I can trace my enduring fascination with teen films back to a specific moment in my personal history: when I moved to the U.S. in my early twenties to go to graduate school. When I arrived here, I had seen almost no teen movies, in any language, but as soon as I encountered my first examples of the genre (Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Jonathan Kaplan’s Over the Edge, Penelope Spheeris’ Suburbia, Brian De Palma’s Carrie), I was instantly captivated. As a young immigrant fashioning a new life in a land whose strangeness and otherness simultaneously attracted and disoriented me on a daily basis, I resonated deeply with the doubt, anxiety and excitement of teenage life as represented in these films.
But the factor that played the biggest role in the deep affinity I developed with teen movies had to do with my cinephilia: specifically, the continuity I felt, on multiple levels, between American teen films and the movies that gave birth to my passion for cinema in the first place—1970s Hindi popular cinema.
Two quick clarifications. I will use 1970s here to designate a period spanning the late ‘60s to the early ‘80s. Further, I will not use the word “Bollywood” — I’m with those who use this term to refer only to contemporary Hindi popular cinema, and not all Hindi popular cinema from all periods of film history.
Now, what makes the continuity between the two very different cinemas particularly interesting is that the genre of the “teen movie” is non-existent in ‘70s Hindi cinema. Nevertheless, a close look reveals that American teen movies and ‘70s Hindi popular cinema are fundamentally similar in at least three ways.
1. They deeply value the principles of energy, speed, and moment-to-moment invention. Ironically, it wasn’t until I read the critic Manny Farber, later in life, that the shared traits of the two cinemas began to emerge for me. In a wonderful tribute paid by one critic to another, Donald Phelps wrote of Farber’s writing that it “advances horizontally, in all possible directions, never seeming to exist for a simple progress from A to B […] What really, valuably alarms about his writing is […] its wildness.”
What strikes me as curious about Phelps’ essay is how similar his characterization of Farber’s writing is to Farber’s own idea of “termite art,” which prizes movement, vigor, and constant invention, but without ambitions or aspirations to ‘importance’. I’m reminded immediately of the rich and unceasing inventiveness of films as ostensibly dissimilar as Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995) and Amar Akbar Anthony (Manmohan Desai, 1977).
The material that forms the basis of Clueless’ constant creativity is that of pop-cultural knowledge: fashion, dating practices, music, even the construction, in one scene, of an anthropological classification of the various communities in high school. For Lesley Stern, Clueless creates an entire “fictional ethnography” that includes, among many things, an imaginative lexicon. (The Jane Austen Society of Australia maintains a page that catalogs all the slang and neologisms in the film.)
Amar Akbar Anthony, set a world away, is, if anything, even more fast and furious in its inventiveness than Clueless. This is one of the great unclassifiable films in cinema, but while it does lie at the outer limits of imagination and zaniness, it is not atypical in Hindi popular cinema. This ‘masala’ classic is many things: a family melodrama, a slapstick comedy, an action film, an ethnic farce, a gangster film — and let’s not forget its many great song and dance sequences. Philip Lutgendorf provides a packed description of it; he begins with tragedy and intrigue, and passes through decades of time to what appears to be a great climax — only to then confess to us that we have only arrived at the opening credit sequence, after a 25-minute prologue!
2. A passionate embrace of ‘low’ culture, fearlessly combining it with ‘high’ themes of social critique and commentary, but doing so without aiming for cultural prestige or respectability. Years before Slumdog Millionaire’s opportunistic and superficial portrayal of the poverty-ridden Bombay slum known as Dharavi, Yash Chopra’s Deewaar (1975), one of the canonical Hindi films, shows us great, powerful, documentary images of this site. The film is set in motion by the struggles of a workers’ union against greedy and murderous capitalist factory owners. Poor people – their way of life, their folk customs, their music and dance – are everywhere in Hindi popular cinema of this period. It is extremely common for protagonists to belong to the working class in these films, so much that films with predominantly middle-class characters were tagged by critics as a separate genre, “middle cinema”.
Something similar can be seen in American teen movies. In Abel Ferrara’s modern-day Romeo-and-Juliet teen drama, China Girl (1987), the Italian boy and the Chinese girl meet while dancing in a crowded disco. But earlier, the hard-hitting opening of the film (like the fiery union demonstrations that open Deewaar) quietly lays out the terrain of bitter rivalry and ethnic hatred: a series of close-ups of Italians watching impassively as the first Chinese business hoists its sign on their street in Little Italy.
Another example: Pretty in Pink (Howard Deutch, 1986) is driven by a wonderful pop music soundtrack, but it is also very seriously a film about class difference. The vitality of ‘low’, DIY culture (Molly Ringwald’s colorful clothes are self-designed and self-made) is opposed to the bloodless enervation of the rich (James Spader and Andrew McCarthy most frequently wear white, pale blue, light gray and beige). Like the opening (political, materialist) images of Deewaar and China Girl, Pretty in Pink’s first shot is of a street sweeping machine moving through Ringwald’s working class neighborhood at sunrise. The camera pans to show us train tracks, thus underlining the part of town in which she lives (the ‘wrong side of the tracks’).
3. A pervasive use of – and devotion to – popular music. I particularly love the way that music is present so powerfully in both cinemas that its use extends actively into both the diegetic and non-diegetic realms. Music is part of the story world of Pretty in Pink (the scenes in Trax, the record store; and a live performance by the Pittsburgh punk-pop group The Rave-Ups) but also comprises its extremely popular soundtrack. A different and particularly intriguing instance of this diegetic/non-diegetic mix can be found in a scene from Allan Moyle’s Times Square (1980), in which Robin Johnson is striding down the sidewalk of a busy New York street, dragging a cart behind her, with Roxy Music’s “Same Old Scene” playing on the soundtrack. She turns into a dark alley, pulls out an electric guitar and amp from the cart, and begins flailing away at the guitar … to the song on the soundtrack! She goes in and out of tune and rhythm with the song, furthering our confusion (where is that song actually coming from?), until we see, in a corner of the frame, a boom box in her cart. Times Square also boasts a marvelous double-LP soundtrack.
The ubiquity of singing and dancing in Hindi popular cinema is, of course, legendary. The reason the “musical” genre doesn’t formally exist in India is precisely because nearly all popular films of the ‘70s, de rigueur, contain song and dance sequences.
Teen films don’t get nearly as much serious attention and thought from cinephiles, critics and scholars as they should. And so I invite you all to name a few of your favorite lesser-known teen films. (Please define “lesser-known” as loosely as you like.) I would love to get acquainted with some good teen films I’ve not seen. Thank you!
Along with about twenty writers, I contributed a piece to a new bilingual dossier called “Teen Moments” in the Spanish film magazine Transit . The pieces appear in two sections, as marked. The dossier opens with Adrian Martin’s introductory essay, “Live to Tell”.
Sergi Sánchez on Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955)
Girish Shambu on Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling, 1982)
Daniel de Partearroyo on L’âge atomique (Hélena Klotz, 2012)
Cristina Álvarez López on The Breakfast Club (John Hughes, 1985)
Toni Junyent on Happy Campers (Daniel Waters, 2001)
Adrian Martin on Never Been Kissed (Raja Gosnell, 1999)
Albert Elduque on Love in the Afternoon (Billy Wilder, 1957)
Stephanie Van Schilt on Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001)
Pablo Vázquez on Lemon Popsicle (Boaz Davidson, 1978) / The Last American Virgin (Boaz Davidson, 1982)
Ricardo Adalia Martín on Superbad (Greg Mottola, 2007)
Yusef Sayed on The Legend of Billie Jean (Matthew Robbins, 1985)
Carlos Losilla on El sur (Víctor Erice, 1983)
Óscar Navales on Wild Boys of the Road (William A. Wellman, 1933)
Sarinah Masukor on Stealing Beauty (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1996)
Carles Matamoros Balasch on Back to Stay (Milagros Mumenthaler, 2011)
Covadonga G. Lahera on Confessions (Kokuhaku, Tetsuya Nakashima, 2010)
Sergio Morera on Whip It (Drew Barrymore, 2009)
Laura Ellen Joyce on Snowtown (Justin Kurzel, 2011)
Antoni Peris i Grao on The Aviator’s Wife (Éric Rohmer, 1981)