Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Next Generation Multiplex

This weekend, the sequel to an adaptation of a television show that first aired in 1987 starring Johnny Depp will hit theaters nationwide. 22 Jump Street finds the characters from the 2012 iteration of 21 Jump Street now heading to college, which begs the question: why do some movies get produced? In his updated and expanded Generation Multiplex: The Image of Youth in American Cinema since 1980Timothy Shary examines the appeal of boy nerds, nerdy girls, prep school rebels, the emotional male athlete, and other archetypes whose dramas either appeal (or don't appeal) to a primary Hollywood target audience: the young. In addition to the 'school film', Shary explores three other subgenres of the teen film: delinquency, horror, and romance.

So what characters and attitudes make an American teen film bankable and how have they changed in the YouTube era? Read on for an excerpt from Generation Multiplex:
Get Generation Multiplex here.

The Cinematic Image of Youth

The 2012 film 21 Jump Street depicts two rookie cops posing as high school students to break up a drug ring. Much to their surprise and chagrin, popularity among teenagers has changed radically since they graduated in the previous decade: traits that had made students seem square and unattractive—studying for classes, caring for the environment, being politically sensitive—now make them appealing and cool. Such is the nature of adolescence, fluctuating on a continual basis with the various whims of time, which vividly illustrates how difficult understanding youth culture can be because it is so mercurial and fleeting.

These aspects of youth have led American cinema into a curious and often inconsistent fascination with stories about and images of young people, a fascination that became abundantly manifest in the last decades of the twentieth century. Various film trends catering to young audiences had emerged over past generations, but movies since the 1980s have appeared almost fixated on capturing certain youth styles and promoting certain perspectives on the celebration, and survival, of adolescence. Many arguments persist as to why teenagers have been targeted by both Hollywood studios and the American independent movie market: youth have disposable incomes that they like spending on entertainment; today’s children are inculcated by media to be the consumptive parents of tomorrow; filmmakers engage in the vicarious experiences of their own lost youth; and young people make up the largest percentage of the movie-viewing audience. All of these points are valid, yet this book argues not as much for the reasons behind youth representation as for the issues and trends that representation engenders. Evident from the contemporary outpouring of American movies about youth, and the parallel production of teen-oriented television shows, magazines, and multimedia outlets, as well as the cultural attention paid to youth attitudes and behaviors in the wake of various scandals, crimes, and accomplishments, the imaging of youth has become indicative of our deepest social and personal concerns.

Consider, for instance, the most successful recent young adult phenomenon, the Twilight books and subsequent movies, which covered the years 2005–2012. The revenue generated from just these two media—not including subsequent products such as clothing, music, and ancillary texts—has been in excess of $5 billion, and while their number of readers and viewers is impossible to determine, their audience is unmistakably enormous. The stories about and images of the teenage characters in Twilight spoke to fantasies of the supernatural as well as romantic destiny, sexual development, and family politics, utilizing native and ancient mythologies, exotic regional locations, brutal violence, and myriad other dramatic elements within an otherwise conventional struggle between right and wrong. Further, the sensation spread beyond teens to adults, and beyond the target demographic of American youth to a global scale that extremely few stories have enjoyed with such speed and success. Through this universalization, the tormented love triangle of a girl with a vampire and a werewolf presented an incredibly satisfying journey that revealed our cultural appreciation of youth itself.

All dramas thrive on conflict, and the process of maturing is a natural conflict familiar to everyone by their teenage years. While many filmgoers freely participate in screen fantasies about the possibilities of life as a secret agent or of saving a loved one from the clutches of death, most of our lives are filled with less spectacular phenomena, such as how we come to be accepted by society, discover romance, have sex, gain employment, make moral decisions, and learn about the world and who we are in it. Most of us first encounter these phenomena in our adolescence, and how we handle them largely determines how we live the rest of our lives. The gravity of adolescence thus makes for compelling drama, even if many of us would rather forget those trying years. Understanding how we learn and grow in our youth is integral to understanding who we become as adults.

Since the 1950s the American movie box office, with varying interests, has been relying on people under thirty to pay for movies about their daily dramas and fantasies. Of course, one of the telling dilemmas of youth films since cinema began is that while they address young people they are not produced by young people, for children and teens are effectively restricted from the filmmaking process. Thus, screen images of youth have always been traditionally filtered through adult perspectives. As a result of these commercial and political conditions, teen films have evolved into a visible and often coherent genre that has thrived for over half a century.


Youth in School

Academics and Attitude

"You see us as you want to see us, in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal."
—Brian (Anthony Michael Hall) to his principal in The Breakfast Club (1985) 

"You got your freshmen, ROTC guys, preps, JV jocks, Asian nerds, cool Asians, varsity jocks, unfriendly black hotties, girls who eat their feelings, girls who don’t eat anything, desperate wannabes, burnouts, sexually active band geeks, the greatest people you will ever meet, and the worst." 
Janis Ian (Lizzy Caplan) describing high school students in Mean Girls (2004) 

"The three keys of coolness in high school. . . . One, don’t try hard at anything. Two, make fun of people who do try. Three, be handsome. Four, if anyone steps to you on the first day of school, you punch them directly in the face. Five, drive a kick-ass car." 
The adult Greg (Channing Tatum) to his police partner in 21 Jump Street (2012) 
The school film as a subgenre has moved through discernible waves of popularity. From the debut of postwar high school discontent in such teen trouble films as City Across the River (1949) to the more celebrated image of tense school conditions in the two 1955 classics, Rebel Without a Cause and Blackboard Jungle, both major studios and smaller independents tapped into (or exploited) the burgeoning cultural anxiety about reckless youth. With the rapid proliferation of multiple teen subgenres, the school film became only one avenue for representing teens, and as tensions of the 1960s shifted to college campuses, fewer high school films were made. While the youth film market boomed in the 1980s after the tamer 1970s, the school film did not maintain any consistent popularity of its own.

The film that perhaps presaged the ’80s high school cycle (while openly borrowing from the ’50s crime dramas) was Over the Edge in 1979. The film features a young Matt Dillon as a James Dean–style rebel who galvanizes a small group of suburban tough kids to fight for a tentative liberation from their alcoholic parents and misguided school system. In one of the most extreme teen fantasies ever filmed (although the film’s premise was based on a true story), the students ultimately lock their parents and teachers in the high school and terrorize them. The film may now be viewed as an examination of social anxieties about delinquency and discipline in the late ’70s; however, according to Jonathan Bernstein, the film was in fact kept from public release for a few years as the studio feared copycat violence.


The later ’80s marked a decline in the overall number of successful school films (nonetheless, as is the case with some other youth film subgenres, the number of school films in total increased, even if many of these were barely seen by audiences). After the previous movement from sexual themes to character dramas based on school and family problems, the school films of the late ’80s covered a range from such tasteful coming-of-age comedies as Lucas (1986) to more tasteless attempts to exploit teen interests like The Principal (1987) and outright attempts to reproduce previous hits as with Hot Times at Montclair High (1989). With the exception of Stand and Deliver in 1988, which concentrated on the role of an inspirational math teacher, there were no school films between the formative 
Breakfast Club in 1985 and Heathers in 1989 that matched their popularity.


The reasons for the alternating wavelength of popularity in the contemporary school drama may be deceptively easy to explain. As with all genres, new styles and approaches to the same subject matter appeal to audiences for only a short time. The sexual and narcotic hijinks of the early ’80s films may have at once been an initial reaction to the Reagan era’s puritan ethic for youth (movies were at least a safe site where teens didn’t have to “Just Say No”), but declining box office returns for the ongoing imitations of Fast Times (e.g., Private School and Losin’ It [1983], The Wild Life and Joy of Sex [1984]) indicated that interest in rowdy teen sex stories was waning. Likewise, the escalating violence of ’90s films that gradually infiltrated real-life education for teens late in the decade was no longer welcome in an ’00s era concerned about school shootings, bullying, and stalking....

Trends in American schooling and social fads are further factors in the oscillating popularity of school films. Each high school “generation” itself lasts for only three or four years, and these rapidly sequential generations do not want to be associated with the outmoded styles and fashions of the groups that preceded them, lest they be perceived as unoriginal and conformist. Thus, the glamour of certain types of music, styles of dress, ways of speaking, and even attitudes is bound to be restricted to relatively short lifespans among youth, especially those in school who are constantly monitoring the changing cultural landscape. The same phenomenon applies to films about school: with the exception of the rarely successful period film (e.g., the abiding Mr. Holland’s Opus in 1995), young viewers pay to see their current conditions celebrated and exaggerated on the screen, and the conditions of 2003 are simply not as interesting as those of 2013 (or perhaps even 2010).

Another point may explain the highs and lows in school movie production and/or success. Given the critical acuity of youth audiences, studios must understand the hit-or-miss dilemma of marketing films about youth to a young audience. Whereas adult films that appeal to youth may at least draw a wide audience, contemporary teen dramas have a more finite allure, and a financial investment in a school picture (unless it has the adult crossover potential of Dangerous Minds [1995], Finding Forrester [2000], or 21 Jump Street [2012], each of which featured major adult stars) is a considerable gamble for a studio. Even the mid-’00 resurgence in school films was brought on by relatively low-budget hits like Napoleon Dynamite, Mean Girls (both 2004), Brick (2005), Half Nelson, and Step Up (both 2006). The industry thus finds itself subject to the same fickle inconsistencies as students themselves, and despite its research and records the system is always indebted to the erratic interests of youth, as proved by the bombing of seemingly sure bets like Assassination of a High School President (2008), Fame (2009), High School (2010), Prom (2011), and Struck by Lightning (2012).

And as previously argued, the spreading synergy of media outlets for youth influences the fluctuation of school representations. Where youth in earlier decades were drawn to teen trends on television that at least took weeks to develop, today’s digital youth communicate in an immediate world of information and influence, affecting and effecting their senses of reality in increasingly spastic ways. This development has predictably changed the nature of learning itself, because knowledge and myth can be circulated so quickly and extensively, and school has become just one of many sites for socialization among peers. Movies, which typically need many months or years for their gestation, are a medium that is now preciously slow in keeping pace with youth in school who can navigate their entertainment choices and gravitate toward or away from trends in mere seconds.

No comments:

Post a Comment