Sunday, April 06, 2008

Can't Escape the Schoolyard

One of the recurring themes of my life has been living next to schoolyards. Not a bad concept when you’re a kid, but it gets old, fast, when you’re not. I imagine people living around bars have the same reaction. There’s a brief window in life, assuming one goes through a reasonable “social drinking” phase in his 20s/early 30s, when living next to a bar seems like a cool idea. For most other people, it means loud drunks exiting the bar, early-morning street fights, drunk driving, vomit and sometimes feces on the street, drug usage in parked cars and alcoves, etc. In general, buffoonish behavior that while not a full-court press of bad times, is often an ongoing concern. What kind of bar it is makes a huge difference, too, i.e., an old man’s bar won’t be anywhere near as bad as a happening night club.

Schoolyards in and of themselves are not bad places. They’re usually one of the few places kids can congregate in their own autonomous world and learn how to inter-act with each other without parental control. They can do the same at school, but only in the down time between classes, coming and going to, at lunch, etc. I think the problem comes when kids get to be around 13 to 16 years old and don’t recognize they’re outgrowing the schoolyard, should be moving onto organized sports if they’re so inclined, because if not, the logic seems to shift from innocent game playing to insufferable assholery. There were a few kids like this in my neighborhood when I was growing up, although most surely bolted the schoolyard upon receiving a driver’s license. The most nightmarish time in my neighborhood had to be the early-to-mid 70s, when there was a whole crew of drug-addled bozos who missed the “get out of the schoolyard” memo and were a constant negative presence.

Luckily, that hasn’t been a burning issue in my adult life. I’m writing this now based on an adverse reaction I’ve had to a critically acclaimed movie the Sundance Channel broadcast last week, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. Guide is about a group of wayward working-class kids growing up in Astoria circa 1986, the regrettable altercations that arise from various “gang” style scenarios, and the eventual resolution when the narrator returns as an adult (Robert Downey, Jr.) to make peace with his ailing father … and the neighborhood by extension. (None of the aforementioned bozos in my neighborhood grew up to be soulful, wounded artists a la Downey, Jr. If they were lucky, they snapped out of their downward spirals and latched onto a factory job that saved their lives.)

The movie’s a text-book example of bad Italian over-acting in all its bellowing, dick grabbing, pinky ring pointing, sub-soap opera glory. Think a mixture of Kids (one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen) and The Basketball Diaries (also in the running for worst movie ever, despite being based on the great memoir by Jim Carroll). It’s kids being very naughty, to the point of murder, with the viewers’ noses constantly rubbed in amoral excrement, that sort of heavy-handed, didactic, “this is how far gone kids really are, man” style exercise that ends up being puerile and sanctimonious. Virtually nothing has changed in this ham-fisted formula since Marlon Brando starred in The Wild Ones in 1953.

A small sample? Most people would find it innocuous, but I was struck by one scene, part of a typical musical montage, featuring a 14-year-old girl in summer clothes lasciviously sucking on a Bomb Pop. I ask you: what’s the point of this? If you have a 14-year-old daughter, you know I don’t have to tell you what’s wrong with this scene! If you don’t, you should still be able to recognize how sleazy and exploitative this is. Not quite pedophilia, but suggesting it. It’s the sort of thing that seems innocuous, but when you really think about it … when did casually presenting images like this become acceptable or in any way cool? I don’t think you need to be a strict moralist to grasp the cheapness.

(Sidenote: the soundtrack in this movie was odd, too. I don’t think one song from the mid-80s was featured. Plenty of rock songs from the late 70s and early 80s. The movie ends with “New York Groove” by Ace Frehley … from his 1978 solo album. At the start of the movie, the narrator makes a point of noting he knew Puerto Rican kids into the band Journey. Maybe so … but not in 1986. That reference makes more sense for 1982. Call it nitpicking, but it would be like putting out a movie now, about life in 2008, using soundtrack songs like “Who Let the Dogs Out” and “Hit Me Baby One More Time.”)

I’m hardly a strict moralist. I just don’t like crass, baseless exploitation when I see it. And I don’t subscribe to the theory that being shown kids doing “bad things” holds any hard truth. Depravity has existed for centuries, in every form imaginable, many much worse than kids acting like adult slobs and buffoons, which is stiflingly normal behavior where I live; kids acting like clean-cut 50s stereotypes would provide a major jolt to my senses. This sort of stuff isn’t shocking or in any way revelatory; it’s depressing when you consider that it’s become formulaic film-making as opposed to ground-breaking cinema.

The whole movie seemed to revel in that ersatz sense of depravity. And it got me to thinking of the schoolyard and the mentality associated with it, since, in effect, Astoria and their lives in it were represented as one big schoolyard for them to stumble through in that perpetual “no adults” state that’s largely fantastical.

What occurred to me with that movie is the gulf that exists between reality and teenage nostalgia. And I don’t consider teenage nostalgia the pathetic invention of adults looking back and romanticizing their youths. It starts with kids looking back, days or even hours, and romanticizing events that have just occurred in their lives, already constructing mythologies around them that will serve as some strange bonfire of youth to them in the cool darkness of oncoming adulthood. We’ve all done this. Part of the attraction of hanging out with my friends in our teens and early 20s was regaling each other with tales of all the wild and bizarre things we’d done (which were legion), and laughing to the point of tears over our heavily embellished stories. The telling of the stories was often more uproarious than the events themselves.

I particularly recall doing this with brother J, neighbor Bubba and friend George, any time we’d hit the all-you-can-eat buffet at the steakhouse in the local mall. I was in college at the time with George, J and Bubba were at loose ends, so we’d go there once a week or so and gorge ourselves on the cheap salad bar food, sitting in a corner booth for hours, reloading our free sodas (probably over 1,000 calories right there), merrily telling our strange stories, some more recent involving all-night drunks and the odd situations that routinely transpire while getting bombed. There was something about the salad-bar food that made Bubba vomit in the parking lot – literally every time. It served as an exclamation point to our recap sessions of youthful abandon.

Because we were young, it didn’t occur to us that what we were doing – romanticizing the past – was something that would be considered if not taboo for adults, then mildly pathetic and backwards looking. I’m having a hard time now seeing the difference, save no one busts the young for their nostalgia, regardless of the sell-by date. When you think of it, kids are rarely doing anything all that radical, or even minutely strange by the standards of their communities: it’s all been done before, most likely by their parents before them. Sure, in a way, it’s kids stretching their boundaries, but they rarely break them. Unless you knew kids who committed felony crimes on a regular basis (a distinct possibility with native New Yorkers). But to us, and I imagine in the context of our lives, these things are often viewed as legendarily bad behavior.

I think the main problem I have with Guide to Saints is I gather the book was written (as was the movie, too) by a guy at least in his 30s, more like the cusp of his 40s, and I can tell you as someone slightly past that age bracket, at a certain point in life you see through all that nostalgia and no longer romanticize it. It just … was. It happened. You did some crazy shit when you were kid. You did even more crazy shit in your 20s. You have stories to tell. Man, things got strange sometimes. That time you whipped your girlfriend’s bare ass with a jump rope? Shit … that was out there, dude. That parking-lot episode where you mooned the guy dressed up like Mickey Mouse? Priceless.

Think of the TV show Jackass and the two movies based on the series (which I actually like), and all these twentysomething guys filming themselves pulling crazy stunts: shopping-cart jousts in parking lots; vomiting contests, taking a shit in a hardware store display toilet, etc. All this stuff is clearly meant as a goof, which one will find funny or not. Theoretically, I don’t see any difference in intent between an artistic endeavor like Guide to Saints and a goof-ball show like Jackass. It’s the same thing: romanticizing the “wildness” of youth. Save I can laugh at Jackass, because I can relate back to my 17-year-old self, when the concept of doing all that crazy shit in public seemed like it would have been the epitome of cool. And Guide to Saints makes me feel like I’m being forced to worship in some misguided church of bad nostalgia (part of the problem being I never would have hung with the type of graceless, bad-time goons romanticized in the movie).

I wouldn’t bemoan any of this, save I can see it all feeds into a larger problem, that we’re all being trained to never become adults. Sure, we look like them. Act like them at work. But everything else seems to be a senseless bid to retain all the qualities of youth, with stressed place on irresponsibility and that sort of selfish, ego-driven lack of concern for anyone else. Maybe it’s because I can see these bad qualities so clearly in kids, particularly living next to a schoolyard, that I have a strong urge as an adult to be the exact opposite. Which makes me uncool by some warped teenage standard, one I was glad to abandon long before I rolled the odometer at 20. A subset of the problem is too many people are recognizing their teenage years as some standard of coolness, when the act of “being cool” all together should be abandoned, recognized as the mirage it is, since the definition changes constantly in countless ways throughout our lives.

In other words, things that strike a teenager as cool will more than likely strike me as being anywhere from silly to morbid, while rarely being “cool.” And I’m not viewing this on some sliding scale of coolness. I’m viewing it as me seeing the world much more clearly now, based on decades of good and bad experiences, and recognizing that a lot of what I thought was cool at 17 was based on seeing other people make fools of themselves in some sense, and having some false sense of security with myself that I appeared nowhere near as half-assed. Now, I’m perfectly OK with appearing half-assed, would rather run this risk than be wrapped so tightly that I’d never make one false move and lose face with some imaginary audience of hipsters. And I’d rather hang around similarly half-assed people who make an effort to see life clearly, who aren’t out to get over on me or anyone else, who depend on some developed senses of taste and morality to judge the world by, as opposed to these flip, empty cultural identifiers that get attached to every generation as we go along.

That moral center of adulthood was what I found missing from a movie like Guide to Saints, and it bugged the hell out of me. It was like a movie made by an 18-year-old who imagined how cool and soulful he’d be at 38 based on all these ragged teenage experiences. As opposed to a 38-year-old truly grasping where he is in life and how silly shit from his teen years is just a small part of the story that doesn't need to be glorified. But we live in a society that has made a monument out of our teenage years, which is a guarantee for prolonged depression. To me, it was just another phase, and a very awkward one at that. Why we haven’t made a monument to our 8-to-10 year old selves, I don’t know – because I do have fond memories of how life was then, and how I saw the world at the time that more clearly represents “youth” to me than being a teenager. Probably because the concept of a 10-year-old lasciviously sucking a bomb pop is going a little far, even by our bullshit standards. Give her four years, we can pretend she’s an adult, and sell the image as acceptable perversion.

About the only thing I bemoan in my adult life is that I can see I don’t take as many chances, try as many new things as I should, as I used to when I was in my teens and early 20s. It does bother me, and it’s something I should work on, because there are many things in this world I haven’t done, and that’s something that sinks in as one gets older. My only advice is that when you look back, see everything, the good and bad, and don’t bullshit yourself that life was any more magical (or worse, for that matter), than it is now. When people talk about “being happy” with their lives, I have no idea what they mean. By the same token, when people romanticize their negative choices, that rings far more hollow than any broadly painted definitions of personal happiness. Live long enough and life makes negative choices for you, beyond your control. That's when you learn how to be happy in some sense, when the clear choice becomes life kicking the shit out of you, or you fighting back. These are things that never would have occurred to me when I was a teenager, and I was looking for any sort of negative option to make me seem like a more complex, hardened individual. Oh, to be that fucking naive again! (Last line was facetious.)

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