Back in 1955, Rebel Without a Cause starred James Dean as a teen adrift and grasping for help from his equally distraught friends. In 2001, director Michael Cuesta’s controversial L.I.E., a film about disaffected teens in the affluent New York suburbs, focuses on Howie, a foundering 15-year-old who’s taken in by an exploitative but nurturing pedophile. What can these teen-flick bookends, separated by almost 50 years, tell us about the state of teen spirit today?
L.I.E. has received an NC-17 rating and will be released on a very small number of American screens (it opens Friday at the Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak). In the wake of such recent trips through juvenile hell as Kids (1995) and The Virgin Suicides (1999), Metro Times previewed L.I.E. and asked film writer James Keith La Croix to get together with Heather Blankenheim, a graduate assistant in English at Wayne State University, and Bruno Tysh, a high-school student from Ferndale, to talk about famous teen flicks and what they tell us about ourselves.
Metro Times: Let’s start out with the teen movies that most moved or impressed you as teens.
James: Robert Redford’s Ordinary People swept all of the Oscars in 1980 — that would’ve made me 18 at the time. It was a really moving story, about a kid whose brother died in an accident and he blamed himself for it and tried to commit suicide. Then he’s redeemed by the end — he sees a therapist. The thing that I keyed into was that it opened up the whole family. It wasn’t one of those “Brady Bunch” or “I Love Lucy” depictions of the family. It was a real portrayal of how a family deals with certain problems that I could identify with. It looked like real people, I mean ordinary people, hence the title. I thought of a few others, from soup to nuts, but River’s Edge (1987) was very powerful as far as where teenagers are at, or are still at. Again, it was a real portrayal of teens — it wasn’t Archie at the soda shop — like how do these kids feel, what are they into? They’re smoking dope, having sex and they don’t really have much of a future outside of high school.
Heather: My teen years were in the mid-to-late ’80s and early ’90s. The big teen movies that came out during that period were the brat pack movies, Pretty in Pink (1986), Sixteen Candles (1984) and The Breakfast Club (1985), none of which had any sort of effect on me. I thought they were good, and funny … but a later one that was very moving was American History X (1998). The vulnerability of the teens in that movie really struck me. Teens are often represented as more adultlike than they actually are, but in the Edward Furlong character in American History X, you can see the vulnerability in the way he looks up to his older brother and how influential people can be on teenagers, even though we have this cultural representation of them as being young adults and already set in their ways. But that’s not necessarily the case — there’s still that instability in the teenager.
Bruno:Requiem for a Dream (2000) would have to be up there near the top of my list. It’s such a strong message about addiction, and you can really get into the characters. You really do feel all the pain that they go through. You really do understand and relate — even if you don’t know anyone who’s anywhere near that situation. It’s just like a real wake-up call no matter where you are in your life. The way the film handles drugs, you notice that it never actually indicates what drugs they’re using. It could be heroin, cocaine or whatever. But drugs are an issue for pretty much every kid, and it’s showing you a worst-case scenario, how quickly drugs can consume and destroy your life. No film has been that powerful.
Metro Times: If we were constructing a timeline for teen movies since Rebel Without a Cause, what would be the important moments in that history? James has already mentioned River’s Edge, with its story of suburban-fringe-kid desolation.
Bruno: For me it’s A Clockwork Orange (1971). It’s kind of offbeat and you probably wouldn’t put it in the teen category, but the kids in there are very real.
Metro Times: They’re not exactly “kid” kids.
James: They’re teenagers.
Bruno: They look like they could be in high school. They’re supposed to be 16- or 17-year-old kids … but really scary, like super-powered delinquents, super-punks.
James:When you think of Rebel Without a Cause, at the time it was released it was like a warning to parents, to people the parents’ age — like The Wild One (1954) — and if you updated The Wild One 20 years, perhaps it is the super warning of A Clockwork Orange.
Metro Times: Here we are just two weeks after the World Trade Center tragedy, and we’ve just watched L.I.E., a movie about teen angst. I’m wondering if you see any connection between those horrible facts and this fiction.
James: If anything, that huge holocaust has woken people up. L.I.E. is pre-Sept. 11 — that date’s going to be a benchmark in looking at things in this country — before that, yeah, people were pretty self-absorbed and a lot of kids could be pretty unaffected or put on a facade of being so, but that’s not happening right now.
Bruno: If the world was on fire everywhere but Howie’s (the main character’s) house, he wouldn’t know — the kid didn’t even know his dad was in jail — he’s completely oblivious. These kids are completely absorbed in themselves and, even if they knew, they probably wouldn’t care because they wouldn’t think it affects them.
Heather: The characters in L.I.E. are really complex people who could not be labeled either good or evil. But there’s been a lot of breakdown into “people are good” or “people are evil” in these past weeks. We’re now in a stage where things are going to be seen far more in black-and-white terms.
Metro Times: So does L.I.E. have anything to say to us now?
Bruno: Education has to start somewhere. The movie illustrates all these terrible relationships that the adult figures have with Howie. If anything, L.I.E. wants to give the message that we’ve got to improve family life … For however much it’s U.S. public policy that failed on Sept. 11, it’s also due to the majority of the population and the people we’ve elected to represent us as a nation. A mass education needs to occur … so that if you nurture your kids more and raise them better, we’ll have smarter politicians and smarter international public policy.
Heather: It seemed like there was a lot of reflection going on in the film. And I think that’s what this really might serve. People go to the movie theater, after looking at all the things that have happened recently, and to have their lives reflected for them might be an interesting thing after all of this tragedy.
Metro Times: What about L.I.E.’s NC-17 rating? Does that seem appropriate now? It seems to compound the injustice when you realize that it’s never going to be given a chance to achieve any kind of audience — essentially because it portrays a pedophile in a complex way.
James: Besides that, we’re talking about child homosexuality … even though it’s never consummated or made rather explicit in the film, and that it’s not being viewed as something overtly tragic … whereas a film like The Deep End is very definitely from the melodramatic tradition of “you messed around with the wrong thing, and now you’re drawn into a web of intrigue.”
Bruno: About the homosexuality … there are some pretty strong scenes, very still shots, very romantic, of Gary (Howie’s pal) or of Howie, these real slow scenes of them with their shirts off … almost drawing the audience into that as well. There’s this scene where Gary breaks into Howie’s house and is in the bathroom, that long shot of him with his shirt off just staring at himself in the mirror. It does romanticize that. Then there are all those scenes that you think are leading to something and just cut themselves off … Or that dream scene where they’re at school and Gary has that snake … they have their shirts off and they’re surrounded by all these teenage girls and he’s got this big python that’s licking Howie’s nipple.
James: The other thing notable about it is that Howie’s got one friend who tells him, “Maybe you need to get with chicks.” He doesn’t call him a “fucking faggot” — he just says, like, “Hey, you do know that you’re like doing a gay thing, right?”
Bruno: He was like, “You’re with a guy, that’s gay. And you’re with a girl, that’s straight.” (laughter)
Heather: The things the film uses to point to homosexuality are things that you see in Scary Movie, things that if they’re in a heterosexual context are perfectly acceptable: like one kid putting a gun in his mouth while they’re standing there together, or spitting on each other, which are just symbols and signs.
Bruno: That’s what made me mad about the rating, because I thought the rating process was a pretty standard procedure: “Oh, they said ‘fuck’ 27 times in this movie; there’s a scene where a guy’s head gets blown off and there’s a scene for 4 minutes and 32 seconds of a man and a woman having sex. We look on the chart and we give it this rating.” But it’s not like that. They swear, but not too much — they’re punk kids so it’d be stupid if they weren’t swearing. And there’s no violence in the film. A guy gets shot, but if anything it’s toned down to television shooting, with minimal blood. The gunshots aren’t super loud. So they’re rating this on content alone.
Metro Times: Is it because these kids are so young?
James: Really, that’s one of the biggest things. If you had just made Howie 16, one year older, and had a different context …
Metro Times: Are these guys younger than the kids in Kids?
Bruno: The kids in Kids are an array of ages.
Heather: The girl in Kids who gets HIV is 16 and the friend she goes with is 17. But it seemed like they were pretty comparable … In general I think that L.I.E. would be a good film for people to see, because it presents complex people — it presents teenage homosexuality in a way where it’s not incredibly dramatized and problematized.
James: And that’s the thing that couldn’t have happened even 10 years ago. You couldn’t have made a film 10 years ago that presented teenage male homosexuality, whereas female homosexuality in films is always done to titillate men, as long as they’re male-fantasy lesbians and not some chick with some Luckies rolled-up in her T-shirt.
Bruno: This movie offers minimal closure … Howie seems like he’s getting a little happier towards the end of the film. You see more of his intellectual side. But then his father’s still in jail — what proof is there that Howie’s not going to meet up with some other kids and continue breaking into houses. He’s staying at his house by himself … he can go meet his other two delinquent friends and start over again. Nothing’s really changed that much.
James: Howie’s basically an emancipated minor, which really would be a great oversight on the part of several organizations to let that go on — to have a 15-year-old kid living in a house by himself.
Heather: One of the reasons I like L.I.E. more than Kids is that I thought Kids was pretty moralistic in its tone.
Metro Times: What’s moralistic about Kids?
Heather: When you’re bad, you get AIDS. It seemed very nihilistic.
Metro Times: When you show that unprotected sex in this culture can kill you?
James: I think Kids was set up that way and with that message. It was the Requiem for a Dream of unprotected sex. It definitely had a theme: “If you’re gonna do this, then this is what you get.”
Metro Times: What does L.I.E. say about kids today?
James: It takes me back to River’s Edge — since we were talking about nihilism in kids — where there’s this total sense of, like, I remember there was a friend of mine in high school, his motto was “nothing matters, and what if it did?” Like so what, just do it, it’s not gonna matter in the long run. You rob the bank, you die. You become Mother Teresa, you die. Who cares? It’s gonna be “game over” any way that you look at it, so what’s the point? In River’s Edge, you’ve got these kids and one of their friends kills another one of their friends. And the guy that Crispin Glover plays says, “Dudes, she’s already dead, so what’s the point of turning him in, because she’s already dead.” Yeah, she’s dead now, so why are we gonna fink on this guy who killed her?
Bruno: Then we lose two friends.
Heather: That seems to be a theme in movies like Go (1999) — actions without consequences. Or people don’t see the consequences. Or do they matter?
Metro Times: Why are kids nihilistic? Why do they feel like “fuck everything?”
Bruno: All kids go through some kind of period where “what the fuck, I don’t care what happens. Well, what if I don’t do my homework or listen to my parents — what the hell’s going to happen?” The kids in L.I.E., the worst thing that happens to them is they go down to the police station — one kid’s probably going to get beat up by his dad; another mom is completely oblivious that her son has been doing anything, probably nothing’s going to happen to him; and Howie doesn’t even have a parent to come pick him up.
Metro Times: Is it important for you to feel the wrath of somebody? Do kids need that?
Bruno: Yeah, they do need discipline. You need to set them some kind of boundary so they have some sense of the world. That’s why you tell your kids not to beat each other up. That’s not what you do. You don’t beat everyone up you have a problem with. You’re prepping them for coping with problems when they get into life, so when they have a real problem, like “I’m not making enough money to live,” they don’t run around and shoot everyone — they actually sit down and think about a real solution. You give preparation and boundaries so you’re not screwing your kids later when they grow up.
James: If we use Howie’s dad as the average parent in this movie, he’s so involved with all these surface issues — that his spiked hair is perfect and that he can wear his construction helmet and look like one-fourth of the Village People and that he has this slammin’ foxy girlfriend who’s also surface-obsessed so that she’s walking on the stair-climber to make sure that her ass doesn’t sag — he’s so busy with all this surface stuff that he doesn’t have time to deal with the issues of raising a kid.
Metro Times: Well, he chooses not to.
James: He has the time, but it’s not part of his priority.
Metro Times: So he’s an average dad.
Heather: He’s not an average dad. It seems that in nihilism, people don’t live — people don’t experience life. So when you’re in a house that feels sanitary and your dad goes to work day-in and day-out and you don’t get to see him ’cause he’s working all the time, then how do you experience life? I think you go to this opposite extreme — in order to feel life, you need to be risking life.
Metro Times: Isn’t that what those kids in L.I.E. are doing by hanging out in the park and waiting to be picked up?
James: I think that’s what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to feel something.
Bruno: They’re trying to feel something else. I don’t want to come off like a disciplinarian, because for every amount of discipline, you need an equal amount of love. Howie’s dad doesn’t even know how to hug him.
Metro Times: Let’s say a film like this was made about young women. What would they be doing? What would be the nihilistic thing to do?
James: They’d be shoplifting.
Heather: Unsafe sex … going to clubs … being promiscuous at a young age … dressing older than they are. I think that it would have to do with sex, but dangerous, not quite approved of …
James: Twenty years ago, it was dating black guys … or being a quote-unquote lesbian, which now has been downgraded to being just dangerous.
Metro Times: Bruno, you’re in high school — does L.I.E. in any way reflect the life you have with your friends?
Bruno: Well, yeah, I see a lot of my friends in this movie, just not to the same degree. Though there are similarities to these situations, a lot of key elements aren’t there — like they do just have one parent, but the parent might be a little bit more involved, or they have a stronger school relationship with friends — they’ve got a stronger social backdrop to fall upon. Most of the kids who only have one parent usually compensate for the lack of parental figures, but instead of going the juvenile delinquent route they find a very strong core of friends at school that they kind of replace family life with. They become very involved socially in all aspects … they’re completely absorbed into it. That’s where you get these girls at school who are Miss Popular, because their social life is everything to them. They don’t have “social” coming from anywhere else … so every social event, every day at school is super important.
James: And that’s Heathers (1989).
Metro Times:Heathers and other films involving young women, such as Ghost World that just came out, and even to a certain extent American Beauty (1999).
Heather: And as for L.I.E., it seems to me that the sterile, white Howie-households of the United States could probably benefit from seeing the film, but adults more than kids, because kids know what’s going on. This movie is going to be a big surprise to adults watching it, not the 16- and 17-year-olds who are living it. It’s the adults, it’s the Howie’s fathers who have no idea what’s going on, or his friend’s mother who comes to pick her son up from the police station. Those are the people who need to see it, but they’re the people who are so attached to the values the NC-17 is enforcing that they’ll never see it with that rating.
Metro Times: If anybody would want to compare L.I.E. to Rebel Without a Cause, there’s at least one important connection: the scene in Rebel where James Dean’s parents come to pick him up at the police station, which at the time was the idea of “the worst thing that could happen.”
Heather: But the worst thing that could happen in L.I.E. is that no one, no parent, comes to pick you up. So it’s totally different — it’s not that they’re there, it’s that somebody might not come.George Tysh is Metro Times arts editor and the father of Bruno Tysh. E-mail him at [email protected]