No More Serial Killers Or Bobby Sox...'Varsity Blues' Ushers In A New Perspective On Teen Society.
By James DiGiovanna
JANUARY 19, 1999: WHATEVER HAPPENED TO the teen film? During the '80s it seemed that there was a new one every month. They were easily recognized by their plot, which almost invariably involved an outsider kid (usually a boy) who was in love with someone (usually a girl) from the "in" crowd. The lover concocts some plan to get with the beloved, and teenage comic romance and tragic love ensue. Check out Say Anything, Pretty in Pink, Loverboy, Can't Buy Me Love, Sixteen Candles, Some Kind of Wonderful, etc., etc., etc., for variations on this theme.
None of these films even vaguely resembled the experiences that I or anyone I knew at the time had had in high school, mostly because there were no "in" and "out" crowds in the enormous northeastern institutions where we practiced for the adult world by honing our skills in dealing drugs and committing petty crimes. Everyone seemed to have their own little enclave, and nobody seemed to be jockeying for position in another, supposedly "better" group. The whole dichotomous teen society thing just rang false, and seemed to be drawn from some lost, bobby-soxer world.
Perhaps it was the over-reliance on this unnatural plot device that killed the teen film, whose reign only lasted five or six years. I'm told the whole in crowd/out crowd thing was a very real model of teen life in the '50s and '60s, when the writers of these films were in high school. Perhaps these movies were part of a Reagan-era plot to resurrect this cruel social order while the government was striving to bring back other relics of America's glorious past, like unfettered monopoly capitalism and the kind of deficit spending that one normally only finds during world wars. Still, it must have failed to even have a nostalgic appeal to the emerging pop-grunge crowd, because the teen film was pretty much cooked by the early '90s.
Teens still appeared in films, but now it was obligatory that someone was trying to kill them in new and inventive ways. The slasher flick, which had previously featured the murders of people of all ages, now focused on thinning out our excess resources of beautiful, sexually active young people.
Still, in spite of the best efforts of Freddie Krueger and company, today there seems to be a large surplus of pre-twentysomethings; so, with that free-spending market in mind, MTV thought it was high time to release another murder-free teen film onto the market.
Varsity Blues doesn't follow the standard teen-film story of young love, nor does it insist on creating a false hierarchy of teendom. Rather, it shows a world that seems to have no social divisions whatsoever: Everyone's part of the in crowd, which centers on the football players in the small, east Texas town of West Canaan. If you're not a football player, you're a cheerleader or at least a big football fan who doesn't begrudge the players their right to steal police cars, screw everything that moves, and consume massive amounts of Vicadin and cheap beer. Passing instead of running is as close as any of these teens get to being individuals, and they only pass instead of run because it's going to help the team, dammit.
Said team is led by coach Kilmer, played by Jon Voight, who, in 1979 gave up on being a serious actor and decided to take any cheesy-ass role that came his way. (It all goes wrong with the extremely cutesy The Champ; and after that it's a series of Anaconda's and Enemy of the State's.) These days, he specializes in playing an inhuman and villainous authority figure. Having perfected the stony-faced glare of menace in Most Wanted and Mission Impossible, he now just has a computer simulation Jon Voight play all of his roles (press ctrl-e for more evil).
The coach drives his team too hard, forces drugs on them, and is generally mean. The players are essentially good people who just want to play football, their girlfriends play secondary roles that involve wearing whipped-cream bikinis, blah, blah, blah.
I brought along a young east Texan, only three years out of high school, to determine whether or not this well-paced and well-shot but rather mindless film was at least accurate. He said it was so real that he broke out in a cold, nervous sweat during the film as his heart raced at the memories of heartless coaches and a town that believed nothing was more important than 11 kids beating the shit out of each other in the name of moving the inflated skin of a once-living animal 40 yards across a muddy plain.
So on that count, 22 thumbs up for Varsity Blues! It also has the best photographed sports scenes seen in many years. The football field is captured at just the right distance and speed through a series of slow-mo shots taken from ground level. The intensity of two beefy steroid cases slamming into each other with every drug-enhanced ounce of effort really comes across here, and certainly beats the shaky camera work you're likely to see on Fox NFL.
Varsity Blues also gets points for having a hero who is supposed to be intelligent. He reads during games, is accepted to Brown University, and people say of him that he is smart. He doesn't say or do anything himself to reinforce this, but we are assured by his parents, coach and teammates that he is, indeed, not a complete moron. While not well executed, the idea of having a hero who is not mentally challenged is a nice change of pace from the standard Hollywood fare (Nell, Dumb and Dumber, Forest Gump, etc.).
On the other hand, Varsity Blues never rises above the level of teen film. I imagine that some adults will enjoy it, but it's really aimed at a young audience. The crowd of football players and football-player-girlfriends who watched the preview that I saw seemed to dig it, so it passes muster on that level. I imagine that alterna-teens will feel obliged to revile it, and bookishly intelligent teens will find it a bit insulting.
I also think that it might be the harbinger of a new wave of '90s teen films. Instead of mirroring the '80s' fascination with climbing the corporate ladder in the teen form of moving up in an imaginary social hierarchy, Varsity Blues mirrors a more modern capitalist monster. Its cohesive little society, devoid of individuals and differences, reflects a world where massive mergers have created a monolithic and monopolistic world based on an overarching corporate hegemony. Everyone wears the Nike swoosh on their armband, and all march together in a milieu where Reagan-era dreams of an unfettered market have produced their ultimate effect: a teen world without division.
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