Film Hero as Trickster Dept.: THE SCHOOL OF ROCK

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The Trickster Redeem’d: A Lévi-Straussian Analysis of “School of Rock” by Jessica Levai

Claude Lévi-Strauss was a French anthropologist who believed that the myths created and told by a society could be a window into the beliefs and conflicts of that society. A structuralist, Lévi-Strauss saw stories like language and sought to understand their underlying grammar. This he believed centered on pairs of opposite ideas, held by the culture, but creating tension within it — the raw and the cooked, the sacred and the profane, and so on.

School of Rock, a 2003 film starring Jack Black as slacker Dewey Finn, shows the tension between a truly American pair of opposites: laziness vs. hard work. While in other mythologies it is a trickster character who mediates between these opposites, the nature of this American pair, and the surrounding culture, make it necessary that the trickster not remain so; he has to join one side or the other.

I should begin with the admission that it is technically impossible to perform a Lévi-Straussian analysis on any one film, because there is only one version. Claude Lévi-Strauss sought a rigorous, scientific approach to the interpretation of the meaning of myths. To perform an analysis, he would first collect every version and variant of a myth possible. Each version would be broken down into its constituent plot elements, and these elements plotted on a chart to show how they fit together. The charts would be compared across variants, and eventually the true meaning of the myth would emerge. Any scientist knows that a large data pool is indispensable for getting good results. Unfortunately, there is only one School of Rock.

Though we cannot be so thorough as he would have liked, the structuralist principles of a Lévi-Straussian analysis can be applied to the film nevertheless. In his work, “The Structural Study of Myth,” Lévi-Strauss wrote that “the purpose of myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction.” Lévi-Strauss concluded that myth provided a way for the ancient Greeks to deal with two complementary ideas, the opposition of which created tension in their lives. His analysis of the myth of Oedipus, for example, discovered two pairs of opposites in tension, and I shall describe one here. Born a prince of Thebes, Oedipus is abandoned to die by his parents, who feared the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. This being a myth, it is no surprise that Oedipus eventually does both, if unwittingly. Examining this myth, Lévi-Strauss concluded that there were two opposite ideas in tension here: on the one hand, the undervaluing of blood relations is demonstrated by the patricide, while an overvaluing of blood relations is shown by Oedipus’s incest with his mother, Jocasta. Having failed to negotiate a middle ground between these two ideas, Oedipus ends up blinding himself and retreats to exile.

Dewey Finn is a character not unlike Oedipus in that he finds himself in the middle of a contradiction. In the beginning of the movie, Dewey is an unsuccessful rock musician, evicted from the band he created with friends. His lack of success seems related to his lack of real talent, but it is helped by his willingness to use others and general laziness. In his home life he fares no better, as he finds himself threatened with eviction by the roommate, Ned Schneebly, off whom he’s been “mooching for years.” Ned himself has abandoned his dreams of rock stardom for a job: he’s training to become a teacher, and working as a substitute in the meantime. As we look at these two characters, the contradicting pair presents itself. Dewey is lazy but believes in “rockin’.” Ned is hardworking, but dull. This contrast is emphasized with the character of Ned’s girlfriend. She has a 9-to-5 job in government (she works for the mayor) and she hates Dewey, who is the antithesis of everything she stands for.

According to Lévi-Strauss, mediation between a pair of opposites is the function of a trickster. In Native American mythology, Lévi-Strauss reasons, tricksters are cast as carrion feeders like coyotes and ravens, because these creatures mediate between the opposite ideas of hunting and agriculture in that they eat flesh, but do not kill it.

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