When parenthood hit me full-force, I could never watch movies that involve families or children the same way. I tried to watch Sleepless in Seattle a while ago, and that scene at the end where Tom Hanks' character finds with his son at the top of the Empire State Building? Destroyed me. The idea that your 8-year-old son would fly across the country by himself without you having any clue is horrifying, but it was all within the realm of fiction for me until the young actor, Ross Malinger, yells, "Dad!" and runs to embrace his father. And then I felt like someone had ripped my heart out of my eyeballs.
(By the way, Sleepless in Seattle is supposed to be one of those quintessential, genre-defining romantic comedies, but on this most recent viewing, it didn't strike me as very romantic or very comedic. More on that at a later date, perhaps.)
The one exception (so far) to new approach to movies featuring children seems to be School of Rock. This was one of my go-to comedies in college, an opportunity to not think after hours of analyzing the work of Agnès Varda and Maya Deren. It's my cinematic junk food.
But School of Rock is better than that. It's incredibly formulaic - so much so that at one point, Rob addressed the screen: "Dude, your character development is showing" - but it uses the formula well. The exposition is crystal clear, and "training" montages are delicious, and the soundtrack feels like a playlist that might be running through the hero's head at any given moment. When the plot twists in School of Rock, you know what's going to happen next, because you've seen this kind of film a million times before. But when a film has created such a strong and consistent world for itself, you don't actually mind that you know how it ends. Or, at least, I don't.
The film's one plot surprise is its lack of romance. For a scene or two, it looks as though Jack Black's faux substitute teacher and Joan Cusack's school principal are going to hook up. But the two never do become a couple. This non-coupling doesn't make much sense in terms of American cinematic conventions, but it strikes me as much truer to the characters in question. Interestingly, because the (male) protagonist makes it to the end of the film without a (female) partner, there's not the opportunity to create the Traditional American Family that most films strive to achieve, even if it's just in the film language. (See, for example, the end of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Indiana Jones and Willie Scott, who don't particularly like each other, embrace, surrounded by hundreds of rescued Indian children. It's in no way a family portrait, but it resembles one closely enough to satisfy an American narrative, which craves the heteronormative closure that comes from [re]establishing the father-mother-child[ren] family ideal.) In fact, adult women are completely absent from School of Rock by the time the credits roll. In the final scene, we hear 10-year-old Summer say goodbye to her mother, who the audience doesn't see in this scene, while exiting a car and walking by herself into the newly-formed "School of Rock" after-school program.
I'm starting to think that School of Rock is way more problematic in its relationship to women than I originally realized. Of course, I should've caught it right away; it's done as innocently as possible, but there's still something wrong with Jack Black designating three 10-year-old girls as "groupies."
Still, I don't have the viewing relationship with School of Rock that I do with other movies featuring children (and families), possibly because the roles are reversed here: the adult protagonist is childlike and irresponsible, while the children seem mature and industrious. Situations that could be spun as horrifying - a man who is lying about his identity sneaking a group of fourth graders into his van - never come close to creepy, because there's no threat. School of Rock is completely without danger. It represents, very clearly, a particular kind of male fantasy.
(So could someone please explain to me why I still like it so much?)
Other fun things about School of Rock:
- Joan Cusack's uptight school principal character always wears gray.
- The children's parents are in the film more as props than as characters. They're more or less interchangeable (with the exception of Zack's father, who the film portrays as a bully), as represented in part by the fact that they all drive Volvos.
- The font used for the title of the film on promotional posters and DVD boxes is the same font used by Rolling Stone magazine.