And You Thought It Was Safe(?)

Bang Bang You’re Dead (2002)
May 6, 2010, 3:33 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

"Shouldn't I be shooting grenades out of my wings?"The writer/directors of Duck! The Carbine High Massacre warned us this would happen. Bang Bang You’re Dead is just the ” ‘made for TV’ movie” they warned us to expect in the opening card for their school-centric rampage picture. Based on the one act play of the same name by Eugene, Oregon resident William Mastrosimone, Bang Bang You’re Dead attempts to combine the maudlin sentimentality of an After School Special (and, in fact, won a Daytime Emmy Award for their apparent success at doing just that) with a bit of social realism that’s strictly safe-for-cable. The results are picked and mixed to an astonishing degree…but I’ll be damned if the film didn’t almost get me.

Thankfully, it doesn’t take long for Bang Bang to remind me of its origins. This is, first a foremost, a Showtime Original Picture (suppress your shudders), produced in association with Viacom, the international media octopus which owns Showtime…along with Paramount Pictures, Comedy Central, and a whole host of other cultural criminal corporations, hell bent on reducing all of us to uncritical “entertainment consumers.” Few things are more insulting than a film with its own Study Guide…save when that film comes to you from the director of The Babysitter (1995) and the people who own MTV.

"Are you filming another 'Blair Witch' rip-off?"This is director Guy Ferland’s third made-for-TV feature, his sixth in a career that’s only gone downhill since Alicia Silverstone refused to take her clothes off for him. But, thanks to all those Daytime Emmys, the man continues to find work, turning out episodes for seemingly every crappy (but inexplicably popular) TV series made in the last eight years (from House to The Shield to The Sarah Connor Chronicles). I’ve no idea how much of this flick is his and how much we can lay at Mastrosimone’s feet, but one thing’s for certain: this movie’s high opinion of itself. It’s such a painfully Serious Film even its main character’s cynicism feels forced and inauthentic, a cynical-in-itself nod to audience expectation, an easy  stalking horse for the film’s Capital-M, Message.

Trevor “Trashcan” Adams (Ben Foster, know around these parts as “that guy who played Russell on Six Feet Under,” and “that guy who played Warren Worthington III in X3″) is that stalking horse, one of those wonderfully-fictional students with the mysterious power to waltz through school with his constantly-rolling video camera , immune to the (all-too-few) words of protest from the school’s Administration. His camera will be our surrogate eye throughout the course of the film, and already I’m flashing back to Zero Day, fondly hoping this movie will have as much to offer.

But, then again, no. “Welcome to the nightmare,” Trevor says by way of introducing us to Rivervale High, a school in the grips of that post-Columbine inanity, remembered in the wider world as “Zero Tolerance.”  “Any suspicion of violence,” Principal Meyer (Gillian Barber) declares over the credits, “physical or verbal, will result in immediate suspension or expulsion. That is Zero Tolerance.” The film quickly exposes this for the flagrantly hypocritical bit of wishful thinking that it is. While others face expulsion for the heinous crime of forgetting the pocket knife they stashed in the bottom of their backpacks, “Trashcan” Adams is down in the trenches dealing with his daily doses of verbal and physical abuse from Rivervale’s Capital-J, Jocks.

" my name on it and everything. Weird."Through a series of heavy-handed, expository statements (the only kind ’round these parts) we infer that Trevor pulled some high-profile shit last year and suffered through summer school as a result. He became a community flash point, a minor celebrity as the local Bad Seed, profiled and labeled an official pariah so often he even introduces himself as such to our Designated Love Interest (and Mary Jane Watson-alike), Jenny (Jane McGregor). As the film opens, Trevor’s all geared up for  yet another school year as the Perpetual Outsider. Even the geeky, diminutive freshmen are too scared to say, “Hey.” Principal Meyer obviously considers him to be yet another serving of Bullshit on her already-overfilled plate, and the school councilor has no idea what to do with him. (So much for all those Adolescent Psychology courses, eh?) If this were anything other than a  Serious Film with a Serious Message For Our Time, Bang Bang You’re Dead would’ve left us this glorious set-up, allowing the creeping horror to build and build and build as this Swiss Watch of good ol’ fashioned, American craziness wound down to its inevitable, blood-buttered conclusion.

But, because this is a Serious Film with a Serious Message for Our Time, we’re introduced to a Crusading Teacher on a Mission to Reach Out to Trevor and Include Him. So, meet Mr. Duncan (Tom Cavanagh), the humanoid incarnation of Rivervale’s Drama department, and our Authorial Cipher. Mr. Duncan’s Big Idea for drawing Trevor out of his shell? Offer him the lead in a school production of William Mastrosimone’s Bang Bang You’re Dead. What could possibly go wrong, right?

"I've got just as much time for a date with you before Josh calls me back to the office."Here the film divides itself, doling out equal time to the twin halves of Trevor’s life. In Track A, we watch Mr. Duncan help Trevor into the role of the play’s protagonist, Josh, even as Mr. Duncan struggles against the community unrest generated by the very idea of staging Bang Bang You’re Dead, to say nothing of staging it on school grounds. Track B follows Trevor through the slings and arrows of outrageous high school fortune, as he pointedly avoids trying to make anything happen with Jenny (despite her being the Perfect Teenage Girl). Instead, Trevor makes friends with the local Trenchcoat Mafia analog, the “Trogs,” inadvertently pushing them into escalating Prank War with Rivervale’s Jock community. What begins with a few kids stuffed in lockers and trash cans culminates in anonymous bomb threats and exploding firecrackers, disrupting that most-scared of high school institutions, the pep rally.

The resultant community outrage forces Mr. Duncan and his poor players out of the school theater, out of community theater, and into a church basement. Trevor chooses this point to explore his anger through the medium of film. In an apocalyptically  stupid move, he hands Mr. Duncan a violent revenge fantasy featuring a character not-unlike-Trevor, gratuitously murders a character not-at-all-unlike Rivervale’s King of the Jocks, Brad Lynch (David Paetkau). Mr. Duncan, in an even dumber (but, for once, realistic) move, turns the tape over the principal. Expelled for violating Zero Tolerance Policy, Trevor quits Mr. Duncan’s play and takes a turn for the suicidal. Meanwhile, the Trogs, ignored and unnoticed by everyone but Trevor (and the Jocks, of course), slowly inch closer to their own school-centric rampage massacre. Will Trevor Do the Right Thing and save everyone from the predictable results of their actions? Will Rivervale ever experience the dubious pleasure of seeing Bang Bang You’re Dead performed in their midst? Will anyone live to see opening night?

Actual viewer response to 'Bang Bang, You're Dead.'Those elven hundred words make the film seem better than it is. Unlike any of the clueless citizens of Rivervale, I actually have bothered to read Mastrosimone’s play, and I can tell you there’s a reason dear William wins Daytime Emmys instead of Tonys. His play oozes pretensions of Coolness, failing in its attempts to be Hip and/or With It. Ferland and Mastrosimone provide plenty of examples of this during the rehearsal scenes, which also allow Trevor and Mr. Duncan to spell out the play’s key themes for us, the obviously-dense audience.

Principal Meyers is wrong: the play is full of answers, all of them as glib and schmaltzy as can be. The usual straw men – hunting with grandpa, video games,  a movie “that makes the pain go away” (obviously The Basketball Diaries) – appear to act as triggering mechanisms for Josh’s rampage, while other, arguably more important factors – his parents, his school,  his community at large, the repressive conformity of American society – get off Scott Free.  A product of what  Chris White called “the Middle Mind,” Bang Bang You’re Dead is thoroughly harmless, toothlessly mainstream, its shock value safely contained within its title. This should come as no surprise. Mastrosimone wrote the play in response to Kip Kinkel’s May 20, 1998 rampage through Thurston High in Mastrosimone’s home town, Eugene. The play premiered a bare nineteen days before two boys from Columbine, Colorado pushed school-centric rampages back into the headlines, inspiring just the kind of bullshit, cosmetic Zero Tolerance we see constricting Trevor’s school.

Mastrosimone’s improved as a writer between 1999 and 2002, but he’s written a film that still leaves me expecting Keenan Ivory Wayans to waltz through a scene or three, shouting “MESSAGE!” at the top of his lungs. His characters, and their school as a whole, suffer from a marked two-dimensionality. In attempting to chart the effects of the Great American Over-reaction, Mastrosimone (and Ferland, can’t leave him out) flatten and distort their subject, leaving this picture somewhere in the fantasy world where all of the culture industry’s visions of high school take place. A world where bells never ring, save at plot-appropriate times, you can actually get away with wearing hats to class, and crusading Drama Teachers actually exist.

The following speech, delivered to Jenny, serves as her (and our) introduction to just how contrived Rivervale High really is,

“You have to be Varsity or a Cheerleader to sit at this table. Or know everybody. That table’s for the Druggies, Stoners, Deadheads, Burnouts, and the Hippies. That one, Preppies. Then you have the Skateboarders and Skateboard Chicks. Then Nerds and Techies. Up against the wall, the Wiggers, Hip-Hoppers, Rednecks, Goths, and all manner of Freaks, Troublemakers, Losers, Sluts, Gays, Floaters, and the Trogs..Troglodytes. Freakiest of the Freaks. “

"...and like all bad stories, this one has nothing at all to   do with a girl..."This kind of social breakdown, shot through with redundancies and emotionally potent oversimplifications, is fine for college sex comedies from the 1980s. But in a Serious film such as this it smacks of lazy writing and the vast gulf between the filmmakers and actual high school students. You might get this kind of sociological soliloquy from the Goths, Stoners, or Trogs, but (speaking from my own experience) certainly not from the cheerleaders. Jenny (as a sixteen-year-old non-cheerleader) certainly wouldn’t need to ask them where to sit at lunch. And, come to think of it, Jenny (as the Token Girl) could serve a microcosm for everything wrong with this film.

That’s not Jane McGregor’s fault. She plays her role well and to and exceptional hilt. But unfortunately, she highlight’s the filmmakers ignorance of teenagers in general, and teenage girls in particular. I dubbed her Mary Jane for a reason: she’s too goddamn perfect. Intelligent, independent, open-minded, friendly, sure of herself, and not least bit depressed, manipulative, self-conscious, self-possessed, or concerned for her overall social status. She’s the apotheosis of Young American Womanhood, the kind of girl every desperate high school looser hopes will drop out of the sky and offer to sit across from them at lunch. Their “relationship” (forced and half-hearted though it may be) reforms Trevor as much as anything else, humanizing him at the expense of every one else, including the Trogs. They’re the ones quietly going mad while Rivervale as a whole wastes time labeling Trevor, and their “plan”

If that’s meant as a sly dig at all the clueless parents and administrators who fell into the habit of playing “Get the Geeks” in the wake of April 20, 1999, Bang Bang You’re Dead commits the very sin it warns against. Ancillary characters are reduced to the level of ideals and stand-ins, little more than moving parts, manipulated by Trevor and Mr. Duncan’s oblivious bumbling through the plot. This allows the film to manipulate its audience as well, keeping us all in our seats, waiting, waiting, for something to happen. Some character to emerge from the otherwise-unremarkable pack of ciphers. They are the plot’s wrapping paper, discarded when they no longer serve the film’s single-minded purpose.

Young Matt Damon looks on, pleased.And that is not, as the literature would have us believe, to “promote awareness of the causes of school violence.” Instead, its to put those causes firmly out of our minds, sure in the knowledge that everything will work out for the best in ninety minutes and change, summed up in an unrealistic come-to-Jesus moment just past the hour mark, when Principal Meyer, Mr. Duncan, Trevor, his family, and representatives of local law enforcement all “take a hard look at our school”…the kind of hard look no one in the American education system is the least bit willing to take. I’m all for Trevor doing the Right Thing, but I can’t support a movie that slaps a cold compress on a sucking chest wound and gives its audience tacit permission to call it all good.

“It’s not what’s in a kids backpack that makes them dangerous,” Mr. Duncan warns the principal, “it’s what’s in his heart. This play is the best way I know how look into a kid’s heart.” Rather than debate this issue seriously, Bang Bang You’re Dead comes already decided, set on a course it will not be diverted from, no matter how much we might shout at the television. If you wanna take a hard look at your local school, give your kid a camera sometime.  Better yet, go down there yourself and see what you can find. Odds are good the result will be much more educational, and provide fodder for a much more substantive discussion.



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