The New School

Everything I need to know about the modern American teen I learned by going to the movies

Then Kurt Cobain died, Lollapalooza ended, the economy picked up, and then, in the last year or so, these new teenagers showed up. Whole cities full of kids in fresh khakis, driving New Beetles, flashing wads of cash. The media is calling them things like Generation Y and Echo Boomers, but we'll just call them loaded. These kids don't know Atari from Alf or Reagan from Nixon, and they live in a world of Playstation and Yahoo!, a world where there has always been MTV.

They want a culture of their own, and the market forces are eager to meet them on the big screen, on the magazine racks, in clothing catalogs, everywhere. So now Matthew Broderick, most famous as 1980s teen iconoclast Ferris Bueller, plays a teacher, a middle-aged graying civics droner in Election, and New Teen Cinema pioneer Kevin Williamson says he's paying homage to an aging god named John Hughes. But the kids are even beginning to ask: Who's Kevin Williamson?

Lesson Nine: The Scream thing is so over.
First, we must thank Kevin Williamson. This is the guy who came up with Scream. The winking, self-aware horror flick loaded with young stars and young attitudes made $100 million and launched the wave of films leading to the New Teen Cinema, the fun, semi-ironic slaughterfests of I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, etc. He was the first to recast a classic genre (bad slasher flicks) with the new faces, but the look-at-me-look-at-me! self-reference device that made Scream so lively and original is now, immediately, over. It's annoying. It's old. It's GenX-ish. It's time to be serious about ourselves, the new on-screen teens are saying, because we have to take over the world here. It's time to demonstrate how smart and determined we are. It's time to be earnest, romantic, upbeat.

But Williamson is also the guy who came up with the antidote for the Scream thing: Dawson's Creek. He brought us fresh (if sappy and overwrought) weekly teencasts and drafted a young fantasy world to replace the vacancy at Melrose Place. His breakthroughs, while not quite the artistic achievements of My So-Called Life or Clueless, hit at exactly the right moment. But moments move fast these days, and Dawson's Creek has already started to slip behind the curve, its sincere introspection being replaced by something faster and smarter and perhaps much harder to peg.

Lesson Ten: Reality is what you can get away with.
As the exceptionally unmotivated couch-dwelling teen hero of Idle Hands flips through the channels, he stops on the news for a second. "I hate this show," he decides, and moves on. The alarmist, fear-fed frenzy of daily TV journalism is less relevant to the modern teenager's life, real or fictional, than the nutritional info on the side of a box of Trix. Three weeks ago, the average American male between the ages of 12 and 35 turned on 20/20 to see the Littleton shootings blamed on two of his favorite pastimes: Marilyn Manson and Doom. So he changed the channel.

The students of the New Teen Cinema, like their real-world counterparts, have a better handle on the melting, surreal landscape of emerging 21st-century media than do those who broadcast and program the stuff, and they "get it" in ways that those who demonize their culture will never comprehend. The rapid collision of all things blinking has occurred before the eyes of today's teenagers, and the boundaries between entertainment, advertising, news, and high school have merged into a new, higher (from their perspective) understanding of the world. It's natural and tangible.

It's no surprise, then, that MTV's The Real World serves as a sort of allegory in the New Teen Cinema, a parallel universe where life is better, but only just barely. In She's All That, one of the main characters dumps her boyfriend for Brock, a Puck-like oddball from The Real World ("The dyslexic volleyball guy?"), and Bianca in 10 Things... takes solace in watching five strangers argue in the comfortable surroundings of their Real World Seattle apartment. The characters of the New School understand their media and feel a part of it, able to walk back and forth between its world and reality. If high school were as easy to manipulate as the nail gun on Doom or the skip button on a CD player, there would be no real problems. So long as everyone finds a way to get along and you've found your one true love by the time you graduate and the credits roll, so long as you can drive away from high school with no enemies and a cool car, life is good.

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