Revisiting Teen Core Cinema

Photo: Universal Pictures

As I wonder where all the time has gone (I refuse to believe I started high school eight years ago), I thought of an interesting experiment. I recently had the urge to film bro-out, so I would take the time to revisit three essential films that I would argue on any given day in 2016 were my three favorites: A Clockwork Orange, Scarface, and The Shawshank Redemption. These pretty much check all the boxes of the teen film bro who just started getting into movies. While Shawshank stylistically and tonally greatly differs from the first two, there is something something inexplicable as to why this has climbed up the ranks of the film bro core despite the lack of gun wielders shouting “fuck you” at each other. I mean, it is #1 on the IMDb Top 250.

What is there to say about Stanley Kubrick that hasn’t been said to death already? He knows how and where to point the camera and how to, like a madman, unlock his actors into giving unique performances. There isn’t much enthusiasm, at least for me, in discussing the artistry or filmography of Kubrick. For as mysterious and reclusive as he was, everything about him is stated and plain fact. This is probably due to his films being so precise and exacting, as well as the length of time he took in between films towards the end of his career and life. Over the last few years, I never have the urge to rewatch any of his movies (even as my favorite podcast, Blank Check, is currently covering him).

A Clockwork Orange is the pinnacle of my new relationship to Kubrick. In my head, I was saying this while rewatching: This is technically exceptional. I’m loving Malcolm McDowell’s performance. The story is simultaneously transgressive and nuanced. I’d rather be doing something else with this time. It is a shame that I had this reaction, but maybe I shouldn’t feel bad. Perhaps this is the Kubrick effect: forcing yourself to sit in his cold and calculated mind. And I’m aware that the mythos surrounding Kubrick as a hermetic cyborg artist is overblown, but this is how I respond to his films. I might not be alone in having second thoughts about the film. Anecdotally speaking, the crowd on film Twitter would generally place this at second tier Kubrick, behind Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut. The issue that gets in my way the most of putting this in my top five of his films is the overall sameness in its narrative. The tone and characterization is just a little too one-note for my liking, and that is where Kubrick’s demanding preciseness hurts him.

Verdict: Very good movie that I respect more than I love. I’m hoping that I don’t feel this way when I revisit Barry Lyndon and Full Metal Jacket. My favorite Kubrick joints are still Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove

I love Brian de Palma. Just about all of his films are so engaging to watch and use the camera so masterfully. Not many directors have the precise genre sensibilities that he possesses. While there is a lot to grab on to when watching Scarface, from the De Palma perspective, I find that the film is lacking more and more every time I watch it. It’s odd that the knock on the movie when it was first released in 1983 was that it was too stylized and all flash. The whole time when I was revisiting this, I was yelling “why isn’t this more perverted? Where are the split screens and split diopter shots?” This is De Palma at half speed, which is baffling considering that this is in between Blow Out and Body Double, perhaps his two most De Palma movies. 

I used to think one of the strengths of Scarface was the conflicting sensibilities of De Palma and screenwriter Oliver Stone. The former seems to have no interest in telling a story about the rise and fall of the gangster and/or takedown of capitalism, while the latter made a career out of suffering the consequences of following the American Dream. That worked against my enjoyment of the film this time. Their separate takes on Scarface would be much better. This certainly isn’t me looking at myself as a De Palma truther who delegitimizes his popular movies. I recently rewatched The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible and liked them even more, so much that they climbed up my ranking of his filmography. 

Verdict: Scarface needed to be either more trashy (sleazy exploitation) or more classy (30s Warner Bros gangster picture, even if it’s too similar to the original Howard Hawks film). This is just sitting here awkwardly in between.

As for The Shawshank Redemption, I’m still trying to comprehend its spot in film bro culture. If anything, I guess that when you begin diving into movies as an art form, the ones you start out with are ultimately nihilistic. Sometime after watching Pulp Fiction and Taxi Driver and feeling like you discovered true art for the first time, Shawshank moves on its audience differently. This was the one movie out of the three that I most expected to hold up the best. I was particularly in the mood for classical, broad sentimentality about friendship and self-redemption for a while, and in fact, I responded to these emotions when I revisited the film. With much of it coming from Stephen King’s side, the structure of the film is great, and features economical storytelling despite its mildly lengthy runtime. The highlight of Shawshank, really without question, is a thunderously captivating Morgan Freeman performance, who’s spirit carries the story, even through ham-fisted writing on screen or via voice over.

On a long awaited rewatch, I noticed signs of a rookie director in Frank Darabont. It’s amazing he directed a modern classic considering he unknowingly almost blew Morgan Freeman’s arm out. To steal a line from Griffin Newman of Blank Check, someone needed to take away the jar of paprika from Darabont. There are times, even though I can be suckered into a sweeping sentimental tale, when he lays it on too thick. Watch the “hope is a dangerous thing” scene again. Tim Robbins is giving too much, and the Thomas Newman score (albeit still great) plays way too unceremoniously. While the narrative stays on track, the first third of the film, which comprises prison hell porn and a cartoonish villain as a means to signify the difficulty of the lifestyle, could be cut out of the movie or at least be considerably revamped. These cliche filled moments get in the way of the true heart of the movie: the relationship between Andy and Red.

Verdict: This held up the best, but just like the two other films I covered, I no longer view this as a masterpiece. When it’s playing on cable TV (yes, I’m still sticking with it), I immediately click it, because it is rightfully canonized as the premiere Rewatchable movie. For a reason, the flow of the movie works efficiently, and you can jump in at any time and get to a landmark scene. The film’s strength is also its weakness at heart: it’s just too simple.

After contemplating these films in succession, I think why films of this kind resonate with male teens morphing into film buffs is because these films are centered around the evolution of a character, in this case being Alex, Tony Montana, and Andy Dufresne/Red Redding. Furthermore, they evolve due to their environment (crime reformation program, drug trade, prison) There is nothing an angsty teen knows more than the utter fact that we live in a society. These films may seemingly just be about individual people, but myself and many other up and coming film bros recognized that it’s the system, and we’re all just pawns in it, man.

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