“So? Kiss my ass.” You won’t find a funnier, or more invigorating, dive into high-school life on film this year than in the hard-to-see documentary classic Seventeen, part of a must-see double revival at this year’s Film Comment Selects. This energetic 1983 look at teenagers from Muncie, Indiana, opens in Home Ec. hell, where a fossilized teacher is no match for a square-jawed sulker and her freewheeling classmates. Everyone is vitally alive, bantering and blustering forth — more like what it all felt like rather than the ironclad clichés of boredom/sarcasm/misery and social climbs. Tagging along in classrooms and wood-paneled dens and radio-scored cars, Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines stick close to people as people.
When it came to broadcasting on PBS, though, corporate sponsor Xerox contrived to deep-six their exemplary accomplishment. That’s because Seventeen left it all in — sexuality, booze, pot, pregnancy, jackasses, and cursing freely about all of these — in other words, the things that help distinguish a faithful portrait of adolescence. Not to mention the mixed-race relationships and tensions: Feisty, pale Lynn, the white student who holds center stage for a while, is involved with a black classmate (and flirts with others — a highlight throughout is the girls’ unremarkably frank sexuality). After threatening calls and a scorched cross in the yard, there’s no editorial teaching moment — Lynn talks trash, like her worldly wise gun-toting sensible mom, then regroups.
DeMott and Kreines worked separately with solo camera rigs and stayed over a year in Muncie. But the resulting trust and intimacy (and footage) would mean little without sharp editing and a well-handled sense of time. A prolonged party at Lynn’s, including parents, is extraordinary, somehow encompassing boozy hanging-out and word of a friend’s car crash. Tipsy chatter at bedtime, Stroh’s, post-party fishing, a powder-blue prom dress, Red Lobster, an era-straddling fairground visit, Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind”— any number of moments and details are just right, with the movie flowing through a delicately crafted last quarter. (Also: “Monster Fun.”)
Shot in the 70s, DeMott and Kreines’s other film, Demon Lover Diary (1980), shares a working-class purview with Muncie-set Seventeen and is maybe more influential as part of a reflexive lineage leading through Sherman’s March and American Movie. Under DeMott’s watchful camera eye, Kreines helps his factory-worker friend, Don, with an ill-planned horror film. DeMott and Kreines, who studied under Ricky Leacock at MIT (home also to diarist Ed Pincus), travel out to Michigan, and lock horns with Don and dungeonmaster-maned co-director Jerry. (For the record, Don completed Demon Lover in some form, and moved on to fodder for New World and Troma before his death in 2003.)
Besides the expected sidetracking, a nervous desperation shadows Don’s loan-leveraged folly (a mentioned wave of 1973 layoffs seems a fresh memory). The cluttered borrowed-house sets feel claustrophobic; Don’s confident patter to a journalist is primo bullshit. As the production stutters, and DeMott’s tetchy voiceover becomes more frequent, the cultural rifts between the frazzled Easterners and their Midwestern hosts become more apparent. By the time DeMott and Kreines flee the set under apparent gunfire (Ted Nugent is involved), the paranoia on the ride home crystallizes the film as a document of troublesome missed connections.
February 22 at the Walter Reade Theater