Party Time or Can't Hardly Wait for That American Pie: Hollywood High School Movies of the 90s

By Wood, Robin | CineAction, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Party Time or Can't Hardly Wait for That American Pie: Hollywood High School Movies of the 90s


Wood, Robin, CineAction


The first question is, I suppose, Why? Why bother, when everyone knows these films are trash? ('Everyone' being the journalist critics, always eager to express their superiority and make themselves look like intellectuals). First, I must confess, personal enjoyment: yes, I actually enjoy these films, or at least some of them (and that 'some of them' immediately suggests that there are discriminations to be made, despite the films' apparent indistinguishability, even their titles being confusing). At least the films are about characters (or, at least, 'types') who are more or less recognizable as related to human beings, and are not made primarily by computers (though one may suspect that some of the screenplays were), as opposed to the dominant genre of Hollywood movies today, which consist mainly of special effects and computer-generated explosions. But am I, at the age of seventy-one, hence doubtless on or beyond the verge of senility, merely reliving my youth? (No, my youth was not remotely like that, I wa s pathologically withdrawn, already gay, riddled with guilt and self-disgust). Fantasizing, then, about the youth I never had? Possibly: I do find something seductive in the films' extrovert energy, and perhaps somewhere in me is an alternative self who wishes he could have enjoyed raunchy all-night house parties, especially when they include the destruction of the bourgeois home. But there is a more intellectually defensible reason for my interest.

My central predilection has always been Hollywood, though essentially the classical period (roughly 1930-1960). It's a question of which you value more highly, communal art or personal art. All the richest periods of artistic achievement-- Renaissance Italy, the Elizabethan drama, the Vienna of Haydn. and Mozart--have been instances of communality: the availability of established genres, the constant interaction among artists, the sense of belonging to the culture, of being supported by it, of speaking to and for a wide audience that cuts across all divisions of class and gender. Compare the isolation of the modern artist, the emphasis on self-expression, 'originality', novelty, the audience dwindled to a small elite. But art that is mere 'self-expression' tends to become increasingly impoverished and uninteresting. With Fellini, for example, self-expression reached its apotheosis in 8 1/2, which fully deserves its established position as a modern masterpiece; everything since seems variously (and comparativ ely) thin, repetitive, strained. Bergman's work, which once seemed to me the peak of cinematic achievement, has come to satisfy me less and less. His personal psychodramas in which the characters (aspects of the artist's psyche?) appear totally isolated from all social realities, stripped of all social/political context, come to seem increasingly limited in their interest, while the great films of Hawks, Ford, Hitchcock, McCarey, Preminger, Ophuls, Cukor, Sturges (Preston!), Mann (Anthony!), Ray, Sirk... retain their amazing freshness and vitality today. Aside from Ophuls (who returned to Europe), none of these directors survived the collapse of the classical Hollywood system in the 60s, though some continued making films. One could list with ease 300 films from the classical period that remain of great interest, of which about a third can be claimed as masterpieces; because of the existence of shared conventions, genres, forms, shooting methods, stars, even certain works by otherwise quite undistinguished di rectors retain their vitality and resonance. One would be hardpressed, I think, to find a comparable tally in the last 30-year period.

Genre cinema today--deprived of the sustaining base of the star/studio system, replaced by a set of businessmen sitting around a conference table asking 'Well, what made the most money last year?' and constructing a 'package' resembling it as closely as possible but going a little further--obviously survives only in an extremely debased and impoverished form.

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