Twelve Notes on Twelve: A Film by Joel Schumacher

By Christoph Huber

1) Twenty-five years ago, a film by Joel Schumacher about young, self-centred, superficial people was greeted by mostly dismissive reviews: it was called St. Elmo’s Fire.

2) This year, a film by Joel Schumacher about young, self-centred, superficial people was greeted by abysmal reviews: it was called Twelve.

3) On the one hand, it’s basically business as usual that a Joel Schumacher film gets bad reviews (although a 4% on Rotten Tomatoes may be a new record even for him), but on the other hand Twelve was one of the most interesting Hollywood productions this year. And, as a depressive, refined version of St. Elmo’s Fire, it makes a remarkable generational diptych with the earlier film.

4) Basically, St. Elmo’s Fire falls somewhere in the middle between slick, likable John Hughes Brat Pack successes and a more cynical angle explored by the likes of Bret Easton Ellis: so not hip enough, but still mainstream-friendly. In any case, Schumacher’s penchant for overheated melodramatic effects and campy calculations clashes constantly with the attempt to capture real-life messiness, most notably in the inconsistencies of the characters—which of course is the theme of a movie in which Judd Nelson’s political hopeful announces his sudden crossover from Democrat to Republican, because Republicans pay better. The happy ending basically consists of the group having achieved a breakthrough to maturity because they have recognized that everything is illusory. Then they decide to have their weekly meetings in a more grown-up place. (What can you expect from people who have clearly made Woody Allen one of their touchstones?) As it is, the film remains one of the most astonishing expressions of ‘80s spirit.

5) Hardly all of that seemed intentional, but the self-conscious ways in which Twelve updates St. Elmo’s Fire almost suggest otherwise. Instead of “rebel rocker” Rob Lowe, who departed on a bus to New York in the earlier film, the New York-set Twelve offers a high-school dropout who has actually become a drug dealer. Instead of hysterical poodle Demi Moore sitting amidst her stuffed animals getting strung out on coke and blathering about the Arabic word for gangbang begging to be emotionally rescued, in Twelve we get a chick so into the titular, potent new street drug that she hallucinates her impressive, colourful collection of stuffed teddy bears endorsing her suicide, conjuring up all the posthumous affection she would receive. (Later, she sells her virginity to 50 Cent for more dope, rather unlike what Mare Winningham did with hers in the earlier film.) Even the prime cutaway gag bit changes from that ‘80s fantasy of a luxurious apartment bathtub with hottie included to the involuntary destruction of a Rothko painting (of course, without the perpetrator even knowing who Rothko is.) Oh yes, and the big party to which all the mayhem builds up this time ends in a massacre, recalling Andrew McCarthy’s wannabe journalist’s announcement: “All my characters die in the end. I want to write something about the meaning of life.”

6) Cynical? Sentimental? Schumacher’s fondness for wavering, contradicting tones and an occasionally impressively choreographed overkill of impressions make it difficult to discern. Particularly interesting is his decision to reuse a device effectively exploited in one of his best films, Phone Booth (2002), a supremely sarcastic thriller devised with typical panache by Larry Cohen: a voiceover by Kiefer Sutherland, this time ostensibly omniscient narrator rather than (mostly) offscreen hitman, but still delivering his lines in that same corrosively amused manner, recapturing some of that good Old Testament disgust.

7) That voiceover closely follows the source material, Nick McDonnell’s teen-lit bestseller Twelve, which is as old as Phone Booth. This perhaps explains another reason for the film’s blithe dismissal: few things are so instantly dated as recent fads. The way the voiceover is used is very strange, as it serves as connective tissue through the quick transitions between a multitude of characters, but often the talk—sometimes rendering the dialogue unintelligible—is about what’s just onscreen, but alternating between emphasizing the obvious and giving extraneous information, sometimes openly invalidating the images.

(8) It’s not exactly Guitry’s Le roman d’un tricheur (1936), but there is a curious relationship between the barrage of florid narration and the accompanying images, which are arranged in a montage flurry of stylized shots, suggesting a television season condensed into a brisk 93 minutes—including the pile-up of clichés, repeatedly mocked and undercut, that bring to mind Sidney Lumet’s weird implosion of Peter Shaffer’s play in Equus (1977).

9) In this accelerated roundelay structure everything feels chopped, especially the lives of the characters. “He wanted real,” the voiceover announces, but the privileged self-righteousness of the characters allows for recognition of their own superficiality at best. This allows Schumacher to indulge in one of his specialties, gaudy decor, although he also repeatedly uses stylized, empty sets, recalling his theatre work. Poignantly, those landscapes are mirrored in a bit of Kieferian voiceover, where he describes barren landscapes while a main character passes through a populated square at night, behind him a barrage of advertisements and neon signs that seem another expression of this way of life. They include not only that cyborg model the Terminator, but also Schumacher’s own, indefensible contribution to the cultural wasteland, The Phantom of the Opera (2004).

10) In fact, Twelve updates one of St. Elmo’s Fire’s perceived flaws and makes it into a principle of its construction, taken to the extreme: as situations get more serious, the film invariably cuts to the next group. Twelve feels more like a study of the hive mind than an ensemble piece, in which the circular resolution of the earlier film is reconfigured as a downward spiral, a point well worth making (while TRON: Legacy continues the ‘80s revival by upping the ante on the era’s lunatic spectacle). Meanwhile, Twelve proposes to discard the illusion and come to terms with insignificance in a time of virtual and real dissolution of the individual. Probably not the right thing to do in the year of The Social Network, a vacuum-sealed achievement of reframing Revenge of the Nerds (1984) as Citizen Kane (1941).

11) Now that I’ve brought up 3-D, a closing cheer for 2010’s two standout works: Paul W.S. Anderson’s extremely enjoyable action assault Resident Evil: Afterlife—perfect video-game logic as filmic spectacle—and the sublime Big Tits Zombie 3-D by Nakano Takao (“the John Waters of Japan,” according to this recommended browsing:, which with ultra-cheap ingenuity repeatedly resurrects the proscenium style of a hundred years ago.

12) As for the future, only nuclear mysticism can provide the answer:

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