Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Movies: Hangin' tough.

The strongest teen flicks of the '80s have a clever formula that uses a two levels of dramatic conflict as a way of jazzing the plot without actually having to confront any genuine issues that might be downers for the rambunctious, but essentially comfortable middle class privileged youths that made up this genre's primary consumption demographic.

The formula works like this:

Step 1: Introduce bullshit crisis. "We're gonna win that dance contest. And we're going to win it our way!"

Step 2: Introduce a real problem. "Holy, crap fellas, this chick's the victim of a botched back alley abortion!"

Step 3: Remove real problem as quickly as possible. "So, of course, she must leave the summer camp immediately."

Step 4: Resolve real problem in a way that vaguely suggests that the two problems are somehow connected. "We won that dance contest our way! As a blow against the kind of world that botch our friend's abortion!"

I'm not enough of a film scholar to know, but I'm going to peg this particular "innovation" to Saturday Night Fever.

Prior to that, youth exploitation movies were all step 1, "We're going to win the surfing contest", and step 4, "We won the surf contest"! Missing link flicks, struggling to evolve the genre, nodded to a second conflict, but it was almost inevitably a bullshit conflict as well. "What, Commie spies want to steal my dad's formula for magic space fiberglass? A formula which, coincidentally, could be used to coat a surf board to make the surfers moves extra far out!"

But Saturday Night Fever, partially because of its intended cross-over appeal with post-teen set, locked in some shit for its step 2 and 3. Here's the breakdown:

Step 1: "I just want to disco."

Step 2: "You thuggish friends gang rapped me."

Step 3: "So I'm going away."

Step 4: "This life is just too much. My only escape is disco!"

That established the DNA of pretty much every 1980s teen movie worth its coral lens filters and highly-marketable sound track.

Can you guess the movie?

Step 1: "We're going to dance!"

Step 2: "Let's burn books!"

Step 3: "Hey, does anybody else think we look a bit, I dunno, Nazi-ish when we burn books?"

Step 4: "Hooray! All it took was a few dumb books, and now we can dance!"

The formula exploits Baudrillard's conception of the artificial synecdoche: By forcing two objects into proximity, no matter how dissimilar, you can force one of the objects to become the signifier of the other. For example, I take beautiful people making with the sexiness and slap my toothpaste next to it. I do this enough times, and you'll start thinking that the link between the two is arbitrary but significant - like the link between the word blog and the thing your reading - and you'll see my toothpaste as a signifier of sexiness. In theory, I guess, you could start seeing sexiness as a signifier of toothpaste, but then you're a Don DeLillo character and you've got bigger problems than learning what I think about horror films.

In the case of first example, the conditions of the botched abortion and the desire to dance "our way" really have crap all to do with one another. By forcing them into proximity, the viewer starts to make connections: "Clearly, the sort of society that doesn't let its youth dance in whatever manner pleases them would also much rather see a young woman die than let her have a safe abortion." That this is sometimes actually true (some restrictive societies frown both on a little bump and grind and dancing) does not mean the statement is logical. It partakes of the sort of comic book extreme characterization that Robert Warshow characterized as Mark Trail morality: "Anybody who would break the law to illegally fish off season must also be completely willing to attempt the murder of a park ranger." For example, just because you would prefer you daughter stay off the pole doesn't mean you're pro-life on the abortion issue.

More importantly, the trite way in which the issues are raised and dismissed show that the films don't really share the convictions of their characters or their audiences. They just hope to rob a little gravitas from the suffering of minor, disposable character. By putting some second string nobody through the wringer, your leads' desire to dance in a manner that simulates copulation will, if done right, be transformed from the natural outcome of trapping nubiles in a deadly dull family campground into a titanic struggle for personal liberation with seemingly life of death consequences.

That said, there is some artistic validity in it. It does mirror, in a emotionally effective way, the sort of manic intensity of a young person's inner life. As stupid as it seems, there's a time when prom was a question of justice and honor and freedom. By giving these emotions their operatic intensity, while simultaneously confining them to their own egomaniacal sphere, such film speak a subjective, but real truth about teen life.

Which brings us to the most interesting thing about Sean Cunningham's post-Friday teensploiter The New Kids, a 1985 teen drama co-written by Stephen "father of Mags and Jake" Gyllenhaal and starring absurdly young versions of James Spader (who would later be in a movie where he spanks the screenwriter's daughter), Eric Stoltz, and Lori "Becky Katsopolis" Loughlin. The New Kids is a barely tolerable flick that is interesting mainly for the fact that, fairly early in the project, the filmmakers decided that step 2 and 3 were far more interesting than step 1 and 4 and just let the creepy, screwed up problem run amok all over their otherwise forgettable teen flick.

In The New Kids, the formula becomes:

Step 1: Hey sis, let's help our uncle fix up this old amusement park.

Step 2: What's this creepy clan of redneck coke heads doing harassing my sister?

Step 3: Holy crap, they just tried to rape my sister, dowse her in lighter fluid, and set her on fire!

Step 4: And now they've shot my uncle and are going to kill us all by setting their bloodthirsty pit bull on us!

The best reason for this intentional derailment is that fact that Spader, already playing the kind of sleazy predator that he'd make his career, has a million times the screen presence of our male hero, the game but ultimately forgettable Shannon Presby (a young TV actor who pretty much vanished off the face of the Earth after this flick). Spader plays weirdly dandified the head of our swamp-bred, dogfighting, coke snorting baddies, and most of the pleasure this flick has to offer is in watching him and his Lost Boys by way of Deliverance gang circle and then strike at the heroes.

It's there genuinely menacing presence, coupled with the sense that the filmmakers have strayed off script, that, more than any actual plotting or thematic suspense, gives the film its tension. You want to see what happens just to see how far the filmmakers are willing to go in violating their squeaky clean heroes.

The answer is, sadly, not quite far enough. The flick always pulls its punch before veering into the sort of crazed ugliness of, say, Class of 1984 and it isn't ready or willing to truly scar up the good looks of its leads.

Shame really. 'Cause it was threatening to get really interesting there for a moment.


Sarah said...

I think I have to see this movie now. I'm all about dandified villains played by James Spader.

Have you ever seen Tuff Turf? It's an early 80s teen movie starring Spader as the good guy, Kim Richards as the girl, and barely, just barely, Robert Downey, Jr. as Spader's only friend. RDJ plays drums in the Jim Carroll Band in the picture. It's a pretty ridiculous movie that may or may not be about gangs or poor people. It's been about 5 years since I've seen it. I believe New World released it.

CRwM said...


I've never seen Tiff Turf - or Spader as a good guy in any movie, I think - but I do love the plot summary for the flick on imdb:

A street rebel and his gang have trouble understanding themselves and their world.

Me too, little gangster. Me too.

Anonymous said...

Actually James Spader has the good guy (or at least the hero...he is always flawed) in quite a few flicks over the years. Exmples of good guy flicks would be:

Tuff Turf
Jack's Back
sex, lies, and videotape
White Palace
True Colors
The Watcher
The Stickup

There are a few others, but this gives you the idea that he did not only play bad guys...he just plays those bad guys very well.

CRwM said...


Point well taken. Though I was just trying to say that I haven't seen him play anything but slimy creeps, not that he hasn't done other things.

But, now that you mention it, I have to take that back.

I don't know that sex, lies, and videotape was really a good/bad guy sort of movie, but you're right that he didn't play his typical role. And he's creepy, but actually not evil in The Secretary.

I've underestimated the Spader.

Unknown said...

I have always wondered what possessed Hollywood to come up with all the "mixed" gangs that always show up in the Eighties. Bandanas, leather jackets, mohawks, piercings. You couldn't get these hombres to decide on how to dress, much less who to F-Up!

David Lee Ingersoll said...

True Colors is an especially weird one. He and John Cusack are the stars. And he's the good guy.

Anonymous said...

"True Colors" is definitely an example of casting against type. You almost never see Cusack playing the bad guy. He did a great job in this film of being the morally bankrupt political rising star. Spader was equally convincing as the straight as an arrow attorney for the Dept. of Justice.