Teenwolf as Kafkian Experience
Teenwolf (1985) begins with the muffled sound of a basketball in place of, or competing with, a heartbeat — that of Scott Howard (Michael J. Fox), a lanky self-conscious high school student trying his very best at basketball. The conquest of men, drained of blood and necessity, finds its charade in contemporary American sports. The opening scene is shot from below, with Scott’s head prophetically eclipsing the round lunar overhead stadium light. Despite the brief elevated pulse, we see Scott under his pallor, unwittingly negotiating the complexities and politics of the external world, tightly mapped out on a basketball court. Comparisons to Goethe’s Young Werther, Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, and Dostoyevski’s narrator in Notes from the Underground are likely, though we all know the imminent metamorphosis into wolf (i.e. the postmodern “other”) is essentially Kafkian; thus, Teenwolf preserves the legacy of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis as the grotesque as metaphor for perceived self-deformity and body dysmorphic disorder. One may note, or at least this contributor, the inverse-POV angle of Scott looking at us from above, intent on our gaze, sweaty, as if we, or the cameraman, were fellating the young actor; though the space between these two orientations is collapsed by the camera’s super-consciousness, its pictorial convex sweep bestowed with omniscience, as if we, void of God, were desperate to find its robotic mascot. Hey boy, big boy, we think under muffled vowels at the film’s opening shot. It seems the director, in an act of cinemagraphic authority, has been careful to put us into place.
The name of Scott’s high school is never mentioned. All we know about it is its initials BHS, which we determine is Beaver High School, given the name of their basketball team, The Beavers (any allusions to the unkempt female mons pubis will be ignored). It is hardly a stretch to consider BHS as the unnamed castle to which Scott, metaphorically, cannot gain access. Each locker is a combination code he does not have, repeating towards an abstract vanishing point. The unseen but deeply felt architecture of corporate and federal institutions, the long hallways and labyrinthine floor plans, is first introduced with high school and the mall, and ends at the nursing home. Despite the speckle of various vacations and occasional walks through the park, we are stuck inside the a castle. Scott, with a stunted buglike gait, struggles to carry supplies (he works at his father’s hardware supply shop) to the director of the play of which he wishes to be part, starring one Pamela Wells, a harsh shallow Aryan Queen and only maternal figure in the film (it is unclear what happened to Scott’s mother, though we presume something unfortunate). Enter “Boof,” the asexual loyal childhood friend of Scott whose affections towards him are unreciprocated, as Scott’s concept of love and acceptance is highly eroticised and teat-centric, perhaps deprived of his mother’s non-pasteurized maternal bounty at a formative age. Pamela and Boof, like Chrissy and Janet in Three’s Company, preserve the genealogical hierarchy of blonde vs. brown hair, respectively, the former being of the purer race. At a party game, in which participants pick random names from a hat to be paired inside a closet, Boof, having picked Malcolm (implicity “X”; unseen, unknowable, Ellison’s Invisible Man), lies in order to be inside with Scott. They kiss in that way that makes the 80s a beautiful decade, with hairspray and hope. Coming out, supporting actor and imperative quirky/cool guy Stiles asks “what’s it like coming out of the closet?” a question void of homosexual politics, and merely presented here ironically.
In 1956, Jasper Johns presents an artwork (“Canvas,” oil and canvas on canvas) which was a canvas affixed to a larger canvas, such that the former’s back was the main pictorial event, inverting the expectation of a painting’s orientation. Put simply, it was a way to see behind the painting; that the spacial void of the “other” side (conventionally a wall) was where we were witnessing the piece. Scott stands in front of a Rothko-sized canvas, hands hiding the first growth of werewolf hair, having just been rejected by Pamela Wells for antagonist Mick McAllister, a heteronormative alpha male whose unrefined and directionless anger embodies post-imperial Amerikan plight (spelled with the Kafkian “k,” of course). Amerika (1927), Kafka’s incomplete first novel, recounts the eerie and bizarre wanderings of Jewish emigrant Karl Rossmann — who I surrealistically always picture as Ross (David Schwimmer) from Friends — upon his arrival to the United States. Our country’s literary dissenters will often observe the “k” spelling (at times “Amerikkka,” a rather dramatic indictment of racism) though for Kafka it was merely a way to fracture the real into the unknown, to elevate his novel into allegory. However unintentional, it is fitting that Rothko, himself a Jewish immigrant subject to neurosis and late-depression distorted thinking, has found himself a studio in the stage-set of Teenwolf. To look long enough at young Michael J. Fox is to summon the ghost of James Spader, especially the wavy sodomy-ready hair. As with Christopher Reeves, Michael J. Fox’s ironic deformity supplies a penultimate narrative to the heroism of their past roles, disfigured anti-hero(s) as inadvertent critique of, or concession to, Hollywood artifice.
“Jeez Louise,” Scott says towards his mimetic semblance, an invocation of, however distant and unconscious, our Lord Jesus Christ. It is touching how, with all the profane liberal arts, its proponents incessantly call His name. Kafka’s 1919 “Letter to His Father” is a sprawling indictment of emotional abuse. In a quote therein which I’ve always found moving, his father provides an excuse for his lack of affection: that he wasn’t good at pretending as most fathers are. The Kafkian plight is not, as his social allegorical work may point to, alienation from society, but rather, from self; or at least the construct of, as supplied by one’s family. This father may be seen as the impenetrable faceless authority of The Trail, to whom Kafka’s legacy (i.e. “us”) must tirelessly negotiate, both morally and bureaucratically, our unspoken guilt. Scott’s father, however more receptive to progressive parenting, is essentially also a patriarchal wall, offering petty observations on how late Scott has been coming to work, seen at the kitchen table with the modern club and spear of a checkbook and calculator, balancing the household budget. With the void of a mother and any sisters, the Howard household is both homosocial and implicitly homoerotic. Scott will open the bathroom door to discover his father standing there also turned into a werewolf, their respective excised virilities pulsing. “An explanation is probably long overdue,” he says to Scott, saying he hoped it would skip a generation. “Skip a generation? It landed on my face!” laments Scott. In another argument about his misunderstood life, Scott, as ever close to a haiku as the screenwriter could afford, save the missing line, says, “I have a $6 dollar haircut, I mean I have problems.”
“To pretend, I actually do the thing: I have therefore only pretended to pretend,” offers Derrida, instilling the artifice of fiction with meaning and verity, a thing in itself greater than what it serves to represent. In short, our Derridian take will suggest that Teenwolf is not a film, but something which happened; that however “fictional” the town, it had to be filmed in an actual town, that the so-called “fictional” event, and its objective material correlation, can only be, merely, distinguished by the former’s conceit — one which may have been penetrated by the t-shirt Stiles is seen wearing in much of the film. “What are you looking at dicknose?” it reads in clean sans serif caps, and one (this viewer at least) cannot post-structurally not imagine himself as some calm meta-receptor of sorts being addressed past the fourth wall, lying on his couch last night with what remained of his Stella Artois, the unbearable lightness for which he is hereby apologizing. Scott never answers his friend Stiles, because to do so would deprive the postmodern viewer of answering it himself. I’m looking at this film, dicknose. Always look towards bro vernacular as a call to humanity. Dicknose, therefore, may be the metafictional solicitation between author and spectator, the latter’s nose so dick-like he can barely see past it and past the text. Joseph Merrick, subject of David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980), who had many dicklike protrusions extending from his face, may be the first accurate “dickhead” of our time, which would seem like a joke if it didn’t make me so sad. Of his face, he said “but blaming me is blaming God.” From cockroach, to wolf, to elephant, these inverse-anthropomorphisms point to the inner deformity of disjointed boys masquerading as weary men. The reverse evolution into lizard, tadpole, then single cell envisions a kinder, however more grotesque and bizzare, pre-Darwinian world in which our invoked “losers” have a walking chance. We, grant me the inclusion, seem to be separated at birth from our more pleasant selves, they having ossified into conjoined twins to forever remind us of who we were. Teenwolf may have endured its Hollywood ending, but Skott remains lost inside our Netflilx queues, forever left to defend a three-out-of-five star rating.