When is politics not allowed in literary criticism? When it acts like a filter, that’s when. If, upon encountering so much as a hint of a political theme you dislike, you instantly shut down and refuse to look further, then you have a little homunculus censor living in your brain who is interfering with your ability to fully appreciate life.
Roger Ebert has this problem. I think he’s a good movie critic for the most part. As a general rule, I can read his reviews and know whether I will enjoy a movie. Sometimes, I even come to reconsider how I feel about movies I’ve already seen by reading what he thinks about them. And then there are those other times when I can read a four-star review of his and know for certain I’ll hate the film. Or, as was the case this weekend, a one-star review that tells me without a doubt I’ll love it.
The movie is 3 O’Clock High, a cult 80s high school film (no, not one of those 80s high school films) that I’d caught scenes from over the years but never sat down and watched all the way through. It’s not a great film. But it is entertaining, a brilliant nostalgia vehicle (for those of us who were born in the 70s and grew up in the 80s), and even if it’s not a stand-out classic, it’s at least one of the better examples of its genre.
Ebert gave it one star. Why? Because it’s “fascist.” Because the story involves a kid shitting his shorts all day scrambling around trying everything he can think of to get out of a confrontation with the school bully that goes down at 3 o’clock and – horror of horrors – the bully doesn’t have a “human side.”
If there is a pathological bully in the student body, no attempt is made to understand him, sympathize with him or encourage the audience in the difficult process of empathy.
It’s too tough on today’s teenage moviegoers, I guess, to ask them to hold two ideas in their mind at once: that a kid could be a bully and that he could also have some big problems and be in need of understanding.
Yeah, nice try, but I call bullshit, and here’s why:
The Thompson character, for example, is not just a distant, unattainable symbol, but a young woman with feelings. The tomboy doesn’t just pine from afar, but helps Keith in his campaign to win a date with this girl of his dreams. And in the final sequence, in which the tomboy acts as chauffeur on the dream date, the dialogue isn’t about sex; it’s about learning to be true to yourself and not fall for the way people are packaged. By the movie’s end, everybody has learned something about themselves.
That’s from his review of Some Kind of Wonderful, the actual John Hughes installment from the same year. Anyone who’s seen it will have noticed a glaring omission. Yes, that’s right, Some Kind of Wonderful has a class bully too – or at least an unreasonable bad guy. And no, this bad guy in Some Kind of Wonderful hasn’t “learned anything about himself” by the end of the film either. Mostly he just gets egg on his face – which is what stock bully characters show up in movies to do.
So what’s the difference? Why is it OK for the bad guy in Some Kind of Wonderful to be a stock plot device, but not in 3 O’Clock High? I think it’s the leather jacket. You see, in Some Kind of Wonderful, the bad guy is a Rich Snob, but in 3 O’Clock High he’s working class. And one-dimensional bad guys are only ever allowed in Roger Ebert’s world if they’re making an Acceptable Political Pointtm.
I know what you’re thinking, and no, it isn’t that Some Kind of Wonderful is the more thoughtful film. It certainly takes itself more seriously, but the plot contrivances in it are every bit as transparent as those of every other movie of the genre. There’s the working class kid who wants to be an artist, he’s in love with the popular girl who won’t give him the time of day and is in turn loved by his tomboy working class friend. He has a shot with the popular girl, but only because her jerk of a boyfriend is every fratboy child-of-privilege stereotype in the book turned up to 11. If Ebert rates this one higher than other study hall ‘sploitation movies, it’s only because he never took the time to ask himself why this or any girl considers this guy serious relationship material in the first place. Trophy date, sure, but no girls I know would be in love with him for “who he is.” No, Some Kind of Wonderful is entertaining, but it’s a comic book, right up to the last scene where our hero makes The Right Choice in what has got to be one of the more implausible Moments of Realization in 80s cinema. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
My axe to grind here is that people who think Some Kind of Wonderful is deep don’t get to diss 3 O’Clock High – not if they really paid attention. Yeah, sure, our resident bully is a stock plot device, but then, that’s rather the point. The movie isn’t about the fight, and it isn’t about giving the bully his comeuppance. It’s just a nice, light-hearted exaggeration of having “one of those days.” You know – “those days” … of the kind we all have in high school. In college, for that matter. At work. In the nursing home. With the difference being that when you’re in high school everything always seems so much more important than it really is. 3 O’Clock High has the same basic message that every high school movie has: that you’ve got more in you than you think, but sometimes it takes a little pressure to bring it out. I liked this one better than most because the comical exaggeration is better than most. The bully isn’t really even a character. He’s an implausible force of nature – ridiculous by design, because the whole point is that it be ridiculous. What the movie is trying to capture is that feeling we all had in high school of being under huge amounts of pressure but unable to complain about it because we know that “it’s just high school” and the Real World is gonna be so much worse, all the while unable to ignore the reality that it actually is hard – sensing a disconnect in there somewhere. 3 O’Clock High nails that feeling and manages to be really entertaining in the process. I give it 3 stars at least.
The take-home message is that “stodgy” is a common word because it’s a common concept. I get that it’s impossible to turn off your moral radar when watching movies. Movies are about people and values and all that good stuff, and I can see how it would be impossible to like a movie that’s cheering for something you think is evil. But I think you don’t get to trash a movie based on the costumes alone. If you’re going to write about a movie’s values, you need to at least make an effort to understand what they are. Not all bit characters need to be real people – but if you’re going to be so silly as to insist that they always do, you don’t get to make special exceptions for those vaunted caricatures you happen to approve of.
Politics are bad in criticism when they get in the way of seeing what’s on the screen in front of you.
There are a million ways to get out of a fight, but not in the Hollywood of Rambo. Even a dumb teen movie such as this has to end with one of those fist fights where every blow sounds like the special effects guys are whacking bicycle seats with Ping-Pong paddles. Is that all life is? The vicious define the terms? They say we will fight them, and so we have to? And we win because someone slips us some brass knuckles so we can coldcock the guy? Come on.
Well, yes, actually. What would Ebert suggest instead? Isn’t it sometimes the case that the vicious say we have to fight them, and so we do? Did he sleep through history class or something? There are those fights you can avoid, and there are those you can’t. There are those that only make things worse if you avoid them. And if your enemy brings brass knuckles to the fight intending to coldcock you, even though he’s naturally stronger and taller than you, then yes, I think it’s OK to pick them up off the ground and use them to fight back. So, for that matter, does everyone else. And so, for that matter, does Roger Ebert – when the movie is called Some Kind of Wonderful and the protagonist shows up to an easily avoidable fight with a gang of ruffians for backup. Feh.