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All the wrong moves

A few weeks have passed now since the end of the Steubenville rape trial. The teenage monsters have been sent off to juvie, and soon we'll find some new horrible people to illustrate our fears of benighted Middle America. Meanwhile, the final outraged think-pieces - on rape culture, on victim-blaming, on jock privilege, on the bystander effect, on social media - are trickling out, and still I haven't seen a single one relating this terrible story to the early Tom Cruise movie "All the Right Moves," which for some stupid reason was kind of what I was waiting for all along as I watched it unfold.

I guess this never happened largely because Bill Simmons never wrote a Steubenville article, and because not everyone in the world, when reading about real-life incidents, has to view them in light of Hollywood fiction to make sense of them. Still: don't you guys remember "All the Right Moves"?

The year was 1983, and Cruise was fresh off his breakout role in "Risky Business." His follow-up was a drama about a high school athlete desperate to escape a dead-end future in a depressed steel town in Western Pennsylvania. Cruise's clean-cut, ambitious protagonist basically matches the description that CNN laughably applied to the Steubenville rapists - "very good student," "promising future" - and the film chronicles his quest to win a college football scholarship, despite some mistakes along the way: he fights with his coach and is caught committing some minor vandalism. Like the Steubenville kids, he gets kicked off the football team, putting his "promising future" in jeopardy - though, here, the happy ending has him heading off to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo on a full ride, ready to study engineering.

"All the Right Moves" was one example of a minor Hollywood trend in the early '80s, when film producers acquired a modest interest in the "Rust Belt" (then a newly coined term.) They focused on a homely industrial stretch of Appalachia, well north of the wild grotesquerie of "Deliverance" and the freewheeling excitement of "Thunder Road." Here, the steel industry was dying, and the deep small-town rituals - football, military service, blue-collar labor - had taken on a tragic quality. It started, I think, with "The Deer Hunter," which sort of had an actual story to tell about its time and place; in telling it, however, it established the Allegheny Plateau as a ready-made milieu for heavy-handed, formulaic dramas about struggling "ordinary folks." It became the setting for at least three humorless teen movies: "All the Right Moves," "Flashdance" (also 1983,) and the mostly forgotten "Reckless" (1984.)

Before Texas got its "Friday Night Lights" and "Varsity Blues" exposure, the Rust Belt was apparently regarded as the epicenter of pitiful high school football fandom (the Steubenville case may have restored this title,) and "Reckless" highlights once more its gridiron obsession. It was actually filmed in Steubenville and its surrounding towns. The steel mill looms in almost every shot. The plot is a simple ripoff of "The Wild One," in which two regionally nonspecific and suspiciously old-looking teenagers - a sneering bad boy and a coddled good girl - engage in a forbidden romance; studio execs just happened to assign to it, as a sort of supplementary soundtrack, this clumsy commercial iteration of James Wright's "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio" anguish.
In the background we can almost make out the "Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville," as the famous poem, set in a high school football stadium, had it. In the finale, the teenage couple rides off on the boy's motorcycle, fleeing Steubenville.

Like most people, I am very interested in stories of teenagers doing cruel things to other teenagers. The mistreatment of children by other children is especially disturbing and, for all our attempts to interpret it sociologically, seems darkly suggestive of some horrible secret of the human heart: like, maybe it doesn't exist.

Yet, for all the coverage this particular case has received, I haven't seen much detailed journalism about the perpetrators. Writers have instead belabored the lousy culture of Steubenville, depicting the "decaying steel town" in the same clichéd terms of "All the Right Moves," though the semi-sentimental attitude toward it has disappeared: the victims of postindustrial America no longer represent "ordinary folks" - today, they're a rare and dangerous dying species.

Most commentators have viewed the actions of Mays and Richmond through the prism of Heartland backwardness. Maybe, like the producers of "Reckless," they're just applying a preexisting Rust Belt aesthetic to a situation that might have happened anywhere.
The only direct window we have into the lives of the teenagers in Steubenville is that horrifying viral video of another local boy, Michael Nodianos, joking callously about the rape that had just been committed. This witless ogre doesn't much resemble the beautiful, introspective teens of "All the Right Moves" or "Reckless."

These films are interesting not because they illuminate what happened in Steubenville but because they address many of the cultural ideas surrounding the case (the behavior of teenagers, the preeminence of sports in Middle America, life in a crumbling industrial town) and then get everything so wrong. In "All the Right Moves," Tom Cruise almost falls off the path to success but ultimately is protected by box office considerations. In "Reckless," the rebel played by Aidan Quinn is essentially a violent jerk, but the violence is glamorous and almost always leads to steamy, consensual sex with Daryl Hannah.

My guess is that most real-life teens are not as conscious as these brooding characters are of being "trapped" in their lousy towns; it's hard to imagine that Mays or Richmond consciously possessed cultural needs unmet in Steubenville. They probably were just ignorant kids enjoying their ignorant existences.

Movies are the worst mirrors, exploiting the superficial trappings of our lives and missing the point (or the pointlessness) of them - poignantly boring in their betrayals. Still, life sort of ends up mirroring them in return, or seeming to, its unknown spots filled in by their clichés.