Saturday, August 11, 2012

Olympics and adolescence

Once again the Olympics are upon us, and once again my life is too hectic and too transient to watch or enjoy them very much.  My wife and I hope that by the 2016 Olympics, we'll be settled down and economically comfortable enough to sit down together once in a while and watch a match or two.

It's a shame that we haven't really seen much of the Games, because this is Colombia's most successful Olympics in memory.  They keep getting medals, among them a gold medal in women's BMX yesterday (which also gave a more diverse and representative face to the Colombian medal winners, which until then had been mainly Afro-Colombians).  Colombia is big on biking; normally long-distance road races, but apparently they're also breaking into the circuit events.  I'm really proud of the Colombian Olympic team.  I think that is one charm of living in a smaller country.  There's no way they will be dominant in international sporting events, but what victories they achieve are really celebrated.

On the other hand, I am also happy to see the US doing so well.  Of course we are a regular powerhouse in the Olympics, but in the wake of all of our scandals and crisis on the cultural and economic fronts, I'd begun to doubt we were still excellent at much of anything.  The healthy lead in the medal count even over the next most powerful contender, China (with an economy more or less as large as the US and some five times the populace) shows that there are still a lot of young people in the US that strive and thrive at what they set their minds to.  This is nowhere better exemplified than in basketball, where the men's team is soundly dominating the strong competition, beating the likes of Argentina by 26 points yesterday.  When we send our best and they train hard and take things seriously and have pride in what they do (without arrogance or complacence like in our losing 2004 showing) , US basketball is a real force to reckon with.

I saw an example in microcosm of a drive for excellence recently in a video of my 15-year-old cousin's band competition.  His small-town public high school put on an amazing choreographed production that won them a number of prizes at a big Midwestern competition.  Seeing these regular kids, many of them surely just average musicians, driven to such precision and mastery by a teacher who demanded their best, made me think that this is a strength of our culture in the US.  In many seemingly insignificant endeavors, those who participate in them put their all into the activity.  I mean, you could easily think that a high school band isn't that important and just needs to be average, which is an attitude I've seen in a lot of cultures, but in the US we often aim to do even little things very well.  This obviously makes for really great band shows, or drywall installation, or hamburger grilling techniques, or whatever the activity may be, but it also exalts the person who is doing it, serving in a way as a prayer or a meditation.  It's not just in the Olympics that normal people push themselves to be the best they can.

For some reason I've been thinking a lot about adolescence recently.  I don't know if it's because I just turned 30, and so am at double the age I was in high school, or because of my cousin's marching band thing, or what.  In the past few days I've watched "Sixteen Candles" and "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" for the first time in a long time.  I enjoyed both of them, as I did when I was a kid, but I did notice some new things from my present adult perspective.

First I want to compare "Sixteen Candles" to "The Breakfast Club".  The former is probably not as good a movie as "The Breakfast Club", but I feel it's a more accurate portrayal of teenage life.  As I've discussed in a prior post, "The Breakfast Club" shows teens at their worst in some ways, as pathologically spiteful, and with no responsible, honorable adults in their lives to give them some perspective on the issues they're dealing with.  The teenagers of "The Breakfast Club" are often angry and irrational and incoherent in their convictions, as all of us sometimes are, but the only adults in their lives seem to be very bad people that can't help the teens progress towards a healthy adulthood.  At any rate, since the only things we know about the kids' parents comes from their own point of view, we are left with an adolescent vision and level of thought as our only reference point.  Beyond this, the teenagers of "The Breakfast Club" are almost a caricature of teenage angst.  I don't know if John Hughes had a traumatic adolescence or what, but the kids in this movie show only the angry, frustrated, spiteful side of adolescence, and not the more or less normal behavior and loving relationships with parents that constitute a major part of even the most troubled youth.

In contrast, the teens of "Sixteen Candles" do have loving parents that they sometimes get along with, sometimes fight with, who sometimes blunder and sometimes are right on in their advice and interactions with their children.  This is why I say "Sixteen Candles" seems like a more accurate, realistic movie (its outrageous gags notwithstanding), even if it's not as interesting a drama as "Breakfast Club".

"Fast Times at Ridgemont High" falls somewhere between the two other films in how it depicts teenage life.  On the one hand, it falls into the common trap of "Breakfast Club" and so many other teen movies of not having any adults around save a few background teachers.  This makes sense; wild romps and mishaps don't happen when parents and teachers are around.  Furthermore, the movie is based on Cameron Crowe's undercover reporting from within a high school, where he wouldn't have interacted with kids' parents.  But beyond this, I feel that "Ridgemont" is dead-on in many of its depictions of adolescence.  The characters are caught between the uncertainty and vulnerability (and sometimes the callousness) of childhood, and trying to project a more adult image of themselves so their friends will think they're more mature than they really are.  In particular a nuance I really thought was well-done was that everyone in the movie is talking about sex, but it is doubtful that anyone is actually really having sex, except for the credulous freshmen virgin who actually believes from her peers' posing and bravado that "everyone is doing it".  She is the only one we see to have a relatively active (and very awkward) sex life.  Not only with sex but in general, the movie's characters are always trying to seem more cool and blasé and knowledgeable than they really are.  This squares with my experiences of adolescence, both as an adolescent myself and as a step-parent (though watching the movie as an insecure teen myself, I didn't pick up so much on the fact that most of the characters' bravado was inflated bullshit, and not to be taken entirely at face value).  All praises aside, "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" doesn't have much in terms of plot, and the only major character of color is a young Forrest Whitaker acting generally like a black, savage, football-playing animal.  I still liked watching the movie though.

When I watch these 80s teen movies, I have this really strong feeling of nostalgia.  This is odd, given that they are from a time and a place that I never had direct experience with, and that is very different from my current reality.  As I put it once to some friends, for someone who has little interest or identification with white popular culture or the suburbs, I sure do love me some white suburban teen movies.

One thing I ask myself as these 80s flicks approach 30 years of age is whether they are dated.  Of course to me they aren't, because I still watch them through the eyes of an admiring pre-teen thinking the characters are the coolest, most current crew around.  But on the other hand, movies that were 30 years old when I was a kid were from the 1950s and 1960s, and they certainly did seem old-fashioned and not as relevant to the present day.  So is my regard for 1980s movies just a product of my generational bias, or do they in fact retain their relevance and contemporaneity?  As an objective test, I asked my 17-year-old stepdaughter.  She said that the Breakfast Club (the only film of the three that she's seen) didn't seem dated, and she and her classmates really enjoyed the movie.  This confirms my theory that by the 80s we'd reached at least a sort of technological threshold, a postmodern remove from much of reality's tangible aspects, such that life today doesn't seem so strikingly different than back then.  There were already videogames, modern phones, stripmalls, computers, cable TV, and many other trappings of modern electronic life.  Compare this to the 1950s and 60s, when none of these things were around, and people were still connected in many ways to some physical and natural limits to existence.  Perhaps this is why 80s flicks seem so current today, not just to me but to today's teens.  Hell, they're even copying 80s styles again!  Perhaps the 80s teen movies' continuing relevance is also a mark of the excellence of some of these filmmakers and actors.  Even in depicting the most mundane, trivial aspects of teenage life, we once again see the artists involved with these movies giving their all to make enduring works.  A truly Olympian effort.

1 comment:

  1. As someone who came of age in the 50s, I find" Fast Times at Ridgemont High," "Breakfast Club," and all of John Hughes' movies on perfect pitch. Teenage angst doesn't appear to have changed that much in the past 3 generations, although technology has provided new outlets and 9/11 a new backdrop and point of reference.