When I was in sixth grade everyone had autograph books and we collected a little note from each of our fellow students and our teachers at graduation. Usually the messages were generic. ‘You’re a great kid. Good luck in Junior High.’ Sometimes the messages were more personal and revolved around an in-joke between you and the signer, infinitely upping the cool quotient of your autograph album. Another feature of the autograph book was the way the date was written. It almost always revolved around a pun. ‘Dated till Niagara Falls’ , ‘Dated till Bert Parks on Abbe Lane’, ‘Dated, are you?’ I rarely got the clever ‘dated’ puns in my album. Instead I got things like: “Dated until Mitchell grows long hair and wears bell-bottoms’ or ‘Dated until Mitchell likes rock ‘n’ roll’.
The evidence here points to the fact that I was never interested in books, film or music aimed at ‘young people’. I always felt I was being patronized. What? Am I not smart enough to read or view stuff intended for adults?
I was suspicious of the Beach Boys. ‘We’ll have fun, fun, fun till your Daddy takes your T-Bird away’ Wait, they are actually sneaking out behind their parents back and doing mischief in a car? Do they really believe they should be getting away with things that are wrong by singing a catchy tune about it?
A friend of mine was reading the Harry Potter books to her younger son until he asked her to stop. ‘These kids are told not to do things, they do them and never get in trouble for it.’ , he explained. This kid is my soul brother.
The problem that I had with youth-oriented art is that is seemed to prize rebellion for rebellion’s sake. That appeared to be bratty at best and destructive at worst. I was horrified when the Brando character in The Wild One was asked, ‘What are you rebelling against?” His answer was ‘Whaddya got?’ “Well, that’s no good!” I thought, “Who’s going to take you seriously if your rebellion is so unfocused and you are just being a thug?’
As I got a little older I realized that many of these ‘rebellious youth’ films were the studios’ cynical way of cashing in on the youth trend of the day. In the Forties, audiences melted for the homespun high jinx of Andy Hardy. In the Fifties and early Sixties you get things like Rebel Without A Cause with the iconic and greatly over-rated James Dean held up to be the spokesman of teenage angst. His classic line ‘You’re tearing me apart’ always makes me laugh.
What problems does this bourgeois kid have that he is so rebellious? His parents are disconnected from him? Join the club. Just the fact that the rebellion is described as being without a cause should immediately diminish the audiences interest. Nothing is more boring than spending two hours with a petulant teenager.
Yet the vague notion of being ‘against the Establishment’ was romantic enough to elevate Brando, Dean, Belmondo and the others to heroic stature.
I just never understood what I was supposed to take away from these films and characters. It wasn’t like they were fighting Nazis or the Spanish Civil War. They just seemed like bored, suburban kids with way too much time on their hands which leads to a morbid self-obsession.
A few years ago I would have been tempted to add Breathless to the mix of movies of this type. But on recent viewings it seems to me that Godard is actually doing a riff on the bad-boy rebel. It is almost a pastiche, a send-up, loving though it is.
That’s what makes the Japanese movie The Warped Ones all the more disturbing. This film, whose Japanese title is more accurately rendered into English The Season of Heat, has as its hero a young man recently out of jail who, with his two sidekicks, a female prostitute and a male gang-banger wannabe, spend most of the movie misbehaving in public, raping girls on the beach, grooving to ‘black jazz’ and just in general being scarily sociopathic.
It is hard to tell if the director or screenwriter would have seen Breathless, since this film also came out in 1960. The lead, though, seems like he is channeling Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character. He has a recurring gesture that recalls the famous thumb passing the lips in Breathless. His restless taut body is also reminiscent of Belmondo. But when it is all over, we are not left with much except a lot of expressed anger, anti-social behavior and a sense of despair. I am still not sure if this character is not being held up as some kind of counter-culture hero.
I can think of many examples of films that show feckless, rebellious youth to great effect. I would recommend Louis Malle’s great Lacombe Lucien as an example of what happens when an angry bored young man can’t have his talents properly channeled. I am sure there are others. Any recommendations?