June 2, 1997
Richard Rodriguez, editor at the Pacific News Service, discusses "Fast Forward," a collection of photographs depicting adolescence in Hollywood.
JIM LEHRER: Now, our Monday night essay. Richard Rodriguez of the Pacific News Service considers a new book of Hollywood photographs.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: It is the end of the school day at Beverly Hills High: the golden children, not really children at all, in America's most famous postal zip code are headed home in expensive sports cars. A remarkable collection of photographs on the teenagers of Los Angeles has been recently published. The photographs, themselves, are now on exhibition at the International Center of Photography in New York. Lauren Greenfield, the photographer, calls her collection "Fast Forward: Growing up in the Shadow of Hollywood."
The brown and black children who live on the dangerous streets across town, we have seen their like before. We have witnessed grief at the gang funeral. We have stared at the vacant-eyed teen with his chest emblazoned with a violent boast. What we have never seen so harshly and brilliantly photographed before are the children of the glamorous West side: Santa Monica, Bel Air, Brentwood. That little girl who vamps in front of a mirror, in front of a camera in a Beverly Hills Penthouse, that little girl is 10 years old. Have we ever seen such children before who ever look so knowing and old?
The rest of America likes to disapprove of LA, but LA is at the center of our national imagination. Our dream factory is here--not in Washington, D.C., not in New York. What LA sells America, what LA sells the entire world is a dream of adolescence. LA only sells the idea long before cinemascope or Doby sound America invented the idea of adolescence. There are still many countries of the world that have no notion of adolescence. One day you are a child. The next day you work alongside your father as an adult.
In America, we regard the season of pimples and puberty as our defining national moment. We raise our children to leave home, have choices. We expect our children to rebel. Our nation was born in an adolescent act of rebellion against Old Man Europe. From Tom Paine to Huck Finn, to James Dean, the teenage romance has persisted.
There are adults in LA who make a very good living selling the idea of adolescence, turning the idea into a movie or a rock'n roll lyric, which raises an interesting question: What do you do if you're a teenager in Beverly Hills and your old man spends the day working dressed in a jogging suit auditioning rap groups? Behold the children of 90210 as seen through the lens of Lauren Greenfield. They are at once at the very center of a national culture that idolizes their youth. But perhaps for that reason they seem very old.
The children of Hollywood seem the oldest children around. All over the world from Lima to Bangkok, there are young people who are stirred by our notion of adolescence. They want to drink America. They want to dance to America. They want to be like American teenagers they see on Melrose Place or on Bay Watch. The brilliant, the comic originality of our culture derives from our faith in adolescence, our assumption that it is the right and the duty of every generation to undo the past.
The price we pay for our adolescent romance is a perennial immaturity. Here in LA there are no wise elders; there are only jaded teens. Adults jog along the boulevard in Brentwood looking much younger than her age. But children of Hollywood meanwhile dress like adults, audition at 12 for jobs as fashion models. The son of the movie star who has a bad coke habit has tattooed his entire back and jumps through the air, exhilarated by the music of rebellion. The truth in LA is that nobody stays a kid very long in a city infatuated by adolescents.
I'm Richard Rodriguez.