(Editor’s Note: This entry might be potentially loaded with spoilers...but I’m somehow assuming that most of the general public have seen these films. If you haven’t...)
As I Said Before: I Am Not Immune to the Coming of Age Film
Yes, I didn’t have John Hughes in my life (as I mentioned before). That said, I went elsewhere for my fix of “magical time in my life after which nothing would ever be the same” stories. I like this myth of the American Teenager just as much as anyone else.
I set some parameters for myself in this entry. I chose films that I watched when I was a teenager (or close to it). Then I asked myself: What did I ever see in this stuff? This is not an “essential coming of age films” list...not by a long shot. Just a few that have personal resonance for me.
I would just like to preface all of this by stating that my choices were way “better” than those John Hughes flicks. Now that my ego has reared it’s ugly head, here are my picks.
The Outsiders (1983)
I find it hard to believe that anyone reading this won’t at least have a passing familiarity with The Outsiders. Based on a famous novel (which I never read) by S.E. Hinton. This is a fable about the ugliness of the class system and its influence on our society’s young people. You have your “greasers,” the poor kids, who are in constant competition with the rich “soc’s” (short for “socials”).
You have Ponyboy (played by a very young C. Thomas Howell before he got lost in the Skinemax waste land), the poetic hero and his “greaser” friends (Ralph Machio, Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, and some other future stars I’m blanking on). You have the girl that Ponyboy can never date because she’s rich named Cherry Valance (the equally young Diane Lane).
There are gang fights, lessons learned, and some melodramatic (and hard won) male camaraderie. I was deluded enough (in my youth) to think this movie constituted for some kind of powerful statement about the nature of being a strong yet sensitive male.
Upon watching The Outsiders again recently, I figured out the real reason i like it so much. The whole thing is a goddam weepie...even worse than Beaches.
Here are a few of my favorite tear inducing moments (if you’ll indulge me):
- The final interaction between Ponyboy and Cherry: Ponyboy to Cherry...he says something along the lines of: “Can you see the sunset real good from your side of town?” She says: “Yes, I can Ponyboy.” Ponyboy, of course, says to her: “I can see it real good too.” Sniff.
- The scene that occurs after Ponyboy becomes an unlikely hero by saving children in a fire: He is approached by a "soc" named Randy, played by (of all people) Leif Garret. They have a heart to heart conversation in the back of a car about the nature of bravery. I can’t exactly remember the dialogue...but it was once again the sticky sweet bullshit of male bonding that I always got choked up by. From my memory, Randy starts to dismiss whatever Ponyboy tells him and then has a sudden (and unmotivated) change of heart.
- The gut wrenching scene in which Dallas (Matt Dillon) decides to rob an all night grocer. This is strictly a reaction to tragedy...and a fair amount of convenience of the plot. (Every story like this needs to have a martyr, and Dallas makes a good stop gag). Still: Don’t...do...it, Dallas!
- The line everyone remembers: “Stay gold, Ponyboy.” That always brings out the waterworks for me. This line is further implemented by the saccharine Stevie Wonder theme song that plays over the credits. Take that “I Just Called to Say I Love You.”
In my own defense: Francis Ford Coppola recycled many effective elements from ’50’s melodramas like Rebel Without a Cause. The movie is shot in a faux technicolor style, and the score is full of swelling strings. I can’t be faulted for being wholly manipulated, can I?
I still love the movie, even if its oversimplification and weepiness are obvious.
Stay gold, indeed.
The Cameron Crowe Double Feature: Say Anything (1989) and Almost Famous (2000)
These are two iconic films, and I don’t feel much need to justify my choices. I suppose it’s somewhat offensive to blend them into one whole. I still feel that they have all the same successful elements in common.
What would those be?
- They both feature “common people” who are a bit more reliable, honest, and photogenic than they would be in real life. We all know guys like Lloyd from Say Anything. They usually don’t have their philosophies of life synchronized into endlessly quotable monologues about “processing.” The same could be said of Russell (Billy Crudup) from Almost Famous. I’ve never seen a drunken asshole leap up on a roof and yell a catch phrase like: “I’m a golden God!” On top of that: A guy standing outside a girl’s house with a boom box would be arrested and slapped with a restraining order.
- These stories end a bit more sweetly and less dark than “real life.” I felt this strongly the last time I sat through Almost Famous. There are several realities of the autobiographical story behind the film that (I imagine) Crowe decided to soften. The egotism of the bandmates is downgraded into momentary selfishness. The drug addiction that characters undoubtedly have is softened into youthful indiscretions. The whole shebang is much “nicer” than it probably should be.
- You can’t fault any of Crowe’s decisions. He has (at his best) a sort of magic that can’t be argued with and is ultimately accepted. There is a sort of “Crowe touch” that works every time. How many other movie scenes stack up to the “Tiny Dancer” sequence? Very few.
I wish life could be as charming as a good Cameron Crowe movie. (I’m not counting Vanilla Sky, Elizabethtown, or We Bought a Zoo.)
The Graduate (1967)
I find this hard to believe as I write it. There was a time in my life (after graduating high school) in which I watched The Graduate repeatedly.
What the hell resonated with me so strongly?
Here are a few guesses:
- Ben Braddock’s (Dustin Hoffman) assertion that he wants his life to be “different.”
- The scuba diving suit scene (and the eerie silence after it).
- The final moment of uncertainty between Elaine (Katherine Ross) and Ben on the bus. (Was this the right thing to do?)
- The sequence right before the famous ending, as Ben rushes into the church to “save” Elaine.
Those are just guesses, based on a patchwork of memories that I have. I would assume the real reason I liked the film had to do with “getting” Ben’s angst. I was right there with him...dated plastics joke and all.
Can’t Hardly Wait (1998)
This was literally the first movie that popped into my head as I considered this little retrospective. Why?
Do you really need another example of the “high school movie?” This is essentially a rehash of every successful element found in the genre. (Let’s be honest: the filmmakers took every high school movie ever made, stuffed them in a blender, and then set it on “high.”) The “last night of youth” framing device, the social conflicts between different cliques, and the reassuring older voice telling you “it will all be okay.” (That, in this case, is provided by Jenna Elfman dressed up in an Angel costume.)
I’m not going to advocate for the quality of this movie. I haven’t seen it in over a decade, but would assume it’s as middle of the road as ever.
I’m just going to point you towards it as an example. This is why we sit through this dross: the stink of nostalgia and the relief of fantasy.
(That last statement sounded better in my head before I wrote it down.)
Next up: What’s the solution? Where do “reality” and “fantasy” meet? Is there a film that functions as an example?
I’ll offer my thoughts.