Saturday, September 27, 2008

Pump Up the Volume (Allan Moyle, 1990)

I'm sure I'm not alone when I say this, but I really wanted to launch my own radio station after I saw Pump Up the Volume, a shimmering glob of underrated awesomeness, one that fought for your undivided attention twenty years ago, but got lost in the overcrowded realm that was teen angst cinema. Of course, nowadays, the idea of broadcasting a pirate radio show from the moldy, jizz-stained confines of your parents' basement might seem a tad quaint–especially in a world dominated by social media and reality television–but in 1990, it was groundbreaking stuff. Seriously, a disaffected teen as the catalyst for change wasn't that far-fetched during a time when apathy and yuppie culture had infected the general populace. Spouting a crude yet compelling melange of saucy malapropisms on the radio, complimented by an eclectic array of rap, punk, pop, and Leonard Cohen, a properly motivated adolescent in a bowling shirt could inspire the alienated and the downtrodden hovering around their speakers to do his or her bidding, and do so with an alarming ease. It didn't matter if person doing the talking originally intended to shake things up, your voice was singled out as the champion for those being "butt-surfed by the system" whether you like it or not. My pirate radio station, for example, would have been an ear-destroying cacophony of post-industrial sex music and italo disco (with weather and fashion updates on the hour). In other words, while my station's chic temperament would never be in doubt, its seemingly innocuous content wouldn't cause the shady bureaucrats who the run local high school to loose any sleep. The radio station featured in this film, on the other hand, oozes of subversion from every pore.

Welcome to Paradise Hills, Arizona, a sleepy suburb that will think twice the next time it decides to underestimate the power of an aniseed flavoured chewing gum enthusiast wearing nothing but a cock ring. Capturing the spirit of aimless youth in a manner unseen in the bulk of movies about teenagers, writer-director Allan Moyle (Times Square) has created an unusual world where one teen talks and the rest listen. Typical teen archetypes like, the jock, the geek, the popular girl, the freaky chick in striped tights, and, of course, the burnouts (Seth Green and Andy Romano), are all rendered mute, as they all become enamoured with a single voice. The stresses that come with attending Hubert Humphrey High are too much for Mark Hunter (Christian Slater), a newly transferred student from "back east." Started in his parents' basement as a lark (it seems he originally wanted to get the attention of the popular girl archetype), Mark responds to this stress by performing nightly rants on the radio.

Over time, his rants, which are mainly directed toward his school's corrupt administration and usually married with the alternative music of the day and juvenile humour, grow in popularity. Every night at around 10 P.M., Mark, who uses the on air handle: Hard Harry, plops the needle down on Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows" (the official theme song of his late night program) and proceeds to enlighten and amuse his dedicated audience.

The audience is encouraged to participate in the Hard Harry experience, and do so usually by sending letters to his P.O. Box. His favourite correspondence is with a listener he dubs the "Eat Me Beat Me Lady," who is, in reality, a Hubert Humphrey High student named Nora DeNiro (Samantha Mathis). Sending him erotic poetry on a semi-regular basis, which is written on the same red paper and written in the same black handwriting, Nora and Harry seem to have a weird chemistry with one another, despite the fact that they've never met.

Determined to uncover the phantom DJ's true identity, Nora keeps a record of all clues she picks up while listening to Hard Harry's show. The clues "likes to read alone" and "Black Jack gum" cause Nora to zero in on Mark, as those are a couple things that Hard Harry has stated that he likes to do while at school. Of course, Mark and Hard Harry, who are technically the same person, behave totally different while immersed in their own environment, so making the connection between the two people won't be easy.

The death of a student, whose suicide is blamed on Hard Harry (he'd kill himself, but he's "too depressed to bother"), puts a damper Mark and Nora's inevitable meeting, as increased scrutiny is placed on the subversive radio show. The media accuses Harry of exploiting his teenage audience, while principal Creswood (Annie Ross, Basket Case 2), the fascistic ruler of Hubert Humphrey High, wants to crush Harry for daring to expose her administration's wrongdoings. What will Mark/Harry do? Will he lay low until and hope that all this will eventually blows over, or will he strike back at the forces that are lined up against him with the only weapon in his arsenal? Only time will tell. Personally, I'm hoping he chooses the latter, because I'd really like to see Harry's minions/listeners rise up in the cafeteria and stab their adversaries with their plastic forks.

Motivating students and teachers alike, Harry inspires Paige Woodward (Cheryl Pollak, My Best Friend Is a Vampire) a frustrated popular girl to destroy her belongings and causes English teacher, Jan Emerson (the beautiful Ellen Greene), to stand up for what's right. I'll admit, I was mildly perturbed by the fact that Mark seemed to be attracted to Paige and not Nora at first. However, Mark does ultimately make the right decision and starts to focus his romantic gaze in Nora's general direction. Did he really think that Paige was Eat Me Beat Me Lady? Only someone as alluring as Nora, with her elongated neck and artistic temperament, could possibly be responsible for writing like that.

Don't judge me too harshly, but I tend to flip-flop between Pump Up the Volume and Heathers quite regularly as to what I consider the best Christian Slater performance of all-time. But right this minute, I'm leaning toward this particular one. Mainly because Mark Hunter, shy teen by day, horny disc jockey by night, is such a juicy role. Plus, I tend to relate more to Mark/Harry's personality crisis. When he's pontificating as his more forthright alter ego, Hard Harry, a cock-ring wearing, masturbation enthusiast with a penchant for Wild Cherry Diet Pepsi and Black Jack gum, you could tell Christian was having a blast being the reluctant spokesmen for the Why Bother? Generation.

I don't know why I'm mentioning this, but the manner in which Mark Hunter carried his knapsack was exactly the same as one of my friends back in high school.

The girl who helps bring Mark Hunter out his shell, and assists him when he needs an extra pair of hands to help bring his revolutionary message to the pimple-covered masses is a sensuous angel in stripped tights; a dirty-minded hellion with a sinful penmanship; a loquacious hellcat who likes it rough; a raven-haired goddess in a...uh, you get the idea. At the time this film came out, I thought Winona Ryder was the only quirky brunette I ever needed. But that myth was shattered forever when I saw Samantha Mathis' bob-haired silhouette all over media during the week of the film's release. Stalking the HHH campus in search of the elusive DJ, Samantha, her black and white striped tights calming the nerves of every pervert within a five mile radius, looked like a Goth supermodel. Merely saying that I adore Samantha Mathis' performance in Pump Up the Volume doesn't seem to cut it. You see, my adoration for her sultry turn as Nora DeNiro, a.k.a. the "Eat Me Beat Me Lady," soars beyond the stratosphere in terms of unrequited infatuation.

The swirly smooch between Eric Stoltz and Mary Stuart Masterson in Some Kind of Wonderful is, in my opinion, the best onscreen kiss in movie history. Well, that intimate moment between Christian Slater and Samantha Mathis has to be the best non-kiss in movie history. Their gaping mouths linger, as if they were about to inhale one another whole, but their lips don't actually touch. It's an extremely provocative scene, full of adolescent desire and sexual frustration. Oh, and the fact that both actors are topless in the scene probably helped in the sizzle department. This sense of longing is continued the very next day when Mark and Nora meet up on the HHH campus and proceed to go through the same mouth lingering machinations.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Lala Sloatman, who plays Nora's bespectacled gal pal, Janie. I loved the vintage clothing she sports throughout the film; lot's of greens and pinks with an emphasis on layers and novelty leggings (one pair is covered with peace symbols). She's kinda like a cross between a hip librarian and a New Wave bag lady. In other words, very sexy. Oh, and keen observers will notice that Lala subtly gives the principal "the finger" in one scene (she pretends to scratch her eye with her, you guessed it, middle finger). Quirky fun-fact: Lala's uncle is Frank Zappa, and her boyfriend in the movie is played by Ahmet Zappa.

The film's soundtrack is virtual who's who of late '80s alt rock, hip hop, and punk. My faves being: "Titanium Expose" by Sonic Youth, the Peter Murphy oddity "I've Got a Secret Miniature Camera," the Pixies' "Wave of Mutilation (U.K. Surf)," and "Love Comes in Spurts" by Richard Hell.

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  2. Cool! I've always wanted an MP3 of the Descendents' "Weinerschnitzel." :D

  3. I'd like to start a petition to have them re-release this on DVD with a better transfer and some extras other than a trailer. Cult classic, and a very personal film to me. Great write-up. Brought back some memories.

  4. Pump Up The Volume is a classic!

    Definitely agree with you about wanting to start my own radio station after watching this.

  5. I would bet you good money that subconscious manifestations of Hard Harry helped lead many 40-somethings to their own podcast, when the technology emerged to let us all pull a "Mark" without the expense and technical expertise of maintaining radio-broadcasting equipment.

    I would question the sanity of anyone who watched this movie and didn't dream of creating their own pirate radio show.