Narrowing the Scope - Another Excerpt from the Introduction

Timothy Shary posits that there are six categories in which teen films generally fall. This system of classification is supported in part by Jonathan Bernstein in his mostly irreverent tome about 80s teen movies Pretty in Pink: the Golden Age of Teenage Movies. According to Shary the six general categories are: the horror film, the science film, the sex comedy, the romantic melodrama, the juvenile delinquent drama, and the school film (Shary, 8). Though Bernstein corroborates Shary’s opinion, Shary admits that the science film did not persist much past the end of the 1980s, which saw a string of almost inexplicable movies depicting young science whizzes at work and at play. While films like War Games [1983], Space Camp [1986] and Back to the Future [1985] were prevalent enough to demand genre-fication in the 1980s, they almost completely disappeared by the 90s. Hackers [1995] was quite possibly the last film of the genre, with nothing of the like appearing in the thirteen intervening years between now and then. The remaining five categories are still quite useful in understanding teen film even today.

Obviously, this inquiry concerns itself with what Shary calls the “school film”, and for our intents and purposes we will refer to as the high school movie. The school film is the most diverse and flexible of all the categories, often incorporating one or more of the other genres into itself. However, the significance of the high school movie is more than just the ready-made setting and social structure it provides. As Timothy Shary observes:
“What makes the school film a specific subgenre is its focus on the actual socialization process at the school, as opposed to other youth issues which are less integral to the school setting, such as crime, sex, terror, or family (although these issues are often developed in films around school settings).” (27)
Therefore, the high school is more than just the setting for the story, or rather in a high school movie the setting is the story. That being said, the movies that we will more closely examine in the following pages were chosen because they deal with a persistent aspect of both the high school setting and the “socialization process” that happens there. These films show teenagers in the midst of an often extremely hostile social environment, both because of their peers and their superiors, and in a time of life when they are still actively trying to determine who they are and who they would like to become.

The movies with which we will concern ourselves are movies that depict the genuine high school experience, from the point of view of the high school student, and for their ultimate benefit. There are any number of films that may fall under the general classification of “high school film” that will nevertheless be useless for our purposes. For instance, movies like Blackboard Jungle [1965] and Class of 1984 [1982] are undisputed classics in the genre of high school film, but they are ultimately of more interest and appeal to parents and teachers than the students themselves*. They are cautionary tales that come off sounding more like public service announcements than honest depictions of the trials and tribulations of your average high school student. After all, the public service announcement is a genre of film and television that any self-respecting teen considers laughable at best. We will also not be concerned with movies like Lean on Me [1989], Stand and Deliver [1988], or Dangerous Minds [1995]. Movies of this ilk are made for the enjoyment of teachers not students, and could, monetary limitations aside, quite possibly be financed by the teachers union in order to convince more brave young men and women to join the ranks of public school teachers. As we have already alluded this study will also not concern itself with vapid teen fare that just happens to take place in high school, nor horror films and sex-comedies that share the same setting, unless of course these movies have something compelling to say about the high school experience in between the time their characters spend running for their lives or trying to “get laid”.

The high school movies we will be concerned with will accomplish two primary goals: they will (1) offer valuable insight to the social dynamic of the high school experience as lived by the high school student, average or otherwise, and they will (2) depict a process of growth and transformation that is often executed in opposition to the protagonist(s) peers and/or superiors. We are of the opinion that this transformative experience, which scholar of mythology Joseph Campbell calls “the hero’s journey”, is of the utmost importance in the creation of our own contemporary “mythology”. In other words, stories that depict the hero’s journey, no matter how banal the external circumstances may seem, are the most powerful stories for the audience’s potential self-transformation, and are therefore the richest sites for deeper exploration and discussion.

It is practically unimportant that the movies at hand are for and about teenagers. Though they may also be classified as “coming of age” stories, there is no reason to limit this coming of age to a single point in the course of one’s life. Rites of passage occur throughout our lives, and we can therefore assume that we may “come of age” at virtually any age between the useful bookends of birth and death. Movies like The Big Chill [1983], American Beauty [1999], and Six Degrees of Separation [1993] all deal with this idea of coming of age at various points later in one’s life, and therefore also depict this process of transformation for the betterment of one person and the benefit of many. If these rites of passage are common to many different points in the human experience, then we can all benefit from these stories depicting the years of growth and change that take place during high school regardless of our age.

Furthermore, the changes that take place during our high school years are often the most significant changes we experience throughout our lives, and the decisions we make about who we are and want to be will have lasting effects, helping to determine the development of our personality. Those changes and the resulting decisions are largely the result of two dynamics that we will explore throughout the proceeding pages: authority and rebellion. We could also say that these changes come as a result of the single dynamic created by these two opposing forces. We could even say that these changes come as a result of the numerous dynamics created by these two opposing forces. No matter the perspective, the films we will examine all depict young people who experience a sense of tension from their innate resistance to the power and influence that others exert over their lives and personalities. The power and influence may come from parents, teachers and sometimes even fellow students, and the tension produces narrative interest by bringing about the many ways in which our protagonists attempt to rebel from these external influences and assert themselves as unique independent persons.

There are numerous high school films that concern themselves with the narrative opposition of authority and rebellion, but we will primarily concern ourselves with a small handful of movies that were released between 1985 and 1990, with the exception of earlier and later films that will be introduced on either end of the main discussion. The movies that will inform the majority of the text are The Breakfast Club [1985], The Chocolate War [1988], Dead Poets Society [1989], Ferris Bueller’s Day Off [1986], Heathers [1989], and Pump Up the Volume [1990]. The films discussed in this text are limited to a rather narrow five-year span because of the proliferation of high quality teen movies at this point and time, and also because they have each had a significant impact on the personal development of the author. The selection of films is also largely homogenous in regards to the race and gender of their protagonists. There are numerous compelling high school movies depicting female and/or African American or Hispanic protagonists that meet the criteria that we have already established. It is our conviction that films like Mean Girls [2004], Pretty Persuasion [2005], Boyz n the Hood [1991], and many others also deserve to be more closely examined with a critical eye, but it is also our own humble opinion that there are other authors who are better equipped to handle such a project.


Jenn said...

the following paragraph is a bit awkward:

These films show teenagers in the midst of an often extremely hostile social environment, both because of their peers and their superiors, and in a time of life when they are still actively trying to determine who they are and who they would like to become.

What you're saying is fine, but the wording is a bit weird.

i particularly like your point about coming of age being possible at any point in life. Great point.

i don't know if i told you this, but i mentioned your thesis topic to Tom at work, and he has a friend currently writing his thesis on the music from 1980's teen movies. thought you'd find that interesting.

ericdbernasek said...

Here's what I changed it to:

These films show teenagers in an often extremely hostile social environment, beset by peers and superiors alike, and on the verge of determining both who they are and who they would like to become.


Thanks for the very specific comments/corrections. I need that. Btw, any way you can connect me with Tom's friend? It might be interesting for us to compare notes.