Scenes That I Love: Peter Stegman Plays The Piano in Class of 1984


“I am the future!” Peter Stegman (Timothy Van Patten) announced in the 1982 film, Class of 1984, and, in many ways, he was correct.  Though it’s easy to be snarky about the fashion choices made by Stegman’s gang, Class of 1984‘s portrait of a school where teachers have taken to carrying guns to protect themselves is still relevant today.

One thing that set Class of 1984 apart from other exploitation films was that it acknowledged something that most people aren’t willing to admit.  Sometimes, the worst people can create the most beautiful music.  This is a point that was made quite literally in the scene below.

As the scene begins, the new music teacher — Andy Norman (Perry King) — is just trying to start his class when suddenly Stegman and his gang decide to drop in.  At first, Andy tells them to go away but then, suddenly, Stegman sits down at a piano and starts to play.

Timothy Van Patten, who would later go on to become an award-winning television director, reportedly actually played every note heard in this scene.  For a few brief seconds, Peter Stegman is revealed to be something more than just another high school psycho.  When Stegman sits in front of that piano, he becomes an artist and, throughout the film, both Andy Norman and the audience occasionally wonder who Peter Stegman could have been under different circumstances.

Of course, ultimately, it doesn’t matter.  Peter Stegman could have been a concert pianist but instead, he went down a different path.  Over the course of the film, Stegman is responsible for not only Michael J. Fox getting stabbed but Roddy McDowall getting blown up.  When Andy makes one final attempt to reach out to him, Stegman tries to cut his hand off.   Now wonder Andy eventually allowed Stegman to plunge through that skylight.

But even as Stegman falls to his death and discovers that he’s not the future, it’s hard not to think about that beautiful piece of music that he played just a few days earlier and wonder about what could have been.

Peter Stegman.  R.I.P.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #80: Bright Lights, Big City (dir by James Bridges)


Bright_Lights_Big_CityThe 1988 film Bright Lights, Big City is one of the many films from the late 80s in which Kiefer Sutherland plays a demonic character.  In this case, his character is so demonic that his name is — seriously, check this shit out — Tad Allagash.  Nobody named Tad Allagash has ever been a good guy!

Tad is the best friend of Jamie Conway (Michael J. Fox), an aspiring writer who has moved to New York City from some middle-America farm state and who now has a job as a fact checker at the New Yorker.  Jamie is still struggling to deal with both the death of his mother (played in flashbacks by Dianne Wiest) and the collapse of his marriage to Amanda (Phoebe Cates).  Tad helps out his depressed little friend by taking him out to the clubs and supplying him with so much cocaine that Jamie literally spends the entire film on the verge of having a geyser of blood shoot out from his powder-coated nostrils.

And the thing is, Tad knows that he’s not a good influence on Jamie’s life but he doesn’t care.  Whenever Jamie starts to get a little bit too wrapped up in his self-pity, Tad is there to make a tasteless joke.  Whenever Jamie tries to argue that he and Amanda aren’t really broken up, Tad is there to remind him that Amanda wants nothing to do with him.  Whenever Jamie starts to think that doing all of this cocaine is potentially ruining his life, Tad is there to cheerfully cut another line.  Tad makes no apologies for being Tad Allagash.  He’s too busy having a good time and it’s obvious that Sutherland’s having an even better time playing Tad.  As a result, Tad Allagash becomes the perfect antihero, the bad guy that you like despite yourself.

Unfortunately, Bright Lights, Big City isn’t about Tad Allagash.  You’re happy whenever Kiefer shows up but he doesn’t show up enough to actually save the film.  No, Bright Lights, Big City is the story of Jamie Conway and that’s why the film is a bit of a pain to sit through.  Despite having a great Irish name, Jamie Conway is one of the whiniest characters that I have ever seen in a film.  From the minute he first appears on screen and starts complaining about the failure of his marriage, you want someone to just tell him to shut up.  When he tells an alcoholic editor (Jason Robards) that his latest short story was autobiographical, you nod and think, “So, that’s why it hasn’t been published.”

Of course, since Jamie is the main character, everyone in the film feels sorry for him but he really is just insufferable.  There’s a lengthy scene where Jamie delivers a drunken monologue to a sympathetic coworker, Megan (played by Swoosie Kurtz).  And while Jamie goes on and on about how he first met Amanda and how their marriage fell apart (and how it was all her fault), poor Megan has to sit there and try to look sympathetic.  Personally, I would have kicked Jamie out of my apartment after the first minute of that whiny diatribe.  Megan has the patience of a saint.

There is some curiosity value to watching Michael J. Fox snort cocaine.  (I wonder if contemporary audiences shouted, “McFly!” as they watched Fox sniffing up the devil’s dandruff.)  But otherwise, Bright Lights, Big City is a relic of 80s cinema that can be safely forgotten.

Shattered Politics #56: The American President (dir by Rob Reiner)


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Way back in October, around the same time that I first decided that I would do a series of reviews of political films and that I would call it Lisa Gets Preachy (subsequently changed to Shattered Politics), I noticed that the 1995 film The American President was scheduled to be shown on TVLand.

“Hey,” I said, “I’ve definitely got to watch and review that!”

So, I set the DVR and I recorded The American President.

And then, I just left it there.

You have to understand that it’s rare that I ever leave anything unwatched on my DVR.  Usually, within an hour of recording a program, I’ll be watching it.  I have even been known to go so far as to make out very long lists of everything that I have on the DVR, just so I can make check them off after I’ve watched.  As a general rule, I am way too obsessive compulsive to just leave anything sitting around.

But, for whatever reason, I could never work up any enthusiasm for the prospect of actually watching The American President.  I knew that, eventually, I would have to watch it so that I could review it.  Unlike those folks criticizing American Sniper on the basis of the film’s trailer, I never criticize or praise a film unless I’ve actually watched it.  But  I just couldn’t get excited about The American President.

Can you guess why?  I’ll give you a hint.  It’s two words.  The first starts with A.  The second starts with S.

If you guessed Aaron Sorkin, then you are correct!  Yes, I do know that Sorkin has a lot of admirers.  And, even more importantly, I know that it’s dangerous to cross some of those admirers.  (I can still remember Ryan Adams and Sasha Stone insanely blocking anyone who dared to criticize the underwritten female characters in Sorkin’s script for The Social Network.)

But what can I say?  As a writer, Aaron Sorkin bothers me.  And since Sorkin is such an overpraised and powerful voice, he’s that rare scriptwriter who can actually claim auteur status.  The Social Network, for instance, was not a David Fincher film.  It was an Aaron Sorkin film, through and through.

And, after having to deal with three seasons of the Newroom and countless Aaron Sorkin-penned op-eds about why nobody should be allowed to criticize Aaron Sorkin, I’ve reached the point where dealing with all of Aaron Sorkin’s signature quirks is a bit like listening to the drill while strapped into a dentist’s chair.  I am weary of pompous and egotistical male heroes who answer every question with a sermon.  I am tired to endless scenes of male bonding.  I have had enough with the quippy, quickly-delivered dialogue, all recited as characters walk down an endless hallways.  I have no more sympathy for Sorkin’s nostalgic idealism or his condescending, rich, white dude version of liberalism.

Most of all, I’m sick of people making excuses for an acclaimed, award-winning, highly-paid screenwriter who is apparently incapable of writing strong female characters.  I’m tired of pretending that it doesn’t matter that Aaron Sorkin is apparently incapable of viewing female characters as being anything other than potential love interests or silly distractions who need to be told to go stand in a corner while the menfolk solve all the problems of the world.

Fortunately, as a result of The Newsroom, quite a few critics are finally starting to admit what they always knew to be the truth.  Aaron Sorkin is not the messiah.  Instead, he’s a somewhat talented writer who doesn’t understand (or, in my opinion, particularly like) women.  At his best, he’s occasionally entertaining.  At his worst, he’s pompous, didactic, and preachy.

And, of course, Aaron Sorkin is the man who wrote The American President.

So, The American President just sat there until a few days ago when I sighed to myself and said, “Okay, let’s watch this thing.”  As I watched it, I promised myself that I would try to see past the fact that it was an Aaron Sorkin-penned film and just try to judge the film on its merits.

But here’s the thing.  It’s nearly impossible to separate one’s opinion of Sorkin from The American President.  If you didn’t know that Sorkin had written The American President, you’d guess it after hearing the first few lines of dialogue.  The film, itself, was directed by Rob Reiner but it’s not as if Reiner is the most interesting of directors.  (What’s odd is that Reiner’s first films — This Is Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride, Stand By Me — are all so quirky and interesting and are still so watchable decades after first being released that you have to wonder how Reiner eventually became the man who directed The Bucket List.)  In short, The American President is totally an Aaron Sorkin film.

President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) is a liberal Democrat who, as he prepares to run for a second term, has a 63% approval rating.  However, when Shepherd decides to push through a gun control bill, he finds that approval rating threatened.  And then, when he listens to environmental lobbyist Sydney Wade (Annette Bening) and tries to push through legislation to reduce carbon emissions, his approval rating is again threatened.  And then, to top it all off, he starts dating Sydney.  It turns out that Sydney has protested American policy in the past.  And, since this is an Aaron Sorkin film, everyone outside of the Northeast is scandalized that President Shepherd is having premarital sex in the White House.

And, to top it all off, there’s an evil Republican named Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss) who wants to be President and is willing to use the President’s relationship with Sydney to further his own evil Republican ambitions.

But, ultimately, it’s not just those evil Republicans who make it difficult for Sydney and the President to have a relationship.  It’s also the fact that the President agrees to a watered down crime bill and that he does not hold up his end of the bargain when it comes to reducing carbon emissions.

“You’ve lost my vote!” Sydney tells him.

But — fear not!  There’s still time for President Shepherd to give a speech that will be so good and so brilliant that it will, within a matter of minutes, totally change every aspect of American culture and save the day.  How do we know it’s a great speech?  Because it was written by Aaron Sorkin!

Actually, I’m being too hard on the film and I’ll be the first admit that it’s because I’m personally not a huge fan of Aaron Sorkin’s.  But, to be honest, The American President is Aaron Sorkin-lite.  This film was written before the West Wing, before the Social Network, before that Studio Whatever show, and before The Newsroom.  In short, it was written before he became THE Aaron Sorkin and, as such, it’s actually a lot less preachy than some of his other work.  It’s true that, much like The Newsroom, The American President is definitely Sorkin’s fantasy of how things should work but at least you don’t have to deal with Jeff Daniels throwing stuff or Emily Mortimer not knowing how to properly forward an email.

Instead, it’s a film that will probably be enjoyed by those who share its politics.  (And, make no mistake, The American President is more interested in politics than it is in the love story between Andrew and Sydney.)  Michael Douglas does well in the role of the President.  Meanwhile, Annette Bening is so likable and natural as Sydney that it almost make up for the fact that she’s yet another Sorkin woman whose existence is largely defined by looking up to her man while inspiring him to do the right thing and forgiving him when he doesn’t.  Personally, I would have been happy if the film had ended with Sydney telling the President, “Thanks for finally doing the right thing but I have a life of my own to lead.”

But that wouldn’t be the Sorkin way.

Back to School #37: Back to the Future (dir by Robert Zemeckis)


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Well, this is certainly intimidating.

Earlier today, I was sitting at my day job and I happened to glance down at my to-do list to see what I was scheduled to review next in my Back To School series and there, listed at #37, was a somewhat popular film from 1985.  The name of the film was Back To The Future and…

Oh, you’ve heard of it?  And you already know what the movie’s about because literally everyone on the planet has either seen Back to The Future or knows someone who has seen Back To The Future and loves it so much that they can tell you every little detail about the adventures of Marty McFly, Doc Brown, and that time-traveling DeLorean?

Well, just be quiet and bear with me.  I always like to give a plot synposis in my reviews.  For one thing, it’s a good way to let you know who plays who in the film.

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So, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is, despite his somewhat embarrassing last name, a perfectly normal American teenager.  He lives in a nice, small town.  He has a pretty girlfriend (Claudia Wells).  He likes to ride his skateboard.  He likes to play guitar (though he’s deemed to be “too loud” by at least one of his teachers).  The high school’s principal (James Tolkan) often gives him a hard time for being late but other than that, Marty seems to be a pretty regular guy…

Except his family has some major issues.  His mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) is an alcoholic who won’t stop talking about how she first met her husband George (Crispin Glover) after her father hit him with his car. George, meanwhile, is a total wimp who is continually bullied by his boss, Biff (Thomas F. Wilson).  Marty’s older siblings (Marc McClure and Wendie Jo Sperber) are both living directionless lives and Marty has every reason to fear that he might end up following them.

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Fortunately, Marty has a best friend named Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) who has built a time machine inside of a luxury vehicle.  Late one night, Doc recruits Marty to help him test out the machine but what Doc didn’t mention is that in order to power his time machine, he had still plutonium from a group of terrorists.  Those terrorists show up and kill Doc.  Marty flees in the car and soon finds himself trapped in 1955.

Marty manages to track down the younger version of Doc Brown and the two of them start trying to work out how to get Marty back to the future.  (We have a title!)  Marty, of course, wants to warn Doc about what’s going to happen in 1985 but Doc insists that Marty tell him nothing about the future.  Doc also tells Marty that he has to be very careful, while in the past, not to change the future.

McFly!

Too late!  Marty has already met teenage Lorraine.  See, Marty happened to spot George up in a tree, peeping on Lorraine as she undressed.  (“He’s a pervert!” Marty exclaims.)  When George falls out of the tree and lands in the street, Marty pushes him out of the way of an approaching car.  Marty gets hit by the car, which is being driven by his own grandfather.  So now, Marty has essentially prevented his parents from meeting and, as a result, the McFly children are slowly fading from existence.

So, before Marty can go back to 1985, he has to get George and Lorraine back together.  The main problem, of course, is that Lorraine now has a crush on her own son…

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Wow, that’s a lot of plot there.  There’s a lot going on in Back to the Future and there are times when it almost feels like a dozen different films in one.  It’s a science fiction film, with Doc and Marty spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to make a time machine work with 1955 technology and weather.  It’s an action film, with Marty fleeing terrorists in 1985 and Biff in 1955.  It’s a romance, with the always endearingly weird Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson making for an odd but cute couple.  (Thought it’s wrong on so many levels, Thompson and Fox also have a lot of chemistry and are cute together, as long as you ignore the fact that they are playing mother and son!)  It’s a frequently hilarious comedy, with the entire cast giving heartfelt performances.  It’s an anthropological study, comparing the 50s and the 80s.  It’s a satirical look at how teenager’s tend to view their parents, with Marty discovering that everything that he’s assumed at his mom was basically incorrect.  And finally, it’s a surprisingly subversive film, with Marty and Lorraine’s 1955 relationship constantly running the risk of turning into an Oedipal nightmare.

And yet the entire film flows together so perfectly that you’re never aware of just how busy it all really is.  Between director Robert Zemeckis’s sure-handed direction, the clever script by Zemeckis and Bob Gale, and a uniformly excellent cast, Back to the Future is one of those films that verges on being flawless.

And, for that reason, it can be very intimidating to review.

I just don’t know how I’m going to do it…

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Back To School #26: Class of 1984 (dir by Mark L. Lester)


“I am the future!” — Peter Stegman (Timothy Van Patten) in Class of 1984 (1982)

In many ways, the classic exploitation film Class of 1984 feels like an update of Blackboard Jungle.  An idealistic teacher Andrew Norris (Perry King) takes a job teaching at a crime-ridden inner city school.  There are a few differences.  For one thing, the teacher in Class of 1984 teaches music.  The graffiti-covered school in Class of 1984 looks a hundreds times worse than the one in Blackboard Jungle.  Sidney Poitier is nowhere to be seen in Class of 1984 though Michael J. Fox does show up as one of the good students.  Bad student Peter Stegman (Timothy Van Patten) and his gang are a lot more colorful and flamboyant than Vic Morrow ever was in Blackboard Jungle.

And, of course, the main difference between Blackboard Jungle and Class of 1984 is that, in the former film, teacher Glenn Ford’s liberal idealism ultimately defeated the forces of juvenile delinquency.  Ford may have been tempted to turn violent but, ultimately, he appealed to the better instincts of his other students and the world was better for it.

In Class of 1984, Andy Norris may start off as a liberal idealist but, ultimately, he reveals himself to be just as violent as his students.  And again, the world appears to be better for it.

(I imagine that, when this film was originally released, a lot of teachers probably watched it as a form of wish-fulfillment.)

Now, Andy’s actions may be extreme but he has his reasons.  Just consider everything that happened to him after he started teaching.

First off, his best friend and fellow teacher Terry Corrigan (Roddy McDowall) was driven insane by the school’s students.  Terry eventually ended up teaching while pointing a gun at his entire class.  (The scene where McDowall finally gets his class to pay attention is one of the best in the film, largely due to McDowall’s excellent performance.  The look of happiness that crosses his face when a student finally gives him the correct answer is both disturbing and funny at the same time.)

Secondly, his best student (that would be Michael J. Fox) ended up getting stabbed in the cafeteria by one of Stegman’s goons.

And finally, Stegman and his gang assaulted Andy’s wife.

Can you blame Andy Norris for taking the law into his own hands?

Now, me,  I have a tendency towards being a bleeding heart when it comes to those living on the fringes of society.  I’m against the death penalty.  I’m against the war on drugs.  I’m against violence.  I believe in compassion.  I believe in understanding.  I believe in love.  But even with all that in mind, I couldn’t help but enjoy Class of 1984.  Some of that is because the film is surprisingly well-acted.  You find yourself really caring about the characters played Perry King and Roddy McDowall and you also find yourself really hating Peter Stegman and his goons.  I don’t care how compassionate you are, there’s something very cathartic about watching Andy finally get back at his tormentors.  And then there’s the fact that, of all the directors to work in what has been termed the “exploitation” field, Mark Lester is one of the best.  He’s one of those directors who knows exactly how to tell a story and what buttons to push to get the proper emotional respect.

But mostly, the film works because of Timothy Van Patten’s performance as Peter Stegman.  Van Patten makes Stegman into one of the definitive teenage psychos.  As intimidating as Van Patten is, his best moments come when the film reveals the type of person that Stegman could have been if not for the fact that he’s a total sociopath.  At one point, when Andy tries to kick him out of music class, Stegman responds by sitting down at a piano and playing a beautiful piece of music.  Perhaps my favorite Stegman moments comes late in the film, when he’s seen sweetly talking to his devoted (and clueless) mother.

Not surprisingly for a film that was released over 30 years ago, Class of 1984 is undeniably dated.  But it doesn’t matter because Class of 1984 captures a universal and timeless truth.  There are always going to be frustrated teachers and dangerous students.  The only thing that changes is how society deals with the frustration and the danger.

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