How to Be a Film Snob: On ‘High’ (as in Getting) Culture

I couldn’t wait to watch High School. The 1968 “cinema verite” masterpiece was about to be released on blu-ray. Director Frederick Wiseman, developed modes in documentary filmmaking that changed the ways we view “truth”. Shot with a 16mm hand-held camera in a Philadelphia high school in the late ’60s, the film offers a stringent critique of authority and the Vietnam War. I would describe it as “must-see” American cinema that provides insight into concepts of “reality” and “youth” that remain relevant today.

I must have been “high” to think this was the film I would be seeing.

Instead, I received an advance copy of a 2010 “stoner” comedy also titled High School. I recognized three names across the top of the blu-ray case: Adrien Brody, Colin Hanks, and Michael Chiklis. So, that bald guy, Tom’s kid, and poor Brody who was actually kissing his career goodbye when he manhandled Halle Berry upon winning the Oscar that should have catapulted him to the A List. I flipped the case over. 100 minutes.

This is just the kind of thing that I cannot bear to sit through.

And I can sit through almost anything. I’ll just tell you upfront that I have a doctorate in film studies. I specialize in contemporary American cinema (which has zero cachet in academia), but in graduate school, I sat through some agonizing stuff (obscure, incomprehensible, pretentious, lengthy) under high-stress circumstances: within seconds of the film’s completion, I was expected to say something remarkable. Something lucid and exacting that was simultaneously complex. These were situations where I was shot down for mentioning any film made in the US or worse, one that was popular. This was handy training in film theory and its soul-sister, snobbery.

Even though I am a willful connoisseur of American junk, I have my limits. I draw the line at stoner comedy (’til now). I have never seen one, though I do hail from a family of tokers.

As a child in ’70s L.A., I just assumed my rellies were discussing kitchen accoutrements when they talked about the “pot”. Remarkably, I have likely never been “high”. Yes, I’ve tried to inhale (but did I?) when peer-pressured into it. I was, after all, an undergrad at the University of Oregon, the “Alamo” of the petering hippie movement, bastion of drum circles and Birkenstocks. But I’ve always been oblivious to the reported pleasures of feeling wasted. I’m also not a fan of “drunk”. You might call me a stringent proponent for states of clarity. Or you might call me obnoxious.

Once at a grad school party as the bong (is that what they’re called?) was passed around, I declined, saying that I mostly feel “high” on my own, if high is relaxed, vibrant and inquisitive. No need for enhancement. Thanks, anyway.

“You’re an asshole,” scowled one of the smokers. I clearly have scant, empirical understanding of pot culture and have never been, as you might suspect, “the life of the party” if I may drag that phrase out from cold storage.

Don’t judge me, stoners.

Although, that is not really a fair request since I have always judged you.

I’ve taught college film classes to Millennials for around a decade, and I can rattle off the films this cohort will most often incline toward if given the option to choose. The films that surface over and over as paper topics are: Fight Club, The Notebook, A Clockwork Orange, The Dark Knight, and The Lion King.

But there is also a subset of students (overwhelmingly white, male and blonde) who always select a “pot” film as the subject for their final papers. I do apologize for blatantly stereotyping this demographic. I would just add middle to upper class, as well. In brief, they are usually decked out in expensive looking ultra casual sportswear, miss class for snowboarding and/or skiing excursions, and have abundant tech gadgets and pleasant, affable demeanors. As a group, they exhibit the charming appeal of someone like Spicoli (played by Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High).

The pot film, as a comedic genre, has not been a major subject of scholarly investigation as of yet. I do not include Reefer Madness, intended as educational, in this genre, but rather films starring Cheech or Chong, and which have titles that pun innumerably on the word “high”. I would not include the assortment of crime and war films that focus on drug culture in realist modes. My cursory research indicates a dearth of academic titles on the subject. However, I did turn up the tidbit that several authors, writing in a variety of disciplines, have the last name “Stoner”. I wonder if they go back and forth over dropping the ‘r’? Or could it be possible they added it?!

My student’s stoner film papers are not destined to be bad, though they almost always are. Offhand, I can think of a variety of analytic potentials for these research-based essays: theories of comedy, racial politics, analyses of authority, representation of drugs and drug states, youth, rebel and countercultures, feminist deconstructions, you name it. Instead, the papers I have read on pot comedies usually make two arguments, both thin to begin with and wholly supported via experiential evidence from the writer. These arguments are 1) a description of Harold and Kumar and/or 2) a celebration of Harold and Kumar.

It was with these sets of entwined and deep-set biases that I sat down, with pen and notebook, to view John Stalberg Jr’s film debut, High School.

The film follows the hapless exploits of two young, white males, an apparent precept of the genre. The two are former childhood friends, one a stoner (Sean Marquette), the other the valedictorian (Matt Bush), who switch regular cakes with pot brownies (that ol’ okey-doke) at the high school bake sale (pun not intended). Soon, the student body and administration unknowingly devour the treats. The two pilfer the recipe’s key ingredient, “kief”, (street-valued at $50 thou), from Adrien Brody who plays Psycho Ed, the Walter White of pot “cooking”. Once Psycho Ed notices his stash is gone, he heads over to the high school to crack nuts and bust balls, etcetera. Chiklis and Hanks appear as the lead grown-ups, uptight conformists both, bent on eradicating drug use at the school. They become, as you might suspect, disarmed by the ensuing high jinks (pun not intended).

The mainstream American film comedy has long relied on racist jokes as one of its major strategies. High School adheres to this edict with relish, subjecting its people of color to cruel and degrading treatment in the name of hilarity, as when a black nurse is doused with urine samples and when a prosthetic dark-“skinned” penis flops about in a bathroom scene.

The starring white high schoolers, Henry and Breaux (yes, pronounced “bro”) are surrounded by an array of multiracial and multi-ethnic supporting characters and extras. Rather than signaling some affirmation of diversity, the depictions of marginal characters further pernicious stereotypes. Psycho Ed’s “black friend,” Paranoid, played by the talented Mykelti Williamson, receives an especial debasement, as the buffoon stereotype. The salutatorian, an East Indian student, furious at being “second best,” conforms to fears and stereotypes around “foreign” takeover of jobs and opportunity. High School’s interest in racial degradation entangles with its plot and themes, ultimately becoming a major support beam for the film’s larger architecture.

One scene of note lays out the film’s racial policy explicitly. The principle, Chiklis, bristles with embarrassment in front of a black colleague as he comments on a chess game, mentioning that “white” both goes first and wins. The joke relies on the fact that the black and white skin color of the chess players “matches” the color of their chess pieces. High School returns to this same game at the end of the film, making sure to report and confirm that white did win. This scene opposes the non-white heroes of films like Friday and others in the genre, as it insists on bolstering whiteness.

The proceedings also flout the requisite misogyny. An elderly woman, though high, cowers on a toilet, a “Coug” short for “cougar” gets sexually harassed, as does the principal’s black secretary. In addition, a shower scene offers salacious, though pityingly brief eyefuls to its key audience.

High School provides a highly elaborate balm for young white, heterosexual male insecurity, as specifically related to intellect.

My own prejudice is just the sort that the film aims to rail against. High School is not really a celebration of being “high”, nor an exegesis of the benefits of such a state, but rather a paean to perpetual stupidity. The film is keen to indict intellectual snobbery and poses the tragically stupid stoner as kind of victim, bullied by those who are smarter.

The film sets up a division between intellect and ignorance and uses pot, and the stoned valedictorian, to prove the two are closer allies than previously thought. This fantasy is epitomized when the valedictorian gives an asinine speech about Hamlet, who was actually a “punk-ass bitch” (who knew?) for his English final. The teacher and the class explode in applause, affirming, though falsely, that the speech was good.

The insecurity in High School, stems from the anxiety of being judged for “thinking like a stoner”. It seeks to break down the divisions between high culture (again, no pun) and the low and lowly. Breaux claims: “there’s something worse than a kid who breaks the rules, tokes down a bit of hakeem marijuolajuwon.” This last reference a merger of “marijuana” and the name of the Nigerian-American, Hakeem Olajuwon, considered one of the great basketball players of all time.

The something worse that Breaux speaks of is the act of judging. The film works to connect intelligence to the act of judging and then deem both as “the worst” thing someone can do.

The act of watching films, in fact, encourages and promotes such judging. Famously, the courtroom drama, makes this dynamic explicit. In this popular genre, the audience watches from the jury’s point-of-view, sitting in judgment over the characters. But every film enacts this procedure in its own way.

To be a proper film snob, which I encourage, go ahead, judge the film, any film. Even if you’re not trained as a critic, you’re judging; isn’t it the least you can do? “To judge” is a simple verb that just means to give an opinion based on evaluation. To judge is simply an act and facet of exercising one’s intelligence.

High School seems to have recouped about a one-tenth of its $10 million dollar production budget in its brief and unremarkable theatrical run.

Aren’t I kicking it while it’s down? Hasn’t this poor film been through enough already? Shouldn’t I go after something of greater stature? How about Your Highness, staring Oscar fodder Natalie Portman and James Franco? I caught a few minutes of this ludicrous romp (enough to recognize its argot in blood, breasts and imbecility) and I was heartened to see that it too, had some box office troubles.

Not to get all Jonathan Swift on you, but might I suggest that pot (comedy) production continue and in fact, accelerate?

I say we willingly give this audience the keys to their imaginary and inconsequential kingdom. After all, it is only in fantasies like High School that these types flourish. In the real world, they will not become valedictorian or beat anyone at chess. They will not receive an ovation after they give their speech on Hamlet.

I see now how this film, and probably others like it, provides a salve for the deep intellectual insecurity of its key demographic, offering temporary relief to the anxiety of being judged for not being smart.

The kids in Wiseman’s High School were also victims of authority figures. We watch them trapped in regimes of conformity. Perhaps this is why so many of that generation turned to pot, hippie lifestyles, cultures that were counter and necessarily so.

But what are Burke and Breaux, themselves harassers, running from in Stalberg’s High School?

There is a real tragedy that attends those deemed morons, idiots and dummies, mocked by culture and subjected to incessant cruelty. High School misaligns this fate with those of sound mind who openly choose stupidity and then lament the consequences.