Pump Up the Volume
Image Credit: Everett CollectionIn the issue of EW that came out 20 years ago this week (cover story: Elvis Presley!), I gave negative reviews to a pair of movies that both arrived on the scene to a kind of instant cachet: Whit Stillman’s insect-under- glass preppy drawing-room comedy Metropolitan and the Christian Slater midnight-radio- outlaw fable Pump Up the Volume. I wasn’t with the pack on either one; both had legions of fans, and critics, behind them. So I thought I’d go back and take another look at both movies to see if I still agreed with my original reviews. I ended up batting one for two.
Back then I wrote:
“The best thing about Metropolitan is its subject. It’s about the new generation of upper-crust Manhattan-WASP preppies: kids who wear tuxes and prom-night dresses to their small, cliquish gatherings, even though the posh, sophisticated evening wear no longer has any relation to the culture in which they live…. The picture has a likable, skewed formality — it’s Revenge of the Nerds in black tie. The most exotic thing about the characters isn’t that they’re rich, or that they come from socialite backgrounds. It’s that they seem untouched by pop culture. They might almost be high-school thespians who had been cast in a Noel Coward play and then, when the play ended, just kept on acting that way.”
That’s the nice part of the review. So why didn’t I like the movie? The “mildly self-deprecating, oh-what-an-anachronistic-breed-are-we banter is just a pose,” I wrote. “Instead of a full-bodied comic portrait of the coming-out-party set, Metropolitan offers a thin, cartoon version. Then it uses that cartoonishness to make everyone on-screen seem irresistibly cute. Stillman writes some good lines, but except for Nick (Christopher Eigeman), a bitchy, epigram-spouting bon vivant with a heart of gold, he doesn’t really create characters. And his worldview seems quite chaste for a movie about contemporary young adults. In this film, sex is shoved so far to one side that we can’t tell whether it’s the characters who prefer it that way or Stillman himself.” Then I slapped the movie with a C+.
I should confess, at this point, that my second look at Metropolitan comes with an amusing bit of backstory. A couple of years after the movie came out, I went to the Seattle Film Festival, where I attended a dinner in which I discovered, with something less than enthusiastic anticipation, that I’d been seated right next to Whit Stillman, whom I’d never met. Awkward! I figured, optimistically, that he wouldn’t even remember my relatively short review, and once he sat down, we introduced ourselves and chatted amiably for about 20 minutes. Then he suddenly looked at me, quite serious, and said: “Okay, C+. Let’s talk about it.” And we did — for about an hour. Whit, as I learned that night, is a filmmaker who pays lavish attention to his reviews (though he’s perpetually skeptical about critics). He went over my pan in great detail, and though he stayed friendly about it, I could tell how much it had annoyed him.
Over the years, I’ve seen Whit around and gotten to know him a bit more, and he has always been quite friendly, in his ironic and acerbic way. He’s a gentleman with sharp teeth. But though we’ve always gotten along, he has never entirely stopped tweaking me about that review. So it gives me a rueful pleasure to say — to my readers, and to Whit Stillman, too — that I finally did, after 20 years, go back and watch Metropolitan again, and damn…I was wrong. I really missed the boat on it. It’s true that the dialogue, at moments, is too cutesy-stagy, but that doesn’t mean that the characters are anything less than fascinating. Or real.
What originally tripped me up, I think, is that I took the slightly affected arch breeziness of this infant-society prepster set as affected filmmaking. And it’s not. Stillman, in fact, views the privileged faction all too clearly. He sees their innocence and their decadence (the sex is there, all right), the way that they’re spoiled yet haunted, the way that they use their outdated posh manners to signify to one another that they still belong in that club. Metropolitan gathers a prickly kind of emotional steam; it’s fun to watch because there’s so much going on beneath the manners. And because Stillman’s writing — why fight it? — is just so incredibly droll. I’m actually surprised, in hindsight, that several of the actors besides Christopher Eigeman didn’t go on to greater fame. I particularly liked Edward Clements as the carrot-topped, not-so-innocent newbie Tom, and the quizzical Taylor Nichols, who seemed a step ahead of geek chic. You’d think that Metropolitan might look even more relevant now than it did at the time, given that Gossip Girl culture is at its lavish, moneyed, backbiting height. But Stillman’s characters remain, more than ever, their own highly specific creations. Even though plenty of rich kids have come and gone since, they’re the last of a breed. I’m glad I finally got to know them.
* * * *
Pump Up the Volume, in which Christian Slater plays Mark Hunter, a suburban high school kid who moonlights as a truth-spewing radio rebel, is a movie that, I suspect, has amassed more fans over the years than Metropolitan has. It always had the vibe of a cult film (though you’d have to be 11 years old or younger to find it “dangerous”), and a lot of people who grew up with it may think of it as their all-time favorite Christian Slater performance. But I’m afraid I haven’t changed my tune on it: I think it’s his most cloying performance. Back then I wrote:
“Mark fashions himself a teen Lenny Bruce — and, unfortunately, the movie does too (that’s before it turns him into a teen Christ). Slater, who’s like a ratty, self-involved Michael J. Fox, works hard to give his on-air rants a nihilistic charge, but most of them sound like bad Beat poetry; all that’s missing is the bongos. The movie panders to teenagers’ most dewy fantasies of themselves as misunderstood geniuses…. What the moviemakers don’t seem to realize is that so many of the pressures felt by teens in the postpunk era don’t have to do with authority figures but with the very forms of rebellion they’ve chosen for themselves: the near-cultish allegiance to music and attitude and fashion.”
Pump Up the Volume comes down to this: You either like Christian Slater’s pumped-up hipster-monkey-clown preaching into the microphone or you don’t. Watching it today, it still just made me want to switch off the radio, and maybe smash it for good measure.
So who out there is a fan of Metropolitan or Pump Up the Volume? In each case, how wrong (or not) do you think I was? And what are your memories of discovering these movies?