TEEN FILMS 1979-1981

Old blog entry from February 2009.

Teen films fell off. It isn’t just because I’m getting old. At least I don’t think so. Eccentricities gave way to whimsy, Black Flag on the soundtrack was surpassed by My Chemical Romance to attract the dispossessed. Nearly everything that ever exits a studio is whitewashed crap. Remember when horror flicks got all self-referential and contemporary Shakespeare adaptations were the thing? Dark days. Bullys and Doom Generations were condemned to arthouses. Bad times. Things never did get back on track.

From a very personal point-of-view, 1979-1981 was a vintage era, coughing up a brace of darker flicks that apparently had something of an impact on the mindstate of elder ‘tastemakers’ (excuse me, I just threw up in my mouth a bit) of today. For the most part, they went wood at the box office, destined to cultdom, which would explain just why they don’t make ’em anymore. I’m not so naive to kid anyone that for every ‘The Wanderers’ there wasn’t drivel like ‘The Apple’ aimed at youth groups, but lately everything’s been so self consciously kooky and referential, I almost yearn for a futuristic rock opera with biblical overtones. Almost.

It probably lies in the fact that some of the most underrated teen movies are genuinely  pretty damned edgy – a 25 year old in a varsity jacket suffering a pre-graduation crisis? Fuck that. The makers of  ‘Over The Edge’ (1979), ‘Times Square’ (1980), ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains’ (1981), ‘Pixote’ (1981) and ‘Christiane F’ (1981) went full throttle, and cast real teens as kids gone wild, proto riot grrrls, lesbian new wavers, tragic street kids and drug addicted prostitutes respectively. It made for some occasionally daft but memorable films.

‘Times Square’ reeks of cash-in but carries a few killer apps in its choice of casting. Runaway girls from different backgrounds go on the run and accidentally become the ‘big thing’ on the NYC new wave scene. Tim Curry plays a DJ who alternates between cool and being one of the most punchable performers of all time during a scene where the politician father of the richer runaway confronts him. Seeing as it was intended to be some kind of post-punk ‘Saturday Night Fever’, and director Allan Moyle was told to excise scenes of overt lesbianism between the two leads, and pretty much all involved washed their hands of it. The Manic Street Preachers covered ‘Damned Dog’ as performed in the film on their debut album, back when they were good, and trying to be Hanoi Rocks rather than dadrockers. Robin Johnson’s performance is stunning, possibly one of the debut greatest screen performances of all time – she convinces as someone mentally ill without getting all ‘I Am Sam’ or adopting the Brad Pitt twitch, and after this film…pretty much MIA. Someone even dedicated a site to locating her.

Allan seemed to have some wilderness years, before helming the same mix of zeitgeist and simplistic plot devices (school nerd is actually a pirate radio DJ of some note when darkness falls!) with ‘Pump Up The Volume’ in 1990, which had an excellent soundtrack that included a pointless but interesting MC5 cover by Bad Brains and Henry Rollins.

But if it’s neon fonts, Tim Curry, ‘Down In The Park’  and ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’ you’re after, well, you’re in luck.

‘Ladies and Gentlemen….’ has as much to mock as to admire within it running time. It’s got a supergroup with Paul Simenon, Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Ray Winstone in yet it maintains a certain charm. Saved from obscurity last year by a DVD reissue, complete with commentary, it was shelved from cinema release after completion.  The 1999 Grand Royal article with contributions from Thurston Moore and Courtney Love cemented the hard-to-find status. The scene where Diane Lane gets aggravated and creates a formula for the group however, is pretty remarkable. There’s a good piece on it here, but the aforementioned magazine article from director Sarah Jacobson remains one of the most interesting ‘making of’ articles I’ve ever read. Sarah was a tireless campaigner for the movie’s recognition, making documentaries about it, and sadly passed away at the age of 32 in 2004. She had a point. It’s  not subtle, but it’s puncuated with unexpectedly gritty moments.

According to apochryphal sources, ‘Christiane F’ somehow upped the numbers of heroin users in Germany on release, but it’s hard to see how an ulcers and all depiction of drug use and the squalid ins and outs of the Bahnhof Zoo could be in any way aspirational. Maybe it’s the unintentional teutonic style everyone sports, maybe it’s the oddly leniant parenting the titular Christiane is subjected to. Maybe it’s the Bowie appearance. Thomas Haustein is excellent as Christiane’s boyfriend and went on to act in absolutely nothing again, making Robin look prolific by comparison. The scene where a desperate junkie leaps into a toilet cubicle steals our hero’s stash and promptly injects it into his neck in front of a shocked old lady is as good a drug P.S.A. as any. ‘Trainspotting’ and ‘Drugstore Cowboy’ don’t even come close.

‘Pixote’ was directed by Hector Bibenco who earnt himself an Oscar for ‘Kiss Of The Spiderwoman’ and is almost unwatchably grim, depicting the struggle of a homeless boy bouncing from children’s homes to the street, and the increasingly desperate scenarios he finds himself in. It’s one of Harmony Korine’s favourite film, and it’s clear that the use of an unknown cast from the areas in question and unflinching style had a vast influence on ensuing releases at home and abroad. Fernando Ramos da Silva, a newcomer who (are you noticing a depressing trend here?) never went on to any real film career is astonishing in the title role, seemingly ageing scene-by-scene, like ‘The Painted Bird’s narrator or Aleksei Kravchenko in ‘Come And See’.

da Silva was hailed by the critics, but, by all accounts made little money. Critical plaudits don’t necessarily pay the rent. In 1987 he was shot dead by the police. His short life is dramatised in the 1996 film ‘Who Killed Pixote?’. There’s a news report of his death here. It’s particularly depressing, but makes for a sobering epilogue to the ‘Pixote’ plot.

Another thing that leaks the four films above is the situations they place their young actors in. While I’m opposed to censorship, these films would maintain their appeal without the more questionable moments, and it’s the moments of nudity and sexuality that led to them being buried in favour of more populist depictions what are allegedly the happiest days of your life.

With the recent hoo-ha surrounding ‘Notorious’ which carries a whiff of missed opportunity and straight-to-DVD about it, the Darby Crash biopic ‘What We Do Is Secret’ at least attempts to depict the golden era I’m talking about. While the film is, going against the bandname, more than a little sterile, any film with a dramatised Claude Bessy is at least worth watching once.

However, this footage, and the dumb notion of replacing Darby with some guy from ER for shows, pretty much sums up what’s wrong with everything nowadays. An S.U.V. mounting that curb would have benefited the planet.


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