Thoughts On Pump Up The Volume (1990)

Photo credit: Mr Cup / Fabien Barral iammrcup [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Intentionally or not, Pump Up The Volume flew beneath the radar under the guise of a cheesy, silly, innocent, 80’s/90’s matinee flick about teenage rebellion and angst. Since its 1990 release, it has gained a cult following because of its thoughtful observations of society that are especially relevant today.

The film takes place in a quiet suburb in Arizona at the beginning of the end of the FM pirate radio era. Up until the early 1990s, pirate radio was a rare frontier of unregulated technology. Anyone with a tad bit of know-how and an enterprising spirit could express themselves by sending whatever their sound waves of choice were “uninvited” through the air.

The Characters

Mark Hunter: (Played by a 15-year-old, yet still badass Christian Slater) Mark recently moved to an Arizona suburb with his parents from New York. At school, he walks around with his shoulders tense and his head down too shy to engage with anyone. Mark thinks of himself as invisible and voiceless and says a couple times through the movie that he “can’t talk.”

Mark’s secret 10:00 PM radio persona is Happy Harry Hard On. Harry brazenly mixes immature masturbation humor with straightforwardly presented profundity, on the pressures of the world, especially as a young person in America. Throughout the movie, Harry gradually builds a bigger following and helps the listeners deal with a tragedy at the school, inspires his listening classmates into acts of catharsis and liberation, and shines a light on the injustices of their high school administrators.

Mark Hunter’s Parents: Brian and Marla Hunter are as tvtropes.org describes as “such stereotypical baby-boomers it’s vaguely ridiculous.” The interactions between the Hunter’s and their son Mark show an all too familiar baby-boomer parent to Generation X through Y relationship. They say they want their Mark to be happy but only by means of a narrow and conventional path. Mark’s parents pressure him to get decent grades in a school district they chose for its good reputation, to fit in with his new classmates, get a girlfriend and decide on a career to pursue.

Brian recently began his job as the school district’s superintendent. In a revealing scene, Brian discusses with Marla how he feels uncomfortable now being part of “the system” after protesting it during their 60’s hippy days. Marla is dismayed that they value money and status far more than they did in their younger days. By the end of the film, Brian gets a chance to take action within “the system” to realize the 60’s protest proposition that society’s values are what we decide them to be.

Principal Creswood: Creswood is the cold-blooded and manipulative antagonist and the personification of “the system” or “the man.” She illegally expels students or uses her minion school counselors to bully students into dropping out so that she can keep the school’s SAT scores high and thus get more funding as well as maintain her status in the state as a top educator. She prioritizes the funding and status over the well being of her students, or in other words Profit Over People. Principal Creswood is what happens when a “the ends justify the means” mentality bursts through a frozen lake at the bottom of a slippery slope.

To justify her actions Creswood explains that the expelled students are “losers” and “undesirables” (in reference to Nazi Germany’s label for its Jewish, disabled, and ethnic minority populations). Laura Clawson of DailyKos.com points out that Principal Creswood’s operation is not just the plot to this 1990 indie movie but in fact happens in charter schools all across the country. Outside of our real world education system, Creswood’s mentality is rampant. She is the ultimate capitalist we see in the cutthroat corporate culture of every single industry. If you’re not producing something profitable and helping maintain the high hierarchical status for the Creswood’s of the world, you’re worthless, invisible and in the way.

The FCC Regulator Arthur Watts: Unsurprisingly, the FCC is the puppet, strong-arm enforcer for the profit-minded principal’s wishes. Watts, the lead regulator caricatured as an overpaid, out of touch, defensive, petty tyrant bureaucrat.   Their role is to roll into town with uniformed vans to stomp out the symbolic rebel leader Happy Harry Hard On.

Watts is acting as the government strong-arm for Creswood when she needed to suppress the truth and maintain her greedy profit-producing system. The relationship parallels the 8,500 U.S National Guard acting as the strong-arm for Carnagie, the Gilded-Age steel barren when he needed to break a union that was fighting for the eight-hour workday and dignified working conditions. It parallels the Bush-Cheney administration sending the U.S military to Iraq to be the strong arm for ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP and Shell when they planned beforehand together to privatize the country’s oil supply. We actually see Watts type-characters in today’s FCC, voting against net neutrality just as lobbying giants AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast pushed for. Happy Harry Hard On says of Watts, “Imagine, a fucking political hack in charge of free speech in America.”

Important Takeaway

Mr. Hard On starts with just a handful of listeners. They each start with feelings of isolation and loneliness. Over time, listeners begin calling each other and hanging out together for listening sessions. By the end not only is the entire student body tuning in but also they are all gathering together at one place in time to catch Harry’s words. The student body becoming physically closer to each other creates a stronger community, connection, and a “collective consciousness.” In other words, together they build an awareness of the injustices of Principal Creswood and society, and begin to realize their loud and powerful voice.

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