Who can be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle? The remembrance of my country spoils my walk-– Henry David Thoreau
As with much else, you could I suppose just blame the Eighties.
It was 1989 and there were perhaps five or six of us there in my friend’s living room, unspooling the lax teenaged hours together. Were her parents home? I imagine they had to have been. Someone must’ve greeted us when we returned from the video store, must’ve overheard our tittering nervous laughter, could even have divined the fine thread of incredulity running through our fitful conversation, or heard in it the dawning sense that this, here, was something a pace or two beyond us, a thing stranger and smarter and more unmanageable than our clever-kid wit could quite encompass. Something about it was upsetting, certainly. But what I most remember is finding myself, in a moment to moment way, awash in this steep, stunned exhilaration.
Then someone on the TV, a handsome boy in a menacing overcoat with an express of arch, razored irony on his face, uttered the following sentences.
“Football season is over,” he said. And then, “Kurt and Ram had nothing to offer the school but date rape and AIDS jokes.”
All at once, the air went out of the room.
I replayed it: “nothing to offer the school but date rape and AIDS jokes.”
DATE RAPE AND AIDS JOKES.
I repeated it and repeated it to myself. Could I have heard that correctly? It was so mean, so vile, and, also, I knew, so bottomlessly true: true beyond any possibility of contradiction.
It became on the spot a little private novena. A motto. A shield.
The actor was of course a young Christian Slater, who was speaking to an even younger Winona Ryder – speaking about the two jocks they had just, amazingly, shot dead. After that, nothing was quite the same for me.
Like a lot of people I know–perhaps like a lot of you–I make my living standing in front of young people and trying to persuade them of the beauty, the brilliance, the complexity or daring or compelling critical force, of this or that piece of literature. It is, if not the very greatest of human gigs, pretty fucking close to it, at least for me. There are of course less heartening ways of describing what I do. Credentialing, you could say; outfitting adolescents with marginally useful skills in preparation for jobs that have long since vanished anyway; or–as we used to say, with some justice, when I taught at a small private college–painting a thin veneer of culture on tomorrow’s ruling classes.
All of this is perfectly fair, though I’d insist nevertheless it is as great a job, as lit up by quotidian wondrousness, as any I can imagine myself having. The days, the laborious classroom days, are by turns tedious, irritating, and then – at just the moment when your teacherly patience has begun to collapse in on itself, and the chalk feels heavy in your hands, and the words prattling and dry in your throat – out of nowhere there comes a moment of jolting radiance. Someone says something amazing. The conversation, so pinched and grinding, suddenly ascends into unforeseen precincts of thought. Or, best of all, you get to watch as some kid, who hour by hour has maybe only been diffident, half-bored, medium-engaged, comes out with a formulation that, even as she’s making it, seems actually to surprise her, to take her a step or two beyond herself and into a new and unlooked-for idea. You can see the look stealing across her face: Look what I just figured out.
As I say, there’s not much to compare to moments like this, when the ordinary workaday world cracks open a bit, and seems to for an instant to gleam with bright possibility. Anybody who’s taught even a little, at any level, will I think know what I mean.
The last weeks in the classroom have been, for me as for many others, rough. The young people in my classes are by and large bewildered and scared, and who can blame them? Where I now teach most of the kids are nonwhite, many from immigrant families, many more making their way through this urban public university with the aid of an array of government-secured grants and loans. What would happen to their families, and their friends? What would happen to their education? “My mom can’t stop crying,” one student said, “she’s so scared.” It was frightening, they said – these tough, tenacious, dauntless kids – to be a Muslim, to be black or brown, to be queer. It had always been, of course, this they knew. But the near-to-hand world felt, they said, newly fragile.
Like a lot of you, I said what I could. I said that I would do whatever I could, whatever we could imagine, to have their backs. I told them I’d do my best to be in it with them, whatever that might come to mean, and that there were, I knew, ranks of other old people like me who’d be in it with them as well. And then, that said, we went on talking about Elizabeth Bishop and Derek Walcott, about James Baldwin and Member of the Wedding.
How awful, I thought, how fucking shameful, to have so little to offer these kids, these everyday pains in my ass who were also, in ways I could never predict, so much an amazement.
But then, in the class I’m teaching called THE QUEER CHILD–because such is my devotion to the perversion of youth and the destruction of all the holy verities–before turning back to the sentences of Carson McCullers, one student told us she’d been out at a major protest the night before and it had, she said, worked a kind of magic on her leaden despair. She felt energized, clarified, an on-the-street solidarity buzzing all through her.
“It’s like,” she said, and then cocked her head to one side, as if scanning the middle distance for the right words. “For the next four years I’m just going to be Blacker and gayer than anybody’s ever seen.”
You never know, in the classroom, when the radiant moments are coming. But then you find your breath coming tight, and your eyes stinging, and you think, Here: here’s another one.
Months before this, when the world seemed a different complexion of broken, and malignity a different kind of institutionalized, I’d scheduled for the last day of our class what I thought was an ingenious pairing. We would watch Elephant, Gus Van Sant’s trancey art-film restaging of some Columbine-like scene of high school carnage, in concert with that landmark of my long-expired youth, Heathers. Dreamy landscapes of high school sociability, punctured by outbursts of lethal adolescent violence: GO!
Of course it’s been hard to teach, to stand up in front of anyone in the guise of authoritative knowledge, in these ugly and disorienting weeks. Waves of anger and fear / Circulate over the bright / And darkened lands of the Earth is how Auden puts it, in the poem that the 21st-century has managed to turn into cataclysm-kitch, a cliché of bookish political despair. Anger and fear, yes. But, with these, a tremendous nauseating uncertainty. It ramifies, this stunned unknowing, in dozens of directions at once, and brings with it this sickening sense of the world slewing unstoppably toward some still more malignant and cruel version of itself. To take only one near example, most everyone at the moment seems to need, quite reasonably, two not wholly compatible things: to return to a ballasting sense of some continuity, some normalcy, in the texture of things, so that we might in this way stay attached to the world in its dailiness, where so many of our struggles are sure to transpire; and, with this, to resist, absolutely and implacably, any least normalization of this, our new Nonconsensual Real, presided over by the Short-Fingered Führer. Nothing about how to execute this double-move is easy or self-evident. (For a few days there, Facebook, where over the years I’d taken such solace, became a cauldron of aggro micro-distinction, as justly frightened and angry people set upon one another for leaning just a bit too far to one side or the other of this impossible toggle.) We’re all out here, in real time, trying in our different ways to figure out how the fuck to do it.
But then something, some stupid time-dusted artifact, cycles into your syllabus, and an unforgotten feeling comes burrowing back into you, and suddenly, strangely, the monster that’s been squatting on your chest day and night, pressing the air out of your lungs and making sleep fitful and haunted, seems somehow… different. It doesn’t disintegrate, this monster, in some kind of pixelated CGI detail, alas. But you find yourself regarding it, taking it up and even talking back to it, in a new way.
I will fail to describe to you the seizing delight with which I re-rewatched Heathers. (I certainly failed to make it as clear as I wished to my students, who liked it – loved it, even – though in a hesitant, notably inarticulate way.) I promise you it was not just nostalgia, though I’ll confess too to taking a substantial pleasure in the memory of how hard, with what searing indelibility, some scenes in the movie had landed on me when I first watched it. Two generic douchebag jocks approach the outcast kid at his solitary corner table and, in an idiom that in 1989 sounded in my ears like a small documentary slice of daily reality, remark to one another, “Doesn’t the cafeteria have a NO FAGS ALLOWED rule? (snigger snigger snigger).” To which, with a weary shrug, the faggy kid replies, “But they seem to have an open-door policy for assholes though, don’t they?” And then, and then, in the midst of this dreamy and hyperstylized high-school-cafeteria scene, he pulls out a gun and shoots the both of them.
Can you imagine the bliss, vengeful and nakedly compensatory, with which I watched this first unfold before me, the sputtering disbelief in me speeding toward a joyful sense of the world growing larger, funnier, savager, and somehow more habitable than it was only moments before? It was a bright amazement that only redoubled itself later – nothing to offer but date rape and AIDS jokes – as I came into the incredulous realization that the most hateful young men scattered around the scenes of my adolescence could be named. They could be named, they could be described in mordant and piercing terms, they could be grasped in the grain of their malignant doltishness and made into objects of an offhand and malicious ridicule. Can you imagine the new possibilities for being in relation to the world that crackled in the air around me, all of them keyed to this kind of caustic cleansing hate?
Those of you who were in whatever manner a notch or two queerer than the aesthetic ideal of the 80s adolescent: I know in my heart that you can.
I’m here to tell you that some of that incredulousness adheres to the film even now, transmuted and in fact amplified by the years. You realize, watching it again, that here is a film that, for all its hyperstylization and hypergenericization of teenage life – its overdrawn typologies of high school, its commitment to what Winona winningly calls “convenience-speak” in the 7-11ish store where she flirts with Christian Slater – is nevertheless not that interested in getting you to disavow wordy, disaffected, sex-having adolescents who set about murdering the more dull and cruel of their classmates. In 2016, this is in multiple respects remarkable. A glinting and unchastened malice shines through every moment of Heathers, not less but more visible now. Not that the warping unreality of the aesthetic of the film, its staginess and garishness and kaleidoscopic hyperreality, does not mantle all the proceedings in a somewhat militating irony, giving us a way to take the murderousness of these clever-kid killers at something other than, say, an earnest, neo-realist face-value. Remarkably, though, the movie does not deploy its ironizing stylization in quite this familiar, indeed by now virtually canonical, way, as a kind of hedge against itself. (SIDEBAR: To watch Heathers in 2016 is to be reminded of all the tonal possibilities, the great breadth of affects and inflections, that Quentin Tarantino just fucking destroyed, swallowed up quick in an aesthetic that allows for a more or less frictionless style of cheerful bloodletting.) Part of the reason Heathers amazes at this distance is that it does something ampler, nervier. It stages not any neutering opposition (genre v blood, pulp v pulp) but instead an uneasy, precarious balancing of cruelty and irony and something nearer to tenderness.
So for instance even when Christian Slater’s J.D. (himself a condensation of every white-boy rebel in cinematic history you could care to name) turns more and more villainous, and Winona-Veronica must foil his plot to incinerate Westerburg High in a series of timed explosions, the movie declines to repudiate utterly its affection for him – or even, it seems, for his impulses toward murderousness. Winona is our final-girl and so of course we don’t want to see J.D. blow up the school; the camera’s climactic slo-mo turn through the cheering young faces at a pep rally underscores this, a tender vision of youthful fragility and exuberance protected, in this one sweet instance, from any ironic undercutting. But we are invited nevertheless, with her and with him, to regret at least a little that he does not. Pretend I did blow up the school – all the schools, he says just before staging his own blaze-of-glory immolation, and we get it.
How could we not? From its first the film is saturated in this kind of all-devouring irreverence, a blaspheming, ill-tempered, fuck-each-and-every-one-of-you kind of antipiety that J.D., with his half-digested Nietzsche and Oedipal mishegas, both perverts and exemplifies. Oh, oh, oh how this movie hates! And not just the bullies, the homophobes, the cretins and the jocks. The venomousness with which it regards liberals – the clarity with which it sees the naked self-aggrandizement in performances of white piety – is, I promise you, altogether joyous to behold. The grownups who aren’t parodies of unknowing or cynicism (“Dammit – I’d give at least a half-day for a cheerleader”) are smug feeling-vultures, ready to transform any mode of adolescent grief or pain into a circus of care, a spectacle of pious white people flexing the muscles of their compassionate blamelessness.
And then, and then, there is perhaps the cruelest line in a cruel film. “I love my son!” says a mawkish father standing by the open casket of the murdered son who, absurdly, wears in death his football uniform, helmet and all. “I love my dead gay son!” The comedy here is coldblooded, arctic. It would be years, years, before the violence of the line came into real focus for me, how mercilessly it bullseyes the treacly way Americans, by 1989, had taken to professing their ardent love for handsome young gay men, so long as they were dead. (See, for the apotheosis of this, Philadelphia, from 1993.)
So of course we half-wish to see the school and everyone in it enveloped in some fiery apocalypse. How can we not, when the movie has tuned us to the world with such vigilant, all-encompassing spitefulness? Oh we do, we do, we do. Even if we don’t, ultimately. Mostly.
Here in the waning hours of annus horribilis 2016, just this mélange of affects and uncancelled possibilities – all of it, every comic and cruel moment – has proved an astounding comfort to me. And, maybe, something better.
No one seems to me righter about the current moment than my wonderful Communist friend Frank. (“Have I mentioned the guillotines?” he likes to say. “And that they will run day and night?”) He says that there are three things that will get us through the next four years – Principle, Solidarity, and Organization – and this seems to me inarguably correct. These are the ideals to which we will need to aspire. Saying as much, though, does not to tell us how we might live in and through them, their formulation, their enactment, their nurturance.
Heathers invites us to live in the world in a state of vigilant and never-satisfied spitefulness.
Heathers invites us to prosecute our lives with, let’s say, a vengeful joyousness.
Heathers invites us never to forget that our enemies, whatever their awful power over us, are clownish and laughable and vile, as callow as a Heather, as unimaginative in their stunted hatefulness as any Kurt or Ram. (Ram, beside the casket of a dead Heather: “Dear Lord: why’d you have to kill such hot snatch?” AND THEN VERONICA AND J.D. KILL HIM.) They are scary, of course, these piteous flailing narcissists, their power gone suddenly nuclear-grade, fragilizing life for the whole of the world, with echelons of our comrades and loved ones ready now to be harmed by their fumbling cruelty, in familiarly asymmetrical ways. But Heathers also reminds us that the genuineness of that terror ought not to back us off one inch from an unfaltering sense of the extremity of their gasping loutish fraudulence, their sheer human ridiculousness.
I mean, truly: these motherfuckers? These Twitter-flunkies? These Bircher assholes? These billionaire con-men and bloviating trolls, these bullhorn bigots playing make-believe with real bullets? These motherfuckers?
Say it with me, friends: DATE RAPE AND AIDS JOKES.
Which, only by happenstance, was not the slogan of one party’s presidential campaign. The winning campaign.
None of this unelects the impending demagogue, I know. None of it renovates, or for that finally stakes through its fat corporate heart, the Democratic Party. None of it protects queer kids, immigrants, the black and brown commons, the vulnerable, the ranks of the systematically and historically fucked. I know, I know, I know. And for all these reasons you’ll see me in the streets, beside my students, and probably beside a lot of you, though I will not be standing there grimly, carrying the terrible weight of an irreparable despair. Grimly? Fuck that. Our side of the cafeteria has always had the better jokes, the more world-affirming malice, the most barbed and killing laughter. Heathers knows this, and so do you, and so do I.
But I want to say that Heathers also proffers for us the fortifying reminder that our enemies deserve nothing – nothing – that is not derision, deflating laughter, venomousness, and whatever quantity of only half-foresworn murderousness circulates between and among them. It insists that, whatever the necessity of ballasting and humane tenderness, there maybe isn’t any need to squander the energy of our despising, nor to surrender it even a little, even when it lists in the direction of an impulse more rending, and eschatological, and cataclysmic. “My thoughts,” Thoreau famously remarked in 1854, “are murder to the State, and involuntarily go plotting against her.” Heathers, however pissy or juvenile or ultimately incoherent, is a movie that puts some evil joyousness back into the plotting, and sets a kind of detonating laughter in your throat. It is better now than it has ever been, and getting more so, I suspect, by the hour.
—Pete Coviello, the best bar fighter around