I Was A Teenage Teenager

In January, San Francisco’s Roxie Theater programmed I Was a Teenage Teenager, a film series dedicated to the teenage experience. The results were eclectic and diverse, just like teenagers themselves. Vintage 35mm prints of canonical films like Rebel Without A Cause were shown alongside VHS exploitation flicks and YouTube curiosities. Nothing was off limits, with the pointed exception of John Hughes movies. We talked to the Roxie’s Gina Basso and Mike Keegan about the programming process and the more.

Above is a scene from Jerry Gross’s Teenage Mother.

Teenage: How and why did you decide to dedicate an entire series to examining the teenage experience?

Mike Keegan: I would defer to Gina, since it was originally her idea. However, I think a through-line in the series that Gina and I collaborate on (as well as in my on-going work with at the Roxie) can be boiled down to something like “true tales from lives lead.”

Gina Basso: I’d always had an interest in films about teens certainly while I was a “teenager,” clearly it was a fascination with seeing aspects of my little teenage world depicted on screen, and finding affinities with characters or I found myself being lured in by teen protagonists whose experiences went far beyond my own.

Fast forward into the future… the first collaboration between Mike and I revolved around kids on the boundaries, marginalized youth were examined in two very different films in a program we dubbed “Teenage Corruption Classics” and from there we’ve just kept on mining youth culture and subcultures mainly through the lens of music in a series we’ve presented the past two summers. It felt very natural for us to continue this thread and bring together radically different films focusing on teenage experiences – even though our teen years are far behind us, we found the “teenager” as a subject a rich area for exploration.

Above is a clip from Frederick Wiseman’s High School.

Teenage: How many “teen movies” and docs did you guys watch while programming this?

MK: I think our initial list was something like forty movies, and we winnowed it down based on bills that would have MAXIMUM IMPACT on our viewers!

GB: I can’t even remember. It’s been an ongoing thing! But I tend to watch movies about teens, rather than ones marketed towards teens. The planning phase lasted about a year and during that time Mike and I would meet regularly to share our lists of films and together we chipped away at a list of about 100 films. In the end I think we presented 11 or so features.

Above is the trailer for Jonathan Kaplan’s Over the Edge.

Teenage: John Hughes is this towering figure in the teen movie genre, but your series was pretty explicit in not featuring his work. Can you elaborate on why you chose to look elsewhere, and why do you think that no singular auteur has since become synonymous with the genre?

MK: Well, it’s a two-fold reason from where I’m standing. The first is, those movies get enough attention and show around San Francisco plenty. The other, sort of more argumentative reason is that I think the politics of those movies are gross and pretty simplistic, they’re obviously written by a guy in his late twenties or thirties or whatever, and if you strip away the “cool” artifice of having, like, a Smiths poster on the wall of a character there is nothing actually cool or true about the movies.

You could make the argument, and I guess I’m going to do that right now, that Tim Hunter is sort of the anti-John Hughes in the best possible sense. He wrote Over the Edge (which is unabashedly one of my favorite movies in the history of the world), he co-wrote and directed the fantastic S.E. Hinton adaptation Tex, and he wrote and directed River’s Edge. All three films have emotionally complex teen protagonists, fairly realistic adolescent reactions to outsized situations, and unbelievably bitchin’ soundtracks.

GB: I enjoyed John Hughes films very much, and having been a teen when they were released, I was thankful for them. But I feel they didn’t age well and they didn’t belong in I Was a Teenage Teenager – one thing we were trying to avoid were films that were neatly packaged for a teen market, tied up with a bow and had happy endings, like fairy tales – that’s one of the reasons we included Michele O’ Marah’s remake of Valley Girl, because it points towards the fairy tale artifice of the original. Rather than offering a softer, sweeter or even nostalgic look at teen years it was important for us to show films that revealed how eternally complicated this part of life is in ways that John Hughes films do not.

The teens of today are deep into “selfie” culture so they maybe they are the best ones to tell their own story right now. Relatedly, the whole celebrity culture thing has such a strong allure for teens, the idea of fame and celebrity culture that reality shows have been paving and teens are following, or emulating, or aspiring to be “famous” for the sake of fame – so they’ve become the best self-promoters for better or for worse. I think a film like The Bling Ring (which was not included in the series) tapped into that world spot on.

Above is the trailer for Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass.

Teenage: Your series featured a good mix of high brow and low brow film, with docs and narratives coexisting drawn from nearly a half century of film & television. After curating the series: what kind of film do you feel came closest to capturing the teenage experience?

MK: Oh boy, that’s hard. I think Valley Girl: The Remake definitely captures what it’s like to immerse yourself in the world of teenagers when you’re well in your thirties.

GB: I have to say that a film like Splendor in the Grass hones in on one of the pivotal teenage experiences: first love. The love affair of Deenie and Bud is encumbered by a number of outside forces: class, societal conventions, peer pressures, and so on. After all these years, it has lost none of its power to arouse sympathy for the character of Deenie — her developing sexual desires and emotions go against the grain – she wants to be a good girl, but she also craves physical intimacy and acceptance – no wonder she took drastic measures: “I’m not spoiled, Mama!”

Above is the trailer for Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank

Teenage: Is there a common thread of the teenage experience that’s captured in these movies? Are there any major aspects of teen life that’s been left out?

MK: Let’s see, I think we covered lust, violence, sexual obsession, gangs, motorbikes, escalating drug use… Maybe the one thing we didn’t show was a well-adjusted family with a happy home life? But what would the fun be in showing a movie about that?

GB: Collectively there’s a wild ride of emotions in these films – these kids are incredibly passionate and driven whether by love (or lust), peer or societal pressure or even at a subconscious level, death, and they live for today and they demand instant gratification, who cares about tomorrow, right?

The teen-adult relationship is like plate tectonics or smashing atoms, I don’t know what metaphor is appropriate here but it’s a strong current that pushes the characters to various ends. Many of these films really probe the notion of adults as role models, a majority of the adults in the series are not providing any sort of sound foundation for life – they’re ignorant of their child’s needs, selfish, out of step with them or just generally unable to be a parent so the kid has to figure it out on their own.

The social dynamics and survival skills of youth are fascinating. The documentaries All American High and God Speed You! Black Emperor show that teens are masters of self-organizing into groups, they find safety in numbers. On the other hand the loners are intriguing characters and they develop coping mechanisms in fascinating ways, such as finding family substitutes as in Rebel Without a CauseFish Tank or Endless Love.

The series certainly had its limits due to logistics and resources, the hard reality of presenting a durational series. I do feel it managed to cover a lot of ground…if we had the resources (like time and money! ) to extend the series, I have included films about LGBT teens, teens of color and quite simply, I would have had a more international scope.

For more information about the Roxie’s I Was a Teenage Teenager on their site.

Teenage is now playing in San Francisco, Berkeley, Ft. Wayne & Chicago. For more information, cities and dates, click here.