- Written by Peter Taggart
Heathers (1989) Dir. Michael Lehmann
If anyone has ever asked you what your “damage” is, or perhaps called you a “swatch dog” or a “diet coke-head”, it’s likely they’ve watched Heathers more than once. Fans of the 1989 teenage black comedy tend to be of the passionate variety, weaving quotes from the film throughout their everyday life. And who can blame them? Years after first seeing it on a pay TV network, I found it incredibly difficult to track down a copy I could purchase and, for a while, seriously considered keeping a rental copy and telling the video store it had been stolen and destroyed in a bonfire organised by an underground Hillsong-style militia. The very idea would seem ludicrous if the film were not so controversial. You see, Heathers is a comedy about teen suicide –which, on the surface, seems akin to making a musical about date-rape or a light-hearted family adventure film about heroin addiction (well...Candy did have that fun scene on the gravity carousel...). Exploring such dark subject matter, particularly when aimed at a teenage audience, should be difficult to the point that success is an illogical outcome. But Daniel Waters’ script makes the twisted mix of tragedy and comedy look effortless and, in the safe hands of director Michael Lehmann, Heathers sits comfortably on the very right side of wrong.
At Westerberg High in Sherwood, Ohio, seventeen-year-old Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) is a popular girl desperately tired of her superficial clique, consisting of three teenage girls, all named Heather. Almost a remedy for her adolescent blues, a motorbike-riding rebel named JD (Christian Slater) begins school at Westerberg, instantly befriending Veronica. After being scorned by queen-bee Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), Veronica jokes about bringing her a hangover-cure made of Drain-O, but decides upon a combination of orange juice and milk – meant to merely induce vomiting. But when Heather picks up the mug of Drain-O by accident (and JD notices but keeps quiet) Heather Chandler chokes and dies, plunging melodramatically through a glass coffee table. To protect herself from accusations of murder, Veronica, an expert-forger, writes a suicide note in Chandler’s handwriting. Soon, Veronica and JD indulge in dangerous games with their classmates, bringing down the school’s most popular (and widely feared) students, all the while framing their deaths as a teen suicide epidemic.
Writer Daniel Waters imagined Heathers as an ambitious, three-hour Stanley Kubrick epic. After failing to get Kubrick on-board, Waters trimmed down the script, retaining the trademark witty dialogue. In Heathers, the lead’s biting commentary on life and high school hierarchy make her a teen icon and the twists and turns of the story are strong enough to cut through any adolescent cynicism. Michael Lehmann, who has since directed mainstream comedies and several television series for HBO, suitably makes the script the star and handles the few action sequences with aplomb. Stylistically, Heathers hardly breaks new ground, however a noticeable number of wide lenses and low angle shots are used – a nod, according to the director, meant to mirror the clashing styles of eighties teen comedies, b-grade horrors and the Kubrick works the screenwriter so-idolised. A young Winona Ryder and Christian Slater make a perfect pairing, both actors clearly comfortable in comedic roles. In fact, Ryder connected with her character so strongly she has often expressed a desire to film a sequel, though Waters and Lehmann have said numerous times that there are no plans for another Heathers film.
The producers wanted Heathers to be “the high school film to end all high school films”, but while the critics lavished it with praise, the film flopped at the box office – slowly gaining a cult following after its release on VHS in the early nineties. It wasn’t an easy project to get made either, facing numerous challenges before the first camera even started rolling. J.D. Salinger’s publishers denied the use of ‘Catcher in the Rye’ in the film (meant to be connected to one of the ‘suicides’), actress Heather Graham (originally slated to play Heather McNamara) was forbidden from any involvement after her mother read the racy script and Doris Day reportedly refused to lend her original version of “Que Sera, Sera” (pivotal to the soundtrack) because the project contained profanity (a pet peeve of the saccharine singer). At the time of its release, Heathers was criticised by some for needlessly making “light” of a serious issue. Daniel Waters defended it, saying most films about teen suicide glorify or romanticise the act in some way, making it more appealing to those who are already emotionally vulnerable. To this day Waters claims Heathers does the opposite, making suicide seem “uncool” by satirising the repercussions and the act itself.
In its own morbid, off-beat way, Heathers completely ‘gets’ what it is to be unhappy in high school, more-so than any earnest John Hughes film could ever hope to capture. Heathers sends the clear message that it is perfectly normal to feel trapped and alone sometimes. Veronica even consoles Heather McNamara in the film with the line “if you were happy every day of your life you wouldn’t be a human being, you’d be a game show host”. Though there have been a number of attempts to adapt it (a Heathers musical recently had its first reading in New York and a TV series is reportedly in the works) and to replicate its style (writer/comedian Tina Fey has admitted the 2004 film Mean Girls was heavily influenced by Heathers and was even directed by Daniel Water’s brother, Mark), the original Heathers is a true benchmark of the teen comedy genre...and you don’t have to be a teenager or a “diet coke-head” to work that out.
- Written by Peter Taggart
Goodfellas (1990) Dir. Martin Scorsese
Upon mentioning that I would discuss Goodfellas for this week’s column, a member of my family quickly disputed its cult status. She argued it was too mainstream; too permanently embedded in modern pop culture to be considered for a column meant to tackle the more quirky, unappreciated titles at the video store. Worried she was right, that I was betraying the very nature of The Weeklies Are Cheaper, I left the laptop, sat down and had a sandwich. Then I watched Goodfellas again. Then I watched it a third time with audio commentary. Then I sat back down at my desk and asked myself, “When has a member of my family ever been right about anything in the past?” Then I started writing about Goodfellas.
Though a lot of Generation Y might be familiar with modern mob tales such as The Departed, HBO’s phenomenon The Sopranos and, closer-to-home, Australia’s own gritty gangland tales of Channel Nine’s Underbelly they might be forgiven for missing Martin Scorsese’s 1990 crime drama, Goodfellas. Like some kind of bastard brother, Goodfellas has spent a lot of time in the shadow of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Now, 20 years after its release, Goodfellas is enjoying success on DVD, being watched and inevitably, quoted, by an entirely new audience.
Based on the real-life mafia expose, Nicholas Pileggi’s Wise Guys, the story follows Henry Hill, who, whilst growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950’s, idolises the neighbourhood gangsters. Looking to infiltrate their world of organised crime and unstoppable power, Hill begins to do odd jobs for the gangsters and, after being busted for a petty crime, is accepted into the fold by mob capo Paul Cicero and his mafia associates, Jimmy Conway and Tommy De Vito. In his early twenties, Hill carries out a successful Air France heist, cementing his status and bringing him the riches and notoriety of his childhood dreams. For a period, Hill enjoys dizzying heights (meeting his future wife and, shortly after, his mistress) but after the brutal murder of “made man” Billy Batts and a failed debt-collection mission, Hill does a stint in prison and upon release struggles to find a path back into a life he once enjoyed.
Martin Scorsese, like many of the great directors, spent many hours indoors as a kid, not just watching films, but studying them. In Goodfellas, he references Fellini and borrows the filmic techniques associated with Truffaut and Hitchcock. Though I’m still waiting for my wasted youth to pay-off, Scorcese’s knowledge of great cinema makes Goodfellas a rich experience. His direction may owe a lot to the masters, but he breaks all kinds of rules in the film, using countless freeze frames, breaking the forth wall and paying little attention to continuity. Frequent Scorsese collaborator and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus is responsible for the elegant look of the film – capturing everything from the smoky haze of a Queen’s nightclub to the reflection of a red headlight on the face of a startled Henry Hill in the film’s first minutes.
In one of his first major film roles, Ray Liotta is perfectly cast as Henry Hill – externally, a faithful insider, but internally, a moralistic outsider. As his wife Karen, Lorraine Bracco prepares herself for a lifetime of listening to the twisted logic of a mafia man, later to be seen as Tony Soprano’s psychiatrist in The Sopranos. Despite sharing a lot of camera-time with a tense Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci manages to run away with entire scenes. Arguably Pecsi’s finest performance on screen, his portrayal of the maniacal Tommy DeVito earned him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
This month, to celebrate the film’s 20th anniversary, GQ magazine looked behind the scenes of the production, calling Goodfellas “the truest, bloodiest, greatest gangster film of all time”. Producer Irwin Winkler told GQ that Tom Cruise was discussed for the role of Hill, whilst Barbara De Fina, executive producer of the film, said Madonna had been considered for the role of Karen.
Let’s all just take a deep breath and be grateful for another bullet dodged.
- Written by Peter Taggart
Long Weekend (1978) Dir. Colin Eggleston
Nothing gives me more pleasure than seeing a litterer get their comeuppance. I love seeing an eco-nerd giving a stern lecture to a butt-flicking pedestrian or a school principal patrolling a pristine football oval, handing detention slips to any pest hiding their left-over chip wrappers in the hollow of a tree. Possibly a side-effect of being forced to take part in many fear-inducing “Clean up Australia” days in my youth, I’ve been known to carry around rubbish for hours before finding an appropriate bin. I don’t want to risk dumping an empty bottle of Sprite. And it is a risk. Bad things happen to litterers and whilst I relish seeing them get their just desserts I wouldn’t wish any irresponsible lout the fate shared by the destructive duo at the centre of Colin Eggleston’s classic Australian thriller, Long Weekend.
It’s 1978 and married couple Peter and Marcia pack their Nissan with $2000 worth of camping gear and their dog Cricket and escape the city for a long weekend at a secluded beach, hoping that a few days break may help repair their fractured relationship. Along the way, Peter treats the land as his own personal waste basket, flicking cigarettes into the scrub, as the dry grass burns behind his screeching tyres. Peter recklessly runs over a kangaroo, throws empty stubbies in the ocean and then harpoons them, sending broken glass scattering across the waves. At the campsite, Marcia is well out of her element and resents her partner, who is mostly absent, exploring the surrounding bushland. She is haunted by a mysterious noise that she believes is a crying baby, although Peter thinks it may be the cries of a baby dugong (having just harpooned a large dugong from the shore). As the fighting between Peter and Marcia escalates, their general disdain for the country and its flora and fauna becomes even more apparent. But as the pair takes their toll on nature, nature hits back and eventually takes its toll on them. From ravenous sea eagles to blood-thirsty possums (yes...possums) to an all-consuming wilderness, the elements combine and conspire against the humans, sending one very strange and gory environmental message.
Filmed in just 27 days on location in and around Bega, New South Wales and with a budget of $270,000 dollars, Long Weekend heralded in a new era in Australian filmmaking. Prior to its release in 1978, local cinema had mostly been dominated by historical, period pieces. However, in the late seventies, so-called “Ozploitation” films began to surge in popularity – “Ozploitation” being the name given to low-budget productions that were rich in sex and violence (brilliantly discussed in the documentary Not Quite Hollywood).
Written by unquestionably Australia’s greatest thriller writer, Everett De Roche (the man responsible for most of the most famous films of the “OzPloitation” genre, including Razorback, Patrick and Road Games) the script is stripped back, unsettling, sometimes formulaic but never, ever anything less than viciously entertaining. One of the busiest Australian actors of the seventies, John Hargreaves (Mad Dog Morgan, The Removalists, Don’s Party) is solid as mania-prone Peter, while Briony Behets delivers some signature screams as his anxious and frustrated wife, Marcia. Surprisingly, the slickest and most memorable part of Long Weekend is the completely haunting sound-scape created by composer Michael Carlos (who previously wrote the music for Storm Boy) and sound editor Peter Burgess, the latter emerging as one of the most successful crew members after the film’s release, working as a foley artist on international productions to this day. Burgess compliments the moody score, effectively turning the sounds of local habitat into the unnerving shrieks and howls that are the norm of a nightmarish thriller. The cinematography by Vincent Monton is deserving of praise too, if only for capturing the twisted, cavernous trees lining the path to the beach, looking ghostly as lit only by the cars dull headlights.
Long Weekend was neither critically or commercially successful in Australia at the time, but went on to screen at the Cannes Film Festival and achieved mainstream success in many countries around the world. On the DVD commentary of the film, Producer Richard Brennan blames the lack of local success on the fact that Australian audiences “didn’t find the landscape as unsettling as Asian and European audiences did”. Brennan also points out that Long Weekend was overshadowed, released in a landmark year for Australian film alongside The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Newsfront. The film was remade by Urban Legend director Jamie Blanks and original screenwriter Everett De Roche in 2008, starring Jim “Jesus” Caviezel and Love My Way’s Claudia Karvan. It went straight to DVD.
Though criticised for its lack of subtle imagery (a mouldy Barbie doll on the beach is an all-too-familiar sign of impending doom) and silly, Stephen King-style ending, Long Weekend remains one of the great films of the “Ozploitation” genre. Its influence extends to the collective works of Quentin Tarantino, HBO’s The Sopranos and, of course, the resurgence of Australian horror in the 2000’s. Cleverly playing on an undercurrent of post-colonial self-loathing, Long Weekend is a prime example of a period in our history when Australian film could be both deceptively smart and enthusiastically bold.
Oh...and next time – throw your rubbish in the bin. You don’t want to make the possums angry.
You won’t like them when their angry.
The 400 Blows
- Written by Peter Taggart
The 400 Blows (1959) Dir. Francois Truffaut
I watched The 400 Blows because Ellen Page said she likes it. I watched The 400 Blows so that if I ever met Ellen Page, we’d have something to discuss. Superficial? Ok. Stalker-ish? Sure. A little sad? Almost certainly.
But does it really matter how we discover great films? As a teenage boy, I discovered many foreign gems whilst watching late night SBS, searching for the obligatory full-frontal nudity. On other occasions, I’ve simply picked up the wrong case at Video 2000. Who knew Vera Drake wasn’t a hilarious Farrelly brothers comedy?
As it turns out, Page isn’t the only famous fan of Francois Truffaut’s debut feature. As a founder of the French New Wave (a significant period in international cinema), Truffaut’s work influenced the likes of Tarantino, Spielberg, Kurosawa, Scorcese and other directors whose last names are firmly embedded in pop culture.
The 400 Blows (or, Les Quatre cents coups, meaning “to raise hell”) tells the story of Antoine Doinel, a young French school boy, scorned by his parents and teachers, cementing at an early age his outcast status. In class, he takes the wrap for petty rule-breaking and earns the constant wrath of his teacher, known to Antoine as a “bastard” and a “sourpuss”. His home life is defined by serving his mother, sharing jokes with his father, taking out the garbage and, in the wee hours, attempting to sleep as his parent’s feud in the room next door. When Antoine decides to skip school with his similarly neglected best friend Rene, he encounters his mother on the street, who is kissing another man, confirming his father’s suspicions of adultery. After lying about his absence to both his father and teacher and plagiarising a class essay, Antoine’s life at home and school intersect and soon he finds himself on the streets, sneaking into movie theatres with Rene and stealing from his father’s office. Eventually his crimes catch up with him and Antoine faces a life away from friends and family and the death of his last remaining scrap of innocence.
While not touted as an entirely autobiographical work, in her essay on The 400 Blows, critic Annette Insdorf discusses the ways in which the film mirrors Truffaut’s own tumultuous childhood. Like Antoine, Truffaut lived with his grandmother until he was eight years old, after which he began a difficult relationship with his young mother. But, as Insdorf acknowledges, one of the most telling themes in the film is that of paternity. In one scene, Antoine’s teacher has the class recite the question “where is the father?”. It is a question relevant to both the character of Antoine and his creator – neither of whom knew their biological fathers.
In a broader sense, The 400 Blows explores not only the director’s own experiences, but the concept of boyhood. It is a subject that, prior to the film, had not been greatly explored in cinema in terms of its full emotional impact. Truffaut works to show us every facet of a boy on the verge of emotional and physical maturity. The director goes beyond the atypical portrayal of angst and rebellion, using small moments to illustrate Antione’s mental fragility, burgeoning sexuality and need for love and belonging. Since its release in 1959, directors from across the globe have attempted to put their own stamp on the true nature of boyhood, captured in films such as Ken Loach’s much-lauded Kes and, more recently, in Spike Jonze’s wildly imaginative telling of Where the Wild Things Are.
Aside from the plot, which was deeply controversial at the time of the film’s release, The 400 Blows is strikingly modern in its appearance, employing many of the filmic techniques of the French New Wave. Refusing to be bound by convention, Truffaut tells his story through long tracking shots, perfectly choreographed school scenes shot from above and innovative, rapid-paced editing. Truffaut’s ends the film with a haunting freeze frame of Antoine, staring directly into camera – an ending so memorable, it was copied in numerous television commercials and films, from indie drama Thirteen to big-budget epic Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The ending was even parodied in The Simpsons’ “Any Given Sundance” episode, by Springfield’s very own troubled youth, Nelson Muntz.
Truffaut’s unique vision was awarded with a Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959 and his breakthrough film was even nominated for an Academy Award. The film also received a BAFTA nomination and would later make the top ten of the British Film Institute’s “50 films you should see by the age of 14”. But please – don’t rent the film because of its accolades or its influence or because I think you should. Rent it because Ellen Page likes it.