"Feel like dyin'"

Looking at the difference between fantasy and lies at Columbine and in the movies.

Published April 27, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

All's well at the end of "10 Things I Hate About You," the funniest and sweetest of the recent teen movies. The characters we've fallen for have fallen for each other, the school jerk has gotten his comeuppance and graduation looms ahead. The movie's inspiration is Shakespeare ("The Taming of the Shrew"), but the film's high school -- an immense castle-like structure overlooking the Pacific Northwest shoreline -- is all Poe. "10 Things" imagines school as a kingdom by the sea, just like the one inhabited by Annabel Lee. The kids in the movie, however, aren't doomed like Poe's child muse. Instead, they seem suspended in the beauty of their age, so vibrant that there's no reason to think they won't be that way forever.

I saw "10 Things I Hate About You" the night of the Littleton shootings, and it would be the cheapest of ironies to contrast the sunniness of the movie with the awfulness of what happened there. That night, the networks hadn't had time to set up camp in Colorado and turn the shootings into their latest miniseries. That would come the next day.

By the morning shows, the take on the story was already decided: The
shooters were weirdo cult members besotted by video games/Marilyn
Manson/violent movies/Hitler (take your pick). The coverage played right into predetermined nonthoughts about popular culture, and so far hasn't been altered much by the words of Littleton students who suggest that the truth is considerably more complicated. (The news likens the Trench Coat Mafia to a cult, despite a number of students who say that the group was more a collection of friends who kept to themselves than a nefarious band of gun-toting freaks.) As the predictable hand-wringing and head-shaking continues -- some of it the well-intentioned fumblings of genuinely concerned people, much of it from talking heads who make you wonder when they last had a genuine emotion -- the vision of high school in "10 Things" has stayed with me.

At the movie's Padua High, the characters are free to gripe at each other, and they're thick-skinned enough to take it. The heroine (Julia Stiles) complains to her English teacher (Daryl Mitchell) that Hemingway is patriarchal rubbish and they should be reading Sylvia Plath; the teacher, who's African-American, bitches right back at her that he can't get the school committee to assign any books written by a black man. People are blunt, but not heartless, quick to agree or to tell each other they're full of shit. The roles they inhabit -- student or teacher, tough guy or wimp, queen bee or weirdo -- don't keep them from talking to each other, in sometimes bracing, sometimes rude and always direct, plain speech.

Even without the Littleton massacre, the movie would plainly be a fantasy. But in books or movies or music, fantasies are not the same thing as lies. They can be a different kind of news, telling us what we don't know, or what we never admitted to knowing, suggesting, by affirmations and denials, a version of what the world might look like. This sweet diversion of a movie takes place in a world where people say what they mean, and it feels truer than the ready-made clichis about high-school cliques and network anchors milking private pain and public outrage.

In "10 Things I Hate About You," all the picture's good feeling bubbles up until, in the exhilarating last shot, the camera goes over the top of the school. With Letters to Cleo's cover of Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me" playing on the soundtrack, the sequence begins in the quad where the characters are hanging out, enjoying a spring day. The camera pulls out and up until, on the highest peak of the school's rooftop, we see the band Letters to Cleo performing the song. They're the movie's emotional weather vane; as the camera circles around them they seem to be channeling all the enthusiasm of the newfound lovers below. The longing in the lyrics -- "I need you to need me/I'd love you to love me" -- has vanished because all of those wishes have already come true. And the line that hovers over the middle of the song like a cloud -- "Feelin' all alone without a friend, ya know ya feel like dyin'" -- slides right on by.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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