Written by: Brett Williams, Special to CC2K
Do you remember high school? The bad food, the hormones, the marching band that was better than the football team. The discovery, the fear, the formation of your personality to come. High school was at times maddening, at times exhilarating, and at times, well…high school.
If you’re anything like me, you had a list of movies that served you well over those tumultuous teenage years. A group of films that you watched over and over again, until the tape was wearing down and the VCR was so hot you could fry an egg on it. A collection of cinema standards that would recall the best moments of your teenage years and would help pave the way for pop culture obsessions for years to come.
So now, dear readers, I present to you the five movies I loved in high school, in the hopes that it will give you some insight, not just into me, but into yourselves.
Highlander – I first saw Highlander during my sophomore year of high school and it opened so many doors for me. That was the year that I really came out of my shell and met some friends who would help define my personality for the rest of my life. Sure, I was always a geek, but before that year I was the sort of geek who could tell you Tony Gwynn’s lifetime on base percentage or the number of rebounds Bill Russell accrued throughout his storied NBA career. I was a sports geek. I wore matching University of Tennessee Volunteers t-shirts and ball caps, turned embarrassingly backwards on my bowl-cut sporting head. I spent more time shooting baskets in my driveway than reading comic books. I watched more college football than horror movies. My only connection to the life I’d one day lead was an obsession with Star Wars. Highlander changed all that.
The friends I made during my sophomore year of high school introduced me to Dungeons & Dragons, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman novels, Simon and Garfunkel records, and science fiction movies including, but not limited to, this one. While the perceived merits of such a film don’t hold up as well when you’re older (despite what Ricky Bobby may say), Highlander is more about the memories I associate with it than it is the movie itself.
For me, Highlander is sitting in my friend Josh’s trailer, cramming snacks and soda down our gullets, watching Christopher Lambert desperately try and stumble his way through an alien language (English). It’s about being just far enough from the precipice of adulthood to still be scared to death by a villain like the Kurgan. It’s driving to Nashville for the day, listening to Queen’s It’s a King of Magic on cassette, singing “Who Wants to Live Forever” at the top of my lungs. It’s dressing up as Connor for Halloween on what was one of the best nights of my life.
I have to admit that I probably couldn’t make it through Highlander these days without falling asleep, but I still have a spot in my heart for the movie that helped jump start my happy geek life.
The Crow – Romance, desperation, pain, death, alienation, violence, nudity, hot rods, great one-liners, based on a comic book. God, could you build a better movie for a death-obsessed teenager like myself? I originally saw The Crow just before I entered high school, but it stuck with me for years after.
Everyone knows the tragic story. Brandon Lee, a promising young actor and son of the famous martial artist Bruce Lee, was killed accidentally during the filming of the movie. So maybe it was a morbid fascination that brought me to it, but it was everything the movie stood for, everything it said, that cut me to the quick.
When you’re that young, you’re prone to acting on passion, to seeing the world in absolutes. The Crow was instantly relatable because it was the ultimate example of such a black and white world. There are bad people, there are good people. The bad people do terrible things to the good people. The world, deciding that justice can’t come with a robe and a gavel, gives those good people a chance to avenge the wrongs perpetrated against them. It’s love, revenge, blood, hope, need, sex, and violence. It’s everything that makes us human, everything that dwells in the basement of our soul. For a teenager, that’s pretty affecting stuff.
You get older, you get hurt, you grow cynical, you lose innocence, you see the world in varying shades. Gone is the notion that there is ultimate good and ultimate evil, the idea that life rights itself, that the good guys will always win. At a time in my life when I could feel adulthood stalking me like a tiger in the leaves, The Crow represented a return to innocence, a return to the idea that something magical, something bigger, would always be there to make sure that the good guys always won, that love would conquer all.
Beyond the picture there was the soundtrack, a motley collection of goth rock and heavy metal that laid the seeds for my musical interests throughout high school. The music was dark, haunting, powerful, and at times, heart-wrenchingly romantic. It was the perfect companion to the film.
And, it cannot go without noting, that my interest in the movie led me to the comic book, which in turn led me back to an interest in comics that I’d lost after grade school and taught me that the medium could be more than just superheroes and spandex.
Looking back, this film had more of an affect on me as a teenager than any other movie on the list.
Desperado – One could argue that Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith and Robert Rodriguez were the best directors to emerge from the nineties. Their first three movies had been clear declarations of purpose, impressive opening salvos on careers that would help define genre filmaking for the next decade. But most people my age, we missed those opening salvos. For us, it wasn’t Reservoir Dogs, Clerks, and El Mariachi that introduced us to this trio. It was Pulp Fiction, Mallrats, and Desperado. Mallrats I’ll mention later, Pulp Fiction is the “in case someone can’t go because of injury” alternate on this list, and Desperado is, well…it’s Desperado.
Desperado was high-octane, balls to the wall, over the top badassery to the Nth degree. At seventeen, it was undeniably the coolest thing I’d ever freaking seen.
I’m not saying that Desperado is the greatest action movie ever made. Raiders of the Lost Ark and Die Hard share that distinction. What made Desperado important to me though wasn’t the fact that it was a great action movie, it was the fact that it was a great Western. The sheer Sergio Leone greatness of it was awe-inspiring.
A great Western calls your attention to a terrible injustice, in this case the affect of drugs on small Mexican communities. It creates a perfect anti-hero, in this case a flawed man motivated not by his desire to do what is right, but by his desire to enact revenge on the men who murdered his love. And, most importantly, a great Western must deliver mind-blowing gunfights. In this third and final aspect, Desperado may be the greatest film of all time.
Marrying the wild Hong Kong kung-fu of directors such as John Woo with the gritty gunfighter archetype perfected by Clint Eastwood, Robert Rodriguez created a movie that is to gunfights what Bullitt is to car chases. And who can forget guitar case chain guns and rocket launchers? I was floored.
Desperado had the perfect setting, the perfect hero, the perfect dastardly, unrepentant villains, the perfect bombshell saloon girl, and the perfect use of the gun as the final arbiter of justice. It led me to the world of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood, and for that I am eternally grateful.
The Empire Strikes Back – It’s almost impossible now to think about the original Star Wars trilogy without thinking about how George Lucas dragged its good name through the muck with subsequent years of bad prequels and saturation marketing. For most of us, the memory of such a formative set of films as the Star Wars trilogy has been forever sullied by the realization that their creator doesn’t give a damn about us, the people who made him who he is today. So when I started compiling this list, I subconsciously avoided mentioning Star Wars. Now, as I sit here writing all this out, I realize that I could no more omit Empire from this list than I could escape the standardized tests of my youth. While in later years my love of all things Lucas was (deservingly) replaced by my love of all things Whedon, I can’t deny the importance of Star Wars on my young life.
And if we’re talking about the original Star Wars trilogy, there’s really only one movie to talk about. Sure, the original film is great, but it’s basically Hidden Fortress in Space with a few other homages mixed in for good measure. And Return of the Jedi? The greatest army the galaxy has ever known is brought to its knees by a few cruise liners with cannons and a bunch of Neolithic teddy bears. Need I say more?
So The Empire Strikes Back is it.
Even as a kid, I knew that Empire was something special. At the time I didn’t know that Irvin Kershner had more to do with the quality of the script and the characters than did George Lucas, nor did I know that Harrison Ford ad-libbed one of the best lines in the trilogy. I just knew that it was better.
Looking back, it was Empire that really hooked me. Sure, the special effects in all three films were incredible, the action sequences were amazing, the different creatures were awe-inspiring, but what I loved most about Star Wars were the characters, the stories. If you watch those original three films now, you’ll see that it was the guiding hand of Kershner that transformed a memorable, if one-dimensional, science fiction series into an institution. Kershner took prosaic characters and prosaic dialogue and turned them into a mosaic.
And Empire was so dark! As a kid, you’d never seen anything like that. At the end of the movie, the rebels have suffered a crippling loss and are flying off to meet what could be their ultimate doom. Leia has realized her love for Han just before he’s taken away from her, likely for good. And Luke has just discovered that the force of evil he’s vowed to destroy, the force that Obi-Wan Kenobi gave his life to protect him from, is actually his father. For a generation of kids hoping for more laser sword fights and explosions, we got a lesson in just how hard life is. Life doesn’t always turn out how you want it to, sometimes insurmountable odds are actually insurmountable, and the good guys do not always win.
What a great film!
Mallrats– Nothing was better for a comic book loving, movie-obsessed geek in the nineties than discovering Kevin Smith. For me, that discovery came with my first viewing of Mallrats.
When I think about Mallrats now, I can’t get past some things. Jeremy London was a black hole that tried desperately to suck any joy or humor out of every scene he was in. Shannon Doherty’s Rene was as shallow and as irredeemable as her character on Beverly Hills 90210. Claire Forlani just looked dazed for the majority of the film. And Michael Rooker was, well…disgusting.
But then there was Joey Lauren Adams and all her underwear, Jay and Silent Bob bumbling their way through their marijuana-fueled, comic book inspired rebellion, and Brodie, ye gods, Brodie.
Jason Lee was there with his tiny soda cup and his absurd ruminations on life. Jason Lee was there to ask Stan Lee everything us sex-obsessed young geek boys longed to ask him. Jason Lee was there to get the girl despite the fact that he was an unapologetic slacker. Mallrats sucked, really, but Jason Lee at his early scene-stealing best damn near saved it. In Brodie Bruce, Kevin Smith and Jason Lee gave us our slacker god and made us all feel good about being so bad at life.
Nowadays, it’s cool to be a dork. They call it Geek Chic. But back then, we were a marginalized majority, silent but for the sound of polyhedron dice rolling across formica tables in the night. Brodie gave us a voice, and we thanked him for it.
So that concludes my list, faithful readers. Tell me, what were your favorite movies as a crater-faced, hormone-charged, Smiths-listening highschooler? Inquiring minds want to know.