One career ago, I was a professor of film studies. I gave that up to move to Vermont and write for Seven Days, but movies will always been my first love. In this feature, published occasionally here on Live Culture, I'll write about the films I'm currently watching, and connect them to film history and art.
When the fondly remembered cult film Heathers was released in 1988, I was only a year or two younger than its main characters, who are high school juniors and seniors. My friends and I loved it and talked about it often — especially when cable and dear old VHS gave us the chance to watch it again and again. And even though our own high school afforded us unlimited opportunities to observe the cruelty of the Popular Kids and the thoughtless acts engendered by cliquishness (the film’s chief satirical targets), I can say with certainty that, still, we didn’t fully “get” Heathers.I watched the film a few nights ago for the first time in at least 15 years. It holds up quite well, I was happy — and somewhat surprised — to see. More on that below.
More surprising was how thoroughly the movie’s little nuances had been burned into my brain. This was apparently a film that made an impression on me, as I found myself, even after that long hiatus, able to recite favorite lines of dialogue in perfect sync with the actors. The film is endlessly quotable. Phrases such as “What’s your damage?” (a now-common expression that I think was coined for the film); “I love my dead gay son”; and the too-clever-by-half “Our love is God. Let’s go get a Slushie” really do embody Heathers’ bitterly satirical tone.
The best, though, is still “Dear diary, my teen angst bullshit now has a body count,” which is duly recognized as the film’s most iconic line. Poetry, that.
The script’s cleverness, which I remembered sort of generally, is only part of the reason I was surprised that Heathers still comes off as witty and satirical, 25 years (gulp) after it was made.
Cinema is often regarded as a “director’s medium” rather than a “writer’s medium.” Scripts are of obvious importance to movies, but in both popular and critical discourse, directors are usually credited with creating a film’s look and style. And not all directors write their own films.
Heathers was written by Daniel Waters and directed by Michael Lehmann. It’s tempting to assign most or all of the pleasure we may get from the film to Waters’ acerbic wit and keen ear for genuine-yet-stylized dialogue. And it really is a clever, funny script.
To my surprise, though, I found the film quite well directed, too. The film’s visual style was more sophisticated than I remembered — probably because I didn’t pay much attention to such things when I was in high school.
One of the clearest examples is Lehmann’s use of a simple, bold primary color scheme to identify, distinguish and jokingly liken the three titular Heathers: One gets bluish-green, one gets yellow, and the one who currently sits at the tippy-top of her school’s pecking order is identified with red. Red clothing, red bedroom, even a red croquet ball. Using simple, playroom colors shows how juvenile these girls really are; and, though the colors are different, they are all similarly bold and brassy, indicating an underlying similarity or, more strongly, a mindless sameness. Which is exactly the point.Three Heathers, three colors
If the croquet balls are the orbs, the red hairband is the crown. As it gets passed from Heather to Heather (and ultimately to Veronica, Winona Ryder’s character), it shows us which girl is “in charge.” A simple device, and admirable for that reason. A gesture like this is so easy thing to do — and such a clean, graspable way of visually communicating narrative information — that it’s surprising so few directors do it.
To continue with the color scheme, it’s reduced to pretty much black and white in the scenes at the home of J.D. (Christian Slater) and his father. Their house is furnished with stark, colorless, modernistic furniture, which reads to us as “cold” — an apt adjective for the father-and-son relationship.
It’s tempting to align J.D. with, say, black, and his father with white, though that would be too simple. Heathers is much more ironic in tone than that. (We’re cued to the irony right from the start, when an idyllic scene of three charming young ladies — the Heathers — playing croquet is undermined when the girls willfully stomp over the flowers neatly arranged in the garden.)
Though J.D. and his dad plainly can’t stand one another, the film also makes a point of likening them strongly to each other. It accomplishes this at the level of dialogue and performance, having the son deliver “paternal” clichés in an ironic voice, and the father speak as if he were a teenager. An example: J.D. says, sarcastically, as his father enters the house, “Why, son, I didn’t hear you come in.” A few lines later, his father responds in kind with, “Gosh, Pop, I almost forgot to introduce my girlfriend.”
Veronica reacts to this dialogue with revulsion, highlighting its creepiness. And it is creepy: We feel just as uncomfortable as she does. It’s also a smart and simple way to establish the frosty relationship — as well as the essential similarity — between the two.
All of which is simply to say that Heathers’ ironic tone extends beyond its script to the visual realm, in which the black-and-white scheme of this unhappy home also confirms these characters’ status as the outsiders they are. They do not belong in this town, a fact that the story’s ending confirms. In fact, Veronica, when she hears this unpleasant dialog, is granted her first clue that this J.D. character, whose cheeky misanthropy was at first so appealing, is actually more dangerous than are the Heathers.The Dumptruck Doughnut
The visual pleasures of Heathers are a major reason the film plays so well for me now. And many of the film's elements that had lodged in my brain were, in fact, visual, not just lines of dialog. The lovely overhead shot of Heather No. 1 crashing through her glass coffee table; the Wham!-esque “Big Fun” T-shirts; the cow-tipping scene; and, most iconically for me, the moment when Martha “Dumptruck,” in her little motorized scooter, does a loop around Veronica at the far end of a high school hallway.
Seeing all these images again reminded me what an impression they made on me in high school, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. And I don't think Heathers ever received proper credit for its visual creativity.
For as long as there have been songs, there have been songs about women. Next to God, the fairer sex has probably inspired more music than any other subject — maybe even more since the dawn of pop music.
But for all the songs about California girls, northern California girls, girls from the North Country, barroom girls, my girl, girls who just wanna have fun and honky-tonk women, precious few tunes have been penned specifically about our personal favorite kind of ladies: Vermont women.
Local songwriter Josh Schlossberg, who performs under the pseudonym Dark Green Folk, has attempted to rectify that egregious oversight with a new song called simply "Vermont Woman." DGF tends toward humorous tunes, and his latest is no exception, as he touches on just about every Vermont-y cliché there is, affectionately painting a portrait of a crass, crafty and crunchy Green Mountain woman who might seem familiar to anyone who's lived in Vermont for a while. (In fact, I think I may have dated her.)
Here's Schlossberg performing the song recently at Radio Bean, with full lyrics after the jump.
Here's something to help you shake off the shivers. Green Mountain Cabaret is performing tonight at Montpelier's Lost Nation Theater in a one-night-only, 21+ burlesque show. And if you don't feel like shaking — or shimmying — Alexa Luthor and Her Sugar Shakers will do it for you. And then some.
Formerly living in Chicago, Luthor returned to her native Vermont a couple years back and brought professional burlesque along with her, not to mention her husband, MC Leif Peepers. Since then, she's trained other dancers in the North Country, some of whom will be entertaining central Vermont hippies, er, Montpelierites tonight — Trixie Hawke Siouxsie Chrisse, Aeshna Mairead, Swizzle Schtick and Merrique Hysteric.
And if any readers are expecting, I strongly suggest you consider one of these names for your impending child.
LNT actually said in a press release that Green Mountain Cabaret is "Ass-tronomically talented," so what more do you need to know? Except that tickets are $15 and the show starts at 8 p.m. tonight and you can only go if you are 21 or older.
Photo by Matthew Thorsen accompanied a story about Luthor in February, which you can read here.
Mike Meyers, Cameron Diaz and Eddie Murphy are hard acts to follow, but that hasn't stopped any number of contenders from taking on the roles of the grumpy green ogre Shrek, the demanding Princess Fiona and a nonstop-talking Donkey in Shrek the Musical.
In the production that launched last night at Middlebury's Town Hall Theater, they are Leigh Guptill, Kim Anderson and Justin Bouvier, respectively (pictured right).
THT's newest resident company, called, um, the Company, is tackling the stage-musical version of the Oscar-winning 2001 DreamWorks movie. The Hollywood actors named above lent their voices only to the animated characters. Onstage the actors are, of course, human. With silly costumes. I can't tell you who plays the Gingerbread Man or the Mirror or the evil Lord Farquaad. You'll have to go and see for yourself.
What I can tell you is that Shrek the Musical has proven popular nationwide, revealing the country's belief in magic, love and happily-ever-after despite all indicators to the contrary.
Shrek the Musical, staged by the Company, Thursday to Sunday through November 17, Town Hall Theater, Middlebury. $23/18.
Andy Gordon called it a "big mix of whatever" last year. But that minimalist description from one of the actors in Potato Sack Pants Theater certainly didn't augur the three-night variety show that was Burlington's Fringe Festival in August 2012. Tonight at the Off Center for the Dramatic Arts, the Fringe returns at last.
As it happens, Potato Sack isn't performing this year, but 18 other acts are. And did I mention variety? The performers include stand-up comedians, dancers, musicians and theater artists of serious and silly sorts. Or, as John Alexander puts it, from "drama to madcap craziness."
Each of the three nights will have a different MC, explains Alexander, the Off Center cofounder. Mastering the ceremonies tonight is actor/playwright Seth Jarvis; Phinneus Sonin will be in charge on Friday, and Kim Jordan on Saturday.
While the performers are not exactly juried, there is some quality control, Alexander suggests. But, he adds, "We want to give new people the chance to get out there. That's why Off Center was created."
Each act will have just 10 to 20 minutes onstage. And, judging by last year's shows, this one promises to be just as deliriously entertaining.
The shows start at 8 p.m. $15 at the door, or order online via the Off Center's website.
Ethan de Seife:
Thanks for the eagle-eyed catch, Laura!
Just to clarify, it's the eventbrite listing (accessible via the tiny…
Laura Hale: The eventbrite link is showing that the Montpelier screening is actually August 23rd, instead of the 6th, for…
Tiffany Silliman: Amazing work by a talented and dedicated and wonderful group of young Vermonters.
Lawrence Knowles: This guys legit. I grew up seeing him push lemons with his nose across southern VT, among many…
Justin Boland: This was completely awesome. Thank you.