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Who is this Ryan Philippe, and why is he everywhere at once? Is the WB television network the Lee Strasberg Institute of the ’90s? What’s happening to American movies when the same handful of telegenic 19-year-olds appears in film after film and Gene Hackman can’t get arrested for flashing?
There’s an echo behind the sound of film critics bemoaning the recent flood of hard-edged teen ensemble flicks. It’s not just the affronted hornet’s-buzz of a generation feeling its hair fall out, but a kind of wild surmise that so much of something should exist at all, and should so blithely refuse to go away. This reaction is very like the one many rock critics exhibited when rap began to establish itself. To critics weaned on punk, early-’80s sonic experiments and a bit of urban swagger were fine in their place, but by the middle of the decade it was clear that the old revolution was over and another one begun. There’s nothing more vexing to a bohemian with a day job than becoming an utter irrelevancy to a new breed of insurgents.
Which, of course, was the point. Rap was not for the young fogeys any more than punk was for the damn hippies. For film critics, true novelty is even harder to take, because the parameters of the art are narrowereven without claiming a political stake in the business of descrying minuscule genre shifts, critics could be fairly sure they’d recognize a genre when they sat through it. As trends go, though, teen-noir films have an uncanny amount of staying power. Not only are they ubiquitous, but they seem to share notable attributes: structure and tone, attitude, plot elements, even roughly the same cast, jumbled into different configurations from film to film like a Tinkertoy set in the hands of an imaginative second-grader. Drugs, sex, and Jay Mohr abound, but what really unifies this cocky cinematic subset is its worldviewa cynically comic refusal to accommodate the cultural mythologies of the previous generation while doggedly establishing new ones. Dr. Victor Tarantino, in his laboratory with the stitched-together pieces of John Travolta’s career, created something far less easy to domesticate than a monsteran entirely new genre.
But Pulp Fiction provided only the matrix for this new genre. That film’s structurethree intersecting stories snipped to confetti and reassembled into a jigsaw image of startling clarityallowed other filmmakers to direct like traffic wardens the action- or ennui-packed wanderings of their sprawling casts and link them with varying degrees of cleverness or revelatory effect. The casts of 200 Cigarettes and Go (the new one from Swingers director Doug Liman) eddy and swirl in varied pairings before the nature of their commonality becomes clear. Go actually retells the story of parentless teens negotiating a tricky drug deal from three different points of view before revealing whom Katie Holmes is flirting with in the opening scene and why. (Playing by Heart pulls the same stunt, giving Angelina Jolie a pre-credits monologue whose significance eventually becomes clear.) Tarantino’s funny thugs, with their glaring quirks and talky exegeses on the semiotics of blue-collar subjects, tickled academic fancies to the point of infecting David Lynch, who couldn’t resist indulging in a finicky-gangster gag in Lost Highway.
As the genre progresses, it’s clear that Tarantino merely formalized the manner; a master aesthetician, he gave younger directors a way of talking, although he himself was talking about something else. Tarantino’s narrative works well within the tradition of directors from George Cukor to Sam Peckinpah to Robert Aldrich and Francis Ford Coppolatweaking a tried and true genre while respecting its boundariesbut his dazzling style backlit the same old gangster bag so that it passed for new goods. The spurt of post-Tarantino quickies that followed Pulp Fictionthe execrable 2 Days in the Valley, which featured Charlize Theron dying in a blood-splashed white cat suit; the sumptuously lit lesbian chic of Bound; wacky crooks and numbed-out titles in 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag and Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead; more fun with heroin in Killing Zoe; the unforgivable film-school excesses of Kicked in the Headproved how trifling the content seems in translation without a director of Tarantino’s finesse doing stylistic somersaults to distract us.
His casts, and the casts of these films (many of which began life as wholly owned subsidiaries of Tarantino Inc.) are establishment coolactors with too many chops for mythos. The form requires conduits through which to freely channel the Zeitgeist, and lowering the age limit does so fast, turning fierce acting coups into aimless, histrionic, almost shocking amorality fables. Samuel L. Jackson may be a towering talent, but that just makes his characters convincing but remote. You won’t catch Sarah Michelle Gellar recalling her days doing rep at the Humana.
A high level of language applied to low subject matter lost its gleam when repeated in similacra of Tarantino’s original context, but its introduction enabled other directors to acknowledge that trickle-down analysis had reached even into the high schools and low-rent bastions they wanted to portray. This is one of the reasons that classic texts adapt so suitably to teen noir. If Heathers struck the pose, Clueless animated it from the inside. Updating a text like Emma or Les Liaisons Dangereuses (the latter appearing as Cruel Intentions in a theater near you) for high-schoolers is itself a cynical premiseit presupposes that the milieu is a social hierarchy of hard boundaries unthinkable in the democracy of adulthood, and that sexual manipulation, expedient drug dealing, and a frightening level of autonomy are earmarks of the teenager’s natural habitat.
Jean-Luc Godard called his West-obsessed, posturing young skeptics “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” but these are the children of Reagan and cocaine, precocious entrepreneurs trafficking in the advantages of hard-core social economics. Subverting the gangster genre from within is a useless exercise for the likes of Liman, whose Swingers borrowed Rat Pack trappings for their macho frisson and then let the insecure, love-hungry ’90s unravel their attendant expectations. Go audaciously re-pots the lurid foliage of Pulp Fiction among a junior set of checkout clerks, drug dealers, narcs, and ravers, who emerge from a series of horrifying mishaps unscathed and unchanged.
The transformative assumptions of older genresnoir in particular, whose narrative engine is the inability of man to escape his fateno longer apply. Traditional teen flicks are just as enamored of adolescent fatalism (formalism aside, noir is not an emotionally mature genre) but prefer redemption to tragic destiny. From problem dramas to the false premise of coming-of-age crises to John Hughes’ appallingly resilient scenarios, teen films invent difficulties for their characters to overcome, in the span of One Magical Summer or That Day in Detention. The new teen noir treats all experience as equally unrevelatory; exploits that would stand as moral calibrators of the characters’ fatesand demand final reckoningelsewhere are presented not as problem scenarios but as slices of life. Thus the loose, flat, shaggy-dog tone that drains meaning from behavior makes the stories pass like implausible dreams.
Jaded detachment is perhaps not the noblest worldview, but it is a useful one, especially to teens, who understand that, whatever moment the camera is turned upon their fate, their future holds more of the same. Even quests for love take on an evanescent air when enacted by the younger set. Clueless’ Cher scoffs at our surprise that a wedding ends the filmit doesn’t end her story; “I’m only 16,” she sneers. The booze-fueled final pairings of 200 Cigarettes aren’t meant to last any longer than the pre-party couplings; the venerable plot line of Cruel Intentions becomes good nasty fun instead of repercussive tragedy when the Machiavellian high-schoolers find their scheme tangled by infatuationemotional attachment in that age and in that milieu hardly engenders the social inevitabilities of the original story. At the same time, removing the sting of responsibility while toying with adult narrative possibilities renders all experience not only equally meaningless, but equally meaningful. The shape and color of youth flicks has changed, but teen noir gives its audience a familiar payoffyouthful solipsism in a fun-house mirror. Arion Berger