Welcome to Their Brave Rude World

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It could be anywhere in America. A bunch of sullen-looking, oh-so-cool teens are kicking it on the high school steps. One boy hocks a loogie. Another vividly recounts a violent episode from some third-rate TV show involving squads of cop cars, rifles and an escaped con in underwear. A nerdy girl with a stack of books piled to her nose nervously walks by, stumbles, the books scatter. The two boys guffaw and high five. No one moves to help.

Into this unremarkable scene enters the Etiquette Man.

He drives a cheerful yellow VW Bug and wears a throwback Mr. Rogers-style get-up, with a yellow pullover, creased slacks, argyle socks and white shoes. His face is so eager, so open and expressive that you are embarrassed for him, and his golly-gee-willikers-type-language harks back to the corniness of a bygone era.

"You like her smile, the way he wears his clothes, or the twinkle in his, or her, eyes," the Etiquette Man tells the teens, who are stunned into silence by his sheer weirdness. "You'd like to ask this person for a date. But how the heck do you go about it? Boy dates girl! Yikes!!!"

This is one of the opening scenes from "The Etiquette Man," a short film by husband-and-wife team Steven Coulter and Dee Wagner, which will show at the DancesWithFilms festival in Los Angeles on Sunday. Conceived as a humorous film for adults, the film has accidentally morphed into an unconventional educational tool teaching ... gulp, dare it be said ... manners to teenagers.

After seeing the film last year at Bethune Middle School in South-Central L.A., students there drafted a "dating bill of rights." Students at a number of middle and high schools in Georgia, where Coulter and Wagner live, have also seen the film. At one high school, it was shown at the request of teachers in the aftermath of highly publicized school shootings as well as a "Frontline" documentary about sex clubs at the school.

Coulter and Wagner even developed discussion questions to help teachers and recently received an educational grant from the Coca-Cola Foundation to make the movie available to all Georgia middle and high schools.

It looks like the kind of film that would make teens roll their eyes. Instead, teachers and film festival organizers say, the hormone-besieged adolescents fall in love with the kookiness of the main character, who talks as if he's from Mars.

Kelly Greene, a teacher at Bethune Middle School, showed the film to his students. Greene and other teachers agreed that for most kids today, there is simply no one modeling the beauty of good manners. Instead kids are barraged by constant, coarse messages--commercial and otherwise--of how to be cool, how to be sexual. And in the world of cool, courtship just doesn't cut it. "The main point kids walk away with is this idea of social graces," says Nicole Dreiske, executive director of the Chicago International Children's Film Festival, where the movie was shown last fall. "It is something our society is completely lacking in, and doesn't advocate anywhere."

Coulter, 41, a professional actor living in Marietta, Ga., had never written a thing in his life. Years ago, he and his wife went out for breakfast at a local diner. A couple of doors down, in a case in the back of a musty thrift shop, they found a little yellow book.

It turned out to be a 1950s-style dating manual called, "Boy Dates Girl," by Gay Head, (the pseudonym of a columnist for a teen magazine). Originally published in 1949, the book contained articles that first appeared in a teen magazine. It offered practical answers to frequently asked dating questions, all dispensed in the now charmingly archaic language of the time. Chapter 1 is called "It's a Date!" and shows a clean-cut blond young man chatting on the phone.

The advice? "You've known her casually for years or perhaps you've just met her. She's the girl across the aisle or the friend of a friend. The point is, you've suddenly realized that she's date bait!"

"It was written in that strange language," Coulter recalled. "I was laughing and laughing. I just kept it and every once in awhile I would bring it out and read it."

One day it hit him: I should create a character who talks like this!

He wrote three monologues--the same three the Etiquette Man uses in the film, lifting dialogue almost verbatim from the manual. Coulter donned a pair of old white shoes he had purchased at the Salvation Army, and performed the monologues at a theater in Atlanta.

The results startled him.

"In the first monologue," he said, "people were stunned. Then it started to build, and they were laughing hilariously at the outlandish way he was talking. And by the last one they were cheering. They acted like teenagers, even though they were grownups. It was my first inkling that there was something else there."

Later, he transformed the stage piece into a 22-minute film to "make us grown-ups laugh."

But his wife, who produced the film, was the one who came up with the idea of introducing the Etiquette Man to kids.

From their work with teenagers--he had worked at a juvenile detention facility and she is a licensed therapist who worked for a decade with teenagers--both felt young people are not portrayed accurately in popular culture. They are either presented as thick-headed morons, demonized as thugs, or characterized as jaded 30-somethings trapped in teenage bodies, like the cast of "Dawson's Creek."

The movie was first screened for teens at his son's high school.

"The teacher warned us," Coulter recalled. "Half the kids are advanced, but half are rough kids. I don't know if it will hold their attention."

But it was the rough kids who got into it most, he said. They started talking to the screen, yelling back at the character. And when the Etiquette Man waved good-bye at the end of the film, they waved back.

"Those were the kids who were analyzing the movie, asking a million questions," Coulter recalled.

The Etiquette Man tells boys in the movie how to ask a girl out on a date ( "How 'bout a date?"); how to make a good impression (stand up straight, chest out, good eye contact) and how to pick up your date at her house (Strike up a conversation with whomever answers the door. Ask the person about himself, even if it's only your date's kid brother).

At first, the teenagers in the movie think the Etiquette Man is weird. Then their micron-thick cynical veneer begins to chip, and by the end of the film, the corniness of this strange messenger has seeped in, and little bits of kindness appear in their treatment of each other. The film ends with the spitting boy preparing to spit again, but changing his mind, and another boy helping the nerdy girl pick up her books (she dropped them again) and the boy who recounted the TV cop story holding the door open for a girl he likes, rather than letting it slam in her face, the way he does earlier.

Adults love the film but assume kids won't.

The Chicago International Film Festival's Dreiske said teens who saw it were riveted.

"What makes it work for kids is that the film is not trying to be inspired, boot-camp-type instruction," said Dreiske. "It is not saying, 'Cut the crap.' And there is an adult who has adopted a personality that is so beautifully etched it could come out of 'Saturday Night Live.' .... The last scene anyone would ever expect is the scene when the youth are listening to him so intently, and going off and applying it in their lives."

Bethune Middle School teacher Greene said he, too, was leery of the reaction he would get. "I teach in South Central L.A., and I was wondering, how is this going to go down with my kids?" Greene said.

He showed his students "West Side Story," and every time the characters broke into song, the students groaned. But when he showed "The Etiquette Man," they laughed and were engaged.

"If you watch TV, it's insult, insult, insult, sexual innuendo, insult, and not much more," said Maggie Mitchell, who showed the film to six of her seventh-grade classes at Chamblee Middle School in Georgia last school year. She says she watches her own students at school dances with fascination. "They go straight from not speaking to booty dancing, with nothing in-between. They emulate what they see on the videos, and it is pretty base. They don't have any knowledge of anything else to do."

Coulter, a liberal who lives smack dab in the middle of Newt Gingrich country, turns out to be an unlikely promoter of social graces. All he really wants to do is widen his audience's world a little.

"What I want to do is promote laughter and then a little message," Coulter said. "I don't want to whack anyone over the head. I just want to give someone 20 minutes and take them away somewhere."

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As part of the DancesWithFilms festival, "The Etiquette Man" will be screened at 5 p.m. Sunday at the Lot, 1041 N. Formosa Ave., West Hollywood; (323) 850-2929.

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