Rhythms of Youth

The documentary Chain Camera spins with the delirium of contemporary teenhood

In the harsh realm where the smog burns one's eyes all day and the night streets are disquieting at best, children are stumbling and swooping into adulthood, consequences be damned. Chain Camera delivers a group portrait of several youths from John Marshall High School in Los Angeles, located smack-dab between the trendy neighborhoods of Silver Lake and Los Feliz, mere blocks from a supermarket that was once the site of the original Disney studios. What better place for a fresh generation of moviemakers to practice their craft?

Supposedly directed by Kirby Dick (Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist), but really a triumph of editing by Matt Clarke, this spry 90-minute venture is the result of a scholastic experiment. Beginning in August 1999, 10 students at John Marshall were given video cameras with which to document their lives, and--like chain letters--the cameras were passed along each week to their peers. The unbridled and engaging result, whittled down from 700 hours of footage and focusing on 16 students, may offer few surprises to observant Americans, but it's guaranteed to jolt viewers of a Norman Rockwell mentality well into the 21st century.

Naturally, during adolescence, one realizes that the reproductive organs offer more potential for amusement and personal gain than previously supposed, and many of the true directors of Chain Camera--the students themselves--employ the follies of the flesh for their fodder. Leo, for instance, introduces us to his friendly member by way of a bathroom puppet show, which is more or less like zooming through Doris Dörrie's Me and Him in only a couple of painless minutes. Equally frank but far less whimsical is Rosemary, who shares her aspirations of becoming a stripper, explaining that "If my dad was still around, I wouldn't be fucking these guys." Punches are not pulled.

L.A. story: When real kids carry the camera, real stuff happens.
L.A. story: When real kids carry the camera, real stuff happens.
Edited by Matt Clarke, from the videography of the students of John Marshall High School, Los Angeles

Of course, young love enters into these vignettes as well, most exceptionally in the cases of Cinnamon and her girlfriend Jennifer, whose mutual adoration (and unashamed lust) help them to transcend the horrid lack of romance they feel among their male peers, who appear to them to be concerned primarily with video games. Proving them wrong is fun-loving Ethan, who boasts not only a homecoming crown and a wall plastered with celebrity lovelies (including two images of Kate Winslet), but the funniest line in the whole production, delivered totally deadpan: "What exactly is virginity?"

That question is unwittingly answered by self-deprecating drum major Amy and her compassionate beau Christian, who are willing to venture into the empire of the senses as far as a peck on the cheek, but choose to unplug the camera when their giddy talk dissolves into lying about self-gratification. Displaying even sterner boundaries is Tim, who revels with friends in brutal mock-ups of pro wrestling, then wonders aloud why he's never had a girlfriend. At least he's got his sights set high, as he inquires of his beloved mother the best way to pick up college chicks.

Of course, Chain Camera ends up asking a lot more questions than it answers, not only because of the sketchiness of its segments but also because of all the context that we do not see. Unlike the comprehensive coverage of Michael Apted's Up films, these are quick glimpses, having more in common with MTV's The Real World and such. Fortunately, producers Dody Dorn (editor of Guinevere and Memento) and Eddie Schmidt (co-creator of the satiric Web site Ooze.com) stride a very smart line with this production. It avoids the sweet and sour polarity found between John Hughes' The Breakfast Club and Larry Clark's Kids (both adults' impressions of teen life) in favor of non-narrative spontaneity.

There's an energetic sense of political awareness woven throughout the proceedings, as students such as Mena and Silva explore intercultural relations in their pressure-cooker of a neighborhood, home to 41 different ethnicities. "When other cultures and other races are on TV, it's usually for the bad things they do," observes Mena, while struggling to balance the understandably low expectations of an African-American friend. Sorting out much more divisive paradigms, Silva reckons with the rifts in her family life and Armenian heritage while inveighing the expansive presence of Spanish-speaking peoples, allowing us to appreciate and doubt her at the same time.

As for production value, there's not much here to speak of, as Chain Camera lands its considerable impact not with fancy cinematography or careful staging but with the unexpected twists of real life. For instance, the segment of a girl called Stephanie commences with her father intoning "What a fuckin' bitch" over and over again, but just as the obnoxiousness reaches its zenith, we get to know the guy, the mannequin head he craftily uses for entry to the car-pool lane and the love for his daughter he expresses through folk dancing. Humanity shows up just in the nick of time.

Productions as diverse as Grease and Buffy the Vampire Slayer have used John Marshall for location shoots, so it's particularly revelatory to spend a little time with the noncelebrity students who actually attend the school. Fellatio and football, drugs and depression are all given equal attention, and while the sentiments on hand aren't exactly deep or inspiring, they land with much more immediacy than Hollywood tends to offer. Apart from the subjective shaping of the editing process, viewers are left to their own perceptions.

The immediate value of Chain Camera may not be apparent anyway, as its significance as a social barometer or demographic study could take years to surface. What it presents to the contemporary viewer is the challenge of diversity--what to make of it, how to harmonize it. As Victor, a gifted musician and revolutionary thinker, puts it, "Sometimes it scares me, but I just know it's, like, the universe."

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