April 18, 2019


The Ultimate History of the ’80s Teen Movie. By James King. Diversion Books. $18.

     If there were an Ig Nobel prize for movie criticism, James King would deserve it. The Ig Nobel awards, parodies of the Nobels, are given annually to genuine, legitimate scientific research that is simply weird: attaching a weighted stick to the rear end of a chicken to give the chicken a dinosaur-like walk; asking a thousand liars how often they lie, and deciding whether to believe their answers; doing a seated self-colonoscopy; using roller-coaster rides to speed the passage of kidney stones – that sort of thing (those are all genuine Ig Nobel winners). The Ultimate History of the ’80s Teen Movie would be a winner for investigating, in seriousness and with plenty of footnotes, a film genre whose utter unimportance is as overwhelming as are the personalities of the people involved in it (their on-screen personalities and, in most cases, their real-world ones as well).

     The story arc here leads more or less from Saturday Night Fever (1978) to Dead Poets Society (1989), exploring along the way The Karate Kid, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and many more films of the type. The writing is strictly for people deeply steeped in pop culture, and not only of the movie variety: “And even when an older, classic song was used – such as Led Zeppelin’s 1975 rock behemoth ‘Kashmir’ – it was still pretty cool: the famously fussy Zep only let it in because they liked Crowe’s music journalism and, in his original undercover article, many of the characters at Clairemont had been Zeppelin fans, eagerly awaiting the band’s upcoming US tour that would ultimately be canceled in the wake of drummer John Bonham’s death from accidental asphyxiation in September 1980.” Yes, that is one sentence, and there are lots more where that came from (the book runs to more than 400 pages).

     There are all sorts of footnotes, too, showing that King has done a lot of research in some rather odd places. One note says, “From the obituary of Ronald Reagan, Los Angeles Times, Johanna Neuman, June 6, 2004.” Another is “‘Demi Moore learns to accept change,’ Lawrence Journal-World, July 11, 1985.” And another: “New York thrash metal band Slayer would put that crossover on record in 1991 when they collaborated with Public Enemy on a new version of their single ‘Bring the Noise.’ The rap band’s original had appeared on the soundtrack of Less Than Zero. The early ’90s also saw director Mario van Peebles follow his era-defining urban drugs thriller New Jack City (1991) with the ‘black Western’ Posse (1993).” The book reads as if King’s mind is so jam-packed with things he has learned that there is just no way to fit everything in standard-size type: the overflow to the bottoms of pages becomes necessary to show the breadth of King’s knowledge of the primary topic and secondary ones as well.

     This is a book simply packed with information on the who, what, when, where, and how (much less of the “why”) of teen movies of the 1980s in all their glory, or vainglory. Who made the films, who financed them, who acted in them, who distributed them, how well or poorly they did at the box office – readers will get all that and more here, whether in a chapter called “The Joy of Sex” (which opens, “Not every teen film from 1983 was chic and slick” – hopefully King does not think the last and antepenultimate words rhyme) or in one called “Big Budgets, High Concepts.” That latter title is intended to be taken seriously, leading as it does to a chapter that includes corporate information in some of King’s typically extended sentences: “MTV began to court older viewers with its spin-off channel VH1 and then, in 1985, American Express left the set-up entirely, leaving Warner to soon sell everything off to the media conglomerate Viacom, a company that had made its name distributing CBS shows to local TV stations.” But the reference to corporate matters highlights a systemic weakness of The Ultimate History of the ’80s Teen Movie: King has little interest in showing how the films reflected the society in which they were made, or how they highlighted (or downplayed) elements of that society. The book is about a whole passel of insiders making a whole passel of largely imitative films in pursuit, certainly, of money, but apparently not much else: the vapidity of many of these movies seems to reflect an insipid culture around them. But does it, or does it merely reflect the extent to which Hollywood was, in the 1980s (among other times), so far outside the mainstream of America in general that it had no idea what the wider culture really was like? This sort of question does not interest King in the way that the performers, directors and distributors of ’80s teen movies do. There are passing references to social changes in society that are reflected (or not) in various films, but there is no consideration of whether the teen-movie genre itself had (or has) any importance beyond, well, making money from the teen audiences at which the movies were aimed.

     Ultimately, The Ultimate History of the ’80s Teen Movie is for dyed-in-the-wool fans of the teen-targeted films that King explores: millennials, now approaching or having passed the age of 50, who want to cling to the notion that they are still “in with the in crowd” (a 1960s musical reference that still seems apt). Those possessing an unending fascination with all things Hollywood will find plenty here that they will consider meaty from an “in crowd” perspective. On the other hand, those not already deeply immersed in these films and the environment in which they were made will find the book rather thin gruel: it can, in fact, be difficult for those not sufficiently “in the know” to tell one of these ’80s teen films from the next. Such teen-movie wannabes can take heart, though – not from King’s book but from work by Shigeru Watanabe, Junko Sakamoto, and Masumi Wakita, who successfully taught pigeons to tell the difference between paintings by Picasso and ones by Monet. That work won those three researchers an Ig Nobel prize in 1995.

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