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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Everything But The Kitchen Sink

If one looks at the traditions of British and French cinema, one notices a plethora of coming-of-age stories, swelling to a peak at the tail of the nouvelle vague. Typically our heroes are male, 11-20 years-old, often working class, often ostracized dreamers, social climbers, and those yearning for more than the lot that life has provided them. These films tend to be grounded in reality (though usually feature a healthy imagination on the part of our heroes), and range from the heartbreakingly realistic (Masculin Feminin, 400 Blows, Billy Liar, Darling, This Sporting Life) to the more lighthearted and fantastical (Amélie, Billy Elliot).

In the former category, we happen upon our heroes treading water--they're in trouble, they can see the shore on the horizon, but may not have the strength to swim there. They ultimately (tragically) come to understand the steep odds against breaking free from their social prison, and, unable or unwilling to take the risks necessary to escape, stop fighting and sink into conformity—all too common in real life.

In Billy Liar, Tom Courtenay gets cold feet about running away with the adventurous Julie Christie, and resigns himself to a provincial future, consoled only by the heroes of his vivid imagination. Julie Christie finds her own royal dreams shattered by an unloving marriage in Darling. In Room At The Top, Laurence Harvey is unwilling to sacrifice his comfortable romance with Heather Sears to acknowledge his deep love for the older Simone Signoret. There are dozens of other examples.

 These characters are not so much fish out of water as they are cinematic brethren of the "angry young men" of the 50's and 60's. They're boys (and a few girls) of a new generation spurred to action by dreams of a life better than their fathers', full of disaffection and fire so strong it can only burn them, destroying any chance of freedom. The antithesis to Peer Gynt, we don't want them to learn that all roads lead home, but we know they're not strong enough to go anywhere else. Their stories are about the inevitable shedding of youth for the weary responsibility of adulthood; about enthusiasm and passion mislabeled as folly, to be stamped out in any wholesome citizen.

These existential tales of working-class family strife, dubbed "kitchen sink" drama by the British, are deeply relatable to audiences of any generation, as they touch on universal hopes and fears felt the world over. It's no surprise that Lean's brisk, low-concept Brief Encounter is rated higher by audiences than his masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia--who hasn't experienced Celia Johnson's romantic confusion and moral turmoil, the conflict between duty and personal need?

In more modern kitchen sink lite, we meet softer heroes with a glimmer of curiosity, a willingness to confront and adapt rather than hate and fear. Wide-eyed Amélie searches for love on the streets of Montmartre, while Billy Elliot studies ballet behind his father's back, reaching for a different future, whatever the consequences. While these heroes more often than not achieve their goals, they still confront hostile skeptics, overcome difficult environments, and give hope to the nonbelievers they encounter chained still within Plato's cave.

While mostly embraced in postmodern cinema, and sometimes conforming to Hollywood storytelling standards, this tradition of inquisitive outsiders goes back to Fanny Price of Mansfield Park and her predecessors.

But my question is this: where are these stories in American cinema?
It's a question I've postulated time and again, and the answers are strange and varied. Have you seen Reform School Girls? Goonies? ET?

American audiences fear drama--our box office receipts show as much, and the dour dramas we do make can border on self-loathing. We don't like films about children that aren't for children. We want our children cocooned with whimsy; we don't like to see children in danger, even social danger.

In America, cinematic coming-of-age is always exaggerated by cartoonish genre tropes; American kids get mixed up with aliens, greaser gangs, obnoxious prep schools, sports, summer camps, and serial killers. Films revolve around the dilemma of a singular event, rather than a lifetime of struggle to be overcome. These stories are fun, witty, exhilarating--and utterly unrelatable. Fast Times at Ridgemont High might have a stellar screenplay, but who amongst its characters are your friends, neighbors, classmates? What universal truth does it reveal about adolescence?

It can't be that we as a culture don't relate to these stories. We may not have a class structure descended from nobility as the French and British have, but a quick glance at the current political climate in the U.S. and you can see that American class strife is not only alive and well, but it's getting worse. So why are these stories missing? Where is the Detroit auto worker, son of an assembly-line existence dating back to Henry Ford, desperate to break free from the cycle? Or the middle-class Brooklynite who can no longer afford the neighborhood he grew up in? Are American youths too disaffected? Infants drowned in conformity at birth? If not—what are we afraid of? Is the kitchen sink the grim reality facing us when we wake up from the American Dream?

It's neither wrong or right for America to differ in its cinematic tastes from other countries', it's simply curious—at least to me—that an entire subset of human experience would be so underrepresented on film. The Graduate and Rebel Without A Cause are the only titles I can think of that truly fit the criteria of either brand of coming-of-age. I'm hard pressed to produce any others. On The Waterfront? Cool Hand Luke? Perhaps—but can we truly fear the existential fate of heavyweights like Marlon Brando and Paul Newman? Or maybe Stand By Me, if only it weren't such a slave to its inciting incident.

So why does America lack a tradition of coming-of-age films? What does that say about youth in America? Are there any American films you would qualify as "kitchen sink"?

1 comment:

Will S. said...

I'd be pretty interested in seeing the coming of age stories you cite as examples - the auto-worker son and the brooklynite facing gentrification.

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