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George Olden
...these are the best of times

"The Kids Are Alright" sang The Who near the end of the sixties, and ever since that decade, popular culture has been the domain of youth, and driven by it. Nowhere has this been truer than in America. And nowhere is this domination reflected more than in the cinema: Hollywood makes films for young Americans, about young Americans, and frequently, by young Americans. American culture is obsessed with innovation and renewal, and it is only natural therefore that it would focus on youth.

There is a constant search for new young actors and directors, and just occasionally, the youngsters in American films do become the young stars of Hollywood. Occasionally these films are very good. On television, Film Four recently had a "Teenage Kicks" season, and programmes such as 'Dawson's Creek,' 'Heartbreak High' and even 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' demonstrate the enduring popularity and quality of the genre.

But just why do we all enjoy watching American teenagers go through all these growing up problems, messing-up relationships, being frustrated geniuses, or, in the case of Scream, slicing each other up whilst wearing silly masks? The genre of teen films is huge, which does make it difficult to analyse as a whole.

After all, it encompasses films of a huge diversity: from the gritty reality of 'Clockers' and 'The Basketball Diaries' to the feel-good bonding of 'The Breakfast Club'; from the dark comedy of Heathers to the horror films 'The Blair Witch Project', teen life encompasses all genres. The slacker humour of 'Mallrats' contrasts with the 1980s Reagan-era angst of 'Pretty In Pink' and 'Less Than Zero.' However, the common denominator is American youth, usually white Anglo-Saxon youth.

Cynics would be quick to point out that studios know their audience very well, even if they are sometimes caught out and made to look ridiculous when badly misjudging what will be "Cool" and succeed. However, a quick consideration of the most successful films of the genre does allow certain conclusions to be drawn.

There is, firstly, a distinct similarity of theme and character. Ever since Huckleberry Finn first made his way down the river, the notion of rites of passage that we must all go through in the process of growing up has been an American axiom, and it has become the key theme to many teen flicks.

The classic example of this would be 'Stand By Me', the tale of four friends who hike into the woods to see a dead body. The film deals with the painful but inevitable transition from innocent childhood to a rather sad awareness of the realities of adult life lying not too far ahead in the distance. And whilst 'The Breakfast Club' -succeeded because of its universality, with a combination of themes and characters that can be widely related to, the key to the film is again the shared rites of passage experience. It has an absurdly positive message, throwing together a group of teen stereotypes into the closed confines of a Saturday morning detention. They emerge two hours later, differences reconciled, unity discovered in the face of a common enemy (the school authorities) and friendships forged. It is all very American, very upbeat, and ultimately very corny. If not a great film, it holds a special place in American hearts because it offers a simplistic answer to common differences that occur in every classroom, and by implication, in everyday society.

The genre is also dominated by the huge number of teen comedies that come out each year, ranging from dark fantasies to almost slapstick 'buddy' films. 'Heathers' removed the boundaries on behaviour, so that Winona Ryder and Christian Slater could kill their high school rivals if necessary. Evil has never been such fun, or so sweetly and innocently dressed up as candy. In contrast, this year's 'American Pie' and 'Never Been Kissed' present a childhood of harmless fun and humour. There are also many films that examine the path of the troubled individual or prodigy, and many that examine 'adult' or serious themes through teen metaphors, this year's sharp satiric release 'Election' being a notable example.

A lot of these films are nostalgic for the past, and often they seem to lean back to more innocent times even when set in the contemporary. A large part of the appeal of 'Stand by Me,' for example, is derived from the 1960s setting, as if to imply that just as the boys are growing up, so society too has gone from na´ve innocence to adult realism. Similarly, 'Dead Poets Society' relies on being set in the 1950s era of conservatism and conformity for the boys' efforts to seem rebellious - they are comparatively tame by modern day standards. This nostalgic tendency is a uniquely American trait taken up again last year with 'Pleasantville' -where teens from the future corrupt the innocence of the 1950s.

In Britain we tend to view the present as always an improvement upon the past; our teen films, such as 'Kes', paint a far grimmer picture of the past. Historian Eric Goldman has observed in America in the twentieth century "a strong urge towards the traditional amid situations that were increasingly new", and in these post-Columbine days, that is probably only going to increase.

The majority of American teen films divide into two types that subtly reflect this problem. The comedies and buddy films do still promote childhood and adolescence as a time of fun and innocence. But on the other side, there are the serious, realist films that promote it as a time of challenges and problems to face, from drugs to crime to family problems; the film 'Kids' would be the ultimate example of this. Perhaps this just reflects the duality of being young; it is, after all, supposed to be a time of enjoyment and freedom from responsibility. But increasingly, we are demanding that kids grow up faster than ever, and they face more problems and pressures from society than ever before, and the pressure for childhood to be a time of innocent pleasures can be both self-destructive and embittering.

There are now more decisions to make, more mistakes to make, and so much more to learn. This just reflects the growing complexity of the times in which we are living. It is really no wonder that this prompts nostalgia, especially amongst sentimental adults. American teen flicks reflect all these problems, and perhaps the triumph of the genre is its flexibility, the way that it can accommodate nostalgia and realism, innocence and awareness, humour and tragedy, often within the same film. Common to all of them, though, is a sad suspicion that these are the best of times, and that the most must be made of them whilst they last, brief and transient though they may be.

© George Olden

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