So Many Teen Films, So Little Time

It’s syllabus season again, here at Abyme central, and that means making a number of fine-grain distinctions about what to include in classes. As I’ve said before, this is always a moment of great pain. It feels a bit like abandoning your children by the side of the road, or picking them last for kickball teams (I’ll stop short of a Sophie’s Choice scenario). This spring, I have the great pleasure of teaching a course on teen film. Assuming that I have about 12-13 dates on which to show films, how on earth do I narrow the pack?

I know what you’re thinking: there are some must haves. I’m down with Timothy Shary (and a host of film critics) on this one: John Hughes changed the nature of the genre, and thus he’s in, and perhaps more than once. But then which? And why? And there are other concerns at stake here as well; while I could certainly build a list that would speak to the history of the genre, particularly in response to modern market forces, what I find myself most interested in are the ways in which this format wrestles with the anxieties and obsessions of contemporary phenomenon, and in doing so, constructs adolescent responses to them. For that reason, films that are particularly good at exemplifying critique (e.g., Boyz in the Hood) are in, over and above exemplary candidates in the pool.

One last thing that I find myself fascinated by, that’s slowly making its presence known: the stakes of the teen adaptation flick. There are too many of these to count, really, ranging from Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (a staple of my high school experience) to the recent Amanda Bynes vehicle She’s the Man. Are they the equivalent of hiding vegetables in junk food, ie., “fooling” a teen audience into consuming something that’s ostensibly “good for them”? Are they depending on the fact that they’ll be shown in schools? Is it just part of a larger raid on high culture texts by the Hollywood industry? The answers to this are going to be different for each film, surely. For my money, I’m most interested in the ones in which the original ideologies of the text have to shift, and sometimes even reverse themselves, within the constraints of this genre. [Case in point: last time I checked, the reason Viola in Twelfth Night dresses as a man is to protect herself in a strange country. Bynes, on the other hand, is motivated by a desire to join the boys soccer team. Is enforcing Title IX the 21st century version of self-protection?]

All of this to say that the canon of teen films is battling it out with those that do the kind of theoretical and intellectual work that I want them to do. Which means, I fear, that a number of old favorites are going to have to drop out. The question of the morning: will Some Kind of Wonderful or Say Anything get the knife?

4 thoughts on “So Many Teen Films, So Little Time

  1. Do students still connect to 80s teen films which must look as “nostalgic” in presentation as the 50s, 60s and 70s did to oh, let’s say, older folks?

    I think I was being rather conservative in how many films I was showing. Do you make them write reactions on each film? or rather blog/discussion board entries? I’m leaning toward the shorter papers and not the long research tome. More scholarly review — wouldn’t it be nice to know they read and understood a few essays rather than scalped a dozen incompletely? Clearly I’m still wrestling with my last syllabus and making the same choices about writers on film possibilities.

    Sorry to hear you’re ailing! Get well before Monday.

  2. Great Q, Kate, and one that I’ll certainly ask the students. (Jeez, I loved these films back when I was young! Do they strike you as totally passe?) I think we’ll do weekly viewing responses, and I have a number of readings to go along with the films. All of this will lead, of course, to making their own film at the end of the semester. So no long research paper for them—instead, they’ll be researching and writing and directing and filming and editing. Whew!

    I’d love to compare notes with you at some point!!

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