Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Heathers by John Ross Bowie

The difference between a classic movie and a cult classic is a degree of slavish devotion. Classic movies, generally, are acknowledged by critics as great examples within the history of film, often elevating the medium to an art. Cult movies rarely aspire to the greatness or attention the receive and usually have a devoted following despite and not because of their critical attention. It falls to their fans – on blogs and message boards and at conventions and on Internet fan sites – to convince the rest of the world of their true worth.

Enter the Deep Focus series of film guides from Soft Skull Press.

Calling itself "A Novel Approach to Cinema" the series (six books so far) give authors permission to delve deep into their love of a specific film, elevating them from cult fanatics to cultural archaeologists. And while Jonathen Letham's interrogation of John Carpenter's They Live initially drew me to the series it's actor and author John Ross Bowie's take on Heathers that sold me. Somewhere between film criticism and fanboy obsession, this is where budding teen cineastes are going to find meaningful film theory. They'll also perhaps discover an otherwise overlooked cult classic like Heathers which, Bowie makes the case, is the ur-Mean Girls movie and an eerie foreshadowing of the Columbine massacre.
Unlike conventional film analysis Bowie's examination absorbs all the elements of popular culture available, as well as interviews with the film's writer and director, to explore not only what ended up on the screen but the journey it took getting there. Novice screenwriter Daniel Waters apparently envisioned a much deeper (and nearly 3 hour long) social satire that would have been the ultimate anti-John Hughes movie ever created, and he wanted no one by Stanley Kubrick to direct it. It clearly didn't work out the way Waters intended, but he was an active and adaptive participant along the way, making sure that his message about the cruelty of teen society wasn't lost or compromised. Not entirely at least, as Bowie reveals that the original ending was much, much darker and threatened to potentially sink everything else the film had been building up to.

Using the film as a sort of cultural mirror Bowie begins with a brief synopsis of the plot then moves on to chapters where he discusses the film in relation to bullies and their victims, the origin of adult-based teen dialog in movies, social satire, and a brief examination of Columbine. Throughout Bowie's examination bounces back and forth between then and now, checking the echo and resonance to make sure that what was true then was still true today, or more true as the case may be, justifying that the film truly is worth the time to think about at the textual level.

"We're not supposed to see ourselves in Heathers, just see heightened versions of our tendencies" Bowie summarizes toward the end. This could be seen as a neat oversimplification of all that has come before but I think it best explains what separates type from archetype and a classic from a cult classic; We don't identify, but we totally understand. Kind of a neat little pop culture lesson to learn from a book about a film released over twenty years ago.

by John Ross Bowie
Deep Focus series editor Sean Howe
Soft Skull Press 2011

also mentioned:
They Live
by Johnathan Lethem
Soft Skull Press 2010

No comments :