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Teenage flicks right through the night

In the mid nineteen fifties, Hollywood studios were brought to their knees by a clunky and expensive box. With every household colonized by television, another chunk of studio profits vanished. Yet one part of the suburban demographic stayed faithful: teenagers. In the early days, TV had nothing to offer the rock and roll generation but news and family values. The fidelity of this cinema going congregation was rewarded by a series of now classic films: The Wild One, Rebel Without a Cause, Blackboard Jungle just to name a few. Thus out of financial necessity a genre for and about the adolescence of the day was born – a now long tradition of films like Quadrophenia, Grease, Dirty Dancing and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off have followed.

As with the advent of television, studios are once again threatened by new and competing technologies: online piracy, Netflix, and the digitized era of TV. As with before, Hollywood is milking the adolescent demographic. But, this is not quite a rerun of yesteryear. Comparing the tween films of today with the teen films of yesterday, it is clear that things aren’t quite the same. Two things stand out, first is the scale of the money. Franchises like Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games are making money in ways and in scales unimaginable twenty years ago. Second, these teen films have with unprecedented uniformity taken the form of epic fantasy. In short, what distinguishes our generation’s relationship to cinema is the correlation of fantastical stories with equivalently fantastical profits.

Yet in spite of this break from tradition, neither is it true that today’s teen cinema is discontinuous with that of the past. We see continuity in the fact that the same issues persist across the years: intergenerational clash, pubescent sexuality, identity, relationships etc. How these themes are presented for each successive generation is a telling indicator of the time. It is in the issue of presentation that today’s tween cinema distinguishes itself from the tradition.

When films of the last sixty or so years depicted these themes, they presented them in the context corresponding to the youth of the day. Countless films have had oppressive high schools and lonely bedrooms as the mise en scenes of the drama. Although the clothes, the music and the attitudes mercifully evolved, the films were still grounded in what we might call the real world. But today the settings are decidedly supernatural: a magic school, a suburban battleground for vampires and werewolves, a dystopian world governed by totalitarian regimes. The depiction of the adolescent experience has ceased to depict the experience of the ticket-paying adolescent. So how is it a genre that traditionally thrived on representing its public, today thrives more than ever having ceased to represent it?

I’m sorry to say we do not live in a world populated by beautiful but bellicose vampires and werewolves.

One short answer is that the leap into fantasy means that these films don’t represent anyone. But if so, how is it these films are so successful? Like in the past, kids spend their cash to see themselves. The allure of the silver screen is that it is seductively reflective. So in what sense are these wild departures from reality somehow representative of our generation? 

If we look back to the nineteen fifties it must be admitted that the audience was mostly nothing like Marlon Brando and his chain gang. But it wasn’t their literal selves that the young Americans were seeing. In Brando’s performance perhaps they saw an incarnation of the burgeoning rebellion of their time. Who knows what it was, but it was something that meant that, while he may not have been them, they still identified with him.

Today the break with reality makes it almost impossible to understand how our generation identifies with its idols. And yet the money says they do. If it is no coincidence that the escalation of profits is correlative with the unprecedented predominance of fantasy, it seems that fantasy can express an ideal for our generation in the same Brando did for his. But unlike Brando and nearly every teen idol subsequent to him, it seems our idols cannot share the same reality we do.

Why is it that representing our generation’s ideal, means creating a world totally detached from that which it inhabits? I’m not sure if this tells us something about the world we live in or the improbability of the ideal to which we so ardently subscribe.

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