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With gritty 'Kids,' Hollywood's vision of youth has finally grown up Innocence Lost

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The line between Andy and Telly is as straight as the flight of a bullet, and its consequences are possibly as tragic.

Andy Hardy, who was played by Mickey Rooney over the course of 15 MGM movies between 1937 and 1944, was the son of a judge who lived in a big white house under the trees in a suburb that was a leafy-green dream of stability and decency in a world that itself was stable and decent. "Hey, kids," was his immortal signature line, "let's put on a show."

With his pal Judy Garland, he stood for everything we Americans could be proud of. Darn it, he was optimistic, entrepreneurial, respectful, ambitious and spunky. Lord, that boy had spunk! Befreckled under a thatch of strawberry blond hair, he was Huck and Tom, he was Peck's not-so-bad boy, he was apple-cheeked innocence and the spirit of can-do smelted down into one archetypal figure.

Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick) is from another part of the forest, and it's a different forest. He's the key figure in Larry Clark's "Kids," which arrived Friday leaking toxic vapors of melancholy. At 15, Telly roams New York City in quest of one thing: "busting virgins" (that is, taking their virginity). Why? That's his idea of safe sex.

Telly, virtually unsupervised by parents (the few he knows he treats with utter contempt), is one of the world's champion sexual con men. Unformed, callow, body-hairless, he looks like the kid who delivers the paper or the pizza, but he's got the nerve of a cat burglar and the narrow rat-brain of a hungry rodent. He loves to look his defenseless targets in the eye and tell them how sweet they are and how he cares about them and how he wants to be their boyfriend. When he succeeds in deflowering them, he slips out the back, Jack, high-fives it with a buddy who's waited outside, and the kids take off.

What Telly doesn't know -- though if he did, it's unclear whether or not he'd care or alter his behavior in any way -- is that he's HIV-positive. So he's a little death merchant. His signature line might be, "Hey, kids, let's put on a plague." What he's selling isn't the America of infinite possibility but the America of diminished horizons, the America without a future.

Imagine these two boys confronting each other across the gulf of years. What could they possibly say to each other?

Andy: Golly, gosharooties, you've actually (gulp!) had s-x? What would your dad say?

Telly: I don't have a dad.

Andy: No dad? Holy Cow!

Telly: And if I did, ---- him! And ---- you too!

Kids say the darndest things.

Does this signify the end of civilization, or simply a higher reality in storytelling about teen-agers? Interesting question, no answer, but I tend to favor the later interpretation.

Andy Hardy, much as we love him, is a lie. He's the way it's supposed to be. When we look at our own teen-agers, something in us wills us to yearn for their innocence and decency. Telly, damn his worthless, tender, stupid soul, is the truth. He's the bad news nobody wants to hear, the phone call in the middle of the night from a cop, the telegram that blows your life apart. He demands only one thing, and that is eminently practical: Deal with it.

Of course, the lie behind Andy can be somewhat forgiven when one realizes that the movies really pre-date the invention of teen-agers. They hail from the last years of the '30s and the first years of the '40s -- when it was unclear how much money could be made by identifying, in market terms, a particular unit of the population, and by pandering to it and guiding its tastes and wants.

It's apparent in looking at the Andy Hardy films that their makers envisioned no separate teen culture, no unique set of teen values or teen crises. Metaphorically, Mickey and Judy were tiny adults and their "society" was a distillation of adult society. It's no surprise that the field in which they chose to triumph, show biz, reflected the mentality of the film community rather than anything in the authentic America -- then in the grips of a Depression -- in which the movies were purportedly set.

The first real teen-age movies arrived in the early '50s and were synonymous with the outgrowth in two trends that society at large viewed with concern. They were juvenile delinquency and, of course, rock and roll. Nicholas Ray's "Rebel Without a Cause" may not have been the first, but it was certainly the most powerful that defined teen culture as apart from grown-up society and at cross-purposes from it. Of course, its central emblem was the surly, beautiful James Dean, then redefining the American teen-age look for all time.

Where the idealized teen was clean-cut, obedient, a team player, someone who clearly bought into the myths of society, Dean saw through them. He had slit eyes, a snarly little voice and a coolness that suggested that nothing was worthwhile. Vastly overrated as an actor (the movies, especially "Rebel Without a Cause" don't hold up), he was most powerful as an icon of defiance. His posters have lasted longer than his movies, and rightly so; they are better. With that dangling cigarette and that beautiful knitted brow that foresaw complication and tragedy, he expressed an idea so counter to the homilies of '50s society it's no wonder he scared adults fiercely. No, he seemed to be saying, things are not going to get better. They are going to get worse. A lot worse.

Teens as 'others'

Can there be a better expression of what the '50s made of the newly emergent teen culture than "I Was A Teenage Werewolf"? This mildly cheesy low-budget horror pic of 1953 featured a pre-"Bonanza" Michael Landon as the wolfboy, whose natural testosterone charge of hostility was given a boost by the injection of wolf juice. Landon turned into a hairpie by the imposition of crude process photography. But the crummy little movie was one of the first to identify teens as "others," as aliens in their own country. "Blackboard Jungle" did the same thing, only was more mainstream and much less interesting, though it did artificially boost its anti-teen-ager message by appealing to teens with its theme song, "Rock Around the Clock."

Of course, at the same time, through the medium of music, teens were beginning to be courted as never before. That same song formed the basis of another film -- "Rock Around the Clock," featuring Bill Haley and his boys, as well as The Platters, Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, and Little Richard. Insipid and forgettable, it nevertheless stumbled on what would be a prime marketing ploy of the decades to come: Isolate, pander and profit.

In fact, Hollywood has traditionally tried to surf both sides of the generational wave -- pandering equally to the teens themselves and to those who feared them. With hypocrisy unrivaled by any industry except possibly television, it took turns making films that treated teens as suckers with pockets full of chump change and as threats or menaces.

The only serious teen movies of the time focused on the image of the aberrant teen: "Blue Denim," about the (shudder) reality of teen pregnancy, and "Splendor in the Grass," about the emotional difficulties teens could get themselves into if they loved unwisely. But those two films also established the hallmarks of the Hollywood take on teen-agers: Kids played by actors in their 20s, in clothes completely unrelated to the clothes real teens wore, and speaking a language no teens spoke. The movies just weren't fast enough to keep up with the changes in teen life. In, say, 1958's "High School Confidential," a lurid take on what "really went on in high school," the term "hep cat" was thrown about. Yeah, right. As if.

'60s at the beach

The most obvious form of pandering arrived in the early '60s, when the teen world was still represented as essentially frivolous and painless. These were the beach blanket movies -- where Frankie Avalon, who appeared to be not only testosterone-free but almost without a hair anywhere on his body, and Annette Funicello, already neutered by her years under the shadow of rodent ears on "The Mickey Mouse Club," enacted hormone-diminished courtship rituals on the beaches of Southern California. These were sunny, sexless days, untroubled by notions of drugs or the rebellion of youth. At the same time, the movies were completely incapable of imagining teen-agers as real people. They were so stylized as to be annoying. They could never be accused of pandering, and for the life of me I don't know who their intended audience was. I know of no teen-age peer who ever took them seriously.

But by the late '60s, kids were too smart -- and too financially powerful, and too angered by what was going on -- to be bought off by such sugar-coating. Filmmakers -- particularly younger filmmakers -- were quick to respond to their new power, and in a very few years the counter-culture of alienated youth became the culture: It took over Hollywood.

The '60s films, though not exclusively "teen-age" in their orientation, represented pretty much an assault on everything their fathers had taken for granted, while extolling values of narcotic and sexual liberation; even hinting at revolutionary power. The hippie became the new cowboy, as a film like "Alice's Restaurant" pointed out. And the great films of the era are noted for their radicalization. "Bonnie and Clyde," for example, demonstrated how the disenfranchised could express their bTC identities through violence. "Easy Rider" was a counterculture encomium, glamorizing nominal "outsiders" -- dope dealers -- and following their odyssey across America as they encountered rural purity and redneck violence.

Kids also expressed themselves by which movies they would not see: conventional visions of western heroism -- thus essentially killing off the Western and the War Movie, at least until revisionist strategies could be adapted.

An American masterpiece

If any movie ever reflected the exhaustion of the late '60s, it was the one authentic masterpiece of the teen film cult, 1973's "American Graffiti." George Lucas insisted on looking back beyond the days of rage to the days of normalcy. His film was a passionate homage to the old days -- the first burst of '50s revisionism (though it was technically set in '62).

Marlon Brando had once claimed, in a youth film ("The Wild One"), that he was rebelling against "whatever you got," meaning the '50s. But here was Lucas saying: Hey, the '50s were pretty cool. He portrayed an ordered teen society in which everyone knew their place and was comfortable -- nerds were nerds (or toads) and cool guys were cool guys. It seemed wonderful, especially when set at a magically evoked Drive-In that gleamed in the night like a kind of Camelot. Happy Days, indeed.

In fact, subsequent films for teens have tended to be relatively benevolent. The "anthropological" films that have followed from "American Graffiti" -- like "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," "Metropolitan" and John Hughes' "Sixteen Candles" and "The Breakfast Club," and even the most recent, "Clueless" -- have tended to look frankly at teen society as an ordered society. They've tended to extend sympathy to young people trying to find their place in a confusing world.

The "anti-teen" impulse has been relegated mainly to movies like the slasher films of the late '70s, which express terrible anger at youths for being so young and beautiful by inflicting grotesque homicides upon them -- the prettiest girls the first of all. Yet teens themselves were the ones who supported such movies in droves, for reasons that no sociologist has ever really understood.

But "Kids" is almost unique in the genre. It bears certain resemblances to the anthropology films in that it purports to be an X-ray of a society (over a single day, too, similar in structure to "American Graffiti's" single night). It is infinitely sadder, though. It shows teens not through a romantic prism of remembrance -- director Clark certainly isn't looking back on his own life -- but through the harsh daylight of naturalism. It's terribly believable, all of it: the profanity, the casualness about sex, the violence.

The kids, it is saying, are not all right.

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