The Velvet Light Trap 52 (2003) 67-70
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Timothy Shary. Generation Multiplex: The Image of Youth in Contemporary American Cinema. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002. 308 pp., $24.95 paper.
Timothy Shary describes Generation Multiplex as "a work of film criticism"(11) that examines the social representation of youth in films of the last two decades. He discusses a vast array of youth-oriented movies in order to prove that these films can and should be analyzed as a distinct genre and that the genre represents changing attitudes and perceptions about youth identity. Shary argues that within the last twenty years the film industry has grown increasingly dependent on the youth audience for ticket sales, leading to the complex development of the youth film genre, which includes a number of subgenres. He conceives the genre as one based on age (demarcated as ages twelve to twenty) rather than on thematic commonalities. While the book focuses mainly on the discussion of youth film texts, Shary consistently argues, "The imaging of contemporary youth has become indicative of our deepest social and personal concerns" (1). The trends and changes in youth films evidence the positioning of young people in American culture.
Generation Multiplex is divided into chapters by subgenre, including films about school, delinquency films, horror films, science films, and romances. Shary argues that the age of the protagonists serves to separate these films from other genres (for example, the thematic concerns of "The Youth Horror Film" are specific to youth and therefore shouldn't be subsumed under the horror genre). Each subgeneric categorization is essentially fluid, as a "Youth in School" film may also feature delinquents and/or youth in love and having sex. The advantage of using such broadly defined subgenres is that virtually no youth film is excluded from the discussion. The disadvantage is that subgenres do not help to define the limits of the generic category. Shary's method of analysis includes as many films as possible, but he provides in-depth discussions of several films within each subgenre.
The "Youth in School" subgenre includes films featuring junior high or high school settings. These films "present the educational building as a symbolic site of social evolution" (26) and thus embody youth struggles for social identity and status. He uses the five stereotypes established in The Breakfast Club as a structural device to frame a discussion of the cinematic social order. The nerd, the delinquent, the rebel, the popular girl, and the athlete are all stock characters present in youth films of the eighties and nineties, although he argues that their formulations changed over time to accommodate current attitudes, styles, and behaviors. He convincingly argues that school films in the 1980s became increasingly political and articulate until Pump up the Volume (1990) brought the cycle to an end by confronting controversial issues that subsequent films would have to match in order to be taken seriously. While the subgenre itself may have been reinvigorated with the comedic Clueless (1995), Shary marks the reemergence of the school film rebel in 1999 with Light It Up, which dealt with race relations, teen violence, distrust of authority, and the lack of funding for public schools.
Throughout his discussion of the school film, Shary points to interesting trends in representation that deserve further examination. He argues that delinquent characters were presented with increasing sympathy in the 1980s only to be minimized or ignored in films of [End Page 67] the 1990s and that this trend may relate to "numerous real-life acts of terror at high schools throughout the country" (42). The social representation of youth in these films is dependent on the perceptions of filmmakers and the responses of audiences, who arguably have become less interested in the complex motivations of teenage criminals. Shary illustrates this argument with several films (Teaching Mrs. Tingle, The Substitute, and 187) that present unrealistic situations and avoid making solid statements about delinquency. He doesn't discuss other factors, including the rise of teen television in the 1990s, that may be linked to this trend, but...