Saturday, September 16, 2006

Wolf Buddy: A Celebration of Stiles

Jerry Levine and the Identity Crisis of Teen Wolf (1985)

One man cuts through the lugubrious dreamworld of Teen Wolf, like a rainbow across a murky sky. Jerry Levine as Stiles, the Beacontown High class clown, best guy-friend to the hero, and the designated comic relief of comedy film, creates a character of strange dimension and a key pivot-point for the psychodrama locked inside Teen Wolf.

The cast of Teen Wolf is thoroughly sincere; for a film that must have been conceived as a lighthearted parody of '50s teen monster flicks, the potential laughs are filtered through a proto-John Hughes mesh of parental understanding, and sympathetic adolescent drama. Few escape uncharged, from lead Michael J Fox's crack-voiced insecurity, to James Hampton's patient heart-to-heart-driven parenting as his father, to Susan Ursetti as Boof, Scott's childhood friend who expresses her romantic yearning by clutching her textbooks and making faces of doe-eyed desperation as he walks away. The few bright comic performances from Jay Tarses and Scott Paulin are outlined in my "Notes on Teen Wolf", but they are remarkable for their exception. It is the lone figure of Stiles who transcends the stereotype as written, and draws together the broken threads of Teen Wolf's plot in a meaningful way.

One of the strangest things about Teen Wolf, director Rod Daniel's 1984-lensed, '85-released teen sports comedy-cum-camp love object, is the refusal and/or inability to lend any weight to the more outrageous plot points and moments of melodrama it conjures. The plot is so determinedly focused on Beacontown, Nebraska high schooler Scott Howard's (Fox) dreams of being anything but Average, the fulfillment of his basketball dreams and complications of his werewolf lineage, that it can only demonstrate ambivalence toward the rest of its potentially complicated ideas. Though ostensibly living with the reality of his mothers' unsolved murder, Scott registers little concern when rival b-baller Mick confesses he "blew her head off with a shotgun"; Scott and Boof, lifelong friends, are peer-pressured into a closet heavy-petting session during a kegger, and never address the implications; while the "specialness" and "responsibility" that come with werewolf-powers are explored through the central sports plot, the metaphor of sexual awakening and bodily transformation is drawn, then dropped. Again we may look to Stiles for a means of reconciling the film's muddled metaphoric intentions. It is in Stiles that the scattershot emotional arcs of Teen Wolf make any sense, as he is the sole character to draw attention to the moral and logical inconsistencies. Unable to purchase beer, Stiles blithely tries to convince Scott to pretend to hold up the liquor store with a toy gun, as if there were enough legal difference between armed robbery and "pretend" armed robbery to justify the harebrained scheme.

Life Sucks, Then You Die: Enter Stiles

We get our first glimpse of Stiles during the opening basketball sequence, as he picks his way across the sparsely populated bleachers. Though not yet named, and potentially lost in an unfocused wide shot of the crowd, Stiles' spritely high-step over other spectators' legs and loose-wristed salute to Scott out on the court draw the eye even faster than his walking-billboard wardrobe. The sweaty, desperate physicality of the basketball game, as the home team is pounded by visiting Dragons, is all close-ups of Fox breathing hard, bodies being slammed to the hardwood, and the sound of screeching sneaker rubber as the Beacontown Beavers struggle to keep their footing. Stiles' fey, long-legged gait and fire engine red pants steal the attention in a space devoted to the physical fumblings of boys in uniform. Stiles is defined by his surefooted mastery of movement and privileged costuming.

It is very likely that Stiles as scripted was intended as the Bluto Blutarsky in a Teen Wolf with a more sustained, Animal House-raucous tone. Indeed, like the iconic John Belushi character, Stiles is often presented in terms of the Ultimate Party Animal, a rampaging Id beast driven by consumption and desire; the first act of Teen Wolf centers around his Herculean effort to secure a keg of beer, he officiates Bacchanalian party games, and in the third act is fueled by a hunger for money and power. There seems to end the success of the Bluto-ripoff, for Jerry Levine cannot match Belushi's lusty dominance of the screen; in a sense Belushi was not performing anyway, but submitting to the capture of his robust personality by the camera. Levine's performance, while obviously not nearly as seminal, constructs Stiles in the mold of a different archetype, and with expert physical modulation and surprising shading, creates someone fresh on the movie screen. Stiles is tied to the tradition of the Auguste clown: the buffoon figure identified by his bright, absurdly fitted costumes, aggressively foolish behavior, and opposition to authority figures. Practitioners of classical clowning can be defensive and rigid regarding definitions of clown types; since Stiles does not exist in a circus context, they would insist he cannot be a proper Auguste, and belongs to the broader "character clown" type, however, the historical and platonic ideal Auguste may remain untouched as Levine uses the model with respect and a true clown's sense of play. The Auguste's make-up is traditionally flesh-based, accentuated around the mouth and eyes, and Levine twists Stiles' mouth into geometric shapes as he hoots and shouts, leering grins to punctuate wisecracks, and draws attention to his eyes in a parade of plastic sunglasses without using the shades as a mask. The Auguste's normal exaggerated baggy, clashing clothes become Stiles' badly matched loud T-shirt, slacks and wide belt ensembles, which cling to his pinwheel body like a second skin, and an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt which flaps like an extravagantly tacky cape.

Like the Auguste, while in confident control of himself, Stiles brutalizes the space around him. He blithely tears apart a pile of junk in the family garage as he hunts for his brother's marijuana stash. He slams his locker handle and has crammed it improbably full. He has done God-knows-what to his junker car, and a decapitated, nude Barbie torso dangles from the rear-view mirror.

Master of Disguise

Boldly visual in a film costumed in convincingly drab Midwestern non-fashions (Scott wears mostly plaid and denim), Stiles is unmissable in a scene, even when attempting disguise or to disavow his own identity. It is the Auguste's nature to fail and botch all tasks and to thwart the authority of his Whiteface clown foil or any others in the process. When he tries to pose as a gravel pit worker (?!) to fool the liquor store owner, his enthusiasm for costume and play overwhelm his best efforts. Stiles affects a nonregional working class drawl, an unlit cigarette bobbing between his lips, and a child's-eye grab-bag of tough guy props: ill-fitting leather coat, huge, mirrored sunglasses, and bright green trucker's cap. Making only this perfunctory effort to obscure his natural costume under another, he leans, preening and posing against the cash register, drawing maximum attention to what was in theory an attempt to make the transaction more nonchalant.

Teen Wolf, before it drops the issue in favor of the moral implications of using werewolf-powers to win basketball games, is much concerned with the adolescent tortures of the human body. In a scene as close to crystallizing the metaphor as the film gets, Scott stares in horror at his reflected image, as his face pulses, skin changes color and texture, and hair erupts in unlikely places. The easy monster/pubescent teen motif is given new life with a clever masturbation-joke edge, as Mr. Howard demands to be let into the locked bathroom. The giggly parallel is moot by the end of the movie, but Scott is consistently delineated by discomfort in his body, and resistance to his own identity. This is the drama in which Stiles is a central player: Scott's true opposite, compliment, and necessary counter-balance.

King of the Urban Surfin': the body in ecstasy

Scott cannot keep his balance in the hallways or on the basketball court, and undergoes spontaneous mutations. We are told he is allergic to eggs, thinks he has a bad "six-dollar haircut", and Boof cannot even tell if he has showered after ball practice. Where Scott Howard is defined by the uncooperative, unstable body, Stiles is defined by physical mastery and confidence, however misguided and nontraditional. The schtick may include pratfalls, but they are in counterpoint to the painful body-blow fouls Scott receives in basketball games. When Stiles hoists a keg out of the backseat of his clownmobile trashed Nova, and crumples under the weight, or is drowned in a deluge of comedy props pouring from his locker, and knocked clean out of the frame, it is the stylized slapstick of a silent movie clown. When serving as ringmaster for the kegger games, Stiles struts and performs, bending his torso nearly parallel with the floor in Gumby-like display of unlikely posture. When caged in the classroom, he sprawls comfortably in the tiny chairs. He is in such control of his convertible car that he perches on the back of the seat to get Boof's attention while cruising down the street.

In the most celebrated sequence, he mounts the top of Scott's family hardware store delivery van, and surfs the suburban night streets as Scott drives. As "Surfin' U.S.A." beats on the soundtrack, Stiles writhes with unrestrained delight at being a teenager in a young body in the rush of physical danger. He cheers for himself, displays his wild joy in his weightless movement, despite a lack of spectators, and has so mastered the rules of the screen that he can lip synch to the nondiegetic music. Scott, meanwhile, is too preoccupied with his ears changing shape to participate in the celebration of physicality. As Stiles dances in ecstasy, a foot below him, Scott is in the throes of bodily horror.

The Self in Question: "Are you gonna tell me you're a fag?"

Scott's discomfort in his own body is a manifestation of his larger psychic problems, and search for definition of his own identity. In his first extended scene with Boof, he rails against his perception of himself as frustratingly "average" to the point that he feels it indicates a lack of identity at all. Boof is able to see past this, as are Coach Finstock, and presumably Stiles himself, and they all identify the ethics and quiet dignity Scott has learned from his father. Stiles in particular, while constantly egging Scott to cut loose, relies on his friend's moral guidance (Scott refuses to rob a liquor store), and appreciates the light ribbing which serves as an adolescent version of reigning in of Stiles' worst impulses ("Stiles, you're a cheeseball," Scott admonishes. "A-#1, baby," the cheeseball replies, but calms down a bit). Scott, refusing to give in to impulse, no matter how it frustrates him, is the tempering Ego to Stiles' Id. This dynamic is, of course, related in the relatively calm terms that Teen Wolf offers, but in a film so nakedly psychological, it should not be embarrassing to say so. Completing the loose (and admittedly imperfect) trio is their friend Lewis (Matt Adler), a younger kid who hangs around until, as Stiles would explain it, he starts getting creeped out by the werewolf. Lewis serves the rough function of the Super-ego, opposing Stiles' wildest schemes, and aggressively begging Scott to appreciate his calm life, and take satisfaction in the culturally acceptable mate he could have in Boof, instead of lusting after Mick's girlfriend Pamela. Mr. Howard also tries to nudge Boof and Scott together: Lewis as Super-ego has retained the morality and taboo codes of the father figure, and exerts pressure on Scott and Stiles from the inside. As Scott begins to lose his sense of Self, his conscience disappears with it.

The story of Stiles and Scott is of the equation of Self thrown out of balance, the drama is of watching the equation attempt to right itself. Since his craving is simply for a strong identity of any kind, and Scott is given no role models to emulate, he latches onto the strongest confident personality around him: Stiles. The true nature of the werewolf is confused, in the film's literal narrative, but in the psychodrama of Teen Wolf it begins to take on aspects of a bastard amalgamation of Scott's and Stiles' best traits. Scott nervously confesses his problem to Stiles in the pot-searching scene, and it is pointedly played as a parody of a homosexual coming out scene. A reaction shot of Stiles freezing in his tracks, and looking over his shoulder at his transformed friend, followed by a reveal of Scott breathless, hurt, and in fear of judgment, will be echoed later in the film. Stiles' reaction is disbelief, then glee that another creature as outrageous as himself, can exist in this world; even as he giggles over "T.W."'s existence, he is scheming a way to glom onto what he sees as potential publicity. Stiles does not realize it, but with his own role in the relationship threatened, he is both resisting and trying to right the imbalance.

Wolf in Stiles' clothing

Though Stiles is too individualistic and unpredictable for team sports, his pleasure in athletic movement through space and showmanship are the first things Scott swipes, as he suddenly bursts into wolf-form on the basketball court. In a musical montage cut to the soundtrack's anthemic cue "Way to Go", Scott gradually subsumes his friend's identity in small ways: first Stiles' fearless interfacing with other students of any and all social strata, race and gender. Then dancing and twirling. Eventually Scott dons the sunglasses central to Stiles' visual makeup.

* * * * *

SCENE STUDY: The Pizza Parlor

A brief waylay, to discuss the critical moment illustrated above. A celebratory scene in the pizza parlor interrupts a musical montage which chronicles Scott's rapid ascent to Beacontown superstardom, as he leads the basketball team through undefeated victories, and becomes a local celebrity. The musical montage immediately resumes after the scene, and it punctuates the sequence so oddly it draws attention to itself.

In the first screen shot, the restaurant waits in breathless anticipation of how Scott will react to the beer he has been handed. The characters stand frozen in tableau demonstrating their collective erotic spectatorship of Scott, and the manner by which their individual sense of self has been transformed by the Wolf. The Beacontown Beaver mascot has removed her costume head, replaced by the Wolf. Gina or Tina, part of an interchangeable pair of girls who dress identically and move in synchronization, is seen alone for the first time, indicating that established identities are beginning to shift and fracture. Boof, small and frightened, peers into the scene, shouldered out by hangers on. Chubby (Mark Holton), holds his uneaten slice of pizza, unable to complete the one action that defines him (unlike Boof and Stiles, he doesn't even have a real name), until he sees if the Wolf approves. Pamela tries to hold Scott's gaze, in chilly attempt at Lady MacBeth mode, but something more dire is about to happen than Pamela could comprehend in her single minded pursuit of personal glory. Stiles stares down at Scott in panic and despair: far worse than his sunglasses, the manic unpredictability at the core of Stiles' nature is about to be stolen. He raises his hands in surrender, as if to warn Scott off, but to no avail.


Scott sinks his fangs into the beer can, sending twin geysers of white foam onto the crowd, in a moment of triumphant release. In a discontinuity with the preceding shot, Styles' posture has changed, calmed. He is empty, deflated, defeated.
* * * * *

This is Nebraska: the transformation completed

Early in the film, Stiles encourages Scott to try out the van-top mimetic surfing, hoping to draw his friend out of his shell. "C'mon, you'd be the King of the Urban Surfin', baby!," he insists, and whether ironic foreshadowing or self-fulfilling prophecy, the signal that Stiles has been eclipsed by Scott's full moon is a recapitulation of the Urban Surfing scene. Stiles pulls up to the school, having traded in his own, highly identifiable multicolored Nova for a truck emblazoned with "Wolfmobile". In an embarrassing effort to reclaim his own schtick from Scott, Stiles has deepened the hole, and swapped part of his own iconography for a tool that can only inscribe more "Stiles" upon Scott's body. Scott excitedly mounts the van roof, pulling Stiles back, and smarmily growling "these waves are mine." Scott's reenactment of Stiles' "Surfin' U.S.A." bit includes more elaborate athletics, but can never be anything more than copycatting. And when Wolf Fever manages to land Scott a role in the school play, he is hilariously awful, with none of Stiles' flair for public performance demonstrated in the liquor store or kegger scenes. He manages to sleep with dream girl Pamela, but is awkward and timid, with none of the perverse sexual verve of Stiles, who dumps a bowl of Jell-O down a girl's shirt with chortling glee. Scott can steal Stiles' thunder, which in turn makes Stiles insecure and confused, but never gains an ounce of his invention or passion.

Two men at their lowest points

In the story of how Scott leeches off his friend's identity, and Stiles' misguided, vain struggle to recover his own, the pathetic, bottom-scraping moments for both characters are revealed by that great American rite of passage, the prom. Dressing up for his big date, an already Wolfed-out Scott, admires himself in the mirror, repeats a compliment Pamela gave him ("She's right: you are an animal!"), howls, and fades from the shot, leaving the bathroom empty. The scene has no counterparts in the film, making this moment of Scott's total dissolution of Self all the eerier and privileged.

At the dance, during a song called "Big Bad Wolf," presumably playing only because the school is obsessed with one Scott Howard, Stiles leaps forth from a conga-line, screams into the camera, and pulls open his jacket. The T-shirt beneath reveals that he, too, has lost himself as A-#1 Cheeseball, and is now only able to define himself in terms of his more popular friend. The shirt simply reads: "WOLF BUDDY".

The Self in Question 2: "Do the right thing, Scotty!"

The shot setups and emotional dynamic of the "coming out" scene return near the end of the film. Scott has seen the destruction and immorality he is excusing by losing himself in the Wolf; it is perhaps what Stiles would have become without the structure of Scott and Lewis' friendship. This time when he goes to his friend, it is to tell Stiles he will not be a werewolf any longer. Stiles has dropped all his money into Teen Wolf merchandise, and begs Scott not to give up the Wolf. At this nadir of his crisis, Stiles sees that the only vestiges of himself that remain are in Scott's twisted reflection, and selfish theft. And this time Scott looks over his shoulder, as Stiles stands wounded and afraid.

Teen Wolf never shows us the functioning friendship in full repair, or the psychological regeneration of Scott and Stiles, but it gestures toward a world set right again. A guilt-racked Scott learns to do without the Wolf, wins the basketball championship anyway, and in the end apparently makes right by his friends if only by hugging them and being himself. I remain concerned that Teen Wolf never decides what the Werewolf "means."  At times it is the empowered self, at others a repressed dark side, and sometimes simple adult responsibility. Since it manifests differently for Scott than for his stronger father, in the story about Scott and Stiles' symbiotic relationship, it may be most useful and interesting to consider the Wolf as an identity magnifier. In Scott's case, his insecurities and admiration of Stiles' total confidence cause him to warp and bend into a crazed mirror-Stiles. Who can blame him? The great contradiction that is Stiles begs for attention, and when you turn your head, his T-shirt asks "What are you looking at, Dicknose?"


Anonymous said...

This is great and all, but you've abandoned Garfield. Why hast thou forsaken us?

Anonymous said...

wow wow wow. thank you so much! teen wolf is my favourite film of all time and stiles is the best character ever :-) i couldn't dream of so eloquently professing my love for it or him but now i don't need to, cos you just did it for me. thanks again.

Anonymous said...

This is the greatest thing that has ever been written.

Alana said...

wow! I thought I was the only one who thought Stiles was amazing and worthy of in-depth discussion. Thank you!

Kyle said...

The thorough nature of this critique has mended the sadness of a classic Monday. If anything, I have more to live for today, knowing that Stiles is appreciated in the same manor by a number of like-minded individuals. May his t-shirts, surefooted gait and jell-o pouring never be emulated.


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