humor eclipses nudity in coming-of-age films
By Frank Musero
Gross-out humor, movies using crass and lowbrow jokes to gain laughs, has become a staple of the list of late '90s box office smashes such as "Something About Mary." This summer, while American Pie is grossing out college students across the country, it reminds many of one of the original gross-out, coming-of-age flicks, "Porky's."
The movies are strikingly similar: A group of high school students gets together for a chance to get a piece of the pie. Each ends in success for the horny teens. However, the course of action taken in the two films shows how conscience-oriented the teenage sex movie has become over the past 18 years.
"The characters in each movie realistically portrayed the way high school kids interact," said Northwestern University grad student Laura Anderson. "Both movies clearly focused on the one single thing that overshadows everything else in kids' lives: SEX. The way the characters acted and reacted to each other demonstrated their all-encompassing fear and curiosity of this unknown activity that they built up in their minds as the end-all-be-all."
Despite the similarities, the two movies interpret the term "gross" differently. In the '80s, movies tended to use nudity and vulgarity to make a shock statement. But today, it seems that teens just aren't shocked by T&A anymore. Recent trends in such "gross" movies involve bodily fluids, incredibly humiliating incidents, and involve little, if any, bare skin. Theatergoers leave these films saying, "I can't believe they did that."
"Porky's," made in 1981, portrays life in the 1950s, and is loaded with full frontal nudity of both genders, swearing, and what has come to be known as "locker room talk": shallow discussion about sex, particularly about girls. The movie is told from a male perspective, and the gratuitous use of strippers and prostitutes further confirms that. "Pie," on the other hand, uses the emotional, as well as the physical dilemmas of overcoming the experience of losing one's virginity. Rather than nudity, it focuses on the psychological needs of both genders as they prepare to enter college.
It goes deeper, using intellectual dialog and "gross" sight gags (the beer scene, the pie scene) to grab the audience's laughs. There is very little vulgar language in "Pie," a big shift from many recent teen-oriented movies. It clearly represents the shift that teenage moviegoers aren't always looking for some skin in movies.
"One thing we are all very proud of is that this isn't just a movie about guys getting laid. Basically, if anything it shows how women have the upper hand. They think they will be able to do it whenever they want, but they find out pretty quickly that it's not that easy," said Jason Biggs, star of "Pie," in a recent interview.
"'Porky's' was more of a slapstick movie in my understanding. Like 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High.' 'American Pie' had better character development and more sensitive treatment of the material," says Amy Miller, a filmmaker.
The two films, however, do have some similar moments to get the laughs rolling, particularly the opening scenes. "Porky's" opens with PeeWee, the main character, awakening with an erection. He tries with great difficulty to hide it from his mother who walks in to get him up for school. Pie opens with Jim, getting ready for school, masturbating to a scrambled porn film into a tube sock. Surprise, both parents walk in, but in this film, they actually catch him in the act.
Erica Carlson, a 22-year-old writer, commented on the realism of both films, given the eras in which they were produced. "They are both awesome, funny and raw. It is what life is all about."
One question remains: Have young people become so accustomed to films with nudity and vulgar language, that it does not shock them anymore, resulting in new films to use less nudity and more "gross" scenes, with meaningful dialogue?
"These kids are no longer interested in the 'Brady Bunch.' They want sex and gross scenes that make them squirm in their seats. But there is a fine line between gross and tactless films that cross the line," says Christian Dhyne, a Northwestern University grad student.
We'll just have to wait for someone to raise the pie crust to find out how much further films can go.