Could you describe the ruckus, sir?

Published on March 22nd, 2011

This is part one of Alex’s two-part article about teen movies, MTV reality, and other things.

People that have met me more than once probably know that I’m a bigger fan of teen movies than most other 24 year-old males. I watched the Perfect Score twice in one day, for fuck’s sake. I will watch pretty much any post-1995 teen movie I come across multiple times, as evidenced by that summer in 2009 when I briefly became obsessed with the movie adaptation of Josie and the Pussycats. No other type of movie has more re-watch value for me, and I can confidently say that I could put on even John Tucker Must Die any day of the week and be immensely satisfied with my choice. I don’t know why I started liking teen movies as much as I do; somewhere along the line, it just sort of happened. I suspect Can’t Hardly Wait had a lot to do with it. I still go through phases where the only thing I want to watch are teen movies, and when that happens, I re-watch a pile of movies I have already seen countless times, and then I continue on with my life.

Most of the above statements can also be applied to MTV reality shows, which are not to be confused with “reality shows.” Reality shows are like a party where you don’t know a single person: if you don’t come across anybody particularly interesting in the first little while you’re there, you want to leave. MTV reality shows, on the other hand, are like that same party but now everybody is entertaining and there’s a well-stocked open bar. Once you figure out that you actually hate everybody there, you’re too drunk to care. I love these shows in the same way that I love teen movies; each format is excessively flawed, but extremely entertaining.

Teen movies probably first became popular with James Dean films in the 1950s, but their real expansion came when John Hughes came along and defined the youth of the 80s with his string of (mostly bad) hit movies that included the Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and Pretty in Pink. Like with the Hughes movies, if you were to ask just about anybody over the age of 18, I suspect that they would know without a doubt that the Real World was the beginning of its format.

MTV reality shows and teen movies can be watched passively and still be enjoyable, but the more effort you put into watching them, the more fun they become. It’s like watching Michael Bay movies as a metaphor for the world’s perception of America, or viewing Steven Seagal as the greatest comic actor of the 1980s. And since I can never watch a good teen movie, MTV reality show, or Seagal festival of arm breaking just once, I make sure to put more thought into these pieces of media than common sense would dictate.

In the inaugural episode of the Real World, one of the housemates quips that “when [he] walked through the doors, [he] saw a new world.” When I finally watched this episode in 2009, I disagreed with this statement, but that was mostly because 17 years had passed between Eric Nies literally walking into the Real World and me doing so figuratively. We didn’t walk into a new world; we walked into the version of 1992 that Real World creators Mary-Ellis Bunnim and Jonathon Murray decided would be the way many people remember the early 90s. To be honest, I’m happy I was 6 in 1992. The clothes are ridiculous: I dare you to watch the first episode and not laugh out loud when you see Nies’ hat. Apparently in the early 90s, everybody dressed like they were either starring in Clerks or a StepMaster infomercial.

Again, teen movies are temporally dependent in the same way. The reason I find the Breakfast Club to be more interesting than it is good is that most of the non-Ghostbusters pop cultural history of the 1980s pains me to look at now. Keep in mind, this is a decade that gave the world a Batman movie with a soundtrack by Prince. What John Hughes did with his movies, however, was to split every teenager up into (literally defined) character types, which in turn allowed the Real World to continue to apply them in the early 90s. And while the following decades have seen changes to these types, they are still present, adjusting to the modern environment as time goes on. Because of this, outside of the first few seasons when the show was still finding its format, older seasons of the Real World are just as hard to watch as the Breakfast Club. When I found that MTV’s website has all of the Real World seasons available to stream, I gave up halfway through the third season, but I could go for watching the entirety of the first season again. Once the show found its style and stuck with it, it became just as much of a sort of a time capsule as John Hughes movies are. If you weren’t there to experience these events with the characters, chances are you don’t care enough to watch them now. These pieces of media are just as much about you at the time as they ever were about Bender and Eric Nies.

The book “Everything Bad is Good for You” is an argument for examining the cognitive value of media that is typically deemed a waste of our time, such as video games and television. Authour Steven Johnson argues that the evolution of these formats allows our brains to handle either more complex environments and skills, like in video games, or more plot lines and characters in narrative television. He applies this to MTV reality shows as well, saying that they give us an opportunity to read and experience social interactions between the housemates in the Real World. And while these shows are contrived, they do offer something that you never see in scripted entertainment: the occasional show of genuine emotion. When a character first discovers something that legitimately surprises them (such as Heather’s discovery that Eric Nies is an idiot), the look on the character’s face cannot be recreated by an actor. As fabricated as these shows are, the value is in the parts that we truly didn’t see coming.

Chuck Klosterman has written a lot about MTV reality shows, and many of the points I have made so far may be subconsciously stolen from him, if only because I have read a lot of Klosterman a lot of times. I can’t help it that reading one of his essays takes about the same length of time it takes to grill a hamburger. Klosterman’s book “Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs” features an essay where he discusses how a couple of years after the Real World’s debut, he began to meet people who were like characters out of the Real World, which were of course just real-world variations on the 80s characters from Shermer, Illinois. These MTV reality shows are basically a way to watch the new dominant societal character types develop, just like Anthony Michael Hall’s note to Principal Vernon outlined these types in the 80s.

Years after writing his essay about the Real World, Klosterman would write an essay about voyeurism in “Eating the Dinosaur.” He discussed how he enjoys watching his neighbours through his own window, but would instantly lose interest if he was watching the exact same image on television. Watching the Real World and other MTV shows is not voyeuristic, it is merely a logical extension of the teen movie. Actors in films know that the characters they are portraying are being filmed for consumption by an audience, and they shape their performances accordingly. Reality stars do the same thing (for the most obvious evidence of this, see any episode of Jersey Shore).

The teen movie has always been older people commenting on what they believe modern youth culture is, and the Real World is no different. Both teen movies and MTV reality shows are filtered through a series of approvals: each need to stick to their formulas because the film studio believes said formula is central to a teen movie’s success (which it is), or MTV needs to do the same while maintaining a continuity in production for their network (which they do). Rarely do you get either of these products with minimal corporate influence. This is why the 2008 independent movie American Teen should have been far better than it is.

The basic idea of American Teen was to document the life of an average American teen: the movie was filmed in Warsaw, Indiana and follows five teenagers for a year at the local high school. The movie had a promising trailer, including a Ben Lyons quote dubbing it a modern day Breakfast Club, but upon its actual release I was disappointed. One of American Teen’s promotional posters was an homage to the infamous Breakfast Club poster, and it is telling that four out of the five main characters in American Teen fit near-perfectly into the Hughes type they are cast as in the poster. Through an obviously-scripted voiceover, the opening moments cast everybody in their teen movie roles, not unlike a montage you would see on an MTV show or the cafeteria clique rundown in Mean Girls. Within the first five minutes, we have been told who the jocks, nerds, and rebels are, and we know that “nothing ever really happens in Warsaw.”

American Teen is not much different from a standard MTV reality show, really. With the exception of a few uncensored curses, more use of cell phones than MTV typically allows, and some unexpected animated sequences, it could absolutely pass for a one-off MTV documentary. And that is what is disappointing about the movie; instead of using the formulas from past teen movies and MTV reality shows to do something different, American Teen actually is a modern-day Breakfast Club. Nothing new gets added to the mix; it is merely a combination of two well-established formulas. And in each, we watch a constructed version of a young human being experiencing life.

Kate Gosselin is the non-fascinating reality show star of Jon & Kate Plus 8, as well as other reality shows that get synopsized for me by friends’ Facebook statuses. When she was interviewed as one of Barbara Walters’ Most Fascinating People of 2009, Gosselin said that she wanted to keep the show going despite her divorce. Her point was that her young children had gotten so used to having the cameras around that when they disappeared, her kids actually missed the crew. Comments like that always make me wonder how reality show stars feel when the cameras leave them, and while none of Gosselin’s kids are old enough to give me a satisfactory answer about this, I feel American Teen’s rebellious Hannah might have one.

I rarely watch MTV reality shows about teenagers, for I still can’t stop myself from getting entirely too embarrassed when somebody like Jake acts in the most awkward way possible. Having your final year of high school documented by a film or television crew is, for the lack of a better term, fucked up. I realize that since the kids in American Teen are probably under 18, their parents sign waivers on their behalf, but this is not exactly a movie filled with great parenting. And while Hannah says at one point in the movie that she is conscious of how her words and actions can be transplanted with unintended meanings, this does not seem like something she is thinking of often. I know that if somebody had asked me to be a part of this film when I was in high school, I probably would have reflexively said yes, but I would almost certainly regret that decision now, years removed from high school. I would not have missed the crew. However, if I was an editor or director on American Teen, or the Breakfast Club, I would probably be hesitant to leave the project behind me once it was completed.

I’ll be back with Part 2 of this article next Tuesday.

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