A larger, related question of signification (how objects and actions are invested with meaning and how those meanings are read) is raised in the GSA discussion group. The topic is whether or not you can tell if a person is gay based on appearance. The teacher asks, “How can you tell? Can you tell?” (The viewer may also be tempted to try to “tell” which students are gay and which are straight.) There is no consensus. “Dyed pink hair” and “wearing tons of rainbow paraphernalia” is conclusive for some students, but not for others. One straight student wears rainbow gear as a sign of solidarity. Another student hypothesizes that a straight person could wear rainbow gear just for the heck of it. In true postmodern fashion a sign and its referent are separable. Markers of identity can be adopted at will. The reuse and re-motivation of signs is also referenced in the television documentary. It describes how Hitler “stole” imagery from Hindu symbology (the swastika), Ancient Rome (the standard), and Mussolini (the fascist salute) for the Third Reich (thus Hitler becomes the first postmodern appropriationist).
These discussions resonate throughout the film. How can you spot a potential schoolyard shooter? Do the now-accepted “signs” (violent entertainment, access to guns, bullying) really tell us anything? Van Sant surrounds Alex in particular with a variety of personal, cultural, and social markers that point in different directions. Alex is associated with artistic creativity and gun culture, two things not usually allied. When we first seem him dappled with spitballs he is drawing in a journal and drawings decorate his basement bedroom walls. There is a graffiti art canvas on the wall as well. The word “Arte” is legible in the painting, suggesting the marriage of fine art and street art, and perhaps the mixed nature of Alex’s identity.
Gangsta rap and hard rock are the current musical signs—some say the causes—of youth violence. But then what do we make of Alex playing Mozart and Beethoven on the piano? Isn't classical music a sign of cultivation, the best Western Civ has to offer? (Stanley Kubrick used classical music ironically as a sign of youth violence and the decadence of modern civilization in A Clockwork Orange). Alex wears a faded Arc d' Triomphe t-shirt throughout the film, enhancing his link with European high culture, suggesting that he has either visited Paris with his parents or with a school group.
Bullying, a common explanation for the schoolyard shootings of the last decade, is obviously a motivation for Alex but not for Michelle. She doesn't turn against her fellow students. In fact, she works in the school library, serving the very community that pressures and ridicules her. And we aren't the only ones looking for signs of troubled teens. According to Jordan and Brittany, their mothers not-so-secretly search through their possessions for signs of misbehavior (drugs, presumably). The closest thing the film has to a “goth” (which the Columbine shooters were incorrectly identified as) is the retro-punk couple Elias photographs. But they are just nice kids, certainly more admirable than the more outwardly “normal” Alex and Eric. Just as “rainbow gear” doesn't necessarily indicate homosexuality, punk gear doesn't necessarily indicate alienation, rebellion, or street-life poverty.
Physical homosexuality is the most troubling sign Van Sant introduces into the story. If “rainbow gear” doesn't “prove” someone is gay, does Alex and Eric’s kiss prove they are gay? If Eric has never kissed anyone then presumably Alex has never kissed him either. Are they acting on a whim? Is their sexual acting out a sign that they are too “into each other?” Gay or not, does this have anything to do with their subsequent violence? Placed after their Hitler-viewing and gun firing and just before the killings their kiss is positioned as additional evidence of aberration, leading critic Todd McCarthy to call the boys “gay-inclined Nazis.” Scott Foundas of the LA Weekly strongly criticizes Van Sant for thoughtlessly adopting early, unsubstantiated (and now largely discredited) rumors that the Columbine killers were gay. Van Sant claims to have not heard such rumors before he made the film. (Foundas, 4, LaBruce 18)
Van Sant is sensitive to criticisms of this scene. He asserts the boys are not gay, likening the boys’ behavior to warriors before battle, (homosociality rather than homosexuality) and confesses dissatisfaction with the scene, claiming that Eric’s line about never having been kissed was an awkwardly placed “disclaimer” to prevent the very objections that have been raised (LaBruce 18). Even if you assume the boys are gay, they are certainly not representative. The GSA discussion group has several and they don't seem to be killers. One critic sees the kiss as a humane gesture,
Either through miscalculation or willfulness, Van Sant dares us to examine what homosexuality is a sign of in this context.
The most persistent sign in the juvenile delinquency/crime genre is social environment; a matrix of economic status, physical surroundings, family structure, and sundry cultural influences, usually popular music and drugs. Until the 1970s American cinema usually adopted a liberal, Rousseauist perspective:
Delinquency is a result of nurture, not nature. The basic narrative of the genre describes how ineffective, incomplete, or absent parental authority causes or allows teens to create substitute families (often gangs) and homes (a crash pad, squat, or drug den). These ad-hoc families are just as dysfunctional as the biological families the kids are escaping and usually disintegrate through a combination of lawlessness, internal conflict and external pressure from society. Occasionally, good kids can be peeled off from bad kids and reintegrated with society, sometimes with the help of a surrogate parent: a social worker, teacher, or police officer.
In the 1930s Warner Brothers Studios emphasized the environmental causes of crime in its gangster films and related juvenile crime films. In Wild Boys of the Road (William Wellman, 1933) loyal, self-sacrificing Andy Hardy-style youths are driven to petty crime and open revolt by Depression hardships. The parents are equally victimized by social conditions and are blameless for their children’s waywardness. Shots of factories and smokestacks in these films appear with “desire to escape” implicitly stamped all over them.
The movies’ equation of juvenile delinquency and popular culture was established in the opening title sequence of Blackboard Jungle, which is scored to Bill Haleys’ “Rock Around the Clock.” Rock 'n' roll implicitly exacerbates environmental influences. Blackboard Jungle pointedly contrasts a crime-ridden urban high school with an idyllic suburban high school where we hear the national anthem instead of rock 'n' roll. Suburbanization is presented as a social cure-all.
At the same time low-budget exploitations films geared for drive-in theaters with lurid titles such as Teen-Age Strangler (1965), The Bloody Brood (1965) Teen-Age Gang Debs (1966) and Just For the Hell of It (1967) presented delinquents as out-of-control gangs bent on rape, pillage and plunder. Although these films were not meant to be taken seriously, they clearly posit a turbulent teen nature, rather than environment, as the cause of delinquency.
But what happens when the economic explanation for delinquency doesn't apply? How do you account for delinquency in the midst of prosperity? Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955) is the transitional film of the juvenile delinquency genre because emotional, not economic poverty is the cause of delinquency. Rebel is the model for liberal, ameliorative films such as Ordinary People (1980), Lost Angels (1989), crazy/beautiful (2001), thirteen (2003), and Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting (1997) and Finding Forrester (2000). In these films adults are as messed up as the kids and need to get their own acts together before they can set youth on the right path.
The first killer kid movie, The Bad Seed (Mervyn LeRoy, 1956), is something of an anomaly because it insists on heredity rather than environment as the reason for a young girl’s scheming murderousness. In fact, several characters engage in a nature vs. nurture debate. Spokesmen for criminology and medical science confidently dismiss the heredity thesis, but are proven wrong when the girl’s mother learns that she is actually the offspring of a murderess. Although the film tries to keep the environmental thesis off the table, the father is absent from the home during most of the action (he’s a de facto deadbeat dad) and the family lives in a duplex rather than a house, which in American cinema is a sign of a family in peril.
The rise of the youth counter-culture of the 1960s transformed juvenile delinquency into heroism—or more accurately, anti-heroism. Young people escape from or attack their social environment in If... (1968), Zabriskie Point (1970), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Massacre at Central High (1976), and The Warriors (1979). In these films nurture means conformity and repression and should be resisted in favor of an uninhibited youthful nature. Demonic delinquency films such as The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976), Carrie (1976) and The Fury (1978) cite the devil or supernatural powers as the problem. Although The Omen’s Damien is evil at heart, The Exorcist’s Regan (who has an absent dad) is a good girl possessed by an evil spirit that can be exorcized.
One of the most disturbing and poignant films of this apocalyptic youth cycle is Over the Edge (Jonathan Kaplan, 1979). Based on a true incident, bored and ignored middle school teens turn to insubordination, drugs, guns, and vandalism. A frustrated police officer shoots a 14 year old and teens go on a vengeful rampage, trap their teachers and parents in the school auditorium and trash the school. Shot on location, the desolateness of suburbia is vividly felt for the first time in the genre. Reversing the pro-suburbia terms of Blackboard Jungle, open space is not an antidote to crowded slums, but a sign of social disconnection and spiritual emptiness, a vacuum waiting to be filled by delinquency.
During the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s counter-culture was out and adult authority was back in. This shift is reflected in films in which delinquents—often punks or hip hop youth—are dealt with forcefully by school officials: Class of 1984 (1982), Lean on Me (1989), Class of 1999 (1990), The Substitute (1996). The parental substitute is now a vigilante figure (in the Substitute films, he’s a Rambo-like ex-mercenary). As in Blackboard Jungle good teens are peeled away from the irredeemable. Reversing the liberal environmental perspective, bad social environments do not create juvenile delinquency, juvenile delinquents create bad social environments.
In the gangsta/hood films of the 1990s the forces that undermine the delinquent gang are pulling an entire community apart. The poor African-American neighborhood is far more isolated and violent than the ethnic enclaves in the Warner Bros. films of the 1930s. Unique to these films is racial despair, a bitter sense that in America blackness is both a curse and a license for self-annihilation. “It’s tough being black in America,” counsels a parent in Menace II Society (1993). “The hunt is on. And you're the prey.” But since these films are also gangster thrillers the brutality and nihilism are counterbalanced by the lively depiction of urban slang, charismatic criminality, youthful high spirits, the satisfactions of revenge, and the glamorousness of the gangsta lifestyle.
The juvenile delinquency/crime genre is now in its sociopath phase. Although youth crime, teen childbirths, and certain types of drug usage are statistically lower now than in the previous decades, highly publicized events such as the Central Park jogger attack, the Spur Posse, the pre-Millennial school shootings, and continuing gang violence in large cities have given young people their worse reputation ever. The latest moral panic—the most salacious yet—involves a supposed “epidemic” of oral sex in the nation’s middle schools, documented by no less a literary luminary than Tom Wolfe. When commentators discuss urban “superpredators,” a “lost generation” of African-American youth, executing juveniles, “Pavlovian dogs” addicted to consumerism (Tyre 44), or the Columbine massacre as paradigmatic of youth today, they are saying that nurture is ineffective in the face of a corrupted—or at least easily corruptible—nature.
Like the girl in The Bad Seed, movie teens are seen as “born without pity.” The characteristics of antisocial personality disorder (ADP)—egocentrism, sadism, lack of empathy, inability to feel remorse—are depicted as inherent to youth, like measles, not as aberrations. Rather than argue with parents and take out their rage on a repressive society teens exist in isolated tribes and victimize each other, while the sources of their rage and oppression are ill-defined. The male characters in particular seem to be driven by fears of powerlessness, victimization, and humiliation that propel them to extreme acts. The orgiastic violence that seemed exaggerated in 1950s exploitation films is now—in the age of “wilding"—depicted as a real-world possibility.
We could understand, and to varying degrees sympathize with, the rebellious youth of Rebel Without a Cause, A Clockwork Orange, and Over the Edge. But the troubled teens of That Was Then This is Now (1985), River’s Edge (1986), Permanent Record (1988), Kids (1995), Pups (1999), Boys Don't Cry (1999), George Washington (2000), Bully (2001), All About Lily Chou Chou (2001), Better Luck Tomorrow (2002), Home Room, Mean Creek (2004) and Elephant are mysterious, their crimes inexplicable or merely vengeful. The liberal environmental critique has been modified by an implicit conservative moral perspective: kids go bad because they are too independent, too wealthy, too mobile, too sexual, and too free. Dr. Laura has replaced Dr. Spock.
River’s Edge (Tim Hunter, 1986) is the locus classicus of this phase. High schoolers in a small California town, out of peer group loyalty, fail to report the murder of one of their classmates by her boyfriend. The grimness of the premise (based on a true event) is leavened by black humor, Crispin Glover’s showy turn as the slightly crazed ringleader, a “good” teen romance to balance out the “bad” teen romance, and a thriller climax in which Keanu Reeves is able, 1950s-style, to “get through” to his angered, gun-wielding half-brother (essentially an optimistic reworking of the climax of Rebel Without a Cause in which Jim saves Plato). But the characterization of the killer is still chilling: a misogynistic grunge oaf who snuffs out his girlfriend with the indifference of a bratty child squishing a bug.
Sexuality is one of the major differences between contemporary youth films and pre-1970s films. In Rebel Without a Cause James Dean and Natalie Wood managed only some light kissing. Promiscuous, adulterous parents implicitly pave the way for teen sex and violence in Pretty Poison (1968), and Last Summer (1969). In comedies like Animal House (1978), Porky’s (1982), Risky Business (1983) and American Pie (1999) sexual satisfaction is a youth’s natural right, irrespective of parental example. In delinquency/crime films the more sexually active youths are, the more violent they are, while sexuality is tinged with brutality and humiliation.
At the height of the destruction in Over the Edge Michael—a fugitive hero among the teens—stands with his arm around his new girlfriend while a trashcan fire blazes in the foreground. Sexual and destructive teen ids have been released simultaneously. The killer in River’s Edge gets the same feeling of power and control killing his girlfriend as he did having sex with her. In Kids, a relatively innocent skinny-dipping session contrasts a later rape scene. Bully depicts one of the most brutal killings in the genre and the most sexualized teens. Sexual deception leads to rape and multiple murders in Boys Don't Cry. The only non-virgin aboard the rowboat in Mean Creek precipitates the drowning death of the bully. This sex-violence connection is confirmed by the fact that in non-violent films such as Clueless (1995), Ten Things I Hate About You (1999), Bring it On (2000), Love Don't Cost a Thing (2003), You Got Served (2004) and the John Hughes films teens are improbably chaste.