All Those Opposed Can Rot in Hell
I taught seventh grade several years ago. If there is a hell, it must resemble the seventh grade school experience—vicious and seemingly eternal. Statistically, seventh graders learn the least of any grade-school students, and the average person learns less at 12 years old than at any other age during life. Teacher/education specialist/author Chip Wood writes that, developmentally, 12-year-olds probably shouldn't be in a formal school environment at all. Instead, they should all be in an environment resembling a cross between summer camp and the Civilian Conservation Corps. School is hell for twelves, and no place better illustrates man's inhumanity than a middle school cafeteria.
Menomena's video for "Rotten Hell", the second single off of the excellent Barsuk release, Friend and Foe, captures this specific agony perfectly. As the piano and drums kick in with a simple, slow beat, the viewer sees a calm lunchroom. White-uniformed students trade food and mechanically spoon their lunches into their mouths. The lighting, awkward angles, and slow-motion camera work add an immediate eeriness, like the first half of an art-film that would surely end with a cut to old folks drooling all-you-can-eat jello, like the scene described by Lloyd Dobler nearly twenty years ago. Even though a few students smile as they chew their tater-tots, there are underpinnings of trouble: a girl looks around with a mischievous gleam in her eyes; food tumbles back onto the lunch tray as cymbals crash; kids sift through their lunches, leaving inedible, plasticized food uneaten and unused. And as one bespectacled, blond-haired boy looks directly into the camera, the band sings, "All those opposed may rot in hell." The boy is a target.
Meanwhile, the music builds. The lyrics, "Any day now the words will form a sentence," are accompanied by the gleaming-eyed girl staring open-mouthed as a glob is passed between her neighbors, just in front of her face. Another student simulates a gun with her hand and pulls the trigger. On that signal, the music momentarily drops out—a silent moment before the fireworks begin. The blond-haired boy obliviously dips chicken in ketchup before he is "reduced to nothingness" by the nugget grenade thrown from across the cafeteria that sets off a food-fight. Four-eyes reminds me of those sixth-graders who naïvely believed that next year would be better, but got pelted with the most food for their innocence.
Soon, the chorus's volume and intensity is complemented by two girls who swivel and fire their straw guns in synchronization. Is there a more perfect vision of a clique of girls on the attack? Now, with those two leading the charge, the food fight becomes a war zone. The lyrics deftly reflect the scene: seventh-graders are never wrong; they have a "stranglehold on [their] decision." Determined and enraged faces cause arms to swing in unison, flinging spaghetti, milk, and pizza across the cafeteria. This is the glorious and true nature of seventh grade. The music rises, and the food is beautifully choreographed hurdling through space. At first, the fight is all in good fun, allowing the pre-teens to release some of their inner-demons. The piano takes over to mirror the scene's superficial pleasure. Where have the drums gone? The lyrics recognize that seventh graders will bond to support each other: "Wading through this mess together, hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder."
However, the momentary joys of war betray its true intention. The bridge becomes a chorus of voices singing a funeral dirge for the blond-haired boy as he falls to the floor, dead in a pool of his own milk. There is no salvation. The drums return, the music's intensity increases, and one kid stares, horrified by the first casualty. "Some may stumble, some may fall behind." The kid's expression turns to anger, a girl throws a bomb on the helpless and injured victim, and a battle flag is waved. The instrumentation halts and the voices repeat a capella: "Some may stumble, some may fall behind." Then Menomena and the students rock out, charging forward into the abyss:
"Well, it's high time we step outside,
Drop the gloves and settle this like a man.
Well, we might stall and hem and haw.
We might not fight, but we won't walk away.
No, we won't walk away."
Seventh-graders put up with a lot, but they don't walk away. They may temporarily join together to stand hand in hand and shoulder to shoulder, but they won't go down together, and they'll never back down. The great thing about seventh grade and, in turn, about this video, is that seventh-graders live for the moment, without reservation, reflection, or hesitation. They may not observe, communicate, or learn, but they make as big a noise and crash as loudly and as messily as they can when given the chance. And that's hard to ignore and can hardly be forgotten. Rotten hell.
-- Joshua Arkin, 07/24/2007