The Teen Movie:
|The Breakfast Club|
Introductory Note: In 2021, one of my self-imposed archival tasks has been to collate my various writings, published and unpublished, on the teen movie genre. These texts date mainly from the 1980s and early ‘90s, with various sequels appearing in my subsequent books Phantasms (1994) and Mysteries of Cinema (2018). The central part of this work, Crazy Summers, will be available exclusively as a bonus PDF via the Patreon campaign for this website at www.patreon.com/adrianmartin. Below is a separate but intertwined essay on the topic written as a magazine article in 1989, with an added piece from 1991 composed as my response to a critique.
There was a moment early in 1989 when both Time magazine and Entertainment This Week on television leapt breathlessly to the conclusion that – sigh of relief! – the decade of the teen movie was over. Of course, teen movies had been around for decades already, but the late 1970s began a boom period when the market was perceived to be predominantly teenage. Adults were, according to these latest demographics, now starting to go to the theatres again; mainstream cinema was, accordingly, attempting to grow up once more, to reflect mature preoccupations.
Scarcely two weeks later, however, a Time reviewer was singing the praises of Heathers (1989), and dutifully noting the existence of Richard Baskin’s musical Sing (1989) – i.e., the two most recent films about teenagers in high school; while Leonard Maltin on ETW was coping, business as usual, with the latest releases featuring Corey Haim, River Phoenix, Winona Ryder and Patrick Dempsey.
The Death of the Teen Movie was, shall we say, rather short-lived – a strange and quickly strangled critical catchcry prompted, no doubt, by a high degree of wishful thinking on the part of these rather wearily adult pundits of contemporary cinema, with their often extremely middle-ground tastes.
For fans of the genre (a troublesome term, but we’ll stick with it for the time being), the teen movie never died, and is scarcely about to roll over. Sure, the much-hyped Brat Pack of the early-to mid-1980s – the generation of Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Andrew McCarthy and Ally Sheedy – has moved on, albeit in some cases rather uneasily, to adult parts; another generation, however, has quickly and unfussily, according to the relentless and implacable logic of the market, taken its place (check out any issue of Teen Dreams magazine at your newsagent for quick confirmation of this fact).
In fact, there are always new mainstream teen movies arriving at theatres – many of which go completely unreviewed and unnoted by professional film reviewers in newspapers – including Shag (1989), Fresh Horses (1988), Mystic Pizza (1988), Loverboy (1989) and Some Girls (1988); not to mention all the usual hybrids of the teen formula with other available genres such as horror, SF and action (a territory of overlap too vast to straddle in this essay).
But there’s a lot more to consider than simply mainstream releases. We must comprehend the formidable teen movie presence in virtually every other branch of that increasingly complex and diffuse culture industry we call the cinema. First, how can one ignore all the funky art-teen-movies from Europe and Asia, many of them completely way out, which make it to our more enlightened film festivals or arthouse cinemas: Japanese wonders like The New Morning of Billy the Kid (Naoto Yamakawa, 1986), So What? (Yamakawa, 1988) and Typhoon Club (Shinji Sōmai, 1985), or Eurorockers like Chantal Akerman’s Golden Eighties (1986) or even Éric Rohmer’s Boyfriends and Girlfriends (L’Ami de mon amie, 1987)? Such works connect, directly and unashamedly, to the American Pop zest of any John Hughes or Rob Reiner teen film you care to name. Even the grittier issue-based films about teenagers, more closely resembling the classic festival/arthouse bill of fare (such as Catherine Breillat’s 36 Fillette  or Jean-Claude Brisseau’s Sound and Fury ) tend to have a querulous strangeness or libidinal intensity which is endlessly disconcerting to mild-mannered, full-time film reviewers.
Second, how could any local observer of Australian independent film ignore the conspicuous fact that a strongly predominant number of productions, at all levels (feature and short, government-funded and self-financed), are teen-oriented? At the 1989 St Kilda Film Festival, for instance, they ranged all the way from the naturalism of Lou Hubbard’s Passiona (1988) and Jayne Stevenson’s & Danae Gunn’s The Invisible Girl (1987) to the hi-jinx of Jinks Dulhunty’s Crack in the Curtains (1988) and Ray Boseley’s Smoke ‘Em if You’ve Got ‘Em (1988), via the minimalism of Jane Campion’s After Hours (1984).
Third, there are the would-be cult teen films, those glamorous films maudits reclaimed by repertory cinemas shortly after their sadly non-eventful cinema releases: Penelope Spheeris’ Dudes (1987), William Richert’s A Night In the Life of Jimmy Reardon (1988) and Sidney Lumet’s Running On Empty (1988).
Fourth – and most abundant of all – there are the unknown teen wonders that slump into the video store unheralded, undiscovered, unwritten about virtually anywhere: that list includes (to mention only late ‘80s examples) Plain Clothes (Martha Coolidge, 1988), Permanent Record (Marisa Silver, 1988), The In Crowd (Mark Rosenthal, 1988), Aloha Summer (Tommy Lee Wallace, 1988), Made In U.S.A. (Ken Friedman, 1987), School Daze (Spike Lee, 1988), Promised Land (Michael Hoffman, 1987), Blueberry Hill (Strathford Hamilton, 1988), Doin’ Time on Planet Earth (Charles Matthau, 1988), Heartbreak Hotel (Chris Columbus, 1988) and Three O’Clock High (Phil Joanou, 1987).
None of these films are masterpieces by any standard, but all of them are intriguing and exciting in myriad ways – and, collectively, they suggest that, if young teens are indeed deserting the theatres, they’re probably still getting their youth-culture fix via their VCRs. I’d definitely propose that any serious film lover who has not completely rigor-mortified into adulthood should also be pursuing this fix, along all possible lines of film culture.
OK. The time has come, in the name of the teen movie, to overcome a few resistances and settle a few scores. It’s not just a problem of the newspaper reviewers, on their most visible and influential stratum of the film culture sphere, ignoring the interests and achievements of the teen movie. The problem spreads right through the middle stratum (serious, conscientious magazines with a relatively, broad appeal like American Film, Sight and Sound, Film Comment, Filmnews and Cinema Papers, TV programs like SBS’ The Movie Show), all the way to the specialist and academic spheres (publications including Framework, Movie, Camera Obscura, Screen and Continuum, and critical film programs on public radio).
In every one of these sites, we will find that, to date, the teen movie is regularly either: a. completely ignored (neither Sight and Sound nor Cahiers du cinéma has yet devoted a single feature article to the phenomenon); or b. rhetorically dumped on as the odious norm of contemporary commercial cinema, even 1980s mass culture generally. This woeful position is tacitly reiterated (and never argued) every time a reviewer redeems such-and-such a film (say, Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge, 1986) as “not your average teen movie”, or laments that such-and-such a fine director (say, Joan Micklin Silver) has plummeted to, making – horror of horrors! – a “teen flick” (Keith Connolly’s favourite term of abuse in the film columns of Melbourne’s newspaper The Herald) like Loverboy. More elaborately, this position is established when, every few years, a major magazine like Film Comment, Cineaste or even Positif devotes a few smart-arse pages to offhandedly dismissing the genre as bad art, and castigating it for its numerous ideological sins (sexism, racism, consumerism, etc.). (1)
I should clarify two points at this early stage of my polemic. First, I am fully aware that the term teen movie conveniently stretches a long way – far enough to include a certain kind of “rite of passage” comedy-drama that has no problem whatsoever garnering praise from reviewers and audiences of polite, middlebrow tastes. If we take teen movie to signify anything that deals with the drama or comedy of growing up in a specific social environment, then there are a flood of completely respectable films that come to mind: Summer of ‘42 (Robert Mulligan, 1971), My Life as a Dog (Lasse Hallström, 1985), Breaking Away (Peter Yates, 1979), Gregory’s Girl (Bill Forsyth, 1980), A Summer Story (Piers Haggard, 1988), Devil in the Flesh (Scott Murray, 1986) ... or indeed, just about any Australian teen film (save for Young Einstein  or Windrider ) you care to name.
Don McLennan’s Mull (1988) is a paradigmatic Aussie case: like the others mentioned, it is in a realistic or naturalistic mode, with a strongly specific sense of place; it registers as a distinctive, personal film; it has individualised, psychological characters; it is reflective and serious. Making necessary distinctions, we could say that its world-view or tone (like that of 36 Fillette) is tough and contemporary, whereas films in the Summer of ‘42 vein are autumnal, wispy, whimsical, nostalgic. Still, I think, my strategic grouping holds. Tough and tender, here, are two sides of the same naturalistic coin.
The acid test is this: how many people would instantly and unselfconsciously call Mull or My Life as a Dog teen movies – let alone teen flicks? From experience, I know that most people immediately move to separate and distinguish such precious items from that hideous, amorphous mass of objects branded teen movies. (I have a delicious memory of suggesting, over dinner at an exclusive art world soirée, that Desperately Seeking Susan [Susan Seidelman, 1985] was “an important film to see”. The collective sneer was chilling: “Important?”, the host queried.) Own up, all those readers who choked when I cited above that oh-so sensitive Running On Empty above as a teen movie!
Well, it’s the mass I’m talking about: everything from Animal House (John Landis, 1978) and Porky’s (Bob Clark, 1981) to License to Drive (Neil Tolkin, 1988) and One Crazy Summer (Savage Steve Holland, 1986), all those sadly unloved films like Secret Admirer (David Greenwalt, 1985, “produced at the height of the teen sex comedy craze”: a real quote), Joy of Sex (Martha Coolidge, 1984), Just One of the Guys (Lisa Gottlieb, 1985), Willy Milly (Paul Schneider, 1986), Sixteen Candles (John Hughes, 1984), The Woo Woo Kid (aka In the Mood, Phil Alden Robinson, 1987), Nice Girls Don’t Explode (Chuck Martinez, 1987), Tuff Turf (Fritz Kiersch, 1985), Better Off Dead (Steve Holland, 1985), The Legend of Billie Jean (Matthew Robbins, 1985) and several hundred others, all at that video store near you.
These are films that are, if not quite disrespectable to all classes of viewers, then at least conventional and formulaic, standard popular culture entertainment fare: full of familiar plot and situation clichés, unashamed character stereotypes, patently unreal fantasy worlds; and essentially accommodating (or so it would seem) of the dominant, patriarchal, capitalist ideology.
But I don’t really want to divide and conquer here. River’s Edge is certainly a tough, complex, naturalistic, disturbing film that can – and should – be discussed extensively as a teen movie (Hunter certainly knows two or three things about the form); and Dudes is a flipped-out, intense, thoroughly artificial film bursting with the contradictions of its two-dozen borrowed genres, which can also be equally extensively discussed as a teen movie. I’m not resistant to including Mull in my critical system of the teen movie. I’m just heartily sick of all those who can’t, or won’t, include Joy of Sex in theirs.
Second, I am not claiming that no one has ever written enthusiastically or sensitively about teen movies. You may have to look hard to find the good press – up the back of some of those middle-stratum magazines, where the more passionate reviews and commentaries lurk, saying what they can in a very small space (à la Cinema Papers in its awful mid ‘80s period under the tyrannical editorship of Nick Roddick [1945-2019]) – but it does exist. Generally, though, I can’t help thinking that even the available defenses of the teen movie (or particular teen movies) fail to go far enough, and deeply enough, into their subject. And this takes us right to the heart of why the teen movie is such a problem for film writing at all levels.
From my observation, teen movie defenders tend to be those whose critical consciousness was decisively formed either before or after the great explosion of 1970s film theory – writers who (in sometimes subtle ways) are strongly either ‘60s or ‘80s in their style of thought and their methodology; plus a few ‘70s defectors who scrabbled for the open air once the theory machine got a little too shrunken and claustrophobic, opting for the more modest and exploratory space of reviewing films for, say, Monthly Film Bulletin in UK. Magazines that are still in some senses strongly, doggedly tied to ‘70s methodology and style (like Screen and Framework) have never paid the slightest attention to the teen phenomenon, and perhaps never will. (2)
However, the critical methodologies of the ‘60s and ‘80s are not necessarily much better when it comes to truly confronting the mass of teen movies. Is it enough, for instance, to want to seek out (‘60s cinephile style) the unsung masterpieces of the genre, the undiscovered auteurs, or the films that display a knowing reverence for traditional Hollywood forms? Granted, it would be no small achievement to one day find Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (John Hughes, 1986), Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling, 1982), Reckless (James Foley, 1984) or Light of Day (Paul Schrader, 1987) promoted to a canonical position on one of those periodical greatest-films-of-all-time polls – remember, this is a world in which even an undoubtedly intelligent magazine like Cineaste regards Reckless as “too absurd to discuss”! And, to be sure, the teen movie has numerous auteurs, doing smart and evolving work within the form, who receive far too little serious attention: Penelope Spheeris, Martha Coolidge, Tim Hunter, Marisa Silver ... come to think of it, even stalwart John Hughes has scarcely received his proper due in print.
As for those especially knowing, taut, inventive teen movies treasured by cinephiles, those that can conjure a fond memory of the 1940s romantic comedies or the ‘50s teen rebel melodramas ... I wouldn’t dispute that Valley Girl (Coolidge, 1983) and The Sure Thing (Rob Reiner, 1985) for romance, or At Close Range (1986) and Over the Edge (1979) for rebellion, are worthy of some special attention somewhere down the line.
But is this enough? Turning to the more intellectual cinephiles of CineAction! or Movie magazines – those who have absorbed something of the ‘70s theory revolution into their now politicised methodology of practical criticism – we find a slightly more sophisticated take in relation to the teen movie. Still more or less on the track of especially significant films and intelligent directors, critics such as Robin Wood [1931-2009] and his book Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan propose new criteria of value: the teen movies truly to be treasured are now those that somehow subvert, or at least give a strong critical insight into, the dominant ideology. Thus, Risky Business (Paul Brickman, 1983) produces a critique of the capitalist success story; The Wanderers (Philip Kaufman, 1979) reflects the experience of ordinary Americans slowly becoming radicalised on the eve of the Vietnam era; and Fast Times at Ridgemont High (in Wood’s account) “construct[s] a position for the female spectator that is neither masochistic nor merely compliant”. (3)
I’m still dissatisfied. For all this diligent retrieval of especially good and interesting teen movies – by cinephiles political and apolitical – something still remains safely cordoned off, and it is precisely that despised mass of anonymous teen movies. There are still plenty of films that no one, it seems, wants to talk about. Think on it: discovering masterpieces or auteurs, isolating subversive or avant-garde exemplars – aren’t such critical gestures just, at some level, fancy ways of separating, once again, the supposedly good from the bad … and us (intelligent critics) from them (the mass audience)?
Even teen movie fans tend to proceed via a put-down of the genre as such – the “common denominator” teen movie – in order to then establish what rises well above that norm. It is rare – startling, in fact – when Denis Wood, almost alone amongst writers on the teen movie, praises a film (in his case, Corvette Summer, 1978) precisely because it is normal, average, unspecial; because it is, as he puts it, “as sand on the beach”. (4)
It is a little disappointing, really, that film criticism – even practical, cinephilic, movie-loving criticism – has got us so little along the way of understanding the entirety of cinema. What especially loses out, unsurprisingly, is what is known as popular cinema – all that sand on the beach. This is a surprising fact when you consider the strong populist impulse that was doubtless at the origin of so many genre-based and auteurist projects of the past (from Cahiers du cinéma in the ‘50s to Monogram in the ‘70s): the impulse to encounter and understand, in a rush, all the energy and savvy of popular arts like Hollywood cinema and pop music, forms that were all-pervasive but conspicuously lacking from the official histories and theories of art and aesthetics.
This originary impulse is clearly testified to by Peter Wollen [1938-2019] when, looking back on his 1969 book Signs and Meaning in the Cinema that stood exactly on the cusp of old and new methodologies of film criticism, he remarks that the ‘60s uncovered a way of “mapping the Hollywood cinema in depth and taking it seriously aesthetically”, an engagement with popular mythology that was “a gesture against both elitism (writing about Hollywood, about popular cinema) and populism (writing about it in an exotic way, insisting on the rigours of theory)”. (5)
But the record suggests that Wollen, then as now, and like so many others, is (to some extent, at least) fooling himself. Most writers of his period (such as Raymond Bellour or Laura Mulvey) quickly migrated from the messy depths of cinema to the more familiar and manageable surfaces. Valuable general theoretical points about cinema and culture were made during the ‘70s, but only, primarily, through the study of the preferred auteurs (like Alfred Hitchcock), transgressive films (like John Ford’s Young Mr Lincoln ) and the especially glamorous or fetishished genres (like film noir). The famous Cahiers du cinéma critic Serge Daney [1944-1992] was, in the late ‘70s, rather candid about this drift: “We wanted to re-read Ford, not Huston, to dissect Bresson and not René Clair, to psychoanalyse Bazin and not Pauline Kael”. (6) This indicates that critics were unconsciously setting quite strict limits – limits deriving, fundamentally, from their taste – on what they were willing to find interesting enough to spend time analysing.
The same process continues today – and the teen movie is one of its prime victims. Taste, which seeks out the precious, quickly flees the norm. This is why, in many ways, the study of popular cinema (or at least the type of study that starts out from the films themselves) has advanced so little since the ‘60s; why, for instance, most academic studies of the horror genre never get past the same shallow pool of great filmmakers (from F.W. Murnau and Val Lewton to George Romero and David Cronenberg) and special titles. Even an exceptional critic like Andrew Britton [1981-2008] from the CineAction!/Movie camp abandons the potential for a complex, sophisticated, in-depth understanding of commercial cinema when he leaps, every, time, for the superior critical value of a Hitchcock, Douglas Sirk or Vincente Minnelli over the run-of-the-mill, convention-bound, ideologically-determined Hollywood product. (7)
However, there’s one last option. One might think that all this tasteful selectivity on the part of critics has been remedied by the sudden rise to prominence in the ‘80s of an encyclopedic form of writing devoted purely to the popular genres – fanzines like Australia’s Fatal Visions (1988-1998) (8) or books like Kim Newman’s Nightmare Movies (in expanding Proteus editions from 1988 to 2011), which do not hesitate to cover the whole ground of their chosen topics. But, while the informative value of such work is beyond dispute, one has only to peruse the brutally normative judgments of Newman’s tome – the all-too-certain identification of all that is apparently self-evidently bad in cinema, such as directors who can’t direct, scripts that have no backbone, ideas that just don’t work or films that can’t get themselves together – to know that, for a new generation of B movie buffs, the definition of criticism has sadly shrunken to little more than what it has always been for the worst of the newspaper hacks: an exercise in superiority, the power to bless what is comfortably good and damn what is uncomfortably bad.
What is thereby lost in the types of criticism I have just described is any notion of the cinema – even and especially popular cinema – as a place where risks can be taken, where experiments (sometimes inadvertently) happen, and where thrillingly uncertain encounters between viewers and films should (and do) occur. Again, this is a disappointing and surprising in the light of the thought that B cinema – so often beyond the pale, excessive and surprising – surely demands and inspires a critical approach that can break free from the protocols imposed by the ideal of a norm. (9)
Besides, the new wave of fanzines is scarcely likely to sustain much contact with the dreaded teen movie. That is because, just as at the academic level, only certain genres are considered suitable material, i.e., acceptable to taste. In the fanzines, it’s only the dirty genres (horrific, outrageous and violent) that ever really matter. Boys’ stuff! Thus, while it’s par for the course for these streetwise publications to extol (and I salute them for it) the severe, perverse delights of Maniac Cop (1988), The Hidden (1987) or Street Trash (1987), I can’t imagine that modest, rather wholesome (and militantly feminine) little teen films like Seven Minutes in Heaven (Linda Feferman, 1985), Crazy For You (aka Vision Quest, Harold Becker, 1985) or Pretty In Pink (Howard Deutch, 1986) are ever quite going to get the same nod of subcultural approval.
The teen genre is too clean by half – a standard objection echoed on all the critical strata, for instance Positif’s Philippe Rouyer scoffing that “these youths, clean and antiseptic, miraculously untouched by the great crises of contemporary America, are completely ignorant of Watergate and Vietnam”. (10) This predictable crack at the massive unrealism of the teen movie usually hums along with “these kids never do any schoolwork”, “there are no gays in teen movies” and “all the adults are caricatures”. In fact, the genre deems with counter-examples answering and twisting all these assumptions. But let’s stick with the cliché-model and attempt to defend it. The move is not so counter-intuitive!
In a nutshell, you could say the teen movie has virtually nothing going for it that would earmark it as worthy of the attention of your average film critic. As a type of cinema and a slice of culture, it is often conservative and conventional, bears willfully little direct relation to the real world, and seems essentially content to simply amuse its audiences. It is not particularly postmodern (only insofar as everything these days logically must be) – in fact, it is unquestionably the daggiest, nerdiest, most whimsical of genres. It runs on a reduced Utopian impulse in comparison with the most florid, and most critically prized, mainstream musicals or melodramas.
So why bother? Here are the reasons why I would choose to study the teen movie, from American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973) to Say Anything … (Cameron Crowe, 1989).
1. It exists; it’s popular. So-called youth culture, within which the teen movie sits, is a big, important deal. This culture is not just (as it is too often delimited) “things (films, records ... ) pitched at kids”; it’s also Bill Murray and Purple Rain (Albert Magnoli, 1984) and Pee-wee Herman and rock ‘n’ roll – anything that gives you (no matter your actual age) that kick which is half craziness (rebellion, vulgarity) and half innocence (optimism, idealism). It’s just too easy to score points by diagnosing the progressive juvenilisation of popular culture (as Thomas Doherty does in his otherwise useful 1988 book Teenagers and Teenpics), whilst not grasping that at least half our total culture, now more than ever, is necessarily, vitally juvenile! (11) The teen movie, like other youth culture phenomena, is about survival, and a (very small, very fragile) means to survival.
So, there’s the first noble, necessary task made possible by paying in-depth attention to the teen movie: an understanding of youth culture in all its extensions and implications.
2. More particularly to do with the films themselves, and with the forms of popular cinema, I believe we need to think again, and more comprehensively, about that mysterious thing called entertainment. Most critics seem to assume they know what entertainment is, what it consists of and how it works; critics like Robin Wood, once they’ve schematically redeemed a film like Fast Times at Ridgemont High for Marxist-Feminism, always add a feeble “yes, well, it’s also entertaining” clause, which gets us precisely nowhere on that score. Yet the teen movie is a principal entertainment form, and it works through this fact at every second, on every level: emotional energy, gags, comedy of manners, image/sound relations, actors animating their stereotypes, games with fictional premises, spectacular mixing of genre elements ... To supremely value, before really looking at the whole field, the dazzling teen movies of Foley, Reiner or Hughes is to risk missing the opportunity to understand the very delicate interplay of convention and invention in even the most apparently gross, least subtle popular films. (12)
Go ahead and chalk that one up for a hopeful future: a better, more complete theory of popular entertainment.
3. As with any popular, commercial genre, the fun only really starts when you get that truly in-depth sense of hundreds of films bouncing/feeding/ripping-off each other, mutually generating each other in a network. At that moment, all distinctions between good and bad, accomplished and botched, coherent and incoherent movies start to break down – mercy! – or at least become less significant, less telling, less determining of one’s critical system. It’s like the testimony of delirious, all-in post-War film viewing by Henri Agel that Routt adroitly marshals:
… an American enchantment was born. A magic, doubtless impure and at times closer to a junkie’s high, a magic too tied up with the tinsel and vulgarity of the Boulevard not to be ambiguous. […] A crucible perpetually on the boil in which was blended fear and laughter and eroticism and violence and tenderness. Surely we were mixing thus the best and the worst. (13)
This is also reminiscent of what Philip Brophy says of popular music: “My view is that even the fakest, stupidest, negative example of Rock or Pop does have something to tell us about Rock and Pop in general”. (14) Naturally, since we’re talking about cultural significance, not cultural worth; and trying to grasp the flows and swirls of culture rather than its qualitative milestones. Out with auteurs and masterpieces, then, and while we’re at it, out with privileged, authentic examples as well (as in: “Morgan’s Cake [Rick Schmidt, 1989] is a true, real teen movie”). Even the fakest, stupidest teen movie can be energetic, not to mention sublimely celebratory of its own fakeness.
So that’s two more things at stake in any study of the teen movie: a theory of genre in popular film; and a mode, a working method, of non-evaluative criticism, so sorely needed in these sourpuss times.
4. The teen movie has its own wonderful, stylised sense of the everyday, and quotidian life. Not necessarily your or my everyday life; but, in contrast to other movies and movie-types, a loose, tangled weave of characters and events an attention to incidents and relations of work, leisure and family life – an overall texture which registers as everyday-like. Within its fictions, the teen movie has much to say about accommodating oneself to the everyday (and the everyday to oneself), making it a tolerable place in which to live. This is certainly part of the genre’s conservatism, but conservatism is itself something worth grappling with non-moralistically for a change; as Raymond Durgnat suggests, “An important job of art is to register the way people actually experience things, as distinct from how the critic might wish them to do so”. (15) This is not to say, however, that the teen movie, with its reduced Utopianism, is entirely static and free from complications or crises: on the contrary, the genre is full of sharp poignancies and stresses, all kinds of quiet, daily palpitations of the personal/social world. That, I suspect, is about half of what makes it popular.
One for the road, then: an immersion in teen movies might sensitise us to all that is modest, fleeting, fragile in popular cinema (and, more broadly, popular culture). Does that sound so uneventful, so unpromising? Not to my ears, at any rate.
I’m well aware that I’ve been using the teen movie here as a kind of case. One could just as well open up some of the above-marked areas – popular entertainment, genre, fantasy and the everyday – by recourse to some other form. If so, go for it. Or, one could as easily pick fights with the reigning schools and available methodologies of film criticism directly, without the need to wrangle over a contested cinematic object – despised by one player, loved and defended by the other.
But if the teen movie has indeed provided me with a juicy, opportune case study, it doesn’t amount to simply that – it’s not just a pawn in a discursive game. As itself, the teen movie has its own broad specificity, its own aesthetic, its own pleasure and its own history. Why bother with the teen movie? It exists, it’s popular. What more reason do you need?
Mon cas, or: Would Do Better (Reply to a Critique)
Introduction: In August 1992, Cinema Papers magazine belatedly published a critical response to the above essay, titled “‘Not to be an Intellectual’: Adrian Martin on Teen Movies”. My counter-response, composed a year earlier in August 1991, followed.
Although the critic sometimes slips between discussing one essay and my general practice as a writer, they mostly stick to addressing the specific rhetoric, style and argumentative strategies of “The Teen Movie: Why Bother?”. I intend, in this response, to do the same. Since I do not take the critique as a personal attack, I want to use this occasion not merely to defend some of my original positions, but also to evaluate my own piece, two years on.
I will concentrate here on three areas: the popular, performative writing, and intellectualism.
The popular – specifically, the current critical approach to the popular – is the central topic of the critic’s response. A major concern in this area is the prevalent dream of a critical writing style that would be popular culture’s travelling companion, hopefully pulling off a “mimetic capture of some effective, evanescent dimension of the popular film”. A rough, preliminary stab at a genealogy of this mode of writing is offered: Manny Farber, Bob Ellis (!), Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
I don’t have much argument with this brief, identikit sketch of this performative mode of writing (although, admittedly, the inclusion of a lexicon of my most characteristic keywords reminds me of the appallingly insensitive analytical exercises performed on writing styles by Dugald Williamson in his 1989 booklet Authorship and Criticism). I would certainly profess an intense personal predilection for this style of criticism – even as I am from far from believing it to be the only valuable style. Its genealogy is indeed complex, starting perhaps with Farber (and his influences), branching into the rock criticism of Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus, developing in various ways through the work of Village Voice contributors (J. Hoberman, Carrie Rickey, Amy Taubin), Richard Jameson, Kathleen Murphy, David Thomson, and post-Farberians like Ronnie Scheib, Greg Ford and Rick Thompson; with Raymond Durgnat in Britain since the 1950s pursuing a quite different but importantly overlapping path.
What I take issue with in the critic’s account of this style is the welding of it to an exclusive commitment to popular film. After all, Farber’s greatest gift to the history of criticism (as he passed through Artforum as well as high-class magazines and film journals) was the exemplary application of his funky style to avant-garde cinema (Michael Snow, Andy Warhol), the Nouvelle Vague (Jean-Luc Godard) and the emerging experimental narrative practices of the 1970s (Marguerite Duras, Chantal Akerman, Fassbinder) at the same time as he kept writing (often querulously rather than in populist celebration) about Hollywood product. This is a critical strategy continued by virtually all the writers cited above, and I’m happy to be with them.
The obsession of critics to align themselves with the popular is a relatively recent critical development – one of the markers of the ‘80s, I would say. The Edinburgh Festival booklets on Roger Corman and Samuel Fuller in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, for example, make no self-aggrandising populist claims; while the classic 1975 anthology Kings of the Bs drew the standard criticism (voiced by many) that it was simply not productive to polemically play off a brand of popular cinema (in this case, exploitation movies) against either stuffy art-cinema or the wanky avant-garde.
The self-consciously populist moment in film criticism – the attitude that so-called popular film is the only authentic site worth devoting attention to – is borne aloft by newer writers who entered the field in the ‘80s, and their mentors/teachers eager to disavow the radical or avant-garde enthusiasms of the pre-postmodern period. Doubtless, there’s been some collusion between this viciously populist attitude and the jazzy, performative critical style described – although it is more likely to be encountered in the pages of NME or The Face (in the early work of Ian Penman, for instance) than in Film Comment or Cinema Papers.
Looking back, I concede that the effort to make my teen movie article overwhelmingly persuasive to the average general-market magazine reader (as I constructed him/her in my mind) led to a degree of naive populism – a line of argument that goes something like: “The teen movie is popular, it’s loved by the masses, so why won’t you [= repressed arthouse filmgoer] love it, too?”. I accept completely Meaghan Morris’ exposé of all the contorted cultural delusions, projections and displacements contained in that classically populist appeal (see her classic 1988 essay “Banality in Cultural Studies”, often reprinted). As it happens, I had diagnosed some of these problems myself in an article written in 1987, “No Flowers For the Cinephile” [now collected in my Mysteries of Cinema].
In that piece, I say what I more exactly believe: that “writing the popular” as a critic has little or nothing to do with reaching “the people”, as that mob is feverishly imagined by troubled intellectuals; while it has everything to do – and this is what’s positive about it – with marking out and travelling down new lines of social exchange, finding new connections and networks that cut across previous socio-cultural divisions. Writing about popular culture, then, isn’t doomed to be merely regressive or circular; it’s more like a mutant form of critical activity for a changing cultural terrain. This is, at least, how I see it and sense it.
Is it even correct to call the teen movie an instance of popular film or popular culture? The genre raises (more acutely for me now than in 1989) intriguing questions about the too-easy use of such terms (see my 1994 book Phantasms for further reflection on this). In a broad, loose way, it is probably alright to refer to the teen movie as a popular genre – i.e., one that many people consume with the prior thought in their heads that they are about to watch, precisely, a teen movie (usually either teen comedy or teen romance, probably not teen drama). But the paradox of thus calling a genre popular – particularly in the home video age – is that many of the specific films within that genre may not be popular (i.e., widely seen and/or distinctly recognised) at all. The same goes for horror, action, comedy and many typical video-store genres. I am quite sure that more people Australia-wide have seen (and appreciated) Buñuel/Dalí’s Un Chien andalou (1929) and Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975) than either Dr Alien (aka I Was a Teenage Sex Mutant, David DeCoteau, 1989) or Who Shot Patakango? (Robert Brooks, 1989), to name only two remarkably strange and interesting teen movies released on video.
Thus, in market terms, the teen movie today, in the aftermath of its mid ‘80s box-office boom, functions rather as it did in its purely B movie/exploitation era of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Slipping en masse into video stores (as once they passed through drive-in theatres), teen movies are, in this sense, more anonymous and indistinct than ever (which is not to say they are all the same). No wonder, then, that some commentators and fans have lately taken to extolling the teen movie not as a popular form, but rather a marginal or subversive one. James Hay in Cultural Studies (“‘You’re Tearing Me Apart’: The Primal Scene of Teen Films”, October 1990) suggests that the teen movie be discussed as minor cinema, in the sense that Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari designate minor literature: subterranean, surprising, half-hidden from the glare of official culture, and not entirely shaped to that culture’s preferred codes. More fannishly, Brett Garten in the Australian magazine Fatal Visions (February/March 1990) uncovers a subversive political message in the obscure teen-horror video Zombie High (aka The School That Ate My Brain, Ron Link, 1987) and semi-seriously exclaims: “The revolution will begin in the video stores of the world!!!!!!!!”
As to the charge that my deepest populist desire is “not to be an intellectual”, I must confess to a certain bemusement, since one of the commonest reactions to my work from lumpen film types is that I esoterically over-intellectualise films (particularly teen films) that are apparently intended as “simple entertainment” (this philistine line of attack, alas, never dies). In fact, in writing for publications in the vein of Cinema Papers, I make it a point to strive for this very reaction, while hopefully not losing the average reader entirely. A certain interplay of intellectualism and funky accessibility is the basis of my politique as a critic.
I can imagine many clearer and severer ways not to be an intellectual than writing “The Teen Movie: Why Bother?” in the way that I did, consciously devoting over half the piece to a discussion of existing critical methodologies, complete with quotations from Durgnat, Brophy, Wood, Routt and Positif. I have no wish to hide my “range of education, reading and research”; nor do I wish to limit anyone’s film-talk (least of all my own) to expressions of “breathless enthusiasm” precluding further, in-depth analysis.
Once again, I think too much is being made of the potential collusion between a certain anti-intellectual attitude and a particular style of writing. In this paranoiac gesture of hermeneutic suspicion, the possible options for critical practice are being unwittingly policed and limited. Using an idiomatic term like “flipped-out” every so often does not make one an instant anti-intellectual (would the same intention be ascribed to Farber, Durgnat or Greil Marcus?). Nor does it irremediably denote a “populist game” in which analysis, persuasion and political effect are being sinisterly erased.
The critic concedes (repeatedly) that my article was a “provocation”, a “polemic”; but they are sure I would “never call it” a “very sophisticated ethical-rhetorical exercise”. Wrong! I am entirely conscious of the role of rhetoric in all acts of writing; the difference between myself and my critic, in our respective practices, is that I actively use rhetoric in journalistic and semi-journalistic contexts (whereas academic writing may seek, in vain, to extinguish it in the name of some phantom “empirical address”). And rhetoric, in the public sphere, is never as clean-cut as the semiotic-linguistic experts wish it to be. Rhetorical persuasion – particularly pitched to a large and diverse audience – courts overstatement, binary simplification and self-contradiction; sometimes, it has to. It’s all part of the very sophisticated ethical-rhetorical language-game! – a game played with very serious consequences in mind.
I bristle at what I perceive as a certain programmatic, prescriptive slant to my critic’s remarks (similar to the article on criticism by Stephen Muecke in Editions, no. 11, June-July 1991, and the aforementioned Authorship and Criticism). The various internal inconsistencies and contradictions of my piece are noted as if, ultimately, the critic would be happier (and the world of criticism better off) if I had not committed them. In a memorable envoi, they suggest I “would do better” to practice a type of criticism judged superior to the one I practiced in 1989 (and probably still do). I’m not projecting onto the critic a desire for dry, rationalist, theoreticist or politically-correct discourse; but I do wonder if their preferred critical practice is just a bit too unambiguous and clean, with all the appropriate cultural-political moves carefully pre-programmed. I can fully appreciate “straight” critical writing (I read and use a lot of it, and even do it myself at times); but I’ll also always go out of my way to stick up for criticism that is variously emotive, difficult, contradictory and multi-factorial.
In the final rhetorical flourish of my 1989 article, I wrote: “Why bother with the teen movie? It exists, it’s popular. What more reason do you need?” Today in 1991, I would be happy to change that penultimate sentence to simply: “Because it exists”. The critique of my piece almost seems to imply that the teen movie would hardly matter to anyone unless I had written it into existence, or at least helped to turn it into an “aesthetic occasion” (ugly phrase) only now worthy of serious critical attention. But, I repeat, the teen movie exists – meaning that it exists independently of any case I make about it, or of my proclaimed taste for it.
At the moment of my initial encounter with it, and forever thereafter, the teen movie has remained Other to me – something I desire humbly to describe, to bear witness to, knowing at the outset that I can never completely experience or capture all its fugitive energies, forms and effects (in individual films, and in the genre at large). In this light, the teen movie is for me, more than ever, a minor cinema in the sense described above – not something I master or wield, but something which perpetually surprises me, something I must continually discover. Dare I suggest, somewhat immodestly, that this is my own “ethic of modesty” as a critic? And that it’s somebody else’s problem, ultimately, if they find a necessary contradiction between this approach to cinema and a commitment to performative, exploratory writing?
1. For typical put-downs of the teen movie, See Arnold White, “Kidpix”, Film Comment (August 1985); Elayne Rapping, “Hollywood’s Youth Cult Films”, Cineaste, Vol. 16 No. 1/2 (1987/1988); and Philippe Rouyer, “Coca-Cola Kids”, Positif, no. 307 (September 1986). Defenses of the genre are rarer (hence the piece you are reading), but definitely see Denis Wood, “Seeing and Being”, Film Quarterly (Spring 1986) – an article which looks like it was shoved into the Letters section for daring to praise The Breakfast Club (John Hughes, 1985) and Weird Science (Hughes, 1985) as truly political films! back
2. 2021 update. This claim is now 32 years old; things sure looked bleak in academia back then. Since that time, teen movies have become, at least in some respects, academically respectable, thanks to the efforts of scholars including Frances Smith and Timothy Shary. There are anthologies of essays from Edinburgh University Press’ ReFocus series devoted to Amy Heckerling and John Hughes; rapt attention paid to the current directorial careers of Greta Gerwig, Céline Sciamma and Lena Dunham; a revival of interest in important filmmakers including Joyce Chopra (Smooth Talk, 1985) and Martha Coolidge; and video-essay work including Charlie Shackleton’s feature-length Beyond Clueless (2014). The steadily growing body of scholarship on auteurs such as Maurice Pialat, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Gregg Araki, François Ozon and Catherine Breillat regularly explores their engagement with a complex “figural” notion of youth (queer youth now emphatically included). Conversely, in much more-or-less sophisticated film criticism of the Film Comment or Reverse Angle variety, the 1980s as a decade in pop cinema history has come to be regarded suspiciously and even contemptuously, in retrospect, as a shamefully “plastic” period wedged between the New American Cinema of the ‘70s and the later global manifestations of so-called Indie film in the ‘90s and beyond. You can’t win ‘em all! back
3. See Matthew Bernstein and David Pratt, “Comic Ambivalence in Risky Business”, Film Criticism (Spring 1985); Susan Morrison, “Getting a Fix On the ‘60s: Philip Kaufman’s The Wanderers Revisited”, CineAction!, no. 12 (Spring 1988); and Robin Wood, “Images and Women” (what a stunning title!) in his Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan (Columbia University Press, 1986; the expanded edition of 2003 includes a further essay on 1990s teen movies). See also the teen-related articles by Bryan Bruce (aka filmmaker Bruce LaBruce) in various issues of CineAction!. back
4. Denis Wood, “As Sand on the Beach: Critical Commentary on Matthew Robbins and Hal Barwood’s Corvette Summer”, Journal of Popular Film and Television, Vol. 7 No. 2 (1979). Wood’s website: http://www.deniswood.net/home.htm. back
5. Peter Wollen, “Thinking Theory”, Film Comment (August 1988), p. 50. back
6. T.L. French [Bill Krohn], “Les Cahiers du cinéma 1968-1977: Interview with Serge Daney”, The Thousand Eyes, no. 2 (1977), p. 20; reprinted in Krohn, Letters from Hollywood 1977-2017 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2020), p. 21. back
7. See Britton on Film: The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton (Wayne State University Press, 2008). back
8. The Fatal Visions issues have since been anthologised into books published in 2012 and 2016 by LedaTape Organisation (Australia). back
9. The best statement on this is by William D. Routt, “Creature”, Stuffing: Film: Genre (1987); another version of the text appears as “The Menace”, SubStance, no. 55 (1988). For my own collected reflections on this topic, see the 2019 PDF The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down: Essays on Surrealism in Cinema / The B Movie (1992-2010), available exclusively as Tier 3 reward in my Patreon campaign: www.patreon.com/adrianmartin. back
10. Rouyer, “Coca-Cola Kids”, p. 65. back
11. Thomas Patrick Doherty, Teenagers and Teenpix: The Juvenilization of American Movies in the 1950s (Temple University Press, 1988; revised and expanded 2002). back
14. Philip Brophy, “Editorial (kind of...)”, Restuff: Rock & Pop Culture (1988), p. 2. back
15. Raymond Durgnat, “Hollywood Turns to the Citizens Band”, Films on Screen and Video (December 1981), p. 10. back
© Adrian Martin August 1989 / 30 August 1991