*I’ve included YouTube links to excerpts from the film. I apologize for the ads. What can you do? Everything is monetized these days. Except this blog!
It sounds a bit mad, but I don’t find it odd to have found a connection between the film School of Rock and Benjamin Reiss’ book, Theaters of Madness: Insane Asylums & Nineteenth-Century American Culture. Moreover, I realized the film had another connection, this one with the literary theory of the carnivalesque.
If you haven’t seen the film, shame on you!
I mean… here’s a brief synopsis with scholarly stuff thrown in like a badly tossed salad.
The film centers around Dewy Finn (played by Jack Black), slacker and dysfunctional rock-god-wanna-be. His roommate Ned (Mike White) is pushed by uptight girlfriend, Patty (Sarah Silverman) to threaten to evict Dewey if he does not get a job. Things get worse for Dewey when his band fires him because they don’t like his chaotic style. Can you spell “loser”?
All that stuff is pressuring Dewey to conform to societal norms. In short, he has a virtual asylum around him, pressuring him to behave in a socially acceptable manner for his own good.
Later, a despondent Dewey answers the apartment’s phone. On the other end is Miss Mullens (Joan Cusack), the principal of a posh private school. She is calling to offer substitute teacher Ned a long-term job. Dewey assumes Ned’s identity to get the money without, of course telling Ned.
Dewey quickly discovers that Horace Green Academy is an asylum where the children of the upper class are taught to suppress their exuberance, joy, and playfulness. Instead, they are prepped to take their place as kings and queens of the economy and the culture. They study all the right subjects, are supposed to excel academically, and live in a world of gold stars and demerits. Their asylum is designed to shelter them from the outside world and focused on goals established by their parents and teachers. Instead it has created stress. The children respond to this stress by being over-achievers, withdrawn, sullen, and a variety of other responses.
The kids at Horace Green are very much like patients in nineteenth-century asylums. Although asylums had been designed to reduce stress, living in one could create a stress of its own because only certain cultural pursuits and attitudes were considered acceptable – and these were determined by those who ran the asylum, not by the patients. (Reiss 2008, 2)
It also did not go unnoticed that being in an asylum was akin to being enslaved: the patient had no civil rights. Patients also were viewed as childlike and incapable of navigating the treacherous waters of contemporary life. However, unlike being enslaved, it was possible for a patient to get better and re-enter society. In order to survive and eventually win release, asylum patients needed to “get with the program” by modeling rational behavior. (Reiss 2008, 15)
The Horace Green kids do the same thing. Their asylum is funneling them into acceptable pursuits, studies, and attitudes. They go along with a program to survive, with the hope graduation glimmering in the future.
Now comes the carnivalesque part. Mikhail Bakhtin’s essay “Carnival and the Carnivalesque” offered up a groundbreaking theory. Carnivals were a common form of celebration in Medieval and Renaissance Europe. Bakhtin emphasized that a carnival was a lived expression of the workaday world turned upside down. “The carnival for Bakhtin is an event in which all rules, inhibitions, restrictions, and regulations which determine the course of everyday life are suspended, and especially all form of hierarchy in society.” (Cultural Studies Now)
Bakhtin outlined four carnivalesque sensibilities: 1) “Free and familiar interaction between people” 2) “Eccentric behavior”. 3) “Carnvialistic misalliances” that connect things normally separated. 4) “Sacrilegious” or all things ungodly, particularly the parody or profaning of sacred things. (Cultural Studies Now)
Now let’s see how Dewey Finn turns the asylum of Horace Green into a carnival.
Dewey is ‘free and familiar” with the children in the class in that he doesn’t act like a teacher. He subverts the system of grades and gold stars and demerits. At first, the children resist him and his ideas. He seems weird and out of control (“eccentric behavior”) and not the least interested in the values they carefully have been taught to revere (“sacrilegious).
Dewey is all about carnival. When Principal Mullens asks him to compare Horace Green to the other schools where he has worked, he says, “You know that kids at other schools just have fun all the time? They run around. They’re happy. It’s anarchy.” He tells Mullens what she wants to hear, even as we know that he wants his class to have fun, run around, be happy, and enjoy anarchy.
Once Dewey discovers that the children can play instruments, he decides to turn them into a rock band to win his rent money from a Battle of the Bands contest. He lies to them, telling them that they will be doing a project and it will go on their permanent record, which in turn could get them into Harvard. Then he tosses out the old curriculum and brings in a new program consisting of “Rock History,” “Rock Appreciation and Theory,” and band practice. The kids begin to bloom under his tutelage and discover parts of themselves that had been suppressed.
Dewey also teaches them to “stick it to The Man” (the core value of rock). He even encourages the kids to tell him off. Such activity would be viewed as sacrilegious outside his carnivalesque classroom.
Dewey is changed, too, as he comes to care for the kids in his class. When he sneaks the kids out of school to attend an audition for the Battle of the Bands, Freddy the drummer sneaks off. Panicked, Dewey searches for the boy and finds him playing cards in a van with another band. Dewey chastises the guys from the other band: “That kid’s ten years old. He looks up to you. You are setting an example for him, so start acting like a responsible adult!”
But the carnival for the kids (and Dewey) is cut short when Dewey’s fraudulence is uncovered on Parent Night. He is dismissed and retreats in despair to his bed (still in Ned’s apartment).
However, the kids will have none of that. Dewey had requested a bus for their “field trip” to the Battle of the Bands. They direct the driver to Dewey’s apartment and convince him to come with them, even as Principal Mullens and the parents discover that the kids are missing.
Eventually, the parents make their way to the theater where the Battle of the Bands is taking place just in time to hear the kids’ band, the School of Rock, play and see that their kids are more than just little learning machines.
Dewey’s carnivalesque mission to upend the asylum is complete.
Or is it?
In the scene during the final credit roll, Dewey and Ned have started their own School of Rock in Ned’s apartment. Has Dewey conformed? Has he has created his own oasis of carnival? Is he fomenting a revolution by unleashing these carnival kids upon an uptight world?
I have no answers. But I do know this: the film has one heck of a kick-ass feel-good performance during the Battle of the Bands show.
Rock on, my friends. Rock on.
Benjamin Reiss. Theaters of Madness: Insane Asylums and Nineteenth-Century Culture. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008)
Cultural Studies Now: Article Summaries and Reviews in Cultural Studies. “Mikhail Bakhtin: ‘Carnival and Carnivalesque’ – summary and review.” Downloaded 6/19/2018.
“School of Rock.” (2003) Director: Richard Linklater. Writer: Mike White.