Sitting inconspicuously in the backroom of Santa Monica High’s library is a large steel filing cabinet. In the otherwise messy room full of discarded books and general clutter, the cabinet is orderly and imposing. In it sits nearly every school yearbook dating back to 1913. Readers of these old yearbooks can laugh at old hairstyles or cringe at outdated outfits. This however, is about as deep as one can delve into the actual lives of old Santa Monica High (Samo) students.
Yearbooks are made to evoke old memories, not explain them to outsiders. Before the advent of social media and digital cameras, documenting experiences was difficult and deliberate. As a result, most pictures and videos of old students feel guarded and rehearsed. There wasn’t much film to “waste” on the everyday life of students. However, one group of Samo students in 1994, calling themselves the “Crazy Train,” recorded their high school experience through a raw and ever-present camcorder lens.
The group of students, composed of artists and musicians, compiled footage and experience into the movie “Strange Daze.” The 55-minute camcorder-chronicle follows the boys as they play live shows at house parties, form mosh pits during pep rallies, rebel against school administration, chase O.J. Simpson during his infamous getaway after allegedly killing his ex-wife, and fight off accusations of hiding satanic art in Samo’s yearbook.
The class of ’94 grew up amidst the environmental and racial chaos of the early ’90s. During their time in high school, students experienced the Northridge earthquake, Malibu fires and Rodney King race riots. Samo served as a microcosm of this unrest, providing a unique and… Strange high school experience for the now 38 year olds.
Disappointed with video yearbooks of previous years, yearbook staff members Michel Pacifici (’94) and James Enyart (’94) sought to capture the “uncut and unrated” reality of teen life.
“We remembered seeing video yearbooks from a couple of years before us, but we didn’t feel like they were representative of what was really going on,” Enyart said. “So we wanted to produce something that showed what was really happening.”
Pacifici and Enyart decided to make their own video yearbook — independent of the school — entitled “Strange Daze.” Since the film wasn’t officially affiliated with Samo, the teens had complete creative freedom over their movie. This freedom, combined with a personal obligation to capture the true high school experience, meant that “Strange Daze” did not water-down any of its content.
The movie came about naturally. After Pacifici and Enyart began documenting their high school lives, the Crazy Train became the movie’s lively cast and production crew. The gang of friends hauled around Hi8 video camcorders wherever they went, recording whatever wild antics followed them. The most prominent passengers of the Crazy Train were the rock band Plow Posture. The band and their music are featured prominently throughout the film.
Plow Posture was started by Samo students Tony Meister (’94), Noah Clark (’94), Paul Mckee (’94), Dave Murray (’94) and Steve Commerce (’94) during their sophomore year.
Meister, the boisterous lead singer of Plow Posture, naturally became the star of “Strange Daze.” Voted “Most Bizarre” in the yearbook, he appears in the film as the king-of-cool, a shaggy-haired caricature of ’90s surf culture.
“I don’t know why, but I always wanted to be the star, you know, the center of attention,” Meister said. “I almost would jump in front of the camera, and try to make myself the center of attention. Whether that was a good thing or a bad thing, I don’t know.”
Perhaps the only subject in “Strange Daze” as attention grabbing as Meister is the controversy surrounding the 1994 Nautilus yearbook. Many members of Crazy Train also worked on the school yearbook. A flier advertising the not-yet-completed “Strange Daze: The Motion Picture” was placed in every yearbook. Their distinct style of art filled the yearbook, hiding inside jokes within the intricacies of their drawings. The phrase Strange Daze is even scrawled across the cover. Spliced throughout the film are opinionated and polarizing interviews with students and staff members about the apparent outrage caused by the yearbook. The controversy, however, is never fully explained to out-of-the-loop viewers.
The outrage was rooted primarily in the yearbook’s artwork done by Enyart, Dave Bergmann (’94) and Colby Bluth (’94). People claimed the art was esoteric, subliminally satanic and overtly sexual.
People claimed to see the word “Satan” in the word “Nautilus” when they turned their yearbook covers upside down, among other satanic allusions. Some believe the mushrooms in the Super-Mario-Bros-esque cover art were in reference to psychedelic drugs. On the back cover, a nude bronze bust of a woman is featured prominently. Within the yearbook’s pages is a drawing of a dragon resting on a rock formation that shared similarities with a bong. Furthermore, on the Homecoming page, above an image of a black Homecoming king and queen, is the typo, “HOMECOMNIG,” what some saw as a clipped version of a racial slur.
Enyart admits some of the rumors were based in truth, but the claim that the yearbook was racist was born out of an error that the yearbook printing press eventually took responsibility for.
“The tone of the staff at the time was, you know, ‘have a good time’, anti-establishment, sex, drugs and rock and roll,” Enyart said. “But it wasn’t racist.”
Although the staff apologized and feverishly refuted many of the claims, news about the yearbook spread like wildfire. Major news outlets such as the “Los Angeles Times” even picked up on the juicy story. In the “Los Angeles Times” article titled “School Yearbook Controversy Becomes Devilish” students and staff members on opposing sides of the controversy pick apart the yearbook. In “Strange Daze,” Enyart is seen being interrogated by a TV reporter on campus for his artwork. In an official statement issued by the principal, Sylvia Rousseau, solutions to the problems sparked by the artwork were offered. She states that students could choose to return their yearbooks, replace certain pages with new and redone ones or receive a “replaceable” cover.
According to Enyart, the outrage escalated to the point where they felt unsafe at school.
“Dave [Bergmann] was carrying a hammer around in his backpack because he was getting death threats,” Enyart said.
“Strange Daze” ends with an intense first-hand account of O.J. Simpson’s infamous car chase after allegedly murdering his ex-wife. There are few cases more controversial and characteristic of their time period than the murder trial of O.J Simpson. “Strange Daze,” however, doesn’t attempt to analyze the social divide surrounding the case or society’s fascination with celebrity. Instead, it preserves the raw feeling of excitement.
On the day O.J Simpson was chased by police to his home in Brentwood, Crazy Train, as usual, was hanging out together.
“My mom knew O.J. Simpson very well, and she knew where he was going that afternoon. [My mom said] he wasn’t going to kill himself and he was going to his house on Rockingham,” Meister said. “We all jumped in Noah [Clarke]’s van. I don’t know why that’s where we wanted to be but it seemed like that would be fun.”
In the film, the band members — all packed into a van — fly down Brentwood roads, adjusting a portable television in their hands to the fuzzy signal of ABC 7.
Meister points the camera towards himself and explains the situation to the viewers.
“We’re gonna… Go talk to O.J. He’s fleeing from the cops,” Meister says. “I should call my mom and find out where that fool lives.”
Miraculously, they catch Simpson as he exits the 405 freeway on Sunset Boulevard. The footage is so clear and close that it was recently used in the 2014 Discovery Channel documentary, “O.J.: The Trial of a Century.” The boys then follow the police to right outside of Simpson’s house.
“It was all such a mess,” Meister said.
As the boys hang around outside Simpson’s house towards the end of the film, police cars speed down the street in reverse. Behind the camera, Enyart asks Tony, “What’s so strange about these days?”
“Man, I’m telling you dude, they started off strange, but now that s***’s getting strange-ER,” Meister responds.
The teenagers who made up Crazy Train may not be chasing O.J Simpson any longer, but their eccentric personalities have survived. In November, Plow Posture returned to play at the class of ’94’s 20-year reunion. “Strange Daze” might not be particularly introspective or self-aware, but it’s not trying to be. Instead, it’s unrefined teenage angst set to the beat of ’90s surf-rock.
–Jack Sadler and Nico Young