Reinventing the Present [PUMP UP THE VOLUME]

From the Chicago Reader (August 17, 1990). — J.R.


**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Allan Moyle

With Christian Slater, Samantha Mathis, Scott Paulin, Ellen Greene, Annie Ross, Cheryl Pollak, and Andy Romano.

It’s hard to talk seriously about the 60s today, because TV and a lot of assholes have almost ruined it. When I taught film courses in southern California in the mid-80s, I was appalled to discover that college students thought of the 60s as a traumatic, troubled period — a time characterized by young people losing their way, freaking out on bad acid trips, denouncing their parents, getting killed in Vietnam, and protesting the way American society was being run and abjectly failing at it. For students of the 80s, the golden age was the repressive, bland, stultifying 50s, when staunch family and property values were both firmly in place — the mythical past that Uncle Ronnie and all his furry friends comfortingly evoked.

Many of these students didn’t realize — and some of them still don’t — that the 60s was a more prosperous period than the 50s, economically as well as spiritually. Some people actually had fun at demonstrations and on hallucinogens, and they often accomplished and learned important things in the process. Most of all, a lot of very alienated, withdrawn, and lonely people made the discovery that they weren’t alone, that they were sharing feelings that were luminous, hopeful, caring, sensual, passionate, and potentially sustaining.

But you can’t really talk about any of that nowadays without making people under 40 groan. It’s easy enough to understand: the biggest and most influential disseminator of history is TV and all TV tells us about the 60s is the stuff that was false, fatuous, and silly. Worst of all, the people who were only too happy to betray whatever was most dangerous, hopeful, and valuable about 60s values, basically the ones who cared about money and power, were mainly the ones who wound up, either consciously or inadvertently, with the task of defining the era for subsequent generations. (It wasn’t the first time this happened: Rebel Without a Cause director Nicholas Ray, who sprang from the radical 30s and later wound up embracing the hippies, called his own generation “more guilty of betrayal than any other generation in history”; he was thinking of the 50s, and fortunately didn’t live to see the 80s.)

Besides, any contemporary teenager with brains and some concern for improving the world has good reason to be suspicious when any golden age is evoked. History never repeats itself very precisely, even if Marx had a point when he said that what occurs as tragedy sometimes repeats itself as farce. If you want to change things nowadays, you’re better off reinventing history and tradition — which amounts to reinventing the present — than trying to re-create phantom images out of history books. Last year’s rally in Tiananmen Square evoked the 60s in certain ways, but in more important ways it was radically different –not only because it was happening in China but also, at least in part, because many of the students had access to fax machines: starting with whatever happens to be available, along with new ideas about how to use it, is the prerequisite for radical change.

From the moment Christian Slater’s precredits, offscreen monologue is heard, over a sustained guitar chord while a slow pan sweeps across an aerial night view of a suburban tract-house subdivision, Pump Up the Volume promises to be something special, and it’s a promise that’s kept. Conceivably the first genuinely radical youth movie since Over the Edge (1979), it differs from that worthy predecessor by being exhilarating rather than disturbing — it’s an upper, not a downer, and a good deal closer to farce than to tragedy (although it has room enough for both). Without wanting to go overboard, I can testify that it has given me more pleasure than any other new movie I’ve seen this summer — providing the kind of energizing, sexy elation I used to go to American movies in the hopes of finding.


Whether Pump Up the Volume is a masterpiece is another question, and, in the final analysis, a less important one. Masterpiece or not, it succeeds perfectly in everything it sets out to do. For all its strengths, Rebel Without a Cause is no masterpiece either, but it hardly needed to be one to have the impact it did and get its feelings across in 1955. (Christian Slater, moreover, is no James Dean, but for the purposes of this film, his style — devoid of masochism or self-pity — is better than any Dean surrogate’s could have been. Though some of its best ideas are plundered from Rebel Without a Cause, Citizens Band (aka Handle With Care), Network, and Talk Radio, Pump Up the Volume puts them together with such sincerity and freshness that you never feel it’s trading on borrowed goods. What it has to say, in fact, is so up to date that it has less in common with those movies and more in common with last summer’s Do the Right Thing — as a movie about a community’s social interactions in relation to contemporary problems and attitudes, and beyond that, as a movie about censorship and freedom.

Happy Harry Hard-on is the radio name of Mark Hunter — a shy, alienated student at a school in the fictional town of Paradise Hills, Arizona, whose apposite name (Hubert Humphrey High) has the same initials as his pseudonym; he has recently moved from the east with his parents. His father (Scott Paulin), a former 60s idealist, works as a local high school administrator, and Mark has nothing to say to him — or to his fellow students, for that matter, at least in public. But every night at ten, on a ham radio console hidden in the basement, he assumes a secret identity; disguising his voice with a harmonizer, he broadcasts an aggressive pirate show of music and talk that has developed a passionate, cultlike following at his school.

Venting his rage about diverse forms of corruption, bemoaning his generation’s lack of purpose and direction (“Everything decent’s been done — all the great themes have been turned into theme parks”) and periodically pretending to jerk off on the air, he also invites listeners to write him at an anonymous box number so he can read their letters and phone them during his broadcasts. Among his targets are homophobia, the school’s fatuous guidance counselor (whose indiscretion about one student’s pregnancy led to her expulsion), his parents’ worship of the past (“Look where the 60s got them”), and the expectations and strategies of adults in relation to contemporary teenagers in general.

We’re clued in to Hard Harry’s appeal very early on; most of his fellow students are isolated from one another to the same degree that he is isolated from them. (His mock on-the-air masturbation is a perfect metaphor for his plight.) We see, among others, a cheerleader and model student (Cheryl Pollak) caressing a stuffed animal in her bedroom, a chubby boy who sells tapes of the broadcasts at school, a punk (Billy Morrissette) listening in his car on an empty field, soon joined by two girls listening in another car (which leads him to grunt, “Fuckin’ yuppies”), a fiery rebel named Nora (Samantha Mathis) who writes erotic letters in free verse, which Harry reads aloud on the air while she privately recites them in unison, and a quiet recluse who listens morosely beside his computer. The film’s absolute assurance in cutting between these and other listeners, including a sympathetic teacher nicely played by Ellen Greene, is central to its overall effectiveness in building momentum because it acquaints us with a number of vivid characters in a minimal amount of time.

Gradually the divisions between Harry and most of these listeners starts to crumble. It takes a certain amount of work and dedication for this to happen, and this comes not from Mark/Harry — who’s usually pathetically helpless and inarticulate whenever he emerges from his basement — but from Nora/the Beat-Me Lady, who tries to convince Harry that the “voice” he says he’s waiting for happens to be his own. (The fact that her secret name sounds like masochistic code is a red herring; it actually alludes to Beat poetry.) Samantha Mathis — the daughter of Bibi Besch, who recently played the groom’s mother in Betsy’s Wedding — makes her theatrical movie debut here, and she embodies Nora’s courage with such conviction and verve that her character serves throughout as a bracing rebuke to Mark and his limitations. Literally as well as figuratively, she’s the one who makes Hard Harry’s broadcasts into something more than just masturbation.

Rather than risk spoiling things by telling how all this happens — a beautiful unfurling process that galvanizes and unites the students, frightens the parents and the school administration, and ultimately brings out the cops and the FCC — I’d rather concentrate on what gives its expression so much force and potency. It might be argued that writer-director Allan Moyle and his collaborators have simply concocted an intoxicating fantasy, and certainly the power of fantasy isn’t irrelevant to what gives the movie its lift. But the fantasy happens to be believable. (For whatever it’s worth, my 17-year-old nephew found both the characters and the situations convincing, and the mainly college-age audience that he and I saw the preview with seemed every bit as engaged as we were.)

It’s implied that the hero’s protest has some roots in the 60s — he’s just read Lenny Bruce’s autobiography How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, which he’s improbably checked out of the school library, and his show’s theme song is Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” — but part of the giddy power of this movie is that it isn’t simply a trip down memory lane. Significantly, two of the songs featured on Hard Harry’s show are 60s anthems reworked by current bands — MC-5’s “Kick Out the Jams” performed by Bad Brains with Henry Rollins, and Sly Stone’s “Stand” done by Liquid Jesus; others are such relatively up-to-date hallmarks as the Descendents’ 17-second song about whale sperm, the Beastie Boys’ notorious “Scenario,” Ice-T’s “Girls L.G.B.N.A.F.,” the Pixies’ “Wave of Mutilation (U.K. Surf),” and “Dad I’m in Jail” by Was (Not Was), as well as tunes by the Cowboy Junkies and Sonic Youth.

Allan Moyle is a middle-aged independent filmmaker and sometime actor from Canada who directs here with unusual care and sensitivity and whose script bristles with wit and observation, particularly in Harry’s monologues. His previous features, which I haven’t seen, are Montreal Main, The Rubber Gun, and Times Square, and he’s written a script that’s currently being directed by Lizzie Borden. (It’s worth recalling that Ray was in his mid-40s when he made Rebel Without a Cause. It also should be noted that the script for Pump Up the Volume has personal roots — specifically, a journal that Moyle kept in high school and his sister’s experiences at a high school in Montreal that expelled students with low test scores.) Whatever this is, it doesn’t look like the movie of a middle-aged man. Significantly, the lead villain — a school principal who weeds out students with low SAT scores, played by the very hip former jazz singer Annie Ross –spouts the kind of claptrap about education that Moyle’s generation and mine has virtually minted. (Another villain is played by Andy Romano, who had an important part in Over the Edge, and the able cinematographer is Walt Lloyd, who shot sex, lies, and videotape.)

What I like most about Pump Up the Volume is that whatever it may surreptitiously owe to the 60s, its central, passionate, joyous project is reinventing the present, working with what’s already at hand, and even giving us some hope about it. The fact that it does this simply and unabashedly gives the critic little to work with; it’s all there, right on the surface, with nothing to decode — just a dream, and a dream of an idea, that it asks us to share and celebrate. And better yet, emulate.

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