The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
High School Musical 3: Senior Year

Written by Anna Cooper Sloan.

Photo from the article This Alternate Take will serve as a venue for two alternatives, two competing viewpoints on High School Musical 3. The first will deconstruct, as it were, the film’s fantasy of space and place, criticising the specific ways in which it departs from what we might for convenience’s sake call reality. The second will offer an antidote to all this negativity, restoring the film to our good graces through an analysis of its own self-awareness and self-reflexivity in this regard. This structure is not a mere rhetorical device but is intended to reflect my own genuine ambivalence about the film.

1. The Los Angeles Teen Movie

I wish to begin this section by pointing out an ostensibly irrelevant fact that is mentioned in one of the opening scenes of the film, a tête-a-tête between Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens. This film takes place, Hudgens says dreamily, exactly 1053 miles from Stanford University. For those of you who aren’t brushed up on your United States geography, that puts them roughly somewhere on an arc stretching across the West, from Vancouver, through Montana, Wyoming and Colorado, and down to New Mexico. For the first half of the movie, my mind kept wandering back to that subject: where does this movie take place?

The reason this question felt so urgent is simple: the movie seems to plant itself firmly within the conventions of the Los Angeles high school movie. You remember Clueless (1995)? Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)? Not Another Teen Movie (2001)? Even Brick (2005)? All these, and many more, take place in or around Los Angeles, in one of those sunny open-air suburban high schools with brightly painted exteriors and hallways lined with lockers.

This is no coincidence; these films belong in Los Angeles. Something about the mindset of the LA film industry’s predominantly white, upper-class movers and shakers feels so seamlessly reflected in the teen movie: their isolationism, their fear of anybody who is culturally or racially different, their insular retreat into fortresses of power like Beverly Hills and Bel Air, safe from the street people, their bizarre little fantasy world which they have succeeded in making revolve around them. The LA high school movie so perfectly encapsulates this dream: high school is viewed as a kind of utopia, a paradise-before-the-fall, a moment before children are made to become aware of the world for all its unpredictability and terror, and in which the biggest worry is what to wear to senior prom or whether or not the star quarterback will ask you out. Everyone tends to be white and beautiful and comfortably middle-class. This fantasy world is a near-perfect reflection of the desires of the dominant class of Angelinos: an us-versus-them mentality in which the “them” has been made to disappear entirely into oblivion.

High School Musical 3 is finally revealed to take place in Albuquerque, but this location is treated as a substitute for LA: it, like LA, seems to consist of large picturesque houses in a flat valley surrounded by smoggy mountains and constantly bathed in sunlight. The high school physical plant, as we might expect, is unbelievably clean, bright and well-equipped, with a full proscenium arch for a stage; a yearbook space is filled with brand new computers and furniture that looks like it came straight from Ikea. This is a problem-free world, a fantasy of the top of the universe.

Of course High School Musical 3 is an updated version of this vision: for one thing, Disney, criticized in the past for its racism and exclusionism, would now never be allowed to make such a movie with an all-white cast. Nor would a few tokens here and there suffice anymore: there are a number of well-developed black and Latino characters, and even an unstereotyped fat girl. This is all ostensibly great, and yet the insularity seems undiminished: non-whites, it seems to say, can also participate in our little fantasy-world, as long as they behave exactly like us!

This is why the film feels a bit like a guilty pleasure: how can we go about enjoying and even advocating a film with such a bizarrely insular fantasy of the world, with such a painfully tangential relationship to “reality” - a vision with such apparent power to distort our perceptions if we allow it to? The sense of fury which can result when one thinks about these things is, with reason, the driving force behind so much of academic film criticism of the last 30 years. It is the job of intellectuals (so the underlying argument seems to go), to utilise such insights to point out and thereby destroy the Hollywood machine that constantly attempts to reinforce its own power by forcing its ideologies onto unsuspecting viewers. This notion of academic-as-warrior has been, and continues to be, a powerful myth - one which I therefore almost genetically mistrust. And yet it is impossible to completely dismiss, for such critics have hit upon the truth that these films deeply offend our sensibilities in ways which it can be important to unpack and understand.

2. Redemption through Self-Reflexivity

Yet for all that, it must be pointed out that High School Musical 3 is a musical. Musicals are nearly always about fantasy on some level - about dreamers hoping for love or success, or about a nostalgic longing for a different time or place. Unreality of some kind or another is practically a compulsory element of the genre. I suspect, then, that it could prove fruitful to be suspicious of criticism which too easily dismisses such a film as High School Musical 3 on grounds of fantasy or artificiality- almost as though they have missed the point.

What’s more, this film is not just any musical, but a backstage musical (that is, a musical that is about putting on a show). A high level of self-reflexivity is usually absolutely inherent to this sub-genre: backstage musicals, that is, are almost always about ‘show business’, which is often a thinly veiled metaphor for Hollywood itself. Such films, then, are deeply concerned with their own production conditions, and the best of them interrogate and display these conditions with alacrity.

High School Musical 3, I would argue, is a full participant in the tradition of the backstage musical in this sense: it is a film about a group of high school seniors staging a show about being high school seniors. Thus there are two ontological levels, as it were - the world of the characters and the world of the roles they play while on stage. Often the film switches frequently and without warning between these two levels, especially during musical numbers: a character will begin singing on the stage and will suddenly switch to singing in the hallway, and then back again. Moreover, the two levels are in striking parallel: the romantic leads of the film are the romantic leads of the play, and so on. In this manner, fantasy and reality become one seamless, fluid whole. If we wish to accuse the film of artificiality, it is there to meet our accusation head on by collapsing the distinction between the world of the film and the world of fantasy, fully conceding its own artifice.

The film, then, can be seen as some kind of deconstruction of the Los Angeles high school movie: it uses its musical elements to achieve self-awareness in relation to its sunny high school fantasy, pointing us to its own central lie even as it simultaneously embraces that lie.

This seems remarkable until one realises how very many of the LA high school movies also achieve a degree of self-awareness or self-parody. Alicia Silverstone in Clueless was so perfectly, supremely ditzy that she seemed to make fun of her own shallowness. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Brick both, like High School Musical 3, use their hybridity with other genres (respectively the vampire movie and the film noir) to point out the fantasies and absurdities of the high school movie premise. And Not Another Teen Movie pastiches the whole oeuvre, creating a perfect storm of self-awareness in which every character is also a mouthpiece for clichés from other films. It appears that the self-reflexivity of High School Musical 3, while creative and interesting, is no towering exception in this regard.

Which brings me back to the point about film criticism. It seems to me that a far greater number of films than is generally thought- not just the high school movie but nearly every Hollywood genre - display at least some degree of this kind of self-awareness. This is a fact to which I very frequently resort in my own criticism, in my attempts to find a way around the academic-as-warrior premise: the self-aware genre film does not need me to come to its aid, because it does an admirable job itself of anticipating and rebutting the accusations made against it. Such a film refutes the notion that the critic knows more about the film than the film knows about itself, which is a central assumption of the dominant kind of academic criticism. Best of all, I get to point this out merely through interpretation of the details of the film, rather than through active advocacy, which would run the risk of making the film carry more weight than it can bear. If a modest film like High School Musical 3 is capable all by itself of standing up to the typical take-no-prisoners criticism, then the myth of the academic-as-warrior is in trouble.

This Alternate Take was published on February 08, 2009.

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