Three O'Clock High -- Now that's what I call a book report

I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I have an excessive amount of bubblegum. In other words, I'm thrilled to talk about my favorite scene in one of my favorite movies, but in broader terms, I'm even more excited about the chance to talk about Three O'Clock High - a film that has the honor of being on my Top 100, though we've rarely discussed it here.

This movie has been a part of my life since it made its way to video (probably at some point in 1988), and there's a lot I could say -- though I'll hold back a bit to stick with the structure of this series.

A lotta folks could draw a straight line between this and, say, a John Hughes movie - except that Hughes was rarely this good when it came to realism, surrealism, conflict, and maybe even comedy. Stylistically (and sometimes tonally), it shares the same side of the bed as After Hours, Shaun of the Dead, early P.T. Anderson, and Sergio Leone. It's a comedy, sure, but most of the laughs derive from a kinda giddy tension; it's nervous laughter.

So the only way to set the scene is to set the entire scene: the new kid at school - a hulking sociopath with a rumored history of aggravated assault - has challenged fellow student Jerry Mitchell to a fight at the end of the school day. The premise that ensues is one disastrously failed attempt after another for Jerry to find a way out of this before the 3:00 bell rings. And for my money, the boldest and funniest scheme involves Jerry seeking a sort of protective custody by setting out to earn himself a detention. The otherwise meek and noble Jerry proceeds to sabotage his own oral book report by presenting a belligerent attitude and detailing the racy nuances of his literary choice, "Honey Goes to Hollywood." The way this backfires is a common gimmick in fiction, and it's one of my favorites: when someone tries to do bad, and they incidentally end up doing good. Jerry convincingly sells his Beat-inpsired soliloquy to his captivated classmates, but much more notably, he ignites what can best be described as a sexual awakening in his teacher, who more or less gives herself to Jerry in front of the stunned students. Even Jerry is fooled by his own performance, and accepts his teacher's advances with a cool and calm that he otherwise did not possess. Then, he faints.

So there, I've described the scene, as I usually do. But one thing I rarely do is assert the obvious: this scene (like most) really works best when you see it. Of course, the whole sequence is all over YouTube, but what kinda monstrous philistine would watch a scene out of context - especially if you've never seen it. Put differently, I don't recommend that route. But I do recommend the movie - especially if you've never seen it -- or even if you have! This is the time of year for Teen Comedies (though it's more of the same caliber as Ghost World or even The Graduate), and if you're anything like me (I know I am), this movie ages better and better with continually fresh eyes. Take a look at it, and take note of the compositions, the sound design, and particularly the editing. I mean, I could describe why these are the film's strengths, but the whole point of movies is that you watch them.

- Paul

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