Welcome to my new monthly feature, Retrospective. I am frequently asked for film and book recommendations, and I often find myself referring people to works of bygone years that continue to inspire, provoke, and entertain. So, each month I will be putting out some recommendations of past works to add to your Netflix or reading list. Because I love a good theme, this week I’ll be talking Back to School.
Retrospective: Back to School
Read . . .
- Catcher in the Rye. Okay, so it takes place on a school break, but the tale of Holden Caulfield’s adolescent break down defined a generation. I know I loved it for its raw, accessible style; it was the first book I was required to read that dealt with things I understood at 15 (not to discount the relevance of Puritan Adultery). Plus it has profanity and sex. Viva la Salinger!
- Harry Potter 1-7. All I will say is that I fell in love with this series in book one when Harry gets his school supply list. And I remembered how much I loved getting my own list even though it called for map colors instead of cauldrons. (Book Seven is a questionable ‘school’ book–is defeating the Dark Lord the wizarding world equivalent of a GED?)
- Election. The movie is funny. The book is hysterical. Tom Perrotta plays with point of view in a way that doesn’t feel gimmicky. Moreover, the book is bitingly funny while still maintaining a grain of truth that makes the reader care. Pick Flick.
- Wonder Boys. I love Michael Chabon’s meta approach to his own writer’s block. Part mystery, part character study, it’s a good look at a professor and the mess that dominates his life and mind.
- The Name of the Rose. Granted, the novel is set in a fourteenth century monastery. It is in the approach of deductive reasoning and syllogism, coupled with the value of knowledge that Umberto Eco’s work moves beyond just a good thriller into an educational experience. You’ll be so caught up in the story, you won’t realize you’re learning.
- Teacher Man. Frank McCourt’s follow up to Angela’s Ashes and ‘Tis chronicles his life as a New York high school and college teacher. Funny, lyrical, and thought provoking, especially for teachers.
- Battle Royale. In the dystopian future, Japan keeps order by terrorizing the general population through The Program, a yearly activity where a class of school children battle to the death on a remote island. Sound a little like The Hunger Games? It is, but this came first and Takami’s approach is inspired. Plus he quotes Springsteen and that’s never a bad thing.
- Jude the Obscure. Yes, it’s dark and depressing. That does not, however, mean that Thomas Hardy’s tragedy of Jude, the man who dreams of going to a university, is not well-written and reflective. Read it and remind yourself how lucky you are to have access to your dreams.
- Wicked. Do not confuse Gregory Maguire’s snappy novel with the fluffy Broadway musical. On the page the book is both darkly comic and wry in this part Bildungsroman-part parallel story of a great pop culture villainess. I place it on this list because the story’s most observant chapters occur at Shiz University.
- Prozac Nation. Teen angst is part of high school. Elizabeth Wurtzel boldly documents her own struggles as she realizes that her own angst is more than normal. A strong book, especially for teen and young adult girls dealing with their own turmoil, despite being smart and middle class.
Watch . . .
- Heathers. Dark, hilarious, and endlessly quote-worthy. But moreover, underneath the snark, is spot-on commentary about high school, youth culture, and identity. Satire is biting truth and this one chases it with a shot of Draino.
- Splendor in the Grass. I debated the inclusion of Rebel Without a Cause for its iconic status as the ultimate youth culture movie of the 50s (see also Blackboard Jungle). However, for the purposes of this blog, I will recommend the lesser known Natalie Wood film, Splendor in the Grass. Dealing with themes of depression, love, and sexual repression, it still feels contemporary in its themes if you strip away the 60s surface elements. Wood’s performance is heartbreaking.
- School Ties. Who doesn’t love a good boys boarding school film? The obvious go to is usually Dead Poets Society, but I prefer School Ties, in part because it doesn’t center around a showy performance. Certainly the story is predictable, but it’s fun to see so many actors before they became headliners (Brendan Frasier, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Chris O’Donnell, Anthony Rapp).
- Teacher’s Pet. The coupling of Doris Day and Clark Gable might seem odd on paper, and is certainly not as successful as their more famous co-stars. But the story of a Continuing Education class as a guise for revenge (and eventually romance) is sweet and fun.
- The Misadventure of Merlin Jones. When I was about nine years old, I wanted to attend Midvale College so I could wear fabulous capri pants and sweaters like Annette Funicello in this movie (the sequel is fun too; I’m just not as fond of monkeys). Sadly Midvale is not a real place, but the movie is still fun and Annette and frequent co-star Tommy Kirk are adorable together. (Note: In this same time period Disney was also making the more well-known Medfield College movies (The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes) with Kurt Russell. These are fine, but I find Russell less charming that Kirk.)
- Half Nelson and Notes on a Scandal. Every school movie list needs an inspirational teacher movie; however, I am opting to include two stellar movies from the year of teachers behaving badly (both were made in 2006). Ryan Gosling’s addict teacher certainly tries to be all those movie teacher cliches–his personal life just won’t let him. An interesting look at how teachers often find themselves divided in what they teach and what they live. Judi Dench is a lioness and we are lucky any time we can observe her. She’s nasty, rude, cruel, and funny in this movie as she devours an unsuspecting Cate Blanchett (herself a force to behold). The novel is good for its plot and technique. The movie is great for the performances and the screenplay by wunder-kid Patrick Marber.
- 10 Things I Hate About You. I love that Shakespeare lends itself so easily to the modern high school setting. This particular film is smartly done and features the first time America really got to experience Heath Ledger. Plus anything with Alison Janey is a good life choice.
- Fame. Much grittier than you might think, given that the most memorable scene involves dancing on taxi cabs. I especially love the graduation scene, in part for its beautiful use of Whitman’s poem. Also, I’m pretty sure in a smackdown, Coco Hernandez would take out Rachel Berry. (Plus, it’s fun to watch reruns of ER and refer to Dr. Ramano as ‘the redheaded kid from Fame.’)
- Hoop Dreams. This documentary about two boys trying to make it the pros by playing high school ball may seem long, but the story unfolds in such a way that captivates.
Finally . . . you can’t have a school movie list without something from the John Hughes world. This choice will probably cause controversy because there are so many to chose from and everyone has their favorite. My honor goes to . . .
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Because Jennifer Gray kicks Jeffrey Jones in the face. Because of Alan Ruck. Because of the leopard print vest. Because of Ben Stein. Because Matthew Broderick can break the fourth wall without being pretentious. Because of the backyard race from Sloan’s house. Because of “Twist and Shout.” Because the gummy bears are soft and warm. Because it’s childish, kind of like high school.
I hope you get a chance to check out and enjoy some of these recommendations. Send me any ideas for next month’s theme.