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Weekly Alibi The New School

Everything I need to know about the modern American teen I learned by going to the movies

By Glenn Gaslin

JUNE 21, 1999:  Good morning, children, and welcome back to class. You may have noticed that a new student has joined us. Or, actually, quite a few new students. About 60 million, to take a quick guess. Say hi, everybody.

Now, they might look familiar, they might look a little like the teenagers you've been going to school with all these years, the ones you used to see in teen movies, but they're different. Better. Stronger. Faster. Richer. In fact, they brought a note from home saying that they have permission to kick your ass and take over the place.

Oh, and if you haven't noticed, the school has moved too. It's been repainted and rewired, the cliques and clichés rearranged, the teachers lobotomized, the cafeteria expanded. It's their school now, so please pass your locker keys to the front of the room. They know there's not a demographic on earth with more potential right now than the American teenager those about to outnumber Baby Boomers, approaching with their giant wads of disposable income. So whatever they want, whatever they buy, whatever they know...goes.

Today's lesson, then, is this: The forces of mainstream consumer culture have begun an all-out campaign to win the minds and loyalty of today's emerging, swelling body of teenagers, publishing miniature versions of their magazines (Teen People, Teen Newsweek, Teen Cosmo) and creating TV shows that have finally gotten under their skin (Dawson's Creek, Daria, Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

But nowhere is this takeover more obvious and complete than at the corner megaplex, where a new breed of film has arrived: peppy pop cinema with a low price tag and easy success. And with films such as Varsity Blues (which cost $16 million) and She's All That ($10 million) grossing around $60 million each, there's much, much more on the way. The public exploration of high school at the end of the 20th century will continue this summer and into the fall and on and on, and with it, the solidification of a new genre: the New Teen Cinema.

Spend some time in the halls of this shiny fictionalized school, and you'll see students living a life so self-assured, so complete, so funny and tightly scripted that you'll wonder why anyone would want to hurt their classmates. These kids inhabit sunny semi-urban lands with no adults and no irony and lots of encouragement to just be themselves. The school where they dwell was erected not by teens, but for them, mostly by aging GenX-ers who grew up on the emotional class-conflict comedies of John Hughes and the mindless sex romps of late-night Cinemax. They've created this school for their younger brothers and sisters, and now plan a total recolonization of American mass culture, attempting to recast history into a mold polished and styled for the Next Wave of Human Beings.

Throughout the summer, themes and moods of this New Teen Cinema will continue to play in heavy rotation like eight-dollar pop songs: there one minute, gone the next, replaced by something almost exactly the same but new! The movies feature hit bands, tie-in soundtracks, fresh faces you may have seen on TV or commercials, and sly references to one another. Synergy! Cross-marketing! Fun! To describe this as a movement, an aesthetic, a cohesive scene involved with these films would be a lie. It's all pop. Bits and pieces to get us through the next artistic breakthrough, the next Nirvana or Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Beatles. Whatever force can take hold of 60 million minds and shepherd them into their own self-defining moments.

Until then, the lessons are clear: Twentysomethings are old, adults suck, moments are short, and life belongs to those who can milk each day for the most. The stories adopt the fashion-and-chastity vibe from Clueless (1995) rather than the raunchy realism of Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1980); the age-old don't-come-a-knocking atmosphere of the classic teen romp has been replaced by a clean moral code.

All the great stories, all the great dramas and mysteries of life, everything that Boomers railed against in the 1960s and GenX-ers complained about never having, it now belongs to these new young creatures. And all of it right now too. Their lessons move quickly, so write fast. Break out the Nike-branded Trapper Keepers and take a few notes on what the new school has to teach us.

Lesson One: It's OK to be an outcast. Everyone will eventually figure you out, love you, and realize that you were right all along.

None of the laws of the New Teen Cinema applies across the board, but the major themes stand out like the albino kid in gym class. Chief among them is the role of the outcast, the rebel, the nerd, the weirdo, a character who has traditionally been the hero of teen movies. From Rebel Without a Cause to Grease to Ferris Bueller's Day Off, the passionate kid with a vision is always eccentric and troubled. And in high school, as everyone knows, eccentric kids are to be mocked and ridiculed, taunted and teased. So add to their world a few dumb jocks and prissy debutantes, and you've got instant drama and conflict.

This formula hasn't changed, but the modern cinematic high school is packed with more and more outcasts, stranger and cooler outcasts, and these heroes are usually mainstream enough to cross over clique boundaries or even "convert." Kat (Julia Stiles), the cantankerous older sister from 10 Things I Hate About You, begins the story as a completely rigid pseudolesbian-type. She eventually comes around to meet everyone else (the brooding motorhead who loves her; her perky, pretty little sister; the AV geek; the greasy, good-looking "Chachi") somewhere near the middle, saying, essentially, we can all get along.

James Van Der Beek's Jon Moxon in Varsity Blues, a second-string quarterback in a West Texas town obsessed with high school football, runs way outside the boundaries of "accepted" behavior, ripping apart a ball program that has kept the town's young men under its thumb for generations. The rest of the team follows his lead, and they all work together to destroy the old status quo and create a new one that everyone likes.

Yes, this is a simplification of the irrational rifts that have always divided kids in the real world, where two smart guys with trench coats and shotguns decide that they've had enough ribbing and that everyone else will pay. It's hard to keep teen angst at a healthy distance when your world consists of a locker full of homework and a hallway full of assholes, but the New Teen Cinema offers the antidote: perspective. And look at how silly it all is. Keep being weird, the films says, keep being yourself, and you will be rewarded.

The outcast-as-hero idea is taken to more artistically complex levels in two of the films, Election and Rushmore, that almost don't belong in the genre. (Ads for Election have touted the phrase "adult comedy.") Max Fisher, a tortured creative prankster who practically runs the prep school Rushmore Academy, washes away every stereotype and can only be called a genius. He builds his own world everywhere he goes writing plays, starting clubs, striking up relationships with powerful billionaires and asks the other kids to join him. And in the end, they do.

But Reese Witherspoon's Tracy Flick, from Election, may be the one true, unredeemable outcast in the lot. She paces the eerily realistic halls of a Nebraska high school with such single-minded ambition that anything diabolical she does to become class president is offset by her sheer, complete, and universal loneliness. We feel sorry for her and realize that her brand of unchecked eccentricity will never clear up, that her plotline won't have a satisfying climax during the prom scene, that she is hopeless. Her story, more than anything, goes against the mood of the New Teen Cinema.

Lesson Two: The classics rock.

A father forbids his youngest daughter to date until his older, crustier one does. A whole town gets a lobotomy so that they'll stick to the societal norms. A man takes a bet that he can "tame" a wild woman from a lower social class. A team of sexual tricksters deflower fragile virgins for fun and profit. Any of this sound familiar?

Every great civilization has recast the best stories from the Old World into its own vernacular and style, and just as the Romans rejiggered Greek mythology, the New Teen Cinema is retelling the history of the world with its own Oxy-clean faces and Skecher-clad cast. Amy Heckerling's remake of Jane Austen's Emma as Clueless back in 1995 worked so well that it is truly amazing this trend didn't come together faster. Now, 10 Things... has begun scattering Shakespeare's folios down the hallways of the new high school, and will be followed this year by O (Othello on the basketball court) and Near in Blood (Macbeth on the football field).

She's All That did Pygmalion one better, especially with that choreographed prom-dance number, and Cruel Intentions made prep-school sense of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. What's surprising is how masterfully fun these adaptations are, how great-looking the cast and in-the-moment the dialogue. They do what Shakespeare did best entertain the masses with classic fables worked in the language of the day and it works. But how long will this last before we start seeing "fresh" remakes of Saturday Night Fever and Smokey and the Bandit?

Lesson Three: Adults do not exist. And if they do, they're corrupt, stupid, and backward.

Of course this is the case in a teen fantasy world, but it might come as a surprise that the new high school admits no adults not to allow the kids to party, but to keep out the old folks' unsavory morals. The writers, audience, and subjects of the New Teen Cinema are all Boomer spawn, products of households where divorce was a 50-50 shot, and there's a clear bitterness embodied in the absence of adults. The comical, pastoral world of Cruel Intentions hosts spoiled prep-schoolers who speak in refined accents and plot sexual high jinks in vast, lavish, vacant apartments. Where did all the adults go?

In 10 Things..., the counselor, Ms. Perky, is writing a porn novel; the English teacher curses and rages; and the soccer coach confiscates a bag of weed from a kid in detention and then suspiciously swipes Chee-tos from another. Deviants! In the gorefest-comedy Idle Hands, the protagonist doesn't notice for days that his parents have been murdered. This summer's Dick reveals that two high school girls not a couple of bushy-haired, tie-wearin' reporters exposed that whole Watergate thing. And in Varsity Blues, Moxon goes head-to-head with Jon Voight's evil establishment football coach, fighting against things important in the Old World: war, manhood, district titles. Moxon just wants to go to a good school and have a decent life. He's seen where "being a man" got his father: on the lawn, drinking beer and yelling at his kids. Here, it's pure good vs. evil, new vs. old, son vs. father. Easy.

The first meaningful dialogue between these new on-screen generations might come this summer with Kevin Williamson's Teaching Mrs. Tingle, in which genre star Katie Holmes plays a student who kidnaps her teacher and then gets to know her. (The film was originally titled Killing Mrs. Tingle, but it was toned down in the wake of the Columbine High School massacre.) Or perhaps with American Pie, which promises a revival of the early-'80s fascination with poppin' a cherry (Fast Times, Losin' It, Risky Business) couched in a healthy father-son relationship. If only the parents from last year's Disturbing Behavior, who signed their kids up for mind-control so they would behave, had seen more of these new films. Neurological experiments aren't necessary: These kids are angels.

Lesson Four: Live clean, wait for true love, and party.

The cast of the New Teen Cinema is squeaky-clean, perky, and motivated to be squeaky-clean, perky, and motivated. Kat in 10 Things..., though rebellious and wild, won't date smokers and practices abstinence. Van Der Beek's Moxon turns away a cheerleader who throws herself at him wearing only three dollops of whipped cream. And the biggest conflict for Freddie Prinze Jr.'s Zach in She's All That is whether to go to Harvard or Dartmouth.

The moral center of this new culture might as well be uptight virgin types Dawson Leery or Felicity Porter (yes, Felicity's done it, but she feels really bad about it). And the obscene sexual antics of Cruel Intentions are so over-the-top, so humorously unfathomable, that they simply serve as parodies of adult behavior; the movie's anti-screwing around. The lesson yelled over the constant be-yourself-and-you-shall-prevail messages is that you should only be happy with your one true love. Although real-life high school romances are usually doomed after graduation, the films find closure and meaning when couples hook up by the time prom rolls around.

The raciest of these films so far, Doug Liman's Go, plays around the edges of sex and drugs, lacing the lives of errant teens and twentysomethings with the stuff, just as in real life. Yes, one character (Simon) does get it on with two bridesmaids at the same time and then gropes some strippers, but he's the anomaly. He gets punished too, shot in the arm. There's a great, telling moment when Katie Holmes' flighty Claire is being held as collateral by a likably scuzzy drug dealer. She's nervous as he just stares at her, but any tension that something bad might happen fizzles when he begins needling her: "Are you a virgin? Answer the question, Claire."

It sounds harsh and probing, almost criminal, but he's only quoting a movie to her, replaying the scene from The Breakfast Club in which Judd Nelson's stoner asks Molly Ringwald's prom queen the same question, over and over again, in specific and embarrassing detail. In the original film, as written by John Hughes, it's painful, sexy, and disturbing. In Go, the words simply diffuse a tense situation: I'm playing with you. Joking. Quoting a movie we both like. See? Pain is postmodern in the new high school, therefore painless.

Lesson Five: Stereotypes are OK, so long as you don't take them (or anything) seriously.

One of the best moments from the New Teen Cinema comes at the beginning of 10 Things... as a know-it-all gives the new kid a tour of the school, pointing out the cliques familiar from both life and Hollywood. The beautiful people, the geeks and Goths, the white Rastafarians, etc. In a blatant and obvious finger to the whole concept of stereotypes, there's a band of cowboys on the suburban Seattle campus, defining their own world with big hats and lassos and cans of beans. These surreal cowpokes underscore the arbitrary meaninglessness of social divisions while recognizing that they are a reality. In the new cinematic high school, you can fit into some group or another, no matter how wacky or fucked-up you are. Again, what the Trench Coat Mafia lacked was perspective on their situation, recognition that they might as well declare themselves cowboys or astronauts, that these little "groups" are arbitrary and signify nothing.

Of course, the dramatic core of any good teen romance, from Romeo and Juliet to Grease, is a hot class-conflict love affair. Cliques are therefore necessary, but the new films make the division between classes less a monetary issue and more a factor of personality. All borders between social circles are transparent, and with enough self-confidence, you can leap over them. Kat straddles the worlds of popular girls, lesbian nightclubbers, and motorheads. The brooding, artistic weirdo Laney in She's All That almost becomes prom queen. Seth Green's hip-hopper wannabe in Can't Hardly Wait somehow makes the white kid empathetic.

The classic stereotypes of jocks and nerds and prom kings have survived, though each in a more acceptable, watered-down version. Geeks are kind of hip. Math chicks are cute. Jocks can be smart. (Beefy boys Van Der Beek in Varsity Blues and Tobias Mehler in Disturbing Behavior both carry around a copy of Slaughterhouse Five.) A few new stereotypes have been added to the mix too: Hot lesbians (Election, 10 Things...). White kids who want to be black (Go, Can't Hardly Wait, 10 Things...). Gay kids who flaunt it (Go, Cruel Intentions). But, as always, being popular makes you shallow, being awkward makes you weak, being smart makes you a total dork, being an unfairly maligned outcast makes you a hero. Same as before, same as always.

The one recent "backward" approach to cliques was in Drew Barrymore's miserably sappy Never Been Kissed, which is less a product of the New Teen Cinema than it is a fungus launched from the corpse of a bad 1980s Jon Cryer film. Her Josie character, once a pimply laughingstock at her high school, goes back at age 25 and learns how great and fun and meaningful life is when you're popular, and that her life would have been better had she been popular way back then. How did this get made? Hello?

Lesson Six: The star doesn't matter.

Just take a look at the recent box office, evidence that who's in a big movie doesn't make it big. The most star power the New Teen Cinema boasts are castings such as "the kid from Third Rock" or "that guy from Dawson's Creek." The films don't rely on marquee names, and even though some might start to sound familiar (Jennifer Love Hewitt, Reese Witherspoon, Katie Holmes, James Van Der Beek), not one of them can sell a film unless surrounded by a half dozen of their best-looking buddies. And this young talent comes really cheap. Huge vehicles for Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery and expensive old white men do so-so business these days, but good high school pop flies off the ticket counter, no matter who's in it, so long as it feels good, it looks right, and, oh, yeah it has girls in it.

Lesson Seven: Girls rule.

This couldn't be more clear. It's written on every chalkboard in some sort of permanent chalk that won't erase. It's scrawled on the bathroom stall doors. It's painted on a banner that the football players run through. It's the prom theme. By reinventing the world for broadcast to the new teens, the structures of society have shifted, and the female lands on top.

Economics is easy. It's all numbers: Today's teens spend nearly $80 billion a year, with girls dishing out more than half of that, according to Teenage Research Unlimited Inc., which tracks that sort of thing. Teens are only 12 percent of the population (now), but buy 27 percent of movie tickets, spending about $5 billion on entertainment. And this is only the beginning. The generation of kids born between 1977 and '94 (roughly) is three times the size of Generation X, and most of them haven't even hit puberty yet. The current feeding frenzy is meant to capture only the oldest of them, particularly the girls who announced themselves by making Titanic the biggest thing ever by watching Leo over and over again and proving that, for the first time, they are a box-office force, perhaps the box-office force. Clearly, we've entered an era of girl-happy pop that still hasn't maxed out on the number of manufactured pretty-boy bands it can support: the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync and 98 Degrees and C Note, and more arriving every day.

Alicia Silverstone's Cher in Clueless defined the earnest and powerful young doer who has dominated the New School and will continue to this summer with Teaching Mrs. Tingle and Drop Dead Gorgeous, the story of a Midwest beauty pageant gone awry. Even the ensemble-heavy Go cast Sarah Polley as the plot's dizzied pivot and threw in softer-edged men in the form of a gay couple and a crunchy-veggie-tantric-sex guy. The New Teen Cinema is a realm where boys and their guns are kind of lame, explosions don't signify the climax, and being in love is the point of it all.

Lesson Eight: John Hughes is dead. Long live John Hughes. Um, wait who's John Hughes?

John Hughes reinvented the teen film in the 1980s, making movies both about and for the movies' subjects. The genre grew from the exploitation sex comedies of the Animal House school into some truly meaningful morality plays. This was during a sort of Golden Age of teen films, after Valley Girl culture had spread a uniform language and style across the country, uniting a group of kids as a mass culture, allowing them to recognize that there were others out there exactly like them.

By this time, the characters of Hughes' Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles were universal, not stereotypes but full-fledged living, breathing archetypes of bed-wetting nerds and wrong-side-of-the-tracks types. And his masterpiece of boredom and philosophy, The Breakfast Club, slowed the teenage experience down to an afternoon of detention and dissected every inch of it, exposing and probing. Nothing since has really touched it.

But this all ended when his audience went to college, Hughes started making Home Alone movies, and nothing high school seemed to sell anymore. This era of the pop high school turned dark and self-deprecating with Heathers, the Winona Ryder and Christian Slater classic that foreshadowed early-'90s nihilism and even the Littleton, Colorado, massacre (Slater's loner silently loathed the popular kids and was bent on blowing up the school). For years, for most of the '90s, the market forces concentrated on the brains of twentysomethings, those who grew up alongside Ferris and Claire and Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing. American youth culture became an endless desert of grunge music, flannel, boredom, irony, slackers, and goatees, a giant unchanging billboard covered with Mountain Dew, X-treme sports, anything else with the word "extreme" in it, and anything else with the letter "X" in it. The increasingly cohesive media landscape changed to fit the tastes of 17 million so-called GenX-ers. A market had emerged. Or so the mediamakers thought.

Then Kurt Cobain died, Lollapalooza ended, the economy picked up, and then, in the last year or so, these new teenagers showed up. Whole cities full of kids in fresh khakis, driving New Beetles, flashing wads of cash. The media is calling them things like Generation Y and Echo Boomers, but we'll just call them loaded. These kids don't know Atari from Alf or Reagan from Nixon, and they live in a world of Playstation and Yahoo!, a world where there has always been MTV.

They want a culture of their own, and the market forces are eager to meet them on the big screen, on the magazine racks, in clothing catalogs, everywhere. So now Matthew Broderick, most famous as 1980s teen iconoclast Ferris Bueller, plays a teacher, a middle-aged graying civics droner in Election, and New Teen Cinema pioneer Kevin Williamson says he's paying homage to an aging god named John Hughes. But the kids are even beginning to ask: Who's Kevin Williamson?

Lesson Nine: The Scream thing is so over.

First, we must thank Kevin Williamson. This is the guy who came up with Scream. The winking, self-aware horror flick loaded with young stars and young attitudes made $100 million and launched the wave of films leading to the New Teen Cinema, the fun, semi-ironic slaughterfests of I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, etc. He was the first to recast a classic genre (bad slasher flicks) with the new faces, but the look-at-me-look-at-me! self-reference device that made Scream so lively and original is now, immediately, over. It's annoying. It's old. It's GenX-ish. It's time to be serious about ourselves, the new on-screen teens are saying, because we have to take over the world here. It's time to demonstrate how smart and determined we are. It's time to be earnest, romantic, upbeat.

But Williamson is also the guy who came up with the antidote for the Scream thing: Dawson's Creek. He brought us fresh (if sappy and overwrought) weekly teencasts and drafted a young fantasy world to replace the vacancy at Melrose Place. His breakthroughs, while not quite the artistic achievements of My So-Called Life or Clueless, hit at exactly the right moment. But moments move fast these days, and Dawson's Creek has already started to slip behind the curve, its sincere introspection being replaced by something faster and smarter and perhaps much harder to peg.

Lesson Ten: Reality is what you can get away with.

As the exceptionally unmotivated couch-dwelling teen hero of Idle Hands flips through the channels, he stops on the news for a second. "I hate this show," he decides, and moves on. The alarmist, fear-fed frenzy of daily TV journalism is less relevant to the modern teenager's life, real or fictional, than the nutritional info on the side of a box of Trix. Three weeks ago, the average American male between the ages of 12 and 35 turned on 20/20 to see the Littleton shootings blamed on two of his favorite pastimes: Marilyn Manson and Doom. So he changed the channel.

The students of the New Teen Cinema, like their real-world counterparts, have a better handle on the melting, surreal landscape of emerging 21st-century media than do those who broadcast and program the stuff, and they "get it" in ways that those who demonize their culture will never comprehend. The rapid collision of all things blinking has occurred before the eyes of today's teenagers, and the boundaries between entertainment, advertising, news, and high school have merged into a new, higher (from their perspective) understanding of the world. It's natural and tangible.

It's no surprise, then, that MTV's The Real World serves as a sort of allegory in the New Teen Cinema, a parallel universe where life is better, but only just barely. In She's All That, one of the main characters dumps her boyfriend for Brock, a Puck-like oddball from The Real World ("The dyslexic volleyball guy?"), and Bianca in 10 Things... takes solace in watching five strangers argue in the comfortable surroundings of their Real World Seattle apartment. The characters of the New School understand their media and feel a part of it, able to walk back and forth between its world and reality. If high school were as easy to manipulate as the nail gun on Doom or the skip button on a CD player, there would be no real problems. So long as everyone finds a way to get along and you've found your one true love by the time you graduate and the credits roll, so long as you can drive away from high school with no enemies and a cool car, life is good.

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