Gone With the Wind: ‘Seventeen’ (PBS) (10/84)

Seventeen is a made-for/rejected-by-PBS documentary by Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines about working class high school seniors in Muncie, Indiana. Casual dope-smoking, a pervasive sense of no future, black boys with white girlfriends, and a lot of obscenity all the more obscene for its casualness are what got the film excluded from PBS’ Middletown series, but that is not what interested me.

The most striking scenes in Seventeen grow out of an ordinary party. It’s held in the house where Lynn Massie—white, 17, and the central figure in the film—lives with her parents and two brothers. The hand-held shots and the noise are confusing at first; soon, everything begins to revolve around another teenager, Keith Buck. He seems so much part of the family that it takes a credit sheet to discover he’s a friend, not one of Lynn’s brothers. He’s that comfortable with Lynn’s parents, that much not a guest. The viewer doesn’t feel like a guest either; the feeling in the crowded rooms is very intimate.

The party finds its rhythm, and Keith gets drunker by the frame. The Massies don’t appear concerned—no doubt they’ve seen him like this before. But it’s an amazing, ugly drunk: a rant, where the drunk locks into a couple of phrases and can’t let them go. Keith is raving about his best friend, who’s been in an auto accident. There’s a terrible incoherence to his speech; though every word is clear, no emotion is. He’s gonna pull through, Keith says, ’cause he’s tough as nails. He’s tough as nails. He’s tough as nails. He’s tough as nails just like me so he’s gonna pull through. He’s gotta pull through ’cause he’s tough as nails just like me. He’s tough as nails just like me.

Watching, I was sure it was the beer talking—that Keith’s friend wasn’t really badly hurt, that this was an act, adolescent myth-making, a buildup to a fake event which, years later, could be talked about as if it had actually happened. “Man, remember when you almost bought it? I knew you’d pull through and you did. ‘Cause you’re tough as nails, man”—40-year-old fist punches 40-year-old beer belly—“just like me.” This wasn’t a study in teenage crisis, or a study in teenage friendship—it was a study in teenage drinking. But that shift from “gonna pull through” to “gotta” should have tipped me off.

In the next scene, still at Lynn’s house—it’s the day after—we see Keith calling up a radio station, asking the DJ to dedicate a song to his best friend, who’s just died. Keith wants Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind.” A cut: we see Lynn, a girlfriend, and Keith sitting in Lynn’s room, chatting, the radio playing. “Against the Wind” comes on. “That’s it!” shouts Lynn, though the DJ says nothing about a dedication. In the same voice she’d use if the party were still on and the DJ were spinning her number-one dance tune, Lynn shouts again: “Crank it!”Keith sits by the radio; Lynn and her friend are on the bed; Shari Massie, Lynn’s mother, looks into the room and leans on a doorjamb. Suddenly, the whole film changes. Its language changes, and the language of the people in it: both become utterly unreal. Earlier—in schoolrooms, in cars, in other homes—we’ve seen people glance out of the corners of their eyes at the camera, where other documentaries have made us expect camera subjects to appear “natural”; we’ve seen people talk directly to the camera, though the documentary never acknowledges itself as such, and the interviews have come onto the screen more as ordinary conversations with an unseen listener. But a different sort of self-consciousness has now taken over, and it has nothing to do with the camera. It has nothing to do with the fact that this incident, in which a death has fixed a moment in time, will be made into a series of images to be received by film viewers whom the people experiencing the event directly will never meet. It has nothing to do with the filmic process of displacement, which makes real events into narrative representations. Nevertheless this is a scene of extreme displacement, whose source is in representation.

As the song plays, the film turns theatrical for the first time—or rather the people in it do. Lynn, her mother, her friend, and Keith display emotional reactions familiar to the viewer, so familiar that the viewer realizes they are re-presentations of reactions that have in the past been represented to those who now display them. These people are performing, not for the camera, but for each other, and, most intensely, for themselves. From the moment Keith calls the radio station we see only the most detached, free-floating, meaningless gestures; with the first notes of “Against the Wind” Lynn reacts as if a dedication were marking her birthday, or her love for a boy—“Crank it!”—nothing more. The gestures we’ve seen have never referred to the dead friend—they weren’t burdened. Now grief erupts: tears, sobs, moans, Lynn and her friend hugging and hiding their faces, Lynn’s mother crying, Keith holding his head in his hands. But for all the noise, and the gestures that now carry the full weight of the dead friend’s corpse, the scene does not come off the screen—it seems to recede into it.

It becomes obvious that the actuality of a friend’s death is being sealed by the radio. The event cannot become real until it is sanctioned by an agency of representation, until it is removed from those who have experienced it and represented to them, until they can perceive it as a representation and then act it out as a performance scripted by people they have never met.

The song Keith has chosen is perfect for the moment, which suggests that he is at least a coauthor of the script. “Against the Wind” follows the tale of a rock ’n’ roll singer. Through years of obscurity and temptation he fights his own sense of failure and the world’s definitions of success—and even now, a star, he’s somehow “still running against the wind.” It’s a wonderful elegy: sentimental, soothing and uplifting in its melody, beautifully sung. But compared to “Night Moves,” the allusive, tricky, blazingly personal song that in 1977 made Bob Seger the star he is now singing about, the mythical/autobiographical “Against the Wind” is a song written less by Seger than by other heroically sentimental uplifting songs. It is a set of cues—cues taken first by Seger, and then by the people sitting in the Massie house.

The song finishes; the spell of grief is broken, or its performance simply ends. Keith raises his hand in a hard fist, shakes it, and lets go with a great “UHHH-WOOO!,” precisely as if he were at a Bob Seger concert. Rituals cross over: one, of how you are supposed to behave when a friend has died, and another, of how you are supposed to behave when a star has played your favorite song. It seems inescapable that the latter ritual has contained the former. It’s less that the song, with its mnemonic power to unleash hidden emotions, has allowed these people to acknowledge their grief, than that their ability to make the radio acknowledge a grievous event has allowed them to dramatize and stylize their grief.

What hangs in the air when the scene is done is not grief, but Seger’s song itself. Up against the event it has orchestrated, it begins to break down once severed from it. Now it is no more than Bob Seger promising that after ten years of struggle, and a few years of stardom, he has not sold out and never will. With Lynn and Keith off to other concerns, the scene of their grief reshapes itself: one looks back and sees them promising that they won’t sell out, that they have not sold out the right of their friend to smash himself to death, that they won’t sell out their chance to do the same, that they’ll stay free. The whole complex of entreaties and responses has been so fabulously removed from anything directly lived that you begin to wonder what would have happened if, when Keith phoned up the radio station, the line had been busy.This column can be read as a depiction of media tyranny, but that is not how I mean it. What’s at stake is not the ability of agencies of representation to displace us from reality, but the tyranny of a shallow song.

Nothing like this, one might write, could have happened in a small French village in 1508. I would say rather that nothing like this could have happened with “Night Moves.” The difference is between a song that takes people out of themselves only to attach them to the received self-representations we all carry with us, and a song that throws people back on themselves—isolates them, forces a critique of experience, severs bonds, forces novelty. “Against the Wind” tells a listener how to react, and in an extreme situation, like that of the death of a friend, its assumption that all reactions are familiar, are common coin, intensifies its tyranny. (That’s the true process of sentimentality: the way a person is unconsciously attached to predefined emotional limits.) In “Night Moves” the singer describes the teenage events that made him feel alive for the first time; then in 1976 he wakes up from a dream “humming a song from 1962.” The song is not a remembrance, but a depiction of the process of memory itself.

What’s really going on in the Massie house? To say that Lynn and the rest are struggling to make a death real—or anyway wishing to make it real—is to say that they are struggling to fix it in their memories, or to expunge it from their memories. “Night Moves” would make their unconscious minds work; “Against the Wind” says the work has been done. So it all comes down to a question of taste, and the question of taste is altogether another question.

Artforum, October 1984

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