Longform

The Teen Commandments

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Alicia Silverstone's Cher in Clueless defined the earnest and powerful young doer who has dominated the New School and will continue to this summer with Killing Mrs. Tingle and Drop Dead Gorgeous, the story of a Midwest beauty pageant gone awry. Even the ensemble-heavy Go cast Sarah Polley as the plot's dizzied pivot, and throws in softer-edged men in the form of a gay couple and a crunchy-veggie-tantric-sex guy. The New Teen Cinema is a realm where boys and their guns are kind of lame, explosions don't signify the climax and being in love is the point of it all.

LESSON 8: John Hughes is dead. Long live John Hughes. Um, so, like, wait--who's John Hughes, again? And who are all you old people talking about Ferris and stuff? During the 1980s, John Hughes reinvented the teen film, making movies both about and for the movies' subjects. The genre grew from the exploitation sex comedies of the Animal House school into some truly meaningful morality plays. This was during a sort of Golden Age of teen films, after Valley Girl culture had spread a uniform language and style across the country, uniting a group of kids as a mass culture, allowing them to recognize that there were others out there exactly like them.

By this time, the characters of Hughes' Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles were universal, not stereotypes but full-fledged living, breathing archetypes of bed-wetting nerds and wrong-side-of-the-tracks types. And his masterpiece of boredom and philosophy, The Breakfast Club, slowed the teenage experience down to an afternoon of detention and dissected every inch of it, exposing and probing. Nothing since has really touched it.

But this all ended when his audience went to college, Hughes started making Home Alone movies and nothing high school seemed to sell anymore. This era of the pop high school turned dark and self-deprecating with Heathers, the Winona Ryder and Christian Slater classic that foreshadowed early-'90s nihilism and even the Littleton, Colorado, massacre (Slater's loner silently loathed the popular kids and was bent on blowing up the school). For years, for most of the '90s, the market forces concentrated on the brains of twentysomethings, those who grew up alongside Ferris and Claire and Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing. American youth culture became an endless desert of grunge music, flannel, boredom, irony, slackers and goatees, a giant unchanging billboard covered with Mountain Dew, Xtreme sports, anything else with the word "extreme" in it and anything else with the letter "X" in it. The increasingly cohesive media landscape changed to fit the tastes of 17 million so-called Gen Xers. A market had emerged. Or so the mediamakers thought.

But then Kurt Cobain died, Lollapalooza ended, the economy picked up, and then, in the last year or so, these new teenagers showed up, the first wave of the 60 million. Whole cities full of kids in fresh khakis, driving New Beetles, flashing wads of cash. The media are calling them things like Generation Y and Echo Boomers, but we'll just call them loaded. These kids don't know Atari from ALF or Reagan from Nixon, and they live in a world of PlayStation and Yahoo!, a world where there has always been MTV. They want a culture of their own, dammit, and the market forces are eager to meet them on the big screen, on the magazine racks, in clothing catalogues, everywhere. And so now Matthew Broderick, most famous as '80s teen iconoclast Ferris Bueller, plays a teacher, a middle-aged, graying civics droner, in Election, and New Teen Cinema pioneer Kevin Williamson says he's paying homage to an aging god named John Hughes. But the kids are even beginning to ask: Who's Kevin Williamson?

LESSON 9: The Scream thing is so over. First, we must thank Kevin Williamson. This is the guy who came up with Scream. The winking, self-aware horror flick loaded with young stars and young attitudes made $100 million and launched the wave of films leading to the New Teen Cinema, the fun, semi-ironic slaughter fests of I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, etc. He was the first to recast a classic genre (bad slasher flicks) with the new faces, but the look-at-me!-look-at-me! self-reference thing that made Scream so lively and original is now, immediately, over. It's annoying. It's old. It's Gen Xish. It's time to be serious about ourselves, the new onscreen teens are saying, because we have to take over the world here. It's time to demonstrate how smart and determined we are. It's time to be earnest, romantic and upbeat.

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Glenn Gaslin