Eroticizing teen debauchery the honest, direct way in 1980’s Foxes

Eroticizing teen debauchery the honest, direct way in 1980’s Foxes

Film history isn’t a highlight reel of universally agreed-upon classics. It’s an epic story. But some chapters of the story draw more attention than others. Secret Cinema is a column dedicated to shining a light on compelling, little-noticed, overlooked, or faded-from-memory movies from years past. Let’s talk about the films nobody’s talking about. 

When Kids debuted in the summer of 1995, it met with controversy, to put it mildly. Directed by Larry Clark (a photographer-turned-filmmaker whose early work included a study of teenage life in Tulsa, Oklahoma) and scripted by Harmony Korine (who quickly embarked on a career as a filmmaker and self-mythologizing media figure), Kids shocked viewers with its depiction of New York teenagers who treat sex, drugs, and violence with equal casualness. Viewers mostly fell into two camps: Those in a hurry to condemn the film as child pornography, and those equally eager to champion it for pulling back the veil on a generation of unsupervised debauchees. In a quote that ended up on Kids’ poster, trailer, and video box, Janet Maslin called it “a wake up call to the world” in The New York Times (though not in her review), as if Clark and Korine were finally tattling on all those awful teenagers who were getting away with rule-breaking underneath all our noses, while keeping us up at night worrying about them.

Anyone who thought Kids revealed anything new about the youth of America had a pretty short memory. The film finds a new way of telling an old story about the horrible things teenagers are doing. Kids’ innovations have everything to do with its ground-level approach to the subject, particularly Clark’s offhanded artfulness, and Korine’s ability to crank up the nuances of mid-’90s teen culture to hysterical extremes. But beneath all that, it was simply performing the same function played by the juvenile-delinquent movies of the 1950s and hippie-phobic ’60s before it, and Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen after it: alarming audiences with the outrageous excesses of the kids these days, while titillating them with the same things. Which isn’t to say there’s nothing to worry about: Each generation of teens has somehow found ways to rebel that alarm even the last generation of teens who alarmed the generation before them. But even the best of these movies has to serve two purposes at once. To paraphrase François Truffaut, there’s no such thing as an anti-teen decadence film, because there’s no way to portray teen decadence without glamorizing it. 

Shot in 1979 and released the following year, Foxes at least seems to recognize this icky contradiction from the beginning, though it can’t really do anything but surrender to it. It opens with a languorous tour of a bedroom filled with sleeping teen girls, panning across bare arms and legs before arriving at the face of the protagonist, played by a then-17-year-old Jodie Foster. The focus shifts to other sleeping girls and the items on the room’s walls and floor: A John Travolta poster, a Clearasil tube, a Twinkies wrapper, and so on. On the soundtrack, Donna Summer sings the slow, seductive opening to “On The Radio,” a track she wrote for the film with collaborator Giorgio Moroder, who also provided the score. Diffuse beams of sunlight give the scene a gauzy, romantic haze. Then the alarm goes off and three of the girls wake up. The fourth, played by Runaways member Cherie Currie, has a much harder time of it, having spent the evening, as Foster puts it, getting sick on a stranger’s car after ingesting “Quaaludes, beer, wine” and “some really heavy kind of pills.” Foster’s attitude toward this is disturbingly nonchalant, announcing the usual events of just another day in the teenage wasteland of suburban L.A. at the tail end of the ’70s. But every other element onscreen glamorizes the image, making it look like a travel brochure to the same wasteland. 

Foxes is the feature debut of Adrian Lyne, an English director seemingly incapable of shooting any image without eroticizing it. Lyne still had a hugely successful decade ahead of him, following Foxes with Flashdance, 9 1/2 Weeks, and Fatal Attraction. Foxes wasn’t hugely successful, but it established the style Lyne employed throughout his career, casting even the most disturbing images in an approving glow. Later, this would work for him. Before it devolves into a series of cheap jolts, Fatal Attraction, for instance, makes the illicit thrills of an extramarital dalliance look almost irresistible. Even if he’d known it would end in tears and dead rabbits, Michael Douglas might have gotten on that elevator anyway if it meant a chance to ride up through those beautiful beams of light.

Here, the approach wars with the material, which Lyne fills with the messy details of girls left too much to their own devices by parents wrapped up in problems of their own. Each one responds to the situation in her own way. For Foster’s Jeanie—whose mother (Sally Kellerman) loves her but spends her time working, taking college classes, and filling the side of the bed her ex-husband left empty with whoever looks at her kindly—that means mostly minor offenses like ditching class, smoking cigarettes, and looking after her less-together friends. These include Madge (Marilyn Kagan, who later became a therapist, author, talk-show host, and L.A. media personality), who’s insecure about her virginity and secretly dating an older man (Randy Quaid); the incurably flirtatious Deirdre (Kandice Stroh); Brad (Scott Baio), a skateboarder whose desire for a girlfriend seems to double as a desire for someone to mother him; and Annie (Currie), who’s, to put it mildly, fucked up.

Most everyone spends their time chasing after Annie, and Currie is good enough in the part that it seems like a shame her acting career never really took off. Unfailingly optimistic in spite of the way life keeps kicking her in the ass, she spends the film dodging an abusive cop father and hanging out with her friends. In their company, she’s unfailingly cheery. Trouble is, she has a way of leaving their company and chasing whatever boy passes her way with the promises of a good time. She’s the doomed heroine of a Hold Steady song, only a couple of decades too early for Craig Finn to immortalize her.

In fact, the movie feels weirdly out of time, in spite of all the era-specific details Lyne packs into the frame. (Even Paul Stanley’s house might not have as much Kiss paraphernalia lying around as Randy Quaid’s place does in this movie.) Maybe that’s because the era feels kind of ill-defined, even a couple of decades away from it. Disco had peaked. Punk had already started to burn out. New wave hadn’t really happened yet. Jimmy Carter described a nation gripped by malaise, and Foxes shows that malaise dribbling down to the nation’s youth as they waited for the ’80s—or anything, really—to start happening. (At one point, Foster’s character asks if anyone’s heard the new Weather Report album, which is hard to imagine a teen doing in any era.) Early in the film, the gang attends a concert by a band called Angel, whose stage show looks like a badly calculated attempt to merge disco with hard rock. The scene looks so much like the sort of prefabricated rock act that turns up in movies, I was surprised to find out Angel was a real, albeit barely remembered act. They’re the perfect soundtrack for the world of the film, however: all excess and no identity.

Maybe that’s why, in spite of Foster’s presence and Lyne’s later success, no one seems to remember Foxes. Of course, it doesn’t help that it’s not that great a movie, with a plodding pace that makes teenage wildlife look kind of dull, even as it wraps it in attractive packaging. Or maybe it’s this: The worries about yesterday’s teenagers belong to yesterday. I only saw Kids once, not long after it came out. Just out of college, I wasn’t that much older than the teenagers on the screen, and what I saw felt a little off to me. Or at least off in the way it was framed by reviews that treated it with such alarm. Clark opted for a naturalistic approach, but his characters took teen nuances to extremes. I haven’t seen it since, but suspect that watching it now, the artfulness of the filmmaking would survive even after time has burned the immediacy of the worry away. Or maybe, like Foxes, it would look like a caricature of youth and excess in a particular time and place that’s as much artifact as art, and a warning of an apocalypse that never happened. The kids may not have been all right, but they grew up and moved on anyway.

Next: Season Of The Witch (1972)

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