Published July 1, 1999
Let’s stipulate that teenage sexual energy and the sorts of things it drives the young’uns to get up to are inherently funny subjects. Shakespeare has the grumbling old shepherd in The Winter’s Tale say: “I would there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting. . .” And he ought to know, having got a wench with child when he was still in his teens and been forced, most likely, to marry her. What is funny about all this for those who, even imaginatively and temporarily, have been able to get beyond the madness of adolescence, is what is funny about all the best comedy, namely the failure of self-knowledge. We laugh at the spectacle of people, mainly men, driven by hormonal imperatives who persist in thinking they are acting rationally.
Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing speaks for us all when he rationalizes his nascent passion for Beatrice: “The world must be peopled! “Although the gross-out humor of American Pie, directed by Paul Weitz and written by Adam Herz, seems to me to miss most of these larger comic possibilities, I have no fault to find with it as such. Parts of it are rather funny. What I object to about the movie is its own failure of self-knowledge. Instead of frankly acknowledging that the 18 year-old high school seniors who are its focus are temporarily and comically insane, it indulges in rationalization as blatant as, if considerably less funny than, Benedick’s. Striking the authentic note of the narcissistic nineties, it tells us that boys’ and girls’ “scoring” sexually, whether or not it involves any deeper emotional attachment (let alone moral commitment) is, as Stuart Smalley would say, OK.
Here are the fates of the four teenage boys in the movie who make a pact to score by prom night. One, Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas), has a wet-dream come true when he scores on a pool table with the sexy mother (Jennifer Coolidge) of a classmate. The soundtrack reprises Simon and Garfunkle’s “Mrs. Robinson.” Another, Jim (Jason Biggs), finds himself happily “used” by an unexpectedly randy band nerd (Alyson Hannigan). A third, the newly “sensitive” jock Oz (Chris Klein), even more unexpectedly finds himself in love with Heather (Mena Suvari). Finally, Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas), having pressured Vicky (Tara Reid) to move beyond the oral sex that they both seem to consider routine and irrelevant to their respective virginities and, further, having paid the price by telling her that he loves her, is not too surprised or disappointed to be told next morning that Vicky, now that she has finally put out for him, is giving him his walking papers. Oh, well. Of his declaration of love he says philosophically, “Last night I meant it.”
Of course what he means by meaning it is that the words really did correspond to some feelings of tenderness or warmth that he found it more or less plausible to call “love.” That is what the generation of moral illiterates we have raised since the sixties generally do mean by it. And even that self-congratulatory reference to a merely internal standard of feeling is not mandatory. If you told this young man that all the generations of his ancestors back as far as we can see thought that love meant not feelings but behavior conforming to an objective standard and characterized by commitment, he would simply look at you uncomprehendingly. What’s your point? And that’s nothing compared to the fact that his parents would most likely in the same circumstances have exactly the same reaction.
Fortunately and rather surprisingly, this kind of solipsism and the seventies ethos it gives rise to of what Erica Jong called at the time the “zipless f***,” is now looking rather outdated. On the day before I saw American Pie I saw something much more shocking: a demonstration by hundreds of teenagers in downtown Washington, D.C. on behalf of “purity.” Purity? Twenty years ago the very word would have raised a snigger. But the devastation wrought by the sexual revolution could not go unperceived indefinitely, and it is heartening to think that some young people, their lives perhaps blighted by divorce, adultery or promiscuity, have learned the hard way that virginity is something to be valued as the foundation of a good marriage and not something to be got rid of by any means available.