. When she arrives in Italy, she doesn’t know her father, though she suspects he is among the various men she meets in Tuscany, a knowledge that seems curiously sad the more you think about it, that her mother kept this from her intentionally. The film includes a sexual assault, a dying man, betrayal, and a general disappointment with life and one’s choices. Each little dark thread undercuts the film’s overt message of freedom from Puritanical American values.

Perhaps that’s what appealed to me as a teenager, when those dark threads in my own life had become a blanket about to suffocate me. I liked the idea of sun-drenched freedom, but I knew that nothing was really free. That seems to be the final lesson of Stealing Beauty: you can’t escape life unscathed, no matter how much you try. As the film ends, Lucy finally loses her virginity (with a sweet, adoring boy her age—at least the film gives us that), her playwright friend is in the hospital living out his last days, and her hosts in Italy seem thoroughly exhausted with so much sunshine and freedom: they miss the rain and the cold of the UK. They want to go home. You can’t be on vacation forever.


Letitia Trent's work has appeared in The Daily Beast, Fence, and 32 Poems, among others. Her books include the upcoming Almost Dark (Chizine Publications), Echo Lake (Dark House Press), One Perfect Bird (Sundress Publications) and several chapbooks. Letitia is a horror film blogger for X Factor Films and lives in Colorado with her son, husband, and three black cats.


I'm Just a Stupid Kid

© Twentieth Century Fox

© Twentieth Century Fox

I am not Charlie Bartlett. I never started a drug dispensary out of the boys’ bathroom of my high school. I never organized wild parties in abandoned theaters. I never had a weirdly personal relationship with my principal, and my principal wasn’t a raging alcoholic. I was comfortably middle class, but never rich, and my first experience with a psychiatrist came when I was 23 (and lasted all of three weeks). I never went to an American high school, public or private, my father never went to prison, and I never had to remind my mother to take her medication. I didn’t help the most bullied kid in the school put on a redemptive stage play called “Hell Comes With Your Own Locker.” Charlie Bartlett, named for its protagonist, has nothing to do with my life, and yet it feels uncomfortably personal to watch again, seven years after I first saw it.

A brief primer, in case you were one of the millions who ignored the film and saw Superbad instead: Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin), a rich kid with a string of private school expulsions to his name, enrolls for the first time at a public high school and promptly sets up his own therapy office and pharmaceutical dispensary in the boys’ bathroom, much to the chagrin of school principal Nathan Gardner (Robert Downey Jr., pre-Iron Man, turning in the best performance of the film) and bemusement of Susan Gardner (Kat Dennings), daughter of the principal and love interest of Charlie. Somewhere along the way, some people are helped by Charlie’s good intentions, others are hurt, and things get kind of messy before they’re wrapped up tidily in the last ten minutes.

If it sounds like I’m being pithy, it’s at least partially deliberate; while it has its strengths,Charlie Bartlett is a deeply unfocused film. It seems to want to say five different things at once, and sentiments often get lost in the mix.

The messages in this film bounce around in the echo chamber of its one hour and thirty six-minute running time, and there are so many being employed to wildly differing degrees. With such a varied number of ideas, it’s almost inevitable that some of them strike close to home; make enough universal statements about youth, and chances are, your audience will identify with at least a handful of them.

An example: Charlie Bartlett is called into two separate school offices over the course of this film. The first is to announce his expulsion from an elite private school for starting an illegal laminating press to print fake IDs. During his second brush with authority, Charlie attempts to convince Principal Gardner to allow the production of school outcast Kip’s play.

I was called into my high school principal’s office once after a friend and I performed Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” at a school concert, and a parent complained that her child had been “exposed to disgusting filth” due to the fact that one of the verses of “Hallelujah” vaguely alludes to sex. It was deeply uncomfortable, made more so when the principal admitted that he’d only called us in because it was school procedure to follow up with complaints from parents. There was a weird sense of camaraderie about the whole thing.

That sense of camaraderie wasn’t there two years later, with a different principal, when two friends and I were called in to discuss something we’d done that had actually transgressed UK law, but was so a) esoteric and b) uncomfortable to discuss while our parents were regrettably present that it doesn’t fit the typical high school template of a kid getting suspended for shoving another kid in a locker, and more closely resembles Charlie’s laminating business.

Or there’s the one scene where Charlie confronts the school bully in the back of his car, like some hardened mob boss, all refined elegance and cool-as-a-cucumber line delivery. I never did this, but I have a thousand parallels, where I would act a certain way or say a certain thing because I thought it made me look cool, and it was often an attitude I’d pulled from a movie. Oh, how we worshipped Fight Club. Oh, how stupid and insufferable we were.

Behind Charlie’s tendency to act out is an innate penchant for theatricality and showmanship, and the fact that it’s consistently misdirected. Yes, he auditions for a school play, but beyond that, he seems more focused on creating a cult of personality. He has recurring dreams about addressing a crowd of adoring fans. And there, Charlie doesn’t just remind me of me. He reminds me of my best friend through high school, too. And it hurts to watch.

Everything my friend did in public was bizarre – he would speak in nonsense languages, lurch down corridors in a way that would make Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks look sedate, and use the school grounds as the location for an experiment in outward absurdism that lasted a good seven years. He gained a reputation as the kid who would do crazy things to entertain others, even if it meant getting in trouble, often at the expense of real human connection. He would switch into a completely different personality when we were alone together – a much more withdrawn, inarticulate, awkward person who was having a hard time navigating adolescence.

In public, I shared in his weird antics, but I felt the performative nature of it a little earlier, even as I participated in it. We had a captive audience, and part of me shrank in horror from the whole thing. We explained it to ourselves as an attempt at bringing joy to others, but it was a defense mechanism. We endured our own private hells throughout high school. He struggled with a burgeoning alcohol dependency and self-destructive tendencies. I grappled with depression and anxiety, which would go untreated until I was at university. We never talked about this stuff. It was easier to write juvenile screenplays and construct a rudimentary language out of pterodactyl-like screeching.

Charlie is messed up. He says he’s helping people when Principal Gardner asks him to “explain what you’re doing, or why you’re doing this.” But Charlie’s help has come dangerously close to killing one of his classmates. He’s had some hollow highlights on the way to tragedy, but they don’t stand out as particularly impressive in the wake of an attempted suicide.

Later in the movie, he’s confronted with his principal, waving a gun around and so drunk he can barely stand upright. After a whole film of putting Band-Aids on the gaping emotional wounds that adolescence opens up, he finally breaks when Gardner asks for him to come up with a similarly trite aphorism to fix all of his problems.

The best he has to offer, after Gardner asks him to “spit it out,” is “I dunno.” Gardner taunts him. “Maybe some of that post-pubescent psychobabble. Maybe a pearl of wisdom.” Again – I dunno, I dunno, I dunno, each blank response more and more frantic as Charlie realizes that he’s seriously out of his depth. Gardner shakes his head. “I don’t need you to say anything to me, and I don’t need you to save me,” he slurs.

Charlie starts crying. “Alright, then what am I supposed to do in this situation? I’m just a kid! I’m just a stupid kid!” Charlie says, wringing his hands.

Gardner shakes his head, blinking. “Stop the fuckin’ presses. Run that by me again. You’re a what?”

“I’m just a kid.”

“I get it. It’s tough. I was a kid once too,” Gardner says quietly, lowering his head.

This scene is still powerful upon re-watching it now. It’s a scene where an adult, clearly off the rails and having lost his sense of direction, provokes a kid into admitting the same. I didn’t have a moment like this when I was a teenager. Yes, there were plenty of authority figures passing on advice, but I did what every other teenager does and ignored them. Kids, in general, think they have all the answers, which is what makes this scene all the more powerful. For a brief moment, Charlie has enough humility to see his actions in a different light. Does it stick? Who knows - he’s still just a kid. Yes, he has the perspective to finally visit his father in prison in the closing shots of the movie, but as to whether or not his days of acting out are behind him is left, one likes to think deliberately, open.

I’m 25 now, which everyone keeps reminding me is young, but it’s getting to the point where I’m too old to anchor myself in childhood. It’s hard, though, because I still have a lot of shame bound up in the time when I was a teenager, and shame can be powerfully isolating. At its strongest, you become the only person on the planet capable of doing the idiot things you’ve done.

The crucial thing about Charlie Bartlett is that, rather than growing into adulthood without emotionally addressing his misdeeds, he has to confront them head-on. And then he moves on. Even as I was making mistakes as a teenager, I didn’t recognize them as mistakes, which is why they sometimes feel so uncomfortable - I’m not just remembering the things I did, but the defiance around them. Watching Charlie Bartlett, and Charlie’s humility, allows me to forgive myself for all the dumb things I did when I was younger. I think that’s important if I’m ever going to succeed at being an adult; past a certain point, if you keep resenting your younger self, you don’t give yourself a chance to look forward. Charlie is just a kid, and so were we, and kids do and say stupid things all the time. It’s kind of why they’re kids. You muddle through, and you do your best, even when your best is pretty terrible. If you’re lucky, you come out in one piece.


Christopher Fraser is the Operations Manager for Bright Wall/Dark Room and the author of two books. He lives and works in Massachusetts.


This Is The Day Your Life Will Surely Change

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

"...This old, dead moment which the magnetism of an identical moment has travelled so far to importune, to disturb, to raise up out of the very depths of my being?"
–Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

"If it weren't for you, I'd still be crying alone in my room, listening to Hootie & the Blowfish."
–Note to my friend John in high school, from me

Four years after Empire Records was released, our beautiful friend Katie became pregnant while we were still in Catholic high school. At the time, the worn-in comfort of the 20th century had just a few months left in it. Now, not so many years into this new century, my generation is already lamenting 1999 like it was an altogether different age, some other civilization. Kids still bought CDs (compact discs!) from independent music stores and recorded mixtapes off the radio as gifts. In the Midwest, you could still legally smoke cigarettes indoors at diners. Students passed notes on paper in class. Teenage pregnancy was a secret kept safe from any kind of social internet, and Katie was allowed to stay in classes, a victory and precedent at our school. In a giddy euphoria one night, a few girls drove around with a camcorder (in retrospect, an apparatus of real dedication), videotaping friends sending well-wishes from our teenage bedrooms. We were asked to pick out a song to play in the background during our messages, and I was overwhelmed by the pressure, so the girls who visited with the camera chose a song for me: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s "Bad Moon Risin’". The song was already over 30 years old at the time and seemed like a bit of a dark omen, but I tried to appear world-wise and comforting and also somehow punk rock as I spoke over it.

I have no idea what I said into the lens at that moment, and I’m not certain Katie ever watched that tape more than once. I’m not sure if those little negative film strips of our babyfat faces, speaking hope for her, are all compacted now somewhere deep inside a Cleveland landfill. But I do know whenever I hear "Bad Moon Risin’" these days at a bar or out a car window, that’s it. It’s not my choice to go there, but it’s back to the twin bed floral blanket all over again, a teenager in my old collage-covered room in the suburbs, being recorded beside the hand-painted gothic fairy and Smashing Pumpkins heart and Aristotle quotes in black marker on the bedroom walls. I am trying to think of bright, kind things to say into the camera at this precipice in our young lives, at the moment when we were consciously leaving behind childhood. All of it snaps back, immediately, two decades of lost details and miles between—all the small triumphs and disappointments of adult lives—collapsing in a heartbeat.

Anyone who has made it into adolescence knows this is what music does. Not just poetically, but neurologically. Not just the initial escape, but a return to the glory of the first transcendence, over and over, a kind of cyclical magic. We can make fun of Empire Records ’ infatuation with its own mid-90's styling all we want, but the movie does know one big universal truth: when you're young, and have very little autonomy, music will always be the quickest way to escape, a way to move beyond the confines of wherever your mind and heart might be trapped. And, years later, it’s still the fastest way to get back to that place all over again.

*

There is a moment when the movie’s goth-girl character, Debra (Robin Tunney), discovers the seemingly flawless, sugarcoated image of her coworker Corey is a lie. With her newly-shaved head and her own recent crises, Deb whispers kindly to Corey in the store bathroom: “I guess nobody really has it all together, huh?”

Watching Empire Records now, almost 20 years after it was released, comes with a rather bittersweet realization: most of us never seem to fully psychologically transcend our adolescence. Nobody—despite income, social mobility, marriages, divorces, dreams achieved or abandoned—is ever as genuinely composed or confident as they might appear. We are always metamorphosing beings, our core selves a mystery throughout adulthood, even to those who toil alongside us, or resent us, or love us, day in and day out.

From the film’s opening minutes—once the audience learns that Empire Records is likely going to close soon—the looming weight of adulthood hovers around an otherwise shining (if angst-ridden) day. It’s almost as if the movie’s obsession with music-as-antidote, as escapism, subconsciously infers the opposite. Underneath the hyper-confident band references and elated, blaring soundtrack runs a vein of imminent adult sadness to be fought off—the worship of money, the threats of drudgery and conformity. For all its goofy coming-of-age plot cliches, Empire Records is not a movie about high school—it’s a fable about warding off the end of youth altogether. As such, the film’s now archaic music store setting is both the ideal backdrop and, perhaps, the worst enemy to any future mass appeal the film’s story might have.

Ultimately, Empire Records is about what comes after adolescence. The film’s main concern is conveying the promise of just listening, and being able to always exist, or return, to a time of greater potential. There’s a reason we can free-associate the words empire and revolutions and records. Social revolutions set to music. Revolutions overturning empires. Revolutions back to a place you thought you'd left, but keep returning to, over and over. We revolve around the sun until one day we don’t.

*

On a single, eventful day, the following unfolds: Liv Tyler’s goody-two-shoes Corey learns whether or not she’ll be accepted to Harvard, while also revealing her addiction to pills; the artistic AJ (Johnny Whitworth) vows to confess his long-time love to her; Deb survives a suicide attempt; adorable village idiot Mark (Ethan Embry, a poster of whose wide green eyes and grin hung on my bedroom door throughout high school) saves the day; Lucas (Rory Cochrane) practically ruins the store with his good intentions to salvage it; a delinquent who calls himself Warren Beatty (Brendan Sexton III) shoplifts, brandishes a gun, and then admits he really just wants to be one of the record store staff. And, perhaps most importantly, the store is hosting pop star has-been Rex Manning (Maxwell Caulfield), best-known for his hit single, “Say No More, Mon Amour.” Corey wants to lose her virginity to the guy; her best friend Gina (Renee Zellweger) actually fucks him instead. They’re a merry, tormented, suburban band of 1990’s white kid alt-rock oddballs.

The film’s look—shot in chrome-bright color, aesthetically grunge-infused—allows us to better see the contrast in world events that would take place over the next decade; most movies about adolescence would only get darker, dimmer, post-apocalyptic. No one could have predicted the dissolution of so much cultural comfort just a few years later. The end of the millennium brought with it the rise of Napster, and the subsequent decline of traditional music retail stores. Instead of discovering new music in a physical space, the internet soon became the "place" to find and listen to it. The illusion of American peacetime ended with September 11th, and we soon returned to war with a place we'd been at war with only a decade earlier. It felt a bit like being reminded that our country was just a forgetful teenager, too. By 2001, the oblivious optimism that had insulated our Empire Records America was mostly gone.

Still, the movie knows the thing about empires is that, in all forms—physical and metaphorical—they eventually end. Empires of adolescence qualify, too. Shining for a time, falling, new ones built upon them. For all its overwrought teenage drama, the resilience of what music can provide and protect us from still allows Empire Records to be a subtle joy to watch today. The blind faith of the staff in the magical power of loving music allows their on-screen adolescence to feel almost era-less. And we are never so timeless, ageless, as when we hear our own songs.

*

The portrayal of the Empire Records staff isn’t much of a departure from the actual kids I knew working in record stores back then, before digital music swept over all of us. One of those real-life kids ended up becoming my first true boyfriend, teaching me the foundations of everything I know about music history and its sub-categories. Much like in the movie, edifying others was a near-spiritual calling for all true record store employees of that era.

The soundtrack to Empire Records is not so much a cliched “seventh main character” as it is an energy running throughout the film. The wailing minor keys of The Cranberries' “Liar” ring out as Corey rejects AJ’s love and she races off the roof because she, too, has just been rejected. Only a few minutes earlier, the upbeat sadness of The Buggles' “Video Killed The Radio Star” plays over the set-up for Rex Manning’s doomed in-store promotion—much like the store itself is doomed. And, after the staff raises enough money to keep themselves out of jail with an impromptu rooftop concert in the film’s final minutes, Renee Zellweger joins the band to sing vocals on “Sugar High,” an ideally-named song to end a movie from such a blind and blissful mid-90s American moment.

Credits begin to roll as the gang dances to a euphoric song medley, including “This Is The Day” by Manic Street Preachers. It’s nighttime, and everyone is laughing on the roof, whirling about in front of the blazing neon sign as the soundtrack declares: “This is the day/your life will surely change.”

The sweetness tugs at us because we have days like this, too. Single days careening from not speaking to our closest friends and coworkers to fiercely needing their love again in a matter of hours, from losing all hope to getting it back in seconds. It’s just that we get better at not talking about it. Not screaming about it into store loudspeakers, or arguing about it on rooftops, or shaving-off our hair into the company bathroom sink. But we still rely on music to help us make meaning out of those messes, long after youth has passed us over.

*

The first time I saw Empire Records was on TV at my friend Sarah’s house. Her home was our favorite sleepover location because of its large back room, cute artistic older brother (in a band), and wide dark field next to the barely-operating railroad tracks. On clear nights, we would lay down in her old wooden playground fort and watch satellites blink around the black sky. Poetically, her dad was our high school music teacher. Just a few years after graduation, our high school closed. The Ford manufacturing and steel mill jobs closed first.

As a 14-year-old girl watching the older, cooler “beautiful little tattooed, gum-chewing freaks” in the movie, I was in awe that the whole thing took place in one day. The idea that such big days could happen in this life. The thought that, with enough artistic temperament and a pack of plucky outsider friends, no one could bridle you.

Our friend Suzy had the Empire Records soundtrack, and it was one of the first cassettes she played in her car after receiving her license. As Catholic school girls, we were more than just a bit inspired by Liv Tyler’s outfit from the movie, wearing Doc Martens boots with our plaid skirts. All of us watched the film in Sarah’s living room right around the time I was learning about music being made by artists, songs with (I thought) deep, real edges and a true comprehension of hurt. I was kissing goodbye my childhood love of musicals and The Beatles, having just had my first big break-up with a bassist who knew everything about classic rock. I painted a replica of Pink Floyd’s The Wall on my bedroom wall.

This past winter, I took photos of that old bedroom, weirdly frozen in all its teenage décor. I was attempting to acknowledge some day it will all have to go. Suzy, the one who played the Empire Records soundtrack on repeat in her first car, wrote some lyrics on one of the walls, beside some of my own, and those of a dozen other high school friends. Dusty cassette tapes and old CD’s are shoved into various nooks and crannies and bags throughout the room. A magazine ad for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is the cut-out center of a huge, fallen collage. My old bedroom is an encapsulation of a pre-internet-soaked teenage mind—almost two decades later, it still holds like a mausoleum to the last years of the millennium, the years right after Empire Records came out.

My teenage hand had also scrawled out, in black Sharpie ink, a quote I must have found somewhere and believed to hold some kind of truth: “Music is God's gift to man, the only art of Heaven given to earth.”

Eddie, a grunge pal of Mark’s in the movie, makes him a mixtape and hands it to him like it’s composed of precious stones. “This music is the glue of the world, Mark,” he says with complete gravity. “Without this, life would be meaningless.”

*

I recently read an article about how processing music is a core brain function for human beings, something we comprehend even earlier than language. Listening actively to music can help improve cognitive abilities, but appreciating it and understanding it are not cognitive, per se. It brought to mind the best-known scene in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, his description of the phenomenon of involuntary memory: the kind you don't work to retrieve, the kind of memory that retrieves you. (Proust dunks a madeleine cake in a cup of tea, and as soon as it touches his tongue he is a boy back in his aunt's room, eating pastries and drinking tea with her all over again.) The article went on to say that there's no evolutionary reason for why music would be so fundamental, since it doesn’t relate to survival.

But, wait—what? Ask any young person, in any country, and they will quickly tell you how music has the power to help transcend reality or heartbreak or oppression. Ask anyone who is no longer young, anywhere, how music instantaneously evokes associated memories and can also, if only for a few seconds, seem to stave off mortality.

Aristotle has a piece of rhetoric explicitly complaining about the young people around him in Ancient Greece. Reading it now, it could just as well describe the kids at Empire Records. It could read as me mumbling about the loud middle school boys in the subway last week. It could sound like your own parents talking about you.

"The young have exalted notions, because they have not been humbled by life or learned its necessary limitations... All their mistakes are in the direction of doing things excessively and vehemently. They overdo everything; they love too much, hate too much, and the same with everything else."

Aristotle made this observation over 2,000 years ago. We tell ourselves the more things change, the more they stay the same, but perhaps we say this more as an incantation of consolation rather than a genuine acceptance of the world barreling on without us. Does the younger version of ourselves live inside us forever, as rings demarcated on a tree? Empire Records seems to believe this: that the euphoria and melancholy of youth are ingrained within us, as necessary to survival as the fear of mortality. Music may constantly change, but the need to listen to it does not. Play that song. Go back, for a minute, to invincibility. Damn the man. Save the Empire. Forever and ever, recirculating.


A.J. Bradley is a Midwesterner living in New York City. Her work has been featured by Rattle, the Poetry Foundation, Monkeybicycle, and other places, but she is finally writing again after a long hiatus. She hopes you come visit her soon at ajbradley.org.


Wasted Youth

(Fast Times at Ridgemont High, 1982)

WASTED YOUTH

says the graffiti on the wall, and it could be true, I guess.

I mean, you took the glass elevator in the mall past the food court and the tiny butts in tiny embroidered-pocket jeans flushed up against the arcade machines. You wore checkered Vans and dolphin shorts, got the Van Halen or Blue Oyster Cult tickets from Damone. He told you straight: if you want to get anywhere, put on Side One of Led Zeppelin IV (which won’t really work; it’s too heavy). In the meantime, you can practice on a carrot stick in the lunchroom.

You smelled the mimeos; smelled the burger buns. Held them right up to your nose.

That hoodie? That hoodie was from Ocean Pacific.

It’s called Fast Times but the moment you rewound to watch again and again until the magnetic tape went loose and wrinkly inside its big black plastic VHS case is the one that is utterly decelerated: Phoebe Cates in a light mist, big wet red smile and shiny heart earrings and the red bikini she will undo from the front with one easy flick to reveal red-and-white breasts like candy bullseyes. It’s not real, but it’s as real as the slo-mo jacking in the bathroom next to a bottle of Scope you did, just like Brad is doing as he conjures it all in his head, a gift from his pirate uniformed fast food humiliation to you, forever and ever amen.

There were no GIFs back then, but your mind made one from this, and you’ve replayed it all these years, haven’t you? Albums used to have sides. You kind of remember that, too.


Arielle Greenberg is the Resident Poet at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is the co-author of Home/Birth: A Poemic; author of My Kafka Century and Given; and co-editor of three anthologies, including Gurlesque. She lives in Maine and teaches in the community and in Oregon State University-Cascades' MFA; she is currently teaching a course in American cinema to insightful students at the Maine State Prison enrolled through the University of College at Rockland (hi, guys!). Arielle writes a regular column on contemporary poetics for the American Poetry Review.