DAZED AND ABUSED: THE HIGH SCHOOL EXPERIENCE AS INSTITUTIONAL HELL
SUMMER HEIGHTS HIGH (HBO)
Legend has it that the 1984 faux-documentary This is Spinal Tap rendered the experience of a touring rock band so effectively that many audiences believed it to be 100% factual. The movie was by no means the first time documentary filmmaking conventions were used to tell a fictional story, but it represented a seminal touchstone for other comedies that followed in its footsteps. After Tap, mockumentaries (as they are sometimes called- although the term is not fully popular with those who employ the technique) appeared in film and television with increasing frequency and audiences grew to accept the approach as a legitimate genre rather than an idiosyncratic gimmick. So comfortable with the form are current audiences that many believed 2009's Anvil: The Story of Anvil (an actual documentary about an actual rock band) to be a mockumentary in the exact style of This is Spinal Tap. Art imitates life, life imitates art, and so on and on.
Whichever nomenclature one wishes to ascribe to the genre (we will go ahead with ‘mockumentary’ for the purposes of this essay) it is an important time to consider the reasons for its ubiquity. In part the mockumentary can be understood as an organic evolution related to cheaper film and editing technology and in part as a corrective response to modern audiences, less credulous regarding formal scripted comedy and drama. Whatever the confluence, the mockumentary genre and its conventions now dominate the airwaves and even threaten to supplant their forbearers as the norm. What is gained by telling a story in this way?
Christopher Lilley's eight episode mockumentary program Summer Heights High finds fertile ground applying the mockumentary approach to the borderline dehumanizing experience of high school: an environment thick with subterfuge, posturing and a peculiar way with discouraging hope and murdering the human experience.
Early mockumentaries like Spinal Tap went to a considerable length to explain their premise- it was important to understand why there was a camera crew and interviewer present to tell the these stories. As the genre has evolved this has become gradually less important, to the point where Lilley bothers to provide an explanation for the footage - a one sentence disclaimer at the beginning of the first episode is sufficient. This feels correct in an era with cell phone cameras and $70 Flips - our lives now feel as likely as not to be captured on camera- or private feelings captured and disseminated in private asides on video blogs and Skype. Part of the ascent of the mockumentary is inextricably related to the coincidental resemblance to the ways in which contemporary life is experienced and documented.
Operating with the usual combination of one on one “interviews“, the ersatz “straight reportage” and behind the scenes “candid” footage which have come to comprise the cinematic vernacular of the mockumentary genre, Lilley is able to tell the stories of his three main characters with a degree of revelatory depth uncommon to the two dimensional world of sitcom characters.
Each of the three characters- all of them played by Lilley in a remarkable tour de force- are veritable stock characters in contemporary culture. His variants on the bully, the rich girl and the clueless teacher may at first suggest predictable outcomes. But the trajectories that the program plots for them are gratifyingly unexpected:
Anyone who attended public school probably knew someone like Jonah Takalua: a hyperactive and extraordinarily profane adolescent, whose very presence in the school threatens to render any attempt at teaching or learning futile and absurd. Jonah incessantly bullies fellow students, torments teachers and administrators, and in the peculiar way of so many young boys, speaks constantly about his genitals with a kind of obsessive fixation. He is also, in both Lilley’s conception and portrayal of him, highly lovable, which constitutes a neat parlor trick for such a genuine and persistent irritant. As the run of episodes unfolds, Jonah’s bullheaded conviction to respond to every conflict and challenge either by calling it “gay” or making reference to “my deek” or both is effectively mined for laughs. Jonah’s plainly a harmless young philistine, vulnerable enough to be threatened to an almost existential degree by a fellow break dancing enthusiast in a younger grade, and it’s easy to laugh at his defensive posturing because of the apparent fact that he has little idea of what he is saying.
The vacuous and spoiled private schooler Ja’mie King, meanwhile, provides her own cringe-worthy social commentary about the distinctions between public and private education in Australia in unsubtle ways: Her public school classmates are at best noble savages and it is her mission to civilize them through the power of formal school dances and her own “hotness.” She is so utterly misguided and laughably vapid and is built from a unique combination of privilege, ignorance and insecurity that she goes around the twist from being completely hateful to almost--almost--sympathetic.
Greg Gregson, the school's drama teacher and self appointed minister of culture, appears at first to be a feckless, harmless and even more fey first cousin to Christopher Guest's Corky St. Clair character in Waiting for Guffman. However Mr. G (a self-applied nickname, embraced only grudgingly by his students) quickly reveals himself to be a sinister figure of nearly Stalin-esque self-regard. As he plots to exert hegemonic control over the school's drama facility (the ultimate prize being the construction on campus of the enormous and elaborate Gregson Center For The Arts) he wars endlessly with faculty and administration, enacts a subterranean campaign against the schools Special Ed program (he covets the space and disabled children scare him), and eventually thinks nothing of parlaying a student's death from overdose into a hilariously exploitative and self-aggrandizing morality play about the incident, entitled, naturally, The Mr. G Story. His emergence as one of the truly grand villains of modern television is unexpected and richly rewarding.
And the entire supporting cast serves as a countermeasure to Lilley’s more or less over-the-top performances as Jonah, Ja’mie, and Mr. G. These performances are across the board note perfect, lending an imperative grounding that never allows the program to veer towards to less fertile sketch comedy territory. Special notice is due to the supporting cast of high schoolers, who uniformly play against Lilley’s exaggerated characters with a flawlessly deadpan believability.
By the series end, the show’s three main characters have developed in ways which run counter to the typical sitcom formulas. In sitcom world, it is typically obligatory for the narrative arc to indicate some sort growth or positive change. Not so at Summer Heights High: Ja’mie leaves school with her bitchiness fully intact, her sense of entitlement even further inflated. Mr. G has developed into a megalomaniacal and nearly remorseless sociopath. And Jonah has evolved from an insensitive teen buffoon into a textbook example of a child rendered ever more hopeless by a monolithic bureaucracy that just doesn’t feel like trying that hard. For a comedy as heavily laden with dick jokes and lowbrow gags as Summer Heights High, the finale is almost shockingly sad. Something like total victory has been achieved by the wealthy, the scheming, the entrenched powers. As wild card Jonah is sent off to remedial school in impoverished Tonga, mediocrity reigns, the status quo is unchanged and the sense of high school as an exercise in boredom and conformity is palpable.
The mockumentary form is especially useful in exposing the blithe and banal horrors of the high school experience. Faculty meetings are revealed to inane charades of witless infighting. Children are seen to behave one way with their friends, and then adopt completely separate behaviors when alone with the camera. On some level, everyone knows that high school is a rigged and nasty game. “Friends” are not really friends, “authorities” are not actually smart, and “role models” are baldly degenerate. Lilley succeeds in contributing something new by applying the mockumentary approach to the high school setting. In recent years, other fine programs like Freaks and Geeks have admirably laid bare high school’s grim realities. But while Freaks and Geeks stands solidly and resolutely behind its outsider protagonists, Lilley's use of the mockumentary approach allows him to represent the entire charade without inherent bias. The sense that all it takes to reveal public school as a harrowing fool's errand is to turn up with a couple cameras and start rolling is an important observation in and of itself.
Could Lilley have told his story another way?