Juvenile Delinquents

Exploitation Videos 4

published in Video Age, October 1985, Melbourne

Youth. Thugs. Punks. Gangs. Juvenile delinquents. The latter half of the '50s featured them all in what appeared to be a never-ending trend — the JD films. Well, the trend ended soon enough, even though it took many people many years to realize that "youth" was not synonymous with "delinquent." The only really rebellious thing youth was doing in the '50s was proclaiming its own identity. Of course, the "threat" was also interpreted as being potentially profitable, and that's where the film industry comes in — virtually taunting the parents to ban the films (Rebel Without A Cause, The Blackboard Jungle, The Wild One, etc.) while the box-office continued to bulge.

The youth of the '60s didn't just proclaim their identity — they defined it. The leather jacket was replaced by long hair and the zip-gun with molotov cocktails. Gone was the golden age of gilded youth with glinting switchblades. The Shakespearian tragedy of many JD films (culminating in West Side Story in 1964) was superseded by social analysis — which made many "60s films boring (then) and stupid (now). Perhaps youth is the ultimate exploitative subject because it really is best left unexplained. Just think: what are the most memorable elements in any youth or JD film? Their capacity for outlining the social dilemma of youth? No! It's all the sex, swearing, violence and action — those bits where youth is at its most reckless and disconnected from social and family ties.

Looking at most contemporary "youth" films, I can only yawn. Generally, their saving grace is their comic characterisations, handled remarkably well in films like 16 Candles, Fast Times At Ridgemont High, The Wild Life, Valley Girl, etc. "Rebellion" today is most accurately and most unfortunately reflected in The Breakfast Club: four kids are kept in for detention, wherein they analyse each others problems. You've got to be kidding! Can't you just see all the progressive media teachers taking their classes to these scenarios of M-O-R liberalism? ‘Youth’ these days is so grown-up it's painful. But don't despair — the generation-gap is alive and well in your local video store.

Jack Hill (a compatriot of Roger Corman) has probably made the best modern JD film to date. Switchblade Sisters (1972) is usually both advertised and catalogued as an erotic/adult film, which is about as accurate as saying that Police Academy is a comedy (Joke). Switchblade Sisters features an all-girl gang who start out as the Silver Debs (the girlfriends of the all-boy Silvers) but, after a bit of sex, violence and conscience-raising, form their own gang, the Jezebels. Their road to independence sees them join forces with a black urban terrorist gang (led by a woman). Hey, we're talking sisterhood, co-ops, urban terrorism, community welfare, feminism and racial-identity. Plus enough action to flesh out at least four mediocre exploitation flicks. Jack Hill, we salute you!

An important theme in many JD films is good ole senseless violence. And, believe it or not, the ultimate film on senseless violence is available on video in Australia. No, I'm not talking about the prissy A Clockwork Orange (which more and more resembles a visually-baroque dissertation on social psychology as time goes by). I'm talking about Just For The Hell Ot It (1968). No plot. No characters. Hardly any synch-sound. About two sets. Bad lighting. Shaky focus. But — loads of violence and nothing else. Made by today's and tomorrow's greatest cult film-maker, Herschell Gordon Lewis (more about him in future columns), this is a totally senseless film, totally about senseless violence. Totally.

The senseless violence keeps on coming in a recent release, Street Kids Ol America (1975). The gang in this film, the Silks, are so dumb and so despicable that you're just waiting for them to blow each other away. Which they eventually do. Drained of any substantial dramatic flows, this film could have been scripted by Samuel Beckett with its scenario of no-future/nowhere/no-way inhabited by pathetic figures.

Boredom is the central theme of Over The Edge (1979). Whereas Switchblade Sisters is modern, Over The Edge is contemporary. Directed by Jonathan Kaplan, it drives home a simple point very effectively: parental Utopia equals teenage depression. It's set in New Granada (picture a suburb designed by Jimmy Hannan!) where the kids find themselves wandering around a dream-wasteland with nothing to do except roam the wide, open fields postered with huge billboards proclaiming "Proposed Roller-Disco" and "Proposed Duplex Shopping Centre." So for kicks they take LSD and watch the TV test-pattern, smash up their parents' cars on joy-rides and do anything else that enters their stagnating minds.

But perhaps the most up-to-date JD film is Suburbia. (1984) scripted and directed by Penelope Spheeris, who made the documentary on the LA punk scene, Decline Of Western Civilisation. In Suburbia, "suburbia" is a farcical concept belonging only to white middle-class Americans who have been out in the Californian sun a bit too long. The central punk finds his mothers diary from 1969 wherein we find she was seduced by the ideal of a suburban Utopia: suburbia. The punk throws the diary out of the car stolen from his parents, laughing at their delusions of utopia. He joins a gang called The Rejected, who squat in abandoned "dream homes" in the outer-outer LA suburbs.

In America, they called 1979 the year of the Gang Film. They did so out of fear because of two powerful films made that year: Phil Kaufman's The Wanderers and Walter Hill's The Warriors.

The Warriors is centred on the gang of the film's title and — ahem — is loosely based on Homer's The Iliad, a very popular tome with gorehounds. After an ill-fated attempt by Cyrus, head of The Riffs, to amalgamate all the NY gangs to battle the police, the Warriors are wrongly accused of shooting Cyrus. They then have to make their way back to their Coney Island turf, battling all the gangs on the turfs they have to cross to get back. Mean gangs, mean dialogue, mean action — this is an all-round mean film. The Wanderers is more poetic than The Warriors, despite the latter's classical origins. Set in 1963, its social backdrop is multiculturalism and ethnicity in New York, and its plot revolves around the disintegration of the gangs as they (unfortunately?) mature — which, in this case, means drinking enough beer on bowling nights to eventually fill out a size-90 Hawaiian shirt. Hilarious scenes, extremely foul language and some very touching moments — all handled superbly by a memorable cast.

The themes established in these two solid and seminal films are stylistically extrapolated in two films by Francis Ford Coppola: Rumble Fish (1982) and The Outsiders (1983]. Rumble Fish features the best of the "Brat Pack", Matt Dillon, Nicolas Cage and Christopher Penn, who, between them have starred in some of the best recent youth films like Valley Girl, Racing With The Moon, Over The Edge and The Wild Life. Rumble Fish is actually both a very beautiful and a very unsettling film, stylistically imitating a '60s b/w European art film and thematically picking up on the melancholy of maturity.

The Outsiders is nowhere near as bleak as Rumble Fish and is quite a charming gang film, strange as it sounds. The production design is somewhere between Charles Laughton's Night Of The Hunter and Disney's Song Of The South – which may sound confusing, but one must remember that Coppola was more concerned with being experimental than conventional in these films.

I can't mention the "Brat Pack" without mentioning their leader, Sean Penn. From the druggy surfie of Fast Times At Ridgemont High to the fiery boy of Racing With The Moon, Penn is capable of a wide range of youth characterisations. As a JD in Bad Boys (1983), he's tops. It's set mostly in a juvenile jailhouse and Penn portrays a heroic delinquent, strong in muscle and emotion. Bad Boys is a real ‘cheer’ of a film: you're always rooting for the good thug and firmly grinning when the bad thug gets his just desserts. And it even has a happy ending.

So there you have some of the best modern/contemporary JD films available on video at the moment. And if you're still lustin’ for some bustin’, check out the gangs and thugs who make appearances in American Drive-in (1983); Vigilante (1982); Fort Apache - The Bronx (1981); Angel [83]; Avenging Angel (1984); Angel Of Vengence (1981); Young Warriors (1983); Boulevard Nights (1979) and Defiance (1979).

Text © Philip Brophy 1985. Images © respective copyright holders