Friday, August 22, 2008

Top 18 Unabashedly Earnest and Yet Endearingly Timeless Portrayals of Adolescence

Okay. Okay. Whew. Breathe. So… the thing is, I missed a day. Rob said that it's probably okay and that no one would notice but I have sneaking suspicions to the contrary. This was a pretty exhausting list, I gotta say. In fact, I have to attach this mini-list of disclaimers.

Top 4 Disclaimers To Keep In Mind While Reading This List

1.) Comparing different forms of media is always really tricky. It takes 3 minutes and 47 seconds to listen to "Lost In the Supermarket" by the Clash (a late subtraction from this list), but it might take you a weekend or so to get through, oh, I dunno, Franny and Zooey (also, sadly, one of the last few works to be 'scluded). And yet, despite these relatively huge discrepancies in duration, one might conceivably have just as visceral an experience listening to the song or reading the book.

2.) I obviously left out some pretty gigantic heavyweights of the coming-of-age genre. Please, Catcher in the Rye fans, do not stone me. I have good, self-serving reasons for all of these choices. And you can read them tomorrow! The long and short of it is that these are, ultimately, pieces of literature, music, or film/TV that shaped my personal perception or experience of adolescence, and not just 18 generally-accepted touchstones of that time period.

3.) Adolescence is a funny word. My boss likes to talk about the syndrome of "protracted adolescence", whereby children stay children until about 25. Various factors produce this crawl towards true maturity, ranging from increased parental support, more individuals undertaking post-graduate education, and a decline in young marriages. Anyway, point is, I'm cutting a broad swath here. Like, nine years old to twenty-two.

4.) "Coming of age" is a silly phrase. One is always of a certain age. You are constantly coming of some age, whether it is 16, 21, or 33 years, 10 months, 20 days, 21 hours, 1 minute, and 3 seconds. Further, to suggest that there is some point in a person's life where they suddenly attain all the knowledge (or even some of the knowledge) that qualifies them as "adult", is kind of ludicrous. This point of view is a) demeaning to children, who, frankly know a decent amount about what is up, b) lets adults off the hook, in the sense that they no longer have to learn things, and c) makes life too goddamn black and white.

And now for the real list...

18. "Academy Fight Song" - Mission of Burma

The first single for the venerable band from Boston. There's just something about the jerky, vague images in this song, and its desperate, spit-spattered delivery that screams sixteen years old. I remember listening to this when I was around that age and thinking, "This isn't what my high school was like. I liked high school. High school ruled!" But I still managed to identify with that global, angsty "we are all outcasts and we are all uncool" level. When I listen now, it rings a little raw and immature, but that's part of the charm, I think.

17. The Monster Squad
Directed by Fred Dekker.

The Monster Squad doesn't really define a decade or an age so much, but it does take the title of Movie I Watched Like, Every Day When I Was Nine. COME ON. It's a kid's fantasy. A) There are monsters. (Actual line from the movie spoken by a kid taking charge: "You guys! I think there's monsters. And nobody's gonna know what to do about it but us.") B) There are kids who are prepared to fight the monsters. C) There are adults who are powerless? D) Frankenstein is a good guy. A + B + C + D = GENIUS. This movie respected kids enough to put the curse words in their mouths and the stakes in their hands. That's what good children's entertainment is about: respect. Like how Nickelodeon respects a child's sense of absurdity and caters to it. Also, though, this movie has a kid shooting stakes at vampire babes with a bow and arrow. TIGHT.

16. Vanity of Duluoz
Written by Jack Kerouac.

It's not quite On The Road, but I think that's a good thing. What always sticks with me about this novel (a semi-autobiographical tale of Jack Duluoz's high school triumphs, his brief stint at Columbia, and his tour with the Merchant Marine, obvs) is how much ol' Jack must have actually thought of himself as a character in some story. It's great, goofy, solipsisitic stuff. I can just see him scribbling in a notepad, holed up in Hartley Hall at Columbia, trying to come up with good names for all his friends.

15. "Boy Meets World"
Created by Michael Jacobs and April Kelly.
Especially the Graduation episode where Topanga (inexplicably) proposes to Cory after their high school graduation. (

Do people really do that? Do ridiculous girls with straight A's and baffling names propose to jew-froed everymen in the middle of graduation ceremonies? This was shit I took as a given when I was 14. Possibility. Marriage was just a thing you did and the sooner you got around to doing it, the quicker you had won at life.

14. Beautiful Girls
Directed by Ted Demme.

To me, this film depicts two different adolescences... the one you get when you're a kid (Natalie Portman) and the one you get when you've grown up, you've tried a few things, your life is starting to fall into order (read: routine), and you suddenly need a shake-up (Timothy Hutton). God, the line in the scene where he's talking down to her from his window (he's also kind of talking down to her in the script... heavy-handed much, Mr. Scott Rosenberg--who went on to write Kangaroo Jack?!!) and he goes, "Y'know, in five years, you won't even remember me." Ahhhh... you slay me, Beautiful Girls.

13. To Kill a Mockingbird
Written by Harper Lee.
I remember getting assigned this for summer reading and tearing through it in one, night-long thunderstorm at my grandmother's place. You just don't forget the images in this book, it's basically impossible. I don't know. Maybe it was a time and place thing, like everything you hold dear, like childhood itself. But it was a long, long time before a book hit me as hard as this one did.

12. The Last Picture Show (the film and the novel)
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich/Written by Larry McMurty.

This is one of the most underrated monologues put to film. I remember those moments growing up where adults would pull back the curtain and let you in on who they used to be... you didn't really get it, but you were just glad that they let you listen. Even now when I watch this, I don't totally understand. I follow the narrative, I know what the words mean, but I haven't totally experienced that emotion... the realization that you are no longer young. It's terrifying and yet, somehow serene.

11. "Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton" - The Mountain Goats

First of all, this is my favorite band. I am seeing them November 8th AND 9th (at Music Hall of Williamsburg and then again at Webster Hall) if anyone wants to go. This song is pure heart. The delivery on "Hail Satan!" is so painfully genuine! You can hear John Darnielle smiling through every word of these lyrics. Buy this album (All Hail West Texas), buy the others, dissolve yourself in these stories. NOW. I would say more. I would say that this song captures youth at that point where you realize what you want to say and what you have to do but no one thinks you're worth listening to. I would say that this song is about a freedom that disappears when you grow older, the freedom of possibility. I would say that this song is so easy to play on guitar that even I can do it. But this is a long list already and I need to move, move, move on.

10. "Friday Night Lights"
Created by Peter Berg.
Especially the pilot--best pilot I've seen in a long, long while. (

Wow, three in a row for Texas. Way to go, Lonestar State. (I won't be putting on Lone Star, though. Or Texasville.) Adolescence is all about grossly inflated perceptions of worth and value and import. Dillon, Texas has those perceptions about high school football. Somehow though, this show manages to cultivate an atmosphere that is perfectly situated at the median between pathetic and glorious. It doesn't paint these characters as ridiculous, but it doesn't put them on pedestals either. They mumble, they drink, they fuck up routinely. They're heroes, sure, but it's because, not in spite, of their mundanity.

9. "Weezer" - Weezer (full album)

I was going through some times a while back and I rediscovered this album. Every track on it is pure gold... even the ones I used to skip back in high school. Every aching, heart-on-sleeve chord, every my-tongue-is-in-my-cheek-but-I-still-want-to-kiss-you lyric... oh man, did they ever set the bar high. "In the Garage" is probably the best portrait of adolescence, but the whole album has that same, sweetly shaky veneer.

8. American Graffiti
Directed by George Lucas.

Watching this film now is like spying on a voyeur... it's a 70s love-poem to the 50s, really. But there's nothing new under the sun, only new packaging and inflated prices. I know I'm not the first to say that Superbad is American Graffiti without the dick jokes and I don't think that speaks ill of either film. I'm just a sucker for that whole shake-the-dust-off-this-crummy-little-town thing, and hell, it's probably because I DID shake the dust off and move to the city, but I DIG it, man, I really do. And when it's set to a soundtrack like this, and it's shot by a guy who had yet to go batshit, well, damn... it's a sure thing. (Ah shit, I forgot The Sure Thing...)

7. Can't Hardly Wait
Directed by Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan.

This movie essentially defined my concept of love when I was 15 years old. If you feel something and you have felt it for long enough to be certain that you are certain of this feeling, writing it down on paper and making someone read your feelings is all you have to do. When I saw Can't Hardly Wait for the first time, I didn't bother to get invested in the supporting characters, I didn't pick up on the allusions to the previous films to which it owes obvious debts. For all I cared, there was only one eternal moment comprising one burning question: Preston and Amanda, yes or no? This is the stuff of adolescence! Immediacy! There is no past! There have been no prior I Love You's, you are most definitely the first person to have ever felt this way about another person and it is unbelievable! I was so certain of these things that I enacted my own Can't Hardly Wait in front of a taco place on Main Street. And yeah, sure, it worked. I don't know why. I mean, I did then, but now... not so sure.

Side note: At the end of the Where Are They Now? bit that closes up the movie, the screen reads (regarding Preston and Amanda) "They are still together." Every time I see that, I laugh, because I'm sure that they aren't. But the sentiment that their love, their connection was SO strong that even though they had never really spoken before that fateful grad party, and even though the only thing they shared in common was a respect for letter-writing, THEY FUCKIN' MADE IT, MAN. Gets me every time. I don't mean to put down the insouciant optimism of youth. It's encouraging in a beautiful, beautiful way. But I gotta laugh.

(Um, the whole thing is apparently available on YouTube. Start here:

6. This Side of Paradise
Written by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Cobbled together from short stories, plays, and poems he had written in his early adult days--btw, do cobblers take offense when people say things are "cobbled together"... are they like, "Oh, what, so my shoes are shit because I just threw them together haphazardly, like EVERYTHING ELSE I DO?" In a lot of ways, this is the spiritual predecessor to Vanity of Duluoz, cataloguing Fitzgerald's days at prep school, Princeton, and New York. That final moment, though... as he falls to the ground and says, "I know myself and that is all." Wow. Even if I don't like the phrase "coming-of-age", that sentiment certainly defines what "coming-of-age" is trying to approximate.

5. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Written by James Joyce.

And it's our third kunstlerroman of the list! I couldn't not include it, really. I mean, come on. Catholic, all boys school... tempering troubles with his faith with troubles with the ladies. Alright, fine, I'm selling it short. Look, this is why I don't like to talk at length about great works of art. I can give you a thousand pages on Wings or Family Double Dare or Multiplicity, but as soon as I get to Joyce, it's like I don't want to offend the guy.

4. "Sixteen Blue" - The Replacements

Ah... the guys who wrote the song Can't Hardly Wait is named after. (And the best thing to come out of Minnesota aside from the Vikings, the Twins, and maybe Rob Trump.) It's one thing to capture the wonder of adolescence... the discovery, the risks, all that. But it's somehow more captivating--and frankly, more realisitic--if you nail the awkwardness, the lingering doubts, and the uncomfortable, sweaty silences. When you're four, your parents tell you to make friends, to run around, to reek with joy. But when you're fourteen, that behavior is no longer rewarded. You learn to avert your eyes, to only speak to certain people, to stick to your strata of the social scene. This song not only captures these moments, it pays them tribute. "Everything drags and drags," sings Paul Westerberg. Damn straight. It lasts forever and just when you get the hang of it, you get spit out to a bigger proving ground with new rules.

3. "The Wonder Years"
Created by Carol Black and Neal Marlens.
Especially the episode where David Schwimmer camps out in the rain to prove his love to Kevin's older sister. (

When you're a kid and you watch this, it strikes you as totally sensical. That boy is in love with that girl, so he waited all night in the rain for her. Knights kill dragons for princesses, football players catch touchdowns and marry the head cheerleader. These are facts, these are things that happen. Then, when you're older, you watch it and it still makes sense, on a totally different level. That boy is scared about losing that girl. He doesn't want to deal with defining a life beyond her, without her, so he acts desperately, even foolishly. It becomes this twisted, amazing cycle of evolving perception. Watching this clip, I understand now what I thought back then, when I thought about what it means to be as old as I am now. That is a convoluted-ass sentence, but I promise you that it is true.

(Also watch this:

2. "Thirteen" - Big Star

Earlier, I gave a nod to Alex Chilton's biggest fans, The Replacements, now I'll turn my attention to the man himself. I hope and pray that this song does not become the "Hallelujah" of teenage love tunes. I found a (potentially) sweet Wilco cover of it and lo and behold, when I played it in iTunes, the Album label read "Gilmore Girls Songs". The earnest, honest vocals, the delicate guitar picking, the lyrical nudges to inherent bond between music and young love. But it's more... there's a dark, almost dangerous current running through these words. The guy sings, "Let me be an outlaw for your love," I mean, he'd kill for her, he'd steal for her, he has yet to conceive of a compartmentalized life where at certain points in the day, his love is not the most important thing in the world. That truly is a wonderful, adolescent sentiment.

1. The Sandlot
Directed by David M. Evans.

"FOR-EV-ER." "You're killin' me, Smalls!" "You play ball like a giiiiirl!" You say any quote from this movie to someone from my generation and they will immediately sign your name in the Book of the Chosen. And yet, like American Graffiti, it wasn't really our story... it was a bunch of kids in the 50's who played baseball together. Now, I love baseball, I mean, I'm checking scores as I write this, but you ask these twenty-something fans which they've seen more times, a major league baseball game or The Sandlot, I bet you a good, solid chunk, maybe even half, would answer the latter. It's a good movie, sure, but it's more than that. You don't identify with this movie because it's 1952 and the only way you're going to make friends is by learning to play baseball. You identify because you remember what it was like to believe in legends, to have faith in your heroes, to surprise yourself... The Sandlot is not a movie, it's a cultural landmark.

1 comment:

El Gigante said...

Wow, totally worth the wait. Great, GREAT list. I have some books and music to track down (not movies though, that shit is covered tight), in fact you're so persuasive about music you should write about it more.