The Sense of an Ending: Youth Apocalypse Films

By Benjamin, Richard | Journal of Film and Video, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

The Sense of an Ending: Youth Apocalypse Films


Benjamin, Richard, Journal of Film and Video


FOLLOWING THE COMMERCIAL BONANZA of Jaws (1977) and Star Wars (1978), the films of the 1980s propelled the blockbuster era. Important developments enabled and encouraged the rush toward blockbusters, namely, the conglomerization of media corporations, the explosion of production and marketing costs, and the strategic creation of "product franchises" (such as Indiana Jones and Batman) that could generate revenue from diverse entertainment venues: films, subsidiary exhibition, theme parks, video games, action figures, and fastfood merchandise, among others. Moreover, during the 19805 Hollywood increasingly recognized male teens as a crucial audience. As one critic crisply notes, "It was the time when movies were made for kids, and dumb kids at that: Dumb, horny, crater-faced, metal-mouthed 14-year-old boys who lurked around the multiplex or the video store rec room" (2).

During the 19905, a subgenre I call "youth apocalypse films" emerged and prevailed. This subgenre differs significantly from the banal youth films popular during the 19805. Youth apocalypse films often acquired cult status among theiryoung audiences. Some even earned remarkable box office success and/or critical acclaim. The films in this subgenre-including Natural Born Killers (1994), Kids (1995), The Basketball Diaries (1995), Gregg Araki's "heterosexual disaster movie," The Doom Generation (1995), William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (1996), American History X (1998), Fight Club (1999), and Requiem fora Dream (2000)-share violent and extremely dark orientations. The films are obsessed with a scatological adolescent body, one that is violated but also disruptive. In these films, the young body literally erupts or is pulverized. The white youths depicted are pathologically violent and shockingly indifferent to the present or future. Indeed, their very identity formation as white youths is predicated on the pursuit of pathological violence and ecstasy.

More generally, contemporary American film has collapsed the previously rigid boundary between the biological body and the image. Network (1976), Videodrome (1983), Natural Born Killers, The Cable Guy (1996), The Truman Show (1998), eXistenZ (1999), The Matrix (!999). and Fight Club are among a slew of dark films that present near-apocalyptic scenarios in which the characters' lives are transformed by the commodification logic of media culture. Such films fictionalize media critic John Fiske's proposition that contemporary media no longer represent reality "second-hand," but create or affect the reality they once reported on and mediated. "If we're not in the [video] game anymore, you just killed someone real," Tim Qude Law) informs his co-player Allegra (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in eXistenZ. In these films, "life" is digital entertainment. These unsettling scenarios represent the evolution of the cybernetic media "self."1

And adolescents have fully internalized the logics-capitalist, aesthetic, ontological, consumerist-underpinning television, film, and the cybernetic media self. Many youths live by the assumptions and protocols of ubiquitous visual media. Adolescent film spectatorship has been transformed by the time-shifting, cognitively parallel, reality-bending visual media and venues of the past several decades: the multiplex cinema, the VCR, the internet, video games, and others.

Adolescence is being mirrored and reconceived in a media environment particularly marked by the youth apocalypse subgenre.2 How do youth trends and sociological developments animate the voyeuristic drives of the producers, characters, and spectators of this subgenre? What remarkable teen films shortcircuit traditional forms of subjectivity and objectivity to alter the young viewer's experience?

From the hand-held-camera, direct-cinema style of Menace Il Society (1993), American HistoryX, and Kids, to the fragmented, hyperkinetic, music-video expressionism of Basketball Diaries, William Shakespeare's Romeo and luliet, and Doom Generation, the subgenre alternates between "dispassionate realism" and a stylized surrealism. …

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