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February 03, 2014

What I'm Watching: 'Heathers'

Teenage suicide. Don't do it.

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 be 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 to craft — 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, modernist 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 each other, the film also makes a point of likening them strongly. 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 dialogue, 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 dialogue. 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.

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