Friday, January 21, 2011
Weird Science (1985)
by Jimmy "Tensed Up" Callaway
For those of you keeping score, Weird Science is John Hughes' most nerd-friendly movie, and therefore his best. The Breakfast Club is right out, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off comes close, but the nerd does not get the girl in that one and has to settle for another way to castrate his father. Also, the script for Weird Science was apparently banged out by Hughes in just a couple of days, which may account for its more base humor when compared with his more thoughtful, let's-smoke-dope-and-hate-our-parents-together movies. But it also strikes me as his most thoughtful thematically in spite of this. Let's discuss:
The opening shot is of Gary and Wyatt, our heroes. As the camera pans up, directly behind them in the school corridor is a banner for an after-school club, "The Future Homemakers." A minor detail to be sure, but no director is going to frame something like that on accident and have it be so legible. Our first glimpse at our heroes and we also effectively have a sign declaring they're a couple of women (not to be sexist, but this is the vocabulary we're dealing with). Gary and Wyatt are ineffectual, total pussies (although oddly enough they're referred to oftentimes as being "dicks" in a similar disparaging manner). And like the ineffectual will often do, they both retreat into a world of fantasy. Wyatt, the more pragmatic of the two, attempts to bring Gary back to reality, reminding him, "Nobody likes us. Nobody." "We know the reality," Gary says, "Don't mess with the fantasy."
This short exchange has been bantered about in various forms in comic-book stores across the country for years by guys (like yours truly) who suck at manly stuff like sports or scoring with the ladies (Hello, Future Homemakers!), and therefore build castles in the sky in which to live. Now this is a very soothing balm for one's mind and soul, but unfortunately, it is extremely tenuous. Especially when Robert Downey Jr. and that guy who was on Babylon 5 for a season sneak up behind you and pants you in front of the girls' gymnastics team (devil's advocate: the "Check me out!" game is actually really fun, and my friends and I went through an extended phase ourselves). Here again is it pointed up just how out of whack Gary and Wyatt are: their ratty Chucks are unlaced, their socks are full of holes, their gym shorts don't fit very well. Max and Ian both look picture perfect with their Reeboks (or whatever trendy '80s sneakers they're wearing) and their Simple Minds hair.
Hell, the title of the movie alone is a big nerdy reference to the classic sci-fi comic of the 1950s published by EC. This was actually kind of a good thing about the '80s. A) A good chunk of the boomer generation were weaned on comics and TV and really set about making pop culture relevant, and B) those in the non-mainstream were truly beginning to take over. The 1980s were really the final decade that the beautiful people had to themselves. Eventually, the computer geeks would own everything, the punks would be winning political office, and the blacks would take back the radio. But still, in order to truly break into the future (or "The Wave of the Future," as the poster in Wyatt's room proclaims), Gary and Wyatt are going to have to bend reality to their will a bit, instead of allowing it to intrude on their way of life.
Of course, this is where Lisa comes in. Lisa acts as the bridge from fantasy to reality, from the ineffectual to the "in full effect." As the movie progresses, the boys feel like Lisa is out of control, but that is exactly why they created her, whether they realized it or not. "In control" is what Gary's parents are, what Wyatt's brother Chet is, what Max and Ian are. And sure, that's worked for them so far. But it's the difference between surviving in the jungle and living in the jungle. And if you want to be a party animal, you have to learn to live in the jungle.
Maybe I'm wrong, but I cannot remember Hughes ever using another film within one of his so effectively as he does Frankenstein (albeit, a shitty colorized version [wave of the future!]) in Weird Science. It really only makes sense that Gary and Wyatt would use computer technology, that infant home-science of the '80s, to create their post-modern Prometheus (with a little voodoo worship thrown in for good measure [aside: bras on their heads as ceremonial was never that funny to me as a kid because it just made too much sense. "Of course, what else would you do?"]). Victor von Frankenstein was an insane megalomaniac, and these two just wanna get laid. But six of one, half a dozen of the other. Both Vic and our boys are looking to take control over their own environments. The big difference here is that Vic's monster was incapable of productive destruction, while Lisa is incapable of anything but. Y'know, it's kinda like that old saying about giving guy a fish and feeding him for a day. Gary and Wyatt are going to learn to fish and eat for a lifetime.
The first thing Gary and Wyatt do with Lisa after they bang her out on the ol' Memotech MTX512 is shower with her. This not only affords us a lovingly long glance at Kelly LeBrock's lower back, it's also a nice cinematic way of beginning to clean off the past. Gary and Wyatt have now officially embarked on a journey that will completely change who they are. Sure, they're still wearing their jeans, but they need to acclimate still. We've got a lot of movie left, folks.
The next order of business is the naming ceremony. The naming of anything often carries pretty deep psychological significance, namely (har) that the namer wields power over the named. That's why they tell kooks locked up in rubber rooms to name the demons in their heads, to effect control over their psychoses. In this flick, it works similarly. Gary suggests the name "Lisa" after a girl he liked who kneed him in the nuts and called him "faggot" in front of everybody. It seems a bit odd that he'd want to name his (literal) sex object after a woman who so maliciously emasculated him (the nuts were bad enough, but to tar him as a--gasp!--homosexual? Fiendish. [again, the language and sexual politics are coarse here, but this is the realm we're in now, for better or worse]). But this way, Gary can reclaim his power and his manhood while also turning the tables on the original Lisa: who's a faggot now?
Next stop: The Kandy Bar! Speaking as a suburban chunk of whitebread, I can assure you that little is more desirable in its opposition to the norm than black culture. To little white boys, it's full of unrepentant emotion, good or bad, and charged with sexuality. I spent many of my formative years emulating Flavor Flav, and if the high school kids these days are any indication, black culture's allure to white suburbanite youth has only grown. So naturally, Lisa drags Gary and Wyatt to a Chi-town blues bar where nary a white face is to be seen. Of course, Gary and Wyatt are shit-scared, but any journey into manhood is fraught with doubt. And eventually, the Other welcomes them into their lair, makes Gary and Wyatt part of the pack. And I would say it's not just because they're on the arms of a beautiful broad, but basically, because they've got a sense of humor. They know full well that they're out of their element, but they sally forth with a sort of lovable ignorance, a humility that is largely missing in their peers. Contrast this to Ian and Max's behavior at Wyatt's party in the next act, trying to ingratiate themselves with the black bartender by acting like they drink scotch by the bottle. Logically, their reception into this appealing culture is chilly at best. Ian and Max may have Shermer, IL, all figured out, but really, that's all they'll ever know.
Speaking of a lack of humility: Chet. Wyatt's older brother Chet is the clearest example in this movie of everything that's wrong with masculinity as we know it. There's a very, very quick moment at the end of the movie where Wyatt goes to hug his father on his return home, and his father pushes him back and shakes his hand, "like a man." It's a very subtle but extremely effective piece of characterization for a character that has only one line, and in the final seconds of the movie no less. But it speaks volumes about the characters of Chet and Wyatt. Wyatt as the runt of the litter still allows his emotions to hold sway, whereas Chet has thrived on the coldness, the emotional stunting so commonly found in middle America, not to mention military school. So the only way Chet can show any affection for his little brother is the same way his father undoubtedly shows affection for both of them: by being an utter and total prick. Chet does love his brother, but is also too stupid to realize that the world is bigger than he thinks. He worries (as ostensibly does their father) that Wyatt is going to get eaten alive out there in the real world and the only solution, the only way to allow Wyatt to survive (in the jungle) is to toughen him up. If my reading public out there tends to consist of the sorts of dudes I think it does (e.g. dudes pretty much like me), than this should all ring pretty familiar. Wyatt doesn't know any better so he never really stands up to Chet, figuring he'll go along to get along. Thankfully, Lisa is there to literally show Chet what he presents himself as: a small, pathetic toad of a man.
Y'know, the filmic cliche of the older woman coaxing young boys into manhood had never really been done justice until this point, I don't think. Technically, Lisa never actually fucks either one of our heroes (although Wyatt does end up wearing her panties somehow). Her role begins as mere sex object, but it very quickly turns into much more of a mother figure, a positive female role model, which is definitely something a lot of dudes grow up without. Lisa not only knows how to show affection, she knows how to wield it positively, whether or not compliments embarrass Gary or whether or not Wyatt wants motorcycles in his house. I dunno, it makes me pretty grateful that this version of Kelly LeBrock was one of my earliest boyhood crushes. Imagine how I could have turned out if all I'd had was Kelly Bundy to lust after.
Oh, right, speaking of boyhood crushes, let's talk Deb and Hilly. I had never really given much thought to these two before this umpteen-millionth viewing, but there's a lot there. These poor cute-faces are really rudderless as far as their lives go. They fucking hate their boyfriends, Max and Ian. And why wouldn't they? They may be cool now, but that's by suburban high school standards, which even most suburban high school kids realize are fairly bullshit standards before their junior year. Max and Ian are consummate embarrassments, never mind the fact that they'll throw their girls over for just a glance from an older, more experienced woman with an English accent. Deb and Hilly want popularity, they want social acceptance, because they don't know what else to want. They're also at least aware that something is wrong with this calculation, even if they don't know what to do about it. Again thankfully, Lisa is there to help guide them into the mindscramble that is Gary and Wyatt. When Max and Ian are attempting to trade off to Gary and Wyatt their girlfriends for a shot at Lisa (the balls on these punks!), Max tells them, re Deb and Hilly, that "a couple of guys like you deserve them." I find it extremely poignant that, even though this is said in deceit, it is the single most true line of dialogue in the whole movie. From the mouths of babes...
Max and Ian still remain somewhat a problem. Gary and Wyatt still haven't learned that they don't need the approval of these two dickheads, much less the larger, higher echelon of high-school society that they represent. It's an understandable misconception on their parts, but the only way to learn this is to try and make Max and Ian their own woman. This is the only part in the movie in which Lisa gets upset with Gary and Wyatt, as she lectures them about being show-offs. What Gary and Wyatt don't realize is the power they hold, the power afforded them by their smarts, their sense of humor, and their natural charm. If you wield this power with good intentions, unselfish intentions, then good things come your way. Otherwise, it's destructive. So a giant phallic symbol in the shape of a nuclear missile penetrates the house, as if to say, "Here's your big ol' dick, hotshots! Try not to let it blow up in your faces." Can't get much more destructive than that.
Speaking of dick-waving, it's not long after this that Lisa decides to test Gary and Wyatt's masculinity in the form of the supporting cast of The Road Warrior. When Lisa invokes John Wayne's name in this exercise, it's not an accident, as the post-apocalypse has effectively become the post-modern Old West. This scene causes me a few problems. First of all, compared to the depth of the rest of the movie, the little touches here and there that separate it out from the borderline creepiness of flicks like Porky's and Revenge of the Nerds, this scene reduces things to a strict patriarchal dichotomy: womenfolk down here, menfolk up here. But mostly I think it's because I'm a giant pussy myself. I love strict patriarchal dichotomies in movies: Sexy Beast, Once Upon a Time in the West, GoodFellas. But none of those movies ever really hove into any area relatable to my life. Weird Science, on the other hand, never strays from those areas, until this scene, where I have to admit that if fuckin' Vernon Wells showed up at my house and screamed out of both his throats, I'd just pass out like the big black guy does. Way to yank me out of the movie, you hilarious, quotable scene, you.
Okay, just a couple more words on the family dynamic and we can knock off for the day. The scene with Gary's parents is pretty straight-forward: Lisa is cutting Gary's umbilical cord, and for good, it would seem. Her gun (Hi there, phallus) is bigger than Al's, so she's calling the shots. I know that the notion that Gary's dad doesn't even remember him is mostly for laughs, but I also like to think it plays a bit into the whole existential side of things here. Like, all the sound and fury that adolescent life is full of, and how important and immediate it all seems during those formative years, it's all for what? At that point, it just seems like momentum: Gary's parents push him around because that was undoubtedly what their parents did to them at that age. But Gary's dad doesn't even know who this stranger is living in his house, tossing off in the bathroom when he should be combing his hair. Gary's mom is a little more sympathetic, but even she is hard-pressed to say who this Gary character is. Maybe I'm reaching a bit here, but I'll level with you: I am way overcaffeinated right now.
Wyatt's grandparents are a symbol I feel I can explain a little more easily. If Wyatt's immediate family are out of touch with him, then it only stands to reason that his grandparents might as well be from Mars. From their opening lines--"Doesn't he have anything to read?"--we get an instant feel for how little they know about their grandson. When they show up and start hitting people with their Rex Harrison hat, Lisa tries to explain just what is going on. Of course, they won't even begin to entertain the thought of listening to this baloney. What choice does Lisa have but to render them physically as they are mentally? Wyatt's grandparents are so irrelevant that they're not even aging anymore. And at this point in a man's development, it really is just best to stuff those hoary old ways of life into the pantry and get back to the party.
Of course, all is well that ends well. Gary and Wyatt fall in love with Deb and Hilly and find their love is reciprocated. The house and Chet are put back together just in time for Wyatt's parents to come home. As the end table slides under Wyatt's mom's purse, both Wyatt's mom and dad have a distinct look on their faces: this veneer they see before them has been changed somehow, in a way they don't understand and, as we know, they never will. Gary and Wyatt have become their own men, and we needn't worry about them anymore, even if they no longer have a Porsche. And the happiest ending of all, we end up back in the gym where we started, where it is heavily implied that Lisa will be coaxing the entire boys' phys. ed. program into manhood.
Sexploitation can be a beautiful thing. My friends and I adored this movie as young boys because it was funny and because we could rewind and replay the scene where the piano girl loses all her clothes (and believe me, we wore out the rewind button on the family VCR). But although these promises of nubile flesh and life experience were dangled before us and we responded like the horny little bastards we were, come to find out years later, that there is a hell of a lot more to the whole enterprise than just some showy English runway model. As Gary says near the movie's end, "Lisa is everything I wanted in a girl before I knew what I wanted." This extremely mature acceptance of his own short-sightedness should resound significantly with any male victim of societal pressure to strive for that which only glitters. There is hope for the ineffectual yet.
Now drop and give me twenty.