FROM STAND BY ME (1986) TO FLIPPED (2010)
“Flipped is one of the worst, if not the worst movie, Rob Reiner has ever made. Flipped is a flop.”
So began the film review I began four weeks ago after I saw this movie. Out of pity and respect for Rob Reiner, I never posted it. I was reminded of the reason for my great disappointment at Flipped this morning when, channel surfing, I found Stand by Me (1986). I had not seen this film in a long time but as I watched it, every minute I was reminded of how superior this little gem was compared to Flipped. I wondered why. Flipped completely lacks the look, the feel, the authenticity of the Fifties. Perhaps the Fifties were simply too long ago. Perhaps we can no longer authentically re-imagine the decade with a genuine connected feeling and instead return via a cheap, badly colored simulacra. The generation that loved Stand by Me is now remote from that time and the new generation can experience Flipped only as a simple minded morality tale of girl meets boy, girl loves boy, boy does not love girl, girl learns to un-love the boy, boy loves girl, and so on: a meet cute couples film for tweens. In contrast, Stand by Me was an authentic coming of age film that transported the viewer of a certain age back to what Vern (Jerry O’Connell) called “a good time,” meaning an incomparable time in the lives of the four boys.
The “good time” was not about the Fifties, which is portrayed darkly, but that singular moment in time when a young person comes of age and realizes what he is made of. I used the pronoun “he” deliberately, because such coming of age movies or books were and still are rare for girls. There is Little Women (1949 and 1994), based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott, and Bend it Like Beckham A(2002) separated by one hundred and fifty years and still sharing the same theme—-women coming into their own by seizing the privileges young men take for granted. For young men, there are a plentitude of films and books in which an incident happens and a character is formed, A Separate Peace (1959) by John Knowles being, in my opinion, a great example of the genre. Somewhere in between Little Women and Bend it Like Beckham there was Pretty in Pink, also in 1986, in which the girl (Molly Ringwald) was allowed to test her mettle along with the boy (Jon Cryer). Although often understood as a “chick flick,” Pretty in Pink, like Sixteen Candles (1984), was a male conception (John Hughes), and in both movies feature young women far more mature than young men who grow up (Anthony Michael Hall) or not (James Spader) through their relationship with the girls who are vehicles for male maturation.
If there are no corresponding coming of age stories for girls with the impact of Stand by Me, perhaps it is because no literary precedents exist. In Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma, Jane Austen foregrounded female characters, but her stories are all about the economic choices women must make to save their social lives. Jane Austen’s novels remain popular today because so little has changed for women: the success of their lives still depends upon economic decisions. The importance of money is great to both genders and lacks the universal symbolic significance of a (male) hero’s quest. The measure of the power of Rob Reiner’s movie is that Stand by Me became a touchstone for a generation. We followed the actual maturation of each boy with interest, noting with astonishment who did well as an adult and who did not. River Phoenix died in 1993 of a drug overdose on the sidewalk in front of Johnny Depp’s Viper Club; Corey Feldman is still alive, but given his frenetic lifestyle it is not clear why; Will Wheaton went on to become the most derided character in the history of Star Trek on Star Trek: The Next Generation; Jerry O’Connell, aka, “the fat kid,” became tall, dark and handsome and starred in a number of successful television series and films and married one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood. The success of Reiner as a director can be measured by the fact that we cared about the fate of the four young boys, long after they had grown up.
There are no girls in Stand by Me. Based on a story, “The Body,” by Stephen King, the only female characters, fleetingly seen, are a waitress and a mother. The four boys in the movie are alone in the world, abandoned and abused by their cruel and violent parents in one way or another. The proof of the neglect these children are suffering is the fact that they could be gone for two days before any adult noticed. Although they take a trek to find the body of a young man who was struck and killed by a train, they are really on a hero’s quest, a mythic journey straight out of classical or ancient legends. Like any hero, they must collectively overcome obstacles to reach their goal. On the journey, they must conquer many enemies, from leeches to trains to a gang of pseudo delinquents, led by Kiefer Sutherland. They plunge deeper and deeper into the wilderness, encountering menacing technology (a train), going through forests and fields and fording a stream. During the two-day trek, some of the boys mature (River Phoenix and Will Wheaton), some do not (Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell) The object of the quest itself, whether it be the Golden Fleece or Death itself, is irrelevant. The point, for each boy, is to face his fears and, in standing up to danger, to come of age.
Set in a small town of no particular distinction, Stand by Me captured those last moments in the Fifties before total suburbanization, before transforming modernization, before the new freeways would leave such communities to wither and die. Stand by Me is redolent with the nostalgia of a generation now middle aged, looking back on the formative years of its lost youth. The entire tone of the film is elegiac, a mediation on loss. The teller of the tale is a middle aged successful writer, played by Richard Dreyfuss, who, upon reading of the death of one of his boyhood friends, “Chris,” played by the late River Phoenix, returns to his childhood to write, at last, of the truth of that summer, those last days before junior high. Each boy has a task to do before the transition into maturity can begin. The boy who would grow to be the writer (Will Wheaton) must learn to mourn the death of his beloved older brother (a very young John Cusack) and the boy who would grow up to be a lawyer (River Phoenix) must find the strength to escape, not just from the town, but from the identity imposed upon him. The other two boys do not stand up for themselves and find that they cannot confront danger and that their characters are weak.
The confrontation in the woods between the delinquents and the boys is not about a dead body but about manhood and what it means to be a man. Being a man means being a friend, a friend with character and moral strength. Although they do not realize it at that time, those moments are nothing less than the destiny for each boy. The two boys, who ran away, ran away from manhood, possibilities, from life and were fated to remain in trapped in a nowhere town, one as a fork lift operator and one as an odd jobs man. But Stephen King seemed to understand the classical origins of his tale well. The knife Kiefer Sutherland uses to threaten “Chris” comes back to him in the end, for the lawyer is senselessly killed in a knife fight. Stand by Me became a classic itself over the past twenty-five years, touching a generation wondering if it had made good use of the possibilities of youth.
The Eighties was a golden age of such films, perhaps because the decade was the one in which an entire generation of middle aged people sold out their values for junk bonds—-after wasting an entire decade on disco. The boys of Stand by Me might have been the ones to march for Civil Rights and in protest against the Viet Nam War…. or so we would like to think. But as the film points out, such character driven moments are rare, as are those people (or nations) who actually display ethical character. And the moral moment fades. Stand by Me is a film in mourning for a great loss. Which brings me to what was perhaps the most moving film about lost youth, Splendor in the Grass.
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.
(Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, by William Wordsworth, 1807)
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette
The Arts Blogger
Tags: Bend it like Beckham, Corey Feldman, Flipped (2010) Stand by Me (, James Spader, Jerry O'Connell, John Hughes, Johnny Depp, Jon Cryer, Kiefer Sutherland, Little Women, Louisa May Alcott, Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, Splendor in the Grass, Stephen King, Will Wheaton