Beyond Clueless: a visual essay on teen movies from 1994-2004.
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Beyond Clueless: a giant campus of candy-coloured teen life

Half-love letter, half-biopsy, Charlie Lyne's documentary analysis of teen movies is full of flashes of madness.

To the Prince Charles Cinema last week for a preview of Beyond Clueless, a documentary analysis of the modern teen movie. The tone of this debut from the 23-year-old filmmaker Charlie Lyne is best described as half-love letter, half-biopsy. A series of montages divided into chapters guides the viewer through common themes in high-school movies—chief among these being the pressure to conform, seen at its most extreme in Robert Rodriguez’s The Faculty, a kind of Invasion of the Body Snatchers 90210. The conceit is that the several hundred movies from which Lyne has harvested excerpts all inhabit the same world, aesthetically and thematically. Clueless gives way to Drive Me Crazy, She’s All That to 10 Things I Hate About You, Mean Girls to Disturbing Behaviour, all the clips cut together so that they seem to be happening on one giant campus.

The pinnacle of this sort of visual essay, which works as the cinematic equivalent of a word association game, would be Thom Anderson’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, which comprises screen representations of LA, or Christian Marclay's 24-hour video installation The Clock, constructed from visual representations of time in film. Beyond Clueless is a modest piece which makes no claims to be in that class but it shares some key DNA. It recognises the sparks that can be generated, the insinuations made, when one piece of film is placed next to another in defiance of its creator’s original intentions.

In the Q&A after the screening, hosted by Adam Buxton at his wryest, Lyne invoked the word “exorcism” to describe the process of picking over in detail the films which had bewitched him as a teenager. And there is the sense in Beyond Clueless that the authorial voice is asking not only “What did these films do to me?” but also, incredulously and at times angrily, “How could they?” The slant of the film suggests an adult interrogating those who wronged him as a child.

Or those who wronged her. Though Lyne is the writer-director, one of the keys to the picture’s effectiveness is the dazed voiceover by Fairuza Balk, the actress whose career began on the electro-convulsive therapy table as the young Dorothy in the disturbing 1983 prequel Return to Oz. Her presence on the soundtrack of Beyond Clueless is highly symbolic: she was one of the stars of The Craft, the 1996 thriller about a coven of high-school witches. Balk (she is perfectly named: balk is exactly what you do when you see her intense, unnerving face) introduced an element of danger and unpredictability into The Craft, and she brings that also to parts of Beyond Clueless. She offers both an American ratification of this British film—she’s an actual escapee from the teen genre, called back from adulthood to deliver its last rites—and the perfect, Mogadon-fogged delivery for a picture that seems to be emerging from its own movie rehab.

Sometimes the wooziness blurs into wooliness. There is slightly too much recourse to the synopsis format in which we are shown a condensed version of a film’s plot (though it helps that some of these—Bubble Boy, starring a young Jake Gyllenhaal, and the teen horror Idle Hands—are unfamiliar). The analyses are not always as sharp as they might have been, relying on the sort of connective tissue that will be familiar to any writer who has ever struggled to link two unrelated paragraphs. That becomes most apparent during the best sequence: the commentary on 13 Going On 30 matches so precisely with the excerpts we are shown that we may wish the rest of the movie had that degree of acuity.

As a rule, Beyond Clueless works better the blander the clips are. When a film with real vision and scope of its own intrudes on its scrapbook world, even for a moment, there is a sudden imbalance. A mere ten or 20 seconds of Rushmore or Y Tu Mamá También can easily pull us out of the homogeneous teen world; they have a visual immediacy that jeopardises the candy-coloured spell and interrupts the parade of geeks and jocks and cheerleaders.

But a good filmmaker knows that cinema is not merely a visual medium. Music can knit everything together and in this respect the score by the British band Summer Camp is an eerie, delicate triumph. (Check out the track “Swimming Pool”, which accompanies one of the movie’s creepiest sequences and can be heard on the trailer.) Beyond Clueless may be messy in places but it’s also strange, occasionally disorienting and full of flashes of madness. Not unlike adolescence itself.

Beyond Clueless is on release from 23 January.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.