Project X, or the New Teen Nihilism
I have just re-screened on disc Nima Nourizadeh’s Project X (2012), which I saw in a nearby multiplex this past season. I wanted to see it again not because I feared I missed something in the plot (there is hardly any of this, nor characterization, nor any meaningful exposition), but because I wanted to reflect on the film’s particular type of nullity, and the extent to which it embodies the current sensibilities of the youth audience. Project X is a teenpic with a strong concern for targeting the right audience (nothing at all new here). The ad copy reads “From Todd Phillips, the director of The Hangover,” to assure kids that the current piece of rubbish offers the same or better delights than the last.
Three teenage boys, Tom (Thomas Mann), Costa (Oliver Cooper), and JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown) throw a party celebrating Tom’s seventeenth birthday. Costa, the organizer, plans the ultimate teen blast, mostly to impress their high school chums who taunt and bully them for their unprepossessing looks and “nerdish” behavior. The three boys are typically sex-obsessed, and plan the party as a means of getting “pussy.” Costa sends out an email “blast” and posts the party on the Internet, resulting in thousands of people descending on Tom’s home (his parents have conveniently left for an anniversary weekend). The revelers destroy the house, and much of the neighborhood, the whole thing spinning far out of control when an angry drug dealer arrives with a flame thrower, setting on fire houses, cars, and shrubbery. A battle with the police ensues, as news media helicopters fly overhead. The next morning we see the smoldering remains of Tom’s home, and witness his peeved father taking measure of the costly disaster—the father is angry but not too, since he seems gratified to know that his son “had it in him” (read, had enough manliness to cause violence of this magnitude). Although the boys must face legal sanctions, they are rewarded with a new respect back at the high school, where other kids now treat them as celebrities for hosting the by now well-known destructive orgy.
Many years ago Robin Wood wrote an essay (since included in the reprint of his Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan and Beyond) on the post-Reagan teenpic, in part as a way in taking what he thought would be vicarious pleasure in the events of these films, his own teen years being highly repressed in what he termed a still-Victorian England. But it wasn’t too long before he was appalled. The utter bankruptcy of U.S. teen culture flabbergasted Wood at the time. It is doubtful that he would be surprised by Hollywood’s current representation of kids, since what we now see is the logical playing-out of long entrenched assumptions not only about children but the society that produces them. One can say, in retrospect, that films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) at least offer some spotty humor, and Heathers (1988) elements of rebellion. The exceptional films, like Over the Edge (1979), show teens trying to attack very directly the avaricious, stifling adult world that dehumanizes them, continuing the more distinguished tradition of the teenpic established by Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1956), with its bisexual triad of James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo offered as an alternative to the bourgeois suburban family (we’ll set aside the blame the film places on the female for emasculating the father, a familiar trope of 50s culture). The cult film Donnie Darko (2001) could perhaps have been a notable contribution, with its neurotic teenage boy driven into schizophrenia by the adult world, making him carry out massive destruction at his high school, but the father is constructed largely as a friendly “regular guy,” and the film is burdened by a pointless and confusing sci-fi plot.
One must first acknowledge Project X as an extremely reactionary work, viewing kids as vacuous, asserting this not with satire or cynicism but as the norm. They are portrayed as largely repugnant, but without the art house affectations of Larry Clark’s Kids (1995); the filmmakers seem to feel that we don’t mind how the teens are rendered, assuming that everyone (especially the target audience) accepts their self-absorption, their mindlessness, their unpleasant physicality (despite the film’s prerelease ballyhoo, there is little in this film, aside from a steady show of bare breasts, that could be termed erotic). I want to comment on several areas of the film by way of tracking Project X’s “political unconscious,” its view of teen life in contemporary America.
In films such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High, education was peripheral at best, but at least it was represented. In Project X there is a very quick sequence inside the classroom as Costa sends out his email blast on his cell phone. The scene is important, implying that kids merely play with gadgets in the classroom (fairly true, from my experience). Nothing is of any importance, even the brief socializing among the kids. Films such as Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) show the school as last site of American reciprocal violence, the children having well-learned the lessons of their forebears. In Project X the school has simply ceased to be an object of significance.
It is reasonable to call Project X a disaster film, since it’s ad copy and key scenes emphasize the destruction of property over all else. When the father warns Tom at the start of the film that he and his pals must stay away from the Mercedes Benz, the home office (“I have three projects going”), and the pool, we are cued that these will be the first things destroyed. Is this destruction a strike at the father? I think not. His masculinity, authority, and notion of gender (his pleasure that Tom “had it in him”) are never dismissed. Rather, the film simply revels in destruction, and without the moralizing of The Towering Inferno (1974) or the angst of postmodern disaster films like The Road (2009). The destruction here is of the infantile variety, that of babies throwing their dessert at the wall, except for the hints of a desire for self-destruction (the conflagration elements). The mindless joy that the film takes in property destruction might be read as merely juvenile (that in itself gives one pause), but we should understand this as an assault on capital from the right. A desire to wipe the slate clean without a constructive social program (or with a horrendous one) has been a feature of both American apocalypticism and fantasies of European fascism.
The mother was either a nagging harridan or a do-nothing mannequin confined to the kitchen in 50s teenpics. We find the latter in Project X, with the mother simply going along with what the father says after offering a couple of cautions. The father views the son as a “loser,” and fairly openly, giving the sense that although Tom doesn’t know what Costa has planned, the destruction that takes place may be as much about Tom making himself worthy in the father’s eyes far more than defying him—the loss of property doesn’t make the father that mad, and this is a film that assumes the bourgeoisie to be an indestructible feature of daily life, its wealth absolutely stable. Children are portrayed as trophies, part of the necessary accoutrements of bourgeois life—in this the film continues assumptions from the 50s, although in films like Rebel Without a Cause there is authentic agonizing about what to do with the boy, even if he is an inconvenience.
The “gay subtext” of the film is a notable feature of the contemporary teenpic (it is a point of emphasis in Superbad, 2007). In Project X it seems transparent, but its circumscription by nihilistic violence tends to show how under siege progressive tendencies are, at a time of renewed reaction in U.S. society. Costa is annoyed when JB gets an erection as the boys hang out in the locker room discussing girls—is JB aroused by the talk or present company? Costa pulls back the shower curtain, revealing the nude Tom, a playful prank that we are asked to write off as such. But it is less easy to write off the scene with Tom, Costa, and JB on the lawn, Costa saying “I love you guys.” There is an archetypal lesson here: the homosexual bonds (and conduct) that occur in boyhood are systematically scolded and repressed as boys compulsively pursue “pussy,” viewing women as less than human, the closest emotional bond being among the boys (and then men—as we see in any number of westerns, war films, crime films). The film’s coda shows Tom reuniting with girlfriend Kirby, who was upset by Tom’s party-time philandering (?). The scene is important to ideological coherence and consolation, rather than affirmation of genuine affection (are there any deep feelings in this film?). Also standard are the very self-conscious dismissals of “faggots” and anything outside the heteronormative—after all, one intent of the party is the affirmation of masculinity.
5. Black Culture
The soundtrack music of Project X consists of rap and heavy metal, the first a degraded form of the blues, the second the apocalyptic, incoherent cry of angry, disaffected young white men. The political aspect of rap/hip-hop (Public Enemy) seems to me to have largely faded, although rap, for all its monotony and grotesquerie, at least gives voice to the discordant, hopeless situation of the American ghetto as social programs are abandoned, with de facto segregation continuing into the twenty-first century for all the talk of “post-racial” America. What I find most repugnant about rap/hip-hop is the repeated use of “nigger” and “bitch,” and the debasement of women that is a crucial feature of the genre. The word “nigger,” the key signifier of the subjugation and immiseration of African-Americans by white society, has been a topic of debate within black America. Black intellectuals tend to advocate the striking of this word from all discourse except where it has a teaching function. Black youths, it seems, want to embrace the word as a sign of affection—in so doing they merely internalize the attitudes of the oppressor. There is no strategy here, such as that of Lenny Bruce, for using the term so repeatedly as to strip it of all meaning (a very silly idea really that grew out of Bruce’s despairing comedy act). I have no idea if and how this debate will be resolved, but I am unrestrained in my outrage at white youths, such as the ones rendered in Project X, in using “nigger” and affecting the style of black inner-city youths. There is nothing new here, since without black culture modern white America could very well have no culture, but the concern for the present is the extent to which white kids try to imitate blacks with the idea that they are being “badass.” The imitation includes frequent use of “nigger,” so that whites simply take back the term of oppression that they invented, and continue to use (with the racialist attitudes behind the term) violence to enforce class and race inequality (witness how the Trayvon Martin murder has polarized the U.S. largely on racial and class lines), as the differences between the white suburbs and the black inner city become more pronounced. The association in Project X of black culture with destruction—of white neighborhoods—could not be more offensive, especially since countless white pundits have long blamed black culture for “contaminating” white America.
As I write this, Karen Klein, a grandmother who works as a school bus monitor in Greece, New York, was taunted and tormented mercilessly by the schoolchildren for whom she volunteered her time. The kids made fun of her appearance—several kids said she should commit suicide. Thankfully, the incident was recorded on a cell phone (there are moral uses for the new technology), and within hours she was inundated with messages of support, and over $300,000 to help her sustain her life. The Internet has featured numerous young people showing their support for Mrs. Klein, and deploring the barbaric behavior to which she was subjected. That young people should show this charity is gratifying, but we must not comfort ourselves too much. The modern capitalist state, with its renewed insistence on patriarchy and the rights of the privileged, demands violence, a lesson that children learn very quickly. If Project X is any measure, ours is not a “politically correct” society (can we finally do away with this media-sanctioned Stalinist language?). It is one whose horrid beliefs are still dominant, but whose leaders see as under siege. And like a trapped, rabid animal, it will become especially vicious as it fights its last struggle.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He writes frequently for Film International.
Read also Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, “Capitalism Eats Itself: Gluttony and Coprophagia from Hoarders to La Grande Bouffe“.