The '80s may not be remembered fondly for its fashions or its politics, but when it comes to teen films, there was no better time. Capturing this era is the weak link in the otherwise sterling chain that is the American Museum of the Moving Image's upcoming series Restless and Rebellious: Teen Movies Then and Now. It attempts to put the oft-maligned genre into some kind of context by taking us from early James Dean to last year's Las Vegas story Go.
Nicholas Ray's 1955 classic Rebel Without a Cause is the perfect way to start. With the planetarium scene-the one that has a voice declaring with great certainty that the world will end and everything we've been promised will dissolve with it-so begins the teen movie, and, perhaps, the teenager itself.
It's the film that finally supplied actors to the brilliant Ray (who had already laid the groundwork for Rebel with earlier pictures like They Live by Night) with sufficient intensity and depth to raise his stories above pulp melodrama. Aside from Dean's near unearthly presence, both Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo radiate pure angst. While a heavy-handed score and some simplistic characterizations can occasionally make Rebel feel dated in spots, they never distract from the film's power. We could never have gotten to the hyper-savvy teenagers of the MTV generation without Dean and the gang first turning their town on its head.
Another solid choice is Amy Heckerling's 1981 Fast Times at Ridgemont High. This teen classic is imbued with the dark, quasi-sleazy qualities that are representative of the late-'70s, early-'80s pre-John Hughes class of flicks. Judge Reinhold's fall from upbeat senior to downtrodden pirate-suit-wearing fish-and-chips delivery boy is heartbreakingly funny. While Sean Penn's stoned surfer Jeff Spicoli and his in-class pizza delivery remain forever etched in cinema history, it is actually Jennifer Jason Leigh's pre-AIDS-era sexual encounters, laughably brief and oppressively empty, that linger. I still can't hear Jackson Browne's "She's Gotta Be Somebody's Baby" without thinking of one particularly depressing such scene and wanting to pull a Holden Caulfield on every sexual predator on the planet.
But AMMI gets off-track with the rest of the '80s, the decade that made the teen film a cultural phenomenon like never before. From the Brat Pack on down, the '80s exploded with innumerable new-wave-driven films of great popularity and varying quality. To dismiss the whole unwieldy mass without analysis is to leave a gaping hole in our understanding of teen-film history. Like it or not, John Hughes heroic misfits in films like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club have come to symbolize a certain spirit that the teen films of the '90s have been struggling to replicate all decade long. Inserting Pretty In Pink, Hughes' often-overlooked class-conscious Romeo and Juliet story, would have helped bridge the gap from Fast Times to Go. Plus, its soundtrack alone, full of seminal post-punk bands like New Order, showed us just how integral music was to the appeal of these movies. Remember John Cusack blasting Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" during Say Anything? That, by the way, would have been an excellent representative of the Cusack sub-genre that also featured the sublime Better Off Dead.
The importance of the '80s becomes even clearer when the festival gets to the '90s. Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused (1993) is excellent, but it's a film that shows great insight into the teens of the '70s, not the '90s. Teens of today may relate to it, but it's just not the same as having a document of your own time. The very popular Go, from this year, on the other hand, just abandons the awkwardness of adolescence all together in exchange for a cast of Ecstasy-dealing super teens who exist in a Tarantino-esque dream world. Much of the film's action centers around some 20-something's quest for drugs and lap dances in Las Vegas. Now, call me naive, but I don't consider that the stuff true teen movies are made of.
So many other teen films of the '90s, like The Faculty (not included here), just seem like poorly rehashed versions of '80s teen films, with all the warmth replaced by crass MTV-style product placement and promotion. The best teen films of the '90s have been relegated to the art-house circuit, where, ironically, they're probably viewed by everyone except teenagers. Films like The Slums of Beverly Hills, Rushmore and Greg Araki's The Doom Generation were exceptional films, but not quite mainstream fare.
At least AMMI points us in the right direction for the future of teen films with the new and provocative Coming Soon, a controversial look at prep-school girls face to face with their own orgasms. Bold, young independent filmmakers like Coming Soon's Colette Burson are sure to keep pushing the envelope of teen storytelling away from Dawson's Creek-style vapidity and toward something profoundly more real.
Restless and Rebellious: Teen Movies Then and Now Nov 27-December 5 at the American Museum of the Moving Image, 35 Ave at 36 St, Astoria, Queens, 718-784-4520.
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