UK film writer, essayist, and documentarian Charlie Lyne was born in the early 90s, and was understandably influenced by the films aimed at younger audiences that came out during this time. Without films like Clueless, Mean Girls, Scream, and so on and so on, Lyne wouldn’t have turned out to be the film writer he is today.
A freelancer who has writes for primarily The Guardian (where he continues to write on a weekly basis), his work has also appeared in Little White Lies, Vice, and New York magazine, just to name a few. He’s become quite the force in the film world despite his relatively young age, and this year Lyne has decided to share and talk about how the films he grew up with influenced his style of criticism.
Well, maybe not explicitly, but his essay film Beyond Clueless (which screens at The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema this Saturday and Sunday following its Canadian premiere at Hot Docs back in the spring) certainly takes what he knows about film studies and applies his adult knowledge towards a closer examination of the films that shaped his eventual love of cinema. Looking at cinematic conventions and trends of the era, Lyne looks at the themes and emotions that defined the teen films of the 90s and briefly into the new millennium. Ranging from the more obscure and forgotten films of the era to the biggest watershed hits in various genres, Lyne bounces around between sometimes seemingly different films to draw critical parallels. It’s kind of like Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film if it focused on only on films aimed at the 18 and under crowd between 1993 and 2003.
Lyne chatted with us at length during a particularly rainy morning during Hot Docs to talk about his film’s curious lack of its titular landmark film, how every film he utilizes has its own set of fans who want to talk about them, how his tastes in film have changed from making the film (and with time in general), and about the most astounding and probably unrealized trend in teen films of the 90s.
Dork Shelf: I love analyzing the films that I grew up with, and I think something that you imply with Beyond Clueless that I think makes a lot of sense is that these films are what get people who love cinema interested in the form. People when they’re growing up don’t exactly jump headlong into Godard or Sturges.
Charlie Lyne: Well, it seems to be such a big starting point, both as viewers and as filmmakers. The number of people who come in and decide this is going to be the first story they tell often deals with either their adolescence or a theoretical adolescence. And you’re right, it kind of is. It is a bit like a training ground for cinema, and I think partly that’s because all bets are off.
You really can get away with almost anything in the teen genre because it is thought of as a safe kind of work. From a money perspective, people think “Well, these movies are pretty safe, and they have a bit of a built in audience, so we can give you a bit of free reign because we know we have a demographic for this.” They let people get away with a lot, and especially within the last twenty years it’s become a lot more commonplace for a studio to say, “Well, we don’t trust you yet with one of our serious movies, but we’ll let you have a five million dollar teen movie to run up with.”
DS: Or you become someone like John Hughes and you languish doing teen movies when you often want to be something else.
CL: Yeah, or you just stay there, which I think is no bad thing. I do have one complaint about sort of the “John Hughes school of teen movies,” it’s that I think these kinds of films feels so much fresher when they’re coming from younger writers and younger directors. There’s something very natural about people making something in that time and space in their lives and then moving on.
DS: I think I’ve always felt the same way deep down. For me, the best and most interesting Hughes film is Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.
CL: Yeah! Totally! I think that some of his movies are absolutely brilliant, but at the same time you want to get the feeling that teen movies aren’t dictated too much by older writers. There’s something about watching someone have their one stab at the teen genre and then leaving it behind for younger folks.
But it’s a fascinating world to look at, and a lot more interesting to look back on now that you have taken them on at such a young age. There’s something about a genre that explicitly states that it wants to be seen by people who are very impressionable, kind of malleable age, and it’s given so little scrutiny as to why and what it’s telling people.
DS: I wanted to talk a bit about the title, because the film Clueless doesn’t enter into your equation or thesis really at all. Was that sort of a knowing joke on your part, or was it designed to say that in some way Clueless might be overrated when placed into the context of the discussion about teen comedies? Because I’ll be up front when I say that I think Clueless might be the most overrated film of that period. But it’s also undeniably a watershed movie for the genre because everything here is post-Clueless. It casts a shadow over everything that sort of comes in its wake.
CL: (laughs) Yeah, it’s certainly lots of things, and, of course, some people have take it as meaning that the film is an hour and a half documentary strictly on Clueless, and I can only apologize to them. (laughs)
I will disagree with you on the merits of Clueless, but it was this film that came along during this point from about 1989 to 1994 where the teen movie was in such an unimaginable rut. You had these few films that would come and it would look like there was going to be some kind of rejuvenation there, but they were kind of resigned to not feeling like they were from their time. They were either literally set in the past – liked Dazed and Confused – or they would certainly feel like movies of their age, like Pump Up the Volume, which is a great film, but it feels like a 1987 movie that’s somehow inexplicably a 90s movie. It’s great fun, but it was a part of a genre that wasn’t really responding to the actual current day adolescents at all.
I think what Clueless did was kind of turn that around spectacularly in every sense. Financially, it gave Hollywood the confidence to think teen movies are incredibly good investment capable of returning a lot of money. The explosion in number of teen movies that were produced after Clueless is kind of amazing. You look at 1994, and you’re literally talking about maybe three or four major teen movies released during the year. Then you look at 1996 and 1997 and there’s at least one a week.
DS: I remember that 1998 and 1999 it seemed like that number was going up to two or three a week. They just started piling on top of each other.
CL: It’s become quite fortunate that now we’re premiering this in 2014, fifteen years on from 1999 because every screening we have now is usually falling on the anniversary of some classic teen movie. (laughs)
DS: Right now, as we’re talking and the night after your premiere here at Hot Docs, it’s the anniversary of Idle Hands, which gets talked about a bit in your film.
CL: Yeah! It’s 15 years since Idle Hands! Incidentally, did you know that independently? (laughs)
DS: Well, I had been researching films that were having anniversaries this year for a column I had been working on, and one of the films I remembered I was considering doing this week was Idle Hands.
CL: Because last night at the screening – and it was a late screening at ten o’clock – and I said, “If you can make the Q&A last half an hour, then we would have reached the fifteen year anniversary of Idle Hands.” (laughs) And it’s obviously a key film in this film.
That one in particular was weird because in making the film you have to remember that there a lot of teen movies that aren’t exactly the kind of signpost teen movies that you think of. There are these weird little ones that to one person, though, they’ll mean everything. Idle Hands was always one of the films where when we were working on it and trying to work it into the movie, we were wondering if people remember this film at all. Is this still in the public consciousness? At the time, we were editing clips of that one from an incredibly low grade American DVD, which was the best quality version of the film available, but it looked awful. It looked like so much worse than anything else we had at our disposal and that we had been working with that we thought, “Oh God, we’re going to have to take this out because it’s not really holding up on the big screen.” Then, miraculously, about a month before we finished the film and we almost cut talking about it entirely, they put out a Blu-Ray in the States! (laughs) Not only was I impressed that there was finally a better quality version, but I thought that clearly there’s enough of an audience for Idle Hands that fifteen years on they would get around to transferring it to 1080p. (laughs) I really felt vindicated at that moment because these films that can appear to be lost can still be very cherished by other people.
DS: I have noticed that whenever I do a piece on a film that’s just on the margins of being forgotten, the people who like to remember it and defend it come from all over to comment on it and share it.
CL: Yeah, and that’s a lot like that here. When I come out of screenings and I talk to people, no one wants to talk about Mean Girls or Ten Things I Hate About You. Almost everyone wants to talk about something like the four seconds or so of the movie Boys that are in the film. (laughs) Or the ten seconds or so where we look at The Rage: Carrie 2. You know, these kinds of films that you in no way think of a huge teen movie classic, but to certain people these are THEIR teen movie that helped to define how they looked at the world. It’s nice. It’s an incredibly varied world.
DS: As someone who does think and write critically, I’m going to assume that some of the films within your film are films that you don’t necessarily like or endorse, but you can find things that are really interesting that support what you’re trying to say in each chapter of the film. Was there anything you went back and forth on a lot where you don’t think it has any major merit beyond what you used it for in the film?
CL: Yeah, for sure. The weird thing was in watching so many of these teen movies back to back over the course of two months in preparing to do the film, it really did change how I perceive what I like and what I used to like. This wasn’t just in teen movies. It affected the way that I watch movies in general, really. I think what I looked for changed from being something that was wholly good and edited together into a cohesive whole, to having admiration for anything that had just one element that I found really fascinating.
I would find that even when I went to cinema to see new release movies, I would find myself thinking, “Oh, that character was really bizarre and interesting, and I want to know more about that.” That would be enough to make me think I liked the whole film, even if I knew the rest was terrible. (laughs) That’s the logic that we applied to this, as well, because that’s essentially all we needed. It was one of the most interesting things to talk about, but also beside the point, and that was whether or not the whole of a film really worked cohesively.
I think quite often those movies aren’t perfectly crafted and structured works of cinema because they’re often written by young writers who haven’t honed their craft yet. I think they’re all the more glorious for it because they’re getting out these ideas that they have inside them and they desperately trying to get it out on the page. They aren’t getting it out there in necessarily the most efficient ways they could, but they’re getting it out there in a very raw, kind of fierce way. For us that was kind of all we needed.
But there are certainly films in there that I would not recommend that people sit down and watch the whole of. And it is weird, because a lot of the films that appear in Beyond Clueless are films that I would not sit down and watch for fun, myself. But they might have this particularly striking visual element, or they might have one theme that’s really interestingly explored.
DS: I know that I never noticed or even really appreciated how striking Carrie 2 actually looked before seeing it in the context of your film.
CL: It really is! It’s almost astonishing in that respect. Another one that I think of when you say that – and this one would be a good one to celebrate the anniversary of – is Disturbing Behavior. You know this movie?
DS: Oh yeah. (laughs) I think I have seen that one more times than I would care to admit I’ve seen it.
CL: (laughs) It feels like it kind of got lost when it came out in the UK and the US because it was sort of like the twin movie to The Faculty. They came out just a few weeks apart from each other. They’re very similar in a lot of respects, and I have to say that Disturbing Behavior is not a film that I would sit down and watch again, necessarily. I do prefer The Faculty. But when we sat down to construct our film, we just kept coming back to it and found that it was popping up again, and again, and again. It was everything that I was talking and thinking about, and I would always be saying, “Oh, wait! There’s this shot from Disturbing Behavior that I’ve gotta put in!”
DS: There really are a lot of moments like that, like the cafeteria speech in the film where Nick Stahl is introducing James Marsden to the social structure of the school. It’s such a classic sort of scene, but it’s handled really well here, and I can see why you chose the Disturbing Behavior scene over something more widely known that the similar, more comedic version of it in Ten Things I Hate About You the following year.
CL: There are a ton of scenes like that in Disturbing Behavior. It was one of the earliest ideas that we had to use that scene where we wanted to introduce people to all these high school cliques where someone would go around and tell you what they were. I think we, like everyone else, thought we could have used what you said, or maybe the one from Mean Girls or Clueless, or that we could cobble it together from all of those. Then I sat down and watched Disturbing Behavior, and say what you might about the film as a whole, but it has THE definitive and best one of those scenes that hasn’t entered the pop culture lexicon in quite the same way as those other films have. It’s so brilliant, though. But making this film has made re-examining films like that something I really love now.
DS: If nothing else, Disturbing Behavior is a lot more well constructed of a horror film from that era than something as implausible and ridiculous as I Know What You Did Last Summer. I mean, that’s a film that’s almost predicated upon witnesses and bystanders being too stupid to realize whenever there’s a dead body in plain sight.
CL: Yeah, that’s not the greatest. During Kevin Williamson’s run of hits as a writer, that’s the one I could have most done without. Or at least, that should have been the spectacular failure instead of Teaching Mrs. Tingle. It’s absolutely such a better movie. How did that one not do well in the end?
I mean, it’s wild when you look back five years after Scream and the top grossing horror movies, it was just always Kevin Williamson over and over again. I think he has four of the top five grossing horror movies from the second half of that decade, which seems so bizarre now. I haven’t see his new TV series, The Following, but those kind of short lived titans of the genre I always find fascinating because I think it’s right that they should be short lived. I much prefer that instead of Williamson turning into some John Hughes type-figure who redefined what it means to make teen horror movies.
DS: He was also one of those writers, though, that could make a teenager actually sound like a teenager. I think that’s why he lasted as long as he did. You can’t really call a writer an auteur, but he’s kind of the closest thing that era had to one of those people.
CL: Absolutely. There is never any missing the fact that you are watching a Kevin Williamson movie.
DS: Even when his films are directed by someone who could be considered an auteur like Wes Craven or Robert Rodriguez, that voice is what comes through over the direction in most cases.
CL: Totally! And that’s not just because he kind of insists on putting the posters of every movie he’s even done into his next films. (laughs)
DS: Another interesting choice was how you selected The Craft to function as the prologue to the film, and I didn’t realize how all encompassing that film is in terms of dealing with a lot of teen issues. It has a lot of merits, and now that I think back on it, that film really does seem deceptively complex in hindsight.
CL: Totally. It’s weird, and I almost felt guilty about that because through about the first three or four months of researching and writing this, I could never quite “get” The Craft. It was, however, one of the films that the team that helped make the film was most obsessed with. Certainly all the women on the film grew up obsessed with it, and it was kind of model for teenagers growing up in the era. And certainly all the men who worked on the film similarly really liked it. It was this film that everyone really thought needed a huge presence in this film. I watched it maybe three times in the first few months, and just said, “I really just don’t see how this fits.”
Then something, and I don’t even really know what, happened when we structured out the whole film and what we were taking from all these other films, and then I took one last shot at The Craft, and something clicked. Suddenly, (A) made sense within the context of our move, and (B) it just clicked with me as a movie. Now I love that movie. I think it’s such a well made, concise exploration of the teen movie experience. It’s incredibly effective and full of clever writing, and it was perfect for us because it was exactly what we were trying to get at; these movies that are emblematic of the teen world that’s also visually spectactular. I think when people think of The Craft, I don’t think people think of it in terms of its cinematic vistas, but those elements are really striking. You know the scene in the film where the lightning bolt hits the tree? I still can’t quite work out how they achieved that. It’s probably a practical effect of some sort, possibly stop motion, but it looks so incredibly authentic and kind of… I don’t know. It doesn’t look real. It looks hyper-real. But that’s just the experience of being a teenager being turned up to eleven.
DS: I think it’s one of those films where you really might need a greater appreciation of the craft of filmmaking to understand why it would connect to the audience it’s trying to reach. You can watch The Craft and simply have a good time with it, or you could revisit it later and see how it’s a crowd pleaser. Maybe there is that mental block at some point where you can’t get critically why people like it, but you can also look back on it through other experiences in your life, and your education, and other film’s the you’ve seen and it finally clicks how smart the film is.
CL: It has elements that if you know about film, you know those elements work. It’s one of those films that kind of went away for a bit, but once again it’s starting to become something like Clueless that people remember quite fondly from that era. I think rightly so.
DS: You could have just called your movie The Craft!
CL: (laughs) We could have, but that would have probably been legally problematic. We would have needed a good “craft” fun. But if Paramount ever decides to lose it over the Clueless nod in the title we’ll keep that in our back pocket.
DS: When people come up to you after screenings, you mentioned that people will often talk with you about the more obscure movies featured in the film. Are there any that you seem surprised by that come up over and over again? Has it made you want to reconsider some of the films that might only show up for a split second in your work here?
CL: (laughs) You know, I’m trying to think, but a lot of those films are so uniquely idiosyncratic that they kind of all stay on the same level. Someone came up to me yesterday because I said during the Q&A that I had seen more Fairuza Balk movies than they had, and someone came up to me and said have you seen Gas, Food, Lodging, and I hadn’t. So I was immediately one point down on the Fairuza Balk fandom scale and now I can never make that bet with the audience again. (laughs)
DS: And she even worked on your movie!
CL: Yeah! (laughs) But when people come up to me, it’s almost always usually something unusual. My producer, Anthony Ing, still hasn’t quite come to terms that we didn’t put any of The Lizzie McGuire Movie in. He watched it when we were researching the film, and he was lobbying for it, and it didn’t quite make the cut, and he was absolutely fuming. It’s usually something like that where people come up to me. It’s always dredging up some teen movies and they wonder why we didn’t include their movie among so many others that are in there. A lot of the time, their movie’s in there, but we couldn’t hit every possible beat, sadly.
DS: Well, to some extent I could see Lizzie McGuire working almost as an end piece for the film because that marked the beginning of an era where teen films were becoming something different again. It ushered in another era where there wasn’t as much in terms of teen movies.
CL: You’re right, and I can see that, but from about 2005 to about ’09 or ’10 there was that lull where the closest thing we got to a teen movie burst was that short rise of Michael Cera, but I think we’re slowly starting a comeback of teen movies again. You had Juno, and Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, and films like that which were seemingly coming out back to back.
I think we’re getting back to that because my indicator of when teen movies are showing signs of health are when adults start getting really upset about them or if they’re going to see them. When Project X came out – and I’m certainly not a fan of Project X – but certainly in the UK at least and I imagine in North America, as well, there was outrage from parents and critics.
DS: There was outrage in the press screening for that one that I saw. I saw one critic leave the theatre and almost openly berate the representative from Warner Brothers and asking them quite belligerently how they could ever consciously release that film.
CL: I’m not surprised because it was exactly the same way in Britain, and that kind of cheered me up in a way about the prospect of future teen movies. Because what better indicator could there be than a film that was getting the same kind of reaction that Kids did twenty years ago or that Rebel Without a Cause got fifty years ago? I think that’s always been a great indicator of things.
In the past couple of years, though, there has been a really great burst of teen movies. Spring Breakers, last year, is a great example. I really like 21 Jump Street, and that one’s weird because it’s based on a much older pop culture entity and one that’s not really appealing to kids today. What I loved about that film is that line when they first start going undercover in the school, and they’ve cast themselves in 90s teen movie clique roles, and then they’re baffled that the teen movie cliques that they knew don’t seem to exist anymore. The environmental kids are cool, and everyone’s being nice to each other, and I think that’s the perfect distillation of why so many teen movies don’t work now, or at least the ones that adhere to close to the 90s model where it’s about different packs and cliques and how the fit together. Now things are just so much more amorphous and weird. I thought that movie nailed that phenomenon.
DS: And that scene is even a call back to the same scene we were talking about in Disturbing Behavior before. You could have made an entire montage out of people just walking through rooms and parking lots and surveying the world around them.
CL: We never had a shortage of that material. (laughs) At one point, I was watching about four or five movies a day, and I just stopped noticing they were happening because they become so familiar. They just don’t register that all of a sudden you’re watching a tracking shot that’s coming down right in front of a school and there’s a teenager walking around. It’s so common and so familiar, and we always thought that the best way to tell the story of teen movies would be via film because you could never convey simply in writing these bits of visual iconography that have become staples of the genre and do them any real justice.
Until you see them all, you don’t realize how much more surprising some are than others. In the film, the most surprising example of those scenes from the era might be the proliferation of the swimming pool seduction sequence…
DS: That blew my mind when I watched your film because when I was growing up and I was starting to become sexually active, that was a huge thing that I fantasized about and I never figured out why that was until I saw this film and I was able to realize that it was in almost literally every film that had a romance in it during the 90s.
CL: (laughs) I We knew there were lots of house parties and prom scenes in these movies, but that really was a trend that totally took me by surprise. Fuck, that happens in EVERY movie. And we even limited ourselves to films from that era that were specifically about teenagers, but still today I see movies with that. I just saw a movie the other day with one of those scenes, and I can’t even remember it now, but it was a new release. TV Tropes even has a page for it now, it’s become so prevalent. They call it “two person pool party,” and I just love the name of it.
And it’s bizarre because people who write teen movies probably are cognizant that the scene they’re writing has been done so many times before, whereas when they write a scene where someone is seducing another person in a pool late at night, they all think it’s the most original idea they’ve ever had. Sometimes you’ll get lines of dialogue where characters will say, like, “Oh, this is so weird, or bizarre, or I can’t believe we’re doing this!” Clearly they’re framing it as some clever idea that the writers had, but it’s AMAZING the pervasiveness of that trope.
DS: It got to a point where something like the movie Swimfan is entirely based AROUND the swimming pool seduction sequence. There’s literally a movie based AROUND this single trope.
CL: Yeah, I wonder what the kind of key thing there was. And it does feel particularly like a very 90s thing. I can’t think of many 80s teen movies having those things in them.
DS: Maybe it was sort of a music video thing?
CL: Yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case. I think the earliest one was Hackers, but the one I really wanted to get in there but we couldn’t because the only available version is unwatchably bad pan and scan quality is Joyride, but not the J.J. Abrams Joy Ride with Paul Walker. The Paul Walker one is brilliant, but it’s this other one with Tobey Maguire that’s this low rent mystery movie set in a trailer park motel, and it has this classic scene where Tobey Maguire is seducing this older woman in a pool at night, but… (laughs) It has some beautiful shots, but it’s so ineptly made. At the same time, they’re supposedly skinny dipping, but you can see they’re fully clothed in every shot. There’s a scene where Tobey Maguire drops his shorts very emphatically, and you can see the shot of the shorts hitting the ground, and then it cuts to a wide shot and you can see the shorts as he’s jumping in the pool. (laughs)
But we never even exhausted our opportunities with that pool thing. You could probably make an entire feature from that, like they did with Swimfan.
DS: Now the 90s are largely remembered as being one of the biggest eras for teen horror and suspense thrillers, so did you think it was always important to strike a balance between the horror movies and the comedies of the era?
CL: Yeah, for sure. It was always important to us that we didn’t separate any of those genres from each other. That’s kind of one of the brilliant things about teen movies. It’s not a genre in that sense. There are teen comedies, horror movies, and dramas, and we wanted to throw them all in together. At the time when these movies were coming out, they weren’t really being segregated at all. They were being sold as another teen movie coming out with your favourite teen stars in it. There weren’t people who were really known specifically for being in just the comedies or just the horror movies.
We always wanted to treat them as equals and as the same. They share common settings and bits of iconography that pop up time and time again. Even if one house party signifies terror and one signifies humour, or lust, or whatever, they’re still kind of built on the same model, which is what we were trying to get at. I think the people are also willing to jump between the different varieties of films. Most people who see the film can easily make the jump from the horror to the comedy.
DS: Was there one movie where your opinion of the film changed for you the most from when you first saw it to when you made this film?
CL: It’s still in the film because it works for some of the points were making, but I used to like The Girl Next Door a lot more than I do now. When I was younger I thought that was a pretty great, fun movie, but now there’s something definitely off about it. I think all of the guys who worked on the film and helped with the research kind of felt similarly. That was the one that changed the most for me.