Three O'Clock High

Thursday, November 13, 2008

When I was at school, there was nothing more exciting than a fight. It was better than being picked for the school football team or getting an A in English. A surge of excitement would burst through the entire year group. It would be the only thing on everyone’s lips.

The problem, though, back then, wasn’t trying to prevent an awful event from happening or trying to calm everyone down. The problem was trying to ensure that both parties remained angry enough to continue with the fight at the end of the school day. Yes, we were bloodthirsty little bastards.

But while I saw many fights at school – one that involved lots of biting, one that involved a boxer fighting a fat kid, one that involved karate and one that ended in a single punch – I never had to take part in one myself. Maybe if I had, I wouldn’t have been so quick to encourage adolescent brawling.

Three O’Clock High takes this frenzied excitement and filters it through a poor kid who is unlucky enough to have to fight school bully Buddy Revell. You see, the kid here, Jerry, is a bit of a nerd, and when he’s assigned to write a piece on a new student by the editor of the school paper, he does what his job demands of him. He talks to the kid. But Buddy Revell looks more like a caveman in a leather jacket than a child. He’s not the sort of person who wants to answer questions. And if school rumour is to be believed, then Buddy has broken necks and put people in hospital for touching him. So when Jerry makes the mistake of touching Buddy’s shoulder, he’s thrown into a mirror and told that he’s going to get beaten up when the bell rings at 3 o’clock. The fight is on.

Three O’Clock High is a simple film, but there is a tiny bit of ambiguity when it comes to Buddy Revell – he’s not your typical school bully. The typical school bully is the kid who instigates trouble, but here you have someone who just wants to be left alone and who doesn’t want to be touched. So therefore he runs against the grain of cinematic school bullies. At the same time, though, the film doesn’t go to any lengths to understand him. But seeing as the film is shot through Jerry’s perspective, this decision is the right one. Buddy is just a characterless bogeyman. He’s every nerd’s nightmare come to life – the unyielding, unstoppable giant that’s going to box your ears.

Quite what the point of the film is, I don’t know. That the only way to become a man is to fight? That sometimes you have to solve your problems with violence? I’m not sure. But it doesn’t really matter. The film only wants to entertain. And besides, when you’re a kid, you often find yourself in ridiculous situations. What matters is whether you learn anything from them.

But like I say, Three O’Clock High isn’t really concerned with things like this. As its title suggests, it’s a high school spin on a western and as such the final confrontation is inevitable. There’s no getting out of it. A date with destiny is etched on the school’s clock face.

Not that Jerry doesn’t try and worm his way out of the fight. And there are lots of amusing scenes that feature Jerry’s increasingly desperate attempts to avoid his date with Buddy. At first he tries to drive home, but he finds a knife stabbed into the steering wheel of his car and his engine is vandalised. Then he tries to reason with Buddy. That doesn’t work. But his best attempt to not have to fight is when he bribes a football player to beat Buddy up. Jerry watches from behind a couple of bookcases as the football player confronts Buddy in the library. But when the football player pokes Buddy in the chest, the football player gets his finger broken and he gets thrown into the bookcases. The bookcases then topple over and eventually reveal our hero cowering behind them. It’s a very funny moment.

Another great scene is when Jerry decides to get a detention. The reasoning behind this is that if he’s in detention, he can’t fight after school. So he’s in his English class and has to give a book report. Cue the massive nerd picking up some sunglasses and smoking a cigarette as he tries to give a rebellious interpretation of the novel he’s read. But I love how even when he tries to sound cool he still ends up sounding like a geek: ‘I was thinking about the syntax and how it affected the overall mood.’ What jock would talk like that?

But unfortunately for Jerry, his English teacher, who looks like a prim, young librarian, is aroused rather than insulted by his report. And so instead of getting detention, he gets kissed.

But although I like the book report scene, I do think that the kissing takes things a bit too far. I know the film is supposed to be surreal, but the moment is a little queasy. I’m well aware that every boy has fantasised about one of his teachers, but to see the fantasy filmed as some sort of reality gives the scene a slightly unpleasant vibe. And the ending, where the teacher comes in all glammed up and snogs Jerry in front of his girlfriend feels even worse. Sure the film could be interpreted as some sort of fevered dream where weird and wonderful things happen, but it gives the ending a slightly distasteful, predatory paedo feeling to it.

In fact, the women don’t come off very well at all in this film. Jerry’s girlfriend is a goth who thinks she talks to a guardian angel. Oookay. Then you have the girl that Jerry has a crush on. The girl in question is a vapid blonde with poodle hair who talks in a such a hushed way that it sounds like she’s had a stroke. Quite what the kid sees in her, I don’t know. And then of course you have the horny teacher who jumps a child in public.

But thankfully there’s lots of other good things, like Mitch Pileggi playing a weird security guard who has a possible homoerotic relationship with the Dean (the Dean is called ‘The Dean of Discipline’ and has a Hitler fixation), Jerry having to break an unbreakable cash register with a fire extinguisher and a group of cheerleaders beating a piñata in the shape of an American football player with sticks as the baying crowd shouts ‘kill it!’ I was also impressed with some of the camerawork. There are some really inventive visuals, even if once or twice it felt like needless showboating. And the fight at the end is great fun as well. Jerry, with the aid of some brass knucks, topples the Giant and becomes a modern David.

And at the end, Jerry even gains the respect of Buddy. But again, this could possibly leave a bad taste in the mouth. Is the film saying that the real way to gain respect is to win a fight rather than to show intelligence or reasoning? Maybe. Maybe not. But thankfully Three O’Clock High is an amusing film with a lot of visual verve. There isn’t a whole lot to it, but for the most part it pushes the right buttons.

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  1. wow, just incredible writing, good job