Small screen youth revolution

Kirsten Krauth

Love is a 4 letter Word

Love is a 4 letter Word

Teenybopper films, Bring It On aside, got a well-deserved hiding from Phillip Brophy in RealTime 41, but TV for not-quite-adults has never been better. Look at it. The Simpsons, Malcolm in the Middle, Daria, Love is a Four Letter Word, 24 Hrs versus the supposedly grown-up options of Temptation Island, Flat Chat, Millionaire Couples, Just Shoot Me!. OK, that’s a biased list (and there’s some crossover there) but perhaps it’s why those approaching their 30s claw onto their teens, revelling in scooters, streetwear at the office, I-wanna-be-a-filmmaker-writer-web-designer-dreams and moshing in Big Day Out sweatshops (or maybe it’s our inheritance from 50-something parents desperately hanging onto their 20s).

I weep when I think of a wasted youth watching The Brady Bunch every afternoon (I wrote that before realising it’s still on); The Wonder Years was a revelation! Now, look at Malcolm in the Middle: a teenage son undergoes S+M rituals at a military academy, a central character talks directly to camera and invites us into his skewed world, parents are so consumed by each other they forget about the kids, and revel in it. No moral to the story (really). No sitting in bed in demure nightgown and striped pyjamas communicating. Witty, shocking, out-there comedy on prime time Channel 9. A recent episode had an over-protected boy escape with Malcolm’s help into the night to play at Timezone, lose his wheelchair, get dragged along on cardboard, elevated into a shopping trolley, crash violently and eject, only to land on the concrete and scream “I can’t feel my legs!” The Simpsons has revolutionised the small screen (and my pop) world.

The ABC has been plugging away with teen drama for years. Heartbreak High was always miles ahead of Darren Starr’s receding-hairlined 90210, and now there’s Head Start, running smoothly after Top of the Pops—Ricky Martin is not made of cardboard!—and before the addictive chorus line of Popstars on Channel 7. Now there’s niche marketing. Top of the Pops proves that most acts in the Top 20 can’t sing or dance. Bring back Recovery! It seemed to hit on the right formula—Saturday morning, live performance (a rare outlet for Aussie bands to play on TV), deliberately chaotic delivery, a talented anti-host in Dylan—and then it disappeared to be replaced by repeats of Monkey and more Top 20; it’s almost like ABC programmers punish themselves for getting it right. But anyway, I’ve gone off track (you know, my generation’s poor attention span).

Head Start is, like Popstars, based on competition and market forces. Various youngsters are bankrolled to start a business. According to their mentor (who sits, like Charlie from Charlie’s Angels, behind a desk where he never seems to do anything) they are answerable to their sponsor (the bank) who has the power to suspend projects. They must learn to interact with their peers to succeed (hopefully Jonathan Shier watches this). The girls are picture perfect. The country boy wears an Akubra. The participants learn how to market their wares and bodies, bargain, make deals, and achieve the “potential of sponsorship and advertising on a global scale.” It’s the perfect show for the current political environment, teaching teens to be individuals while kowtowing at the altar of economic rationalism.

When it comes to drama, sometimes documentary can do it better than fiction. PS, I Love You, which screened recently on ABC, got into the head of 14 year old Mae, living away from home for a year in rural Victoria. It’s a revealing portrait of the intelligence, energy and conflicts of girls in their mid teens, with the added baggage of negotiating cross-cultural issues. As her Cambodian friend Pam says, “I’m sorta stuck between…not sure whether to follow my culture or whether to follow what I want to be and who I am.” The digital camera becomes the tool/weapon of daughter and mother (the director), as Mae and her friends are more comfortable talking to camera than their mothers: “If I tell her too much she’ll maybe hold it against me.” It’s a contradictory world with false allegiances and regular betrayals, where what holds families together/splits them apart is what remains unsaid. Fathers are noticeably absent and the film’s most memorable, uncomfortable scene comes when Mae’s father returns (she hasn’t seen him since he abandoned the family when she was 3) and he can’t even look at her, chatting up her younger brother and inviting him to sit beside him, taking on a stern authoritative role inappropriately, too soon (and too late). In a family counselling session, she asks him for a guarantee that he will send her a letter “in the next 2 years or something.” He won’t commit, even when she asks, “is there anything that you are sure about…that you can do?” Lisa Wang’s direction, interestingly, reveals the controlling hand of a protective mother. Her voiceovers often state what we can already gauge from the footage and seem intrusive, especially as we know she’s not (physically) present. In a scene where Mae lets her (considerable) guard down and talks about death, that indefinable fear that haunts us all, her mother’s prodding reveals that she no longer understands the complexity of what her daughter is trying to say. With panic in her voice, Mae says: “I don’t think people have enough time to do nothing in life.”

Love is a Four Letter Word is full of existential angst too and grows on you like fungus. Albee (Kate Beahan) and Angus (Peter Fenton) are today’s de Beauvoir and Sartre. If Jean-Paul was around, he’d own a pub and bash in pokies with his steel capped boots; and Simone would quit publishing because of its clash with her high ideals of being a Writer. And yes, they’ve come to an “arrangement” (they can have other lovers and be cool about it) which has always worked fine, as it always does, except that Angus’ dad’s wife is pregnant with his (yes, Angus’) baby and Albee doesn’t know. But would she care? It’s a rare expression that passes over her strangely masked face. Her sister Larissa (Leeanna Walsman) has all the spunk. LIAFLW has a cumulative impact. The concept/characters get more perverse, a new band in each episode—Preshrunk, Jackie Orszaczky, Machine Gun Fellatio—brings a varied mood (like in The Young Ones: who can forget Madness) and the writing and cinematography, after a ploddy start, spiral further into surrealism, camera swinging like a sinking ship. Angus gets most of the introspective focus, constructing alternate narratives, jump cuts thrashing him about. It’s interesting how Fenton plays against his own charisma in this role (and in Praise). As singer/musician (solo and in Crow), I’ve seen him devastate swirling crowds of panting girls but, on screen, he becomes almost sexless, a pawn in other characters’ games. It’s a good move. Paul Bannister (Paul Barry), the best-friend-third-wheel from hell says, “I did not lie. I told my own version of the truth which in a postmodern world is a valid statement of fact.” Hallelujah! Hopefully, the series’ off kilter dynamics, contrasting moods and playful style and pacing will get a second run.

24.00 Hrs, an initiative of Queensland’s Pacific Film and Television Commission, is currently screening as part of Eat Carpet. It’s an imaginative series of documentaries where inexperienced filmmakers head off with just a camera to meet a stranger, to capture 24 hours in their lives. Sly pairing makes the initially awkward relationship between filmmaker and subject as interesting as what’s filmed. Steven seems to want to escape the limitations of being behind the camera when he meets Colin, an Aboriginal rapper and artist in Cairns—cool NY hat shading his eyes—who says, “my name’s gone beyond Australia, I wish I could have gone with it.” Conflict between his white father and Aboriginal mother means he has poetic insight into an often painful inheritance. Rebecca introduces us to Hannabella (dwarfed by an art installation) reading Mexican poetry at Brisbane’s Metro Arts, an eccentric bowerbird in hat and beads and plaits who never stops moving or talking, but is trying for “less is more so I can really experience something.” Doug’s boss won’t let the camera behind the butchershop counter but “Nige” sneaks there anyway. Doug is a gorgeous, 20 year old “man’s man” who would have made it on Popstars. He sings Lean on Me to the customers buying snags, makes a mean Eggs Benedict, and pretty much seduces Nigel, constantly teasing the guy behind the camera who can’t answer back (“tables will turn when the editing takes place”, his girlfriend says revealingly). Bronwyn struggles at first with Yangdzom, a Buddhist nun who is also a legal secretary in a Brisbane high rise. She is intensely private, used to a life of (mainly) stillness, so Bronwyn ends up putting the camera down (to establish a relationship first) and, later, lingers lovingly on the details of ritual: putting on robes, praying and prostrating, building mandalas. Sam visits Mackay for the first time to check out Danyell who works at Red Rooster and (like Yangdzom) wants to be a mechanic. She’s uncomfortable in the limelight (“this is going to be the most boring 24 hours of your life”) until well oiled at a nightclub where she lets loose. As, apparently, does Sam who admits to the night being the best of his life, with “complete strangers.”

24.00 Hrs reveals a curious gender divide. The films made by women about women are intimate portraits, in close on faces, carefully framed, not afraid to question. Those by men about men hang back in wide shot, afraid of crossing that invisible line (we never get a good look at Colin’s face). It’s a bummer that 24.00 Hrs screens late on Saturday nights (and is not even listed in The Guide). It will be missed by almost everyone, relegated, like many aspects of youth culture, to the margins. Why not repeat it in prime time, SBS? And what about a second series where the roles are reversed, giving those filmed a chance to train their cameras on the filmmakers…it gives a whole new slant to Australian Story.

Malcolm in the Middle, Channel 9, Tuesdays, 7.30pm; Love is a Four Letter Word, ABC, Tuesdays, 9.30pm; The Big Picture documentary series, ABC, Thursdays, 9.30pm; 24.00 Hrs, Eat Carpet, Saturdays, 11pm; Head Start, ABC, Sundays, 6.10pm

RealTime issue #42 April-May 2001 pg. 15

© Kirsten Krauth; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2001