the cinema of generation x
Chapter One: The Arrival
In the last summer-movie orgy of the 1980s, Hollywood's propensity for high concepts and higher budgets reached an apex that epitomized the excesses of Greed Decade blockbusters, but also redefined the earning potential of such films. On June 23, 1989, months of savvy advertising and priceless word-of-mouth helped give the superhero adventure "Batman" a monstrous opening weekend, underlining mainstream Hollywood's ability to spin a masterful marketing campaign around a simplistic, youth-oriented idea.
Although critics were almost universally enthusiastic about the picture's state-of-the-art visuals and the appeal of director Tim Burton's dark wit, the movie's hackneyed story left all but the most undemanding viewers disappointed. So for observers who had lamented the steady evolution of the action-oriented blockbuster since Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" and George Lucas's "Star Wars" earned unheard-of revenues in the mid-1970s, the record-setting conquest of "Batman" was a nail in the grave of quality cinema. After all, "Batman" was merely the victor in a high-concept sweepstakes whose other entrants included "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," the third installment in Spielberg's nostalgic adventure series; "Ghostbusters II," a follow-up to the popular supernatural comedy starring Bill Murray; "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," a Disney-produced family adventure with a science-fiction premise; and "The Abyss," director James Cameron's epic underwater drama.
Before the summer of 1989 drew to a close, however, a film hit theaters that had neither a high concept nor easily marketable youth appeal. The picture was psychological and erotic, making it a distinct alternative to the simple-minded, neutered entertainment of the year's blockbusters. And while the summer's big flicks all had some form of brand-name appeal -- the Batman character had been popular, in various mediums, since before World War II; "Indiana Jones" and "Ghostbusters" were sequels; and so on -- the dark-horse movie that opened on August 2 was the first-time directorial effort of a little-known film editor, and it was released by a New York City-based boutique distributor best known for bringing European pictures to America. The movie's meatiest credentials, in fact, were a Palme d'Or prize from the Cannes Film Festival and a warm reception at the Sundance Film Festival. It hardly had the makings of a pop-culture sensation.
Yet as summer drifted into fall, that's exactly what "sex, lies, and videotape" became, in the process spurring a boom period for Miramax Films and launching the career of writer-director Steven Soderbergh.
"sex, lies, and videotape" wasn't a blockbuster on the order of "Batman" -- the box-office take of Soderbergh's picture was smaller than the budget of Burton's -- but the film's impact was, in a way, more powerful. For while "Batman's" huge returns set the course for the next several years' worth of high-concept entertainment, the surprising manner in which "sex, lies, and videotape" escaped the arthouse ghetto and found a niche in the nation's multiplexes reminded jaded cinephiles that bold cinema could still attract sizable audiences.
Boldness, though, wasn't the quality that made "sex, lies unique"; Spike Lee's controversial race-relations drama "Do the Right Thing," released in that same eventful summer of 1989, had more brazen attitude in its libidinous, hiphop-driven opening sequence than Soderbergh packed into his entire debut feature.
So if "sex, lies" didn't make its mark by earning huge revenues or by filling the screen with unprecedented content, what made the picture so special? Was it the offbeat plot, about an impotent drifter who videotapes women discussing their sex lives so he can masturbate while watching the tapes? Was it the surprisingly mature performance by model-turned-actor Andie MacDowell, who just four years previous was humiliated by having her dialogue in "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes" overdubbed by Glenn Close? Was it the film's thoughtful approach to sensuality, in which shattering intimacy was communicated without the glamorously photographed nudity and histrionics of such 1980s sexfests as "9 1/2 Weeks" and "Fatal Attraction"?
To understand what made "sex, lies, and videotape" significant, it's necessary to look back twenty years, to July 14, 1969. In the last days of the studios' tightfisted control over Hollywood's output, old-fashioned ideas about mainstream cinematic entertainment were being challenged by new voices. The studios were still manufacturing insipid comedies, bloated musicals, and formulaic star vehicles -- 1969's two biggest box-office hits were "The Love Bug," a farce starring a car, and "Funny Girl," an adaptation of a Broadway hit -- but the influence of the baby boomer-driven counterculture was seen in such progressive late-1960s films as "The Graduate," "Bonnie and Clyde," and "2001: A Space Odyssey." By comparison to the movie that hit screens on July 14, however, the aforementioned pictures offered mere glimmers of counterculture attitude, for "Easy Rider" was a hippie film from top to bottom, oozing youthful style in everything from its sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll story line to its brashly off-the-cuff cinematography.
The counterculture had made notable appearances on American screens prior to "Easy Rider's" opening, but the arrival of the Dennis Hopper-directed motorcycle drama was an unmistakable omen that the filmmaking establishment was about to experience an upheaval as extreme as those shaking every other facet of American culture at the time. Despite its myriad flaws, "Easy Rider" symbolized the cinematic coming-of-age of a new generation.
Twenty years later, the arrival of Soderbergh's sexual-dysfunction drama symbolized the coming-of-age of another generation. The debut of Soderbergh's movie ushered in the cinema of Generation X.
Ennui Shall Overcome
Although Generation X has a soundbite-ready name -- appropriated from the title of Canadian author Douglas Coupland's irony-laden 1991 novel about aimless, jaded youth, "Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture" -- the exact parameters of the generation are elusive. Pundits generally agree that Generation X succeeded the baby boomers. Admitting that setting such chronological borders is an inexact science, here are the dates that will be used to inform this book: Gen X filmmakers are those directors born between 1961 and 1971, a ten-year period that falls well within the range given by most sociologists seeking to identify when Generation X was born. While ten years of births can't encompass an entire generation, the filmmakers born in these years were exposed to key social, political, and cultural factors. Therefore, their collective body of work can be analyzed as a reaction to the forces that shaped their generation as a whole.
Because setting the boundaries of a generation is an imperfect science, some might quibble with the dates chosen for this book, and with good reason: David O. Russell, the brash filmmaker behind "Three Kings," has a distinctly Gen-X approach to cinema, but he's not included in this book's study group because he was born in 1958. Yet the giants of Gen-X cinema -- including Soderbergh, born in 1963 -- are. So the filmmakers in this book are a representative sampling, not an inclusive roster. In this case, however, a representative sampling is the best that one can offer: Given the youth of Generation X, many important filmmakers from this age group probably have yet to emerge or artistically mature. The youngest filmmaker included in this book is Sofia Coppola, who was born in 1971 and made her feature-film directorial debut with 2000's "The Virgin Suicides," yet filmmakers younger than her surely will emerge in the coming years and still be legitimate representatives of Generation X. This book's scope falls short of prognostication.
Well within this book's scope, however, is the spiritual wanderlust that defines the cinema of Generation X, a body of work that includes such landmarks of contemporary filmmaking as "sex, lies, and videotape," "Pulp Fiction," "The Usual Suspects," "The Sixth Sense," and "American Beauty." The great theme that permeates this body of work is one of the most basic questions of human existence: "Who am I, and where do I belong?" Whether it's a would-be filmmaker asking her friends where their lives are going in "Reality Bites," passionately political lovers debating the best way to serve the human community in "Waking the Dead," a troubled youth confronting her choice to commit herself to a psychiatric hospital in "Girl, Interrupted," or a hacker risking his sanity by asking the question "What is the Matrix?" in "The Matrix," nearly every protagonist in a notable Gen-X movie is on a quest to understand the meaning of his or her existence.
Similar quests appear to motivate the most interesting Gen-X filmmakers, suggesting that the members of this generation who express themselves cinematically use their work to ask the questions that mean most to them and their chronological peers. These searchers use a broad spectrum of characters as their onscreen alter egos, so while the protagonists in some Gen-X movies actually belong to other generations (such as Kevin Spacey's baby-boomer character in "American Beauty"), others personify the quintessential Gen-X archetype, the slacker.
In some pictures, the mystery of existence is explored through questions of work, love, and family, as in "Reality Bites" and "American Beauty." In others, a statement about contemporary society is made by depicting by how criminals interact with other segments of the population, as in the movies of Quentin Tarantino, including "Pulp Fiction." And in some extreme cases, the disharmonies of modern life are exaggerated to hyperbolic and even nonsensical proportions, as in the anarchistic "Fight Club" and the surreal "Being John Malkovich." These skewed fantasies are among the most telling Gen-X movies, because they illustrate that Gen Xers inherited a damaged society from those who came before.
And in "The Matrix," arguably the ultimate expression of Generation X's collective identity, the abstract question of what makes today's society so disorienting is given a concrete, cynical answer. That picture dramatizes the disturbing concept that the cities and towns and patterns of modern life are just an illusion created by machines to placate humans, who are employed by the machines as soulless energy sources. If films such as "Reality Bites" ask how Gen Xers can find their way in a world that is not their own, "The Matrix" poses an even bigger question: How can Gen Xers overthrow the powers that be, then remake the world in their own image?
This book is an attempt to catalog the myriad ways in which Gen-X filmmakers illustrate their roles in society, their attempts to reshape society, and -- particularly in the case of slackers -- their frequent choice to drop out of society altogether. The foundation of this study will be a mixture of social and cinematic history, as well as close examinations of dozens of movies directed by Gen Xers. American filmmakers, ranging from Hollywood insiders to indie-cinema outsiders, comprise most of the group under examination; to keep the parameters of this study workable, and also to focus on the influence of several important evolutions in American culture, filmmakers born within this book's range of birth years but whose work has primarily been in non-English-language movies have been excluded.
It would be presumptuous to offer a single answer to the question burning in the hearts of this generation's filmmakers -- "Who am I, and where do I belong?" Certainly one of the richest lessons gleaned from studying the cinema of Generation X is how inclusive a body of work it is: There are as many ideas about what role Gen Xers play in modern life as there are Gen-X filmmakers. But perhaps the act of identifying the question that motivates these directors, and of examining the tools they use to seek answers to that question, can give shape to the seemingly formless spiritual and societal malaise underlying some of the most exciting cinematic experimentation of the late twentieth century and the early twenty-first.
Based on the intriguing movies that Gen Xers already have made, and the promise of the ones that they have yet to make, the movement that reached prominence with the arrival of Soderbergh's "sex, lies, and videotape" promises to be one of the most revolutionary chapters in the history of American film. The story of that movement is the story of this book.
Chapter Two: Born in the U.S.A.
Because Generation X grew up during a period of great tumult in American society, movies made by Gen Xers are filled with ambiguity and ambivalence. These directors use their work to look for a place of their own in a world defined by the preceding generation, and the frustrations, disappointments, and epiphanies inherent to such a quest provide the drama inherent to the best Gen-X movies.
In the early-to-mid-1970s, when the first wave of Gen-X filmmakers passed through or approached puberty, America suffered two of the most divisive upheavals in its history: the anticlimactic conclusion of the Vietnam War, the first major military action in United States history to end without any semblance of victory, and the unprecedented downfall of Richard Nixon, the first and, to date, only president to resign from the highest office in the land. The escalation of the Vietnam War had sparked years of fierce social unrest, which was matched by violent civil disobedience and police actions connected to the civil-rights movement.
Against the backdrop of Vietnam, Watergate, and civil-rights conflicts, the women's movement took center stage in the mid-1970s; combined with the ongoing sexual revolution and an astronomical rise in divorce rates, the gender-equality debate of the 1970s led to a new morality far different from that of the era during which the baby boom occurred. The fuzzy parameters of this new morality contributed to the confusing social climate into which Gen Xers were born, and goes a long way to explaining why so many Gen-X filmmakers seem obsessed with amorality -- as seen in the senseless violence committed by characters in "Seven," "Pulp Fiction," and numerous other pictures.
The tragedy of America's losses in Vietnam, the shock of discovering that a sitting president was a criminal, and the drug-related deaths of such cultural icons as Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Lenny Bruce, and Elvis Presley all cast dark shadows across the idealism of the 1960s, and there was more darkness to come. As the first waves of Gen Xers entered their college years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, reports of ugly violence filled the airwaves: a cult's mass suicide in Guyana, the murder of rock and roll poet John Lennon, madmen's attempts to assassinate President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, the incomprehensible brutality of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Suddenly, the air was thick with the stench of death, and there wasn't anything that a protest or a love-in could do to stem the devastating tide.
As countless observers have noted, a sizable contingent of boomers responded to the darkening of modern society by retreating into the same consumerist cocoons that had given their parents comfort; Lawrence Kasdan named this shift with the title of his poignant movie about 1960s youths selling out their ideals, "The Big Chill." And if the generation that defined the 1960s felt the big chill, then it only follows that the next generation experienced the after-effects of that chill. By the time the blights of AIDS, the Iran-Contra scandal, and the collapse of family farms and savings-and-loan institutions arrived in the mid-1980s -- the same time at which the first waves of Gen Xers reached adulthood -- the chill had become a killing frost.
Furthermore, America was fast becoming a place in which the gap between the haves and the have-nots seemed almost insurmountable. Director Oliver Stone, that uncompromising and sometimes infuriating voice of 1960s-style idealism, captured the bleak mood perfectly with a line in his 1987 stock-exchange drama, Wall Street: "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good." That the line was uttered by the film's villain hardly seemed to matter. The point was made, with painful clarity, that the country's priorities had reverted back to what they were before the counterculture tried to force change.
Although this sketch of the 1970s and 1980s is necessarily oversimplified, it offers a rough picture of the forces at work during the years when Generation X came of age. Even the youngest Gen Xers were born too late to participate in the historical social unrest that reached its twilight in the mid-1970s, so all Gen Xers grew up in the aftermath of a beautiful but unrealized dream, and this sad fact informs their sensibility. Some wear this hand-me-down ennui as anger, some as cynicism, some as apathy. But all who belong to Generation X feel the aftereffects of the big chill.
On a more immediate level, Gen Xers felt the repercussions of the dissipation of the American family. From 1965 to 1985, the number of U.S. divorces exploded from just over 300,000 to nearly 1.2 million, so an estimated 40 percent of Gen Xers are children of divorce, compared to 11 percent of boomers. The rupture of home life was exacerbated by countless other travails, as author Geoffrey T. Holtz noted in his book "Welcome to the Jungle: The Why Behind 'Generation X.'" When boomers who spent their adolescence and young adulthood defying the values of their parents became parents themselves, they embraced laissez-faire ideas about parenting and education, forcing nascent Gen Xers to at least take an unprecedented role in their upbringing, and at worst parent themselves. The changing dynamics of American family life led vast numbers of Gen Xers into poverty, owing to such factors as the small percentage of fathers who fulfilled child-support commitments following divorces.
So in addition to seeing the previous generation's dream of a better world give way to cynicism and materialism, Gen Xers were, to varying degrees, given less support by parents and educators than any previous generation of American children. Cut from the tethers that grounded their predecessors to ideas of societal and familial security, these youths became adults who, unsurprisingly, question the virtue of pursuing traditional goals -- and seethe with the frustration and resentment of the disenfranchised. These violent emotions don't fuel every member of Generation X, of course, but the quantity of disaffected characters in Gen-X movies strongly suggests that the filmmakers born in America between 1961 and 1971 bear the scars of collective separation trauma.
Reflecting the clash of idealism and cynicism that filled the popular culture of their youth, the cinema of Generation X is mired in mixed messages, undefined anger, inarticulate declarations, and visceral impact. While certain Gen-X filmmakers adhere closely enough to Hollywood traditions that their movies make social statements within the context of accessible narratives, others have tried -- as did the most adventurous filmmakers of the previous generation -- to find a cinematic equivalent to the punch-in-the-gut intensity of a great rock and roll song.
The most rebellious Gen-X filmmakers, provocateurs such as Darren Aronofsky ("Requiem for a Dream") and Neil LaBute ("In the Company of Men"), make movies that shock viewers with explicit language, startling imagery, and scorching satire. At the other extreme are mainstream entertainers including Michael Bay ("Pearl Harbor") and M. Night Shyamalan ("Unbreakable"), both of whom make slick, violent thrill rides. There's even room in the mix for filmmakers such as Edward Burns ("The Brothers McMullen"), whose character-driven pictures are so old-fashioned that they could have been made in the 1950s.
The filmmakers whose work is most reflective of their generation's collective identity, however, work neither on the fringes of the industry nor squarely within its mainstream. Quentin Tarantino ("Pulp Fiction"), Kevin Smith ("Dogma"), David Fincher ("Fight Club"), and Paul Thomas Anderson ("Magnolia") stand alongside Steven Soderbergh as the most important filmmakers of their generation because they rarely homogenize their pictures to appease audiences or assault viewers so aggressively that their work is marginalized. By employing such devices as fractured narratives, ironic humor, coarse language, bracing violence, and heated discourse about social issues, these directors make extreme cinematic statements while addressing topics that are crucial to their chronological peers.
Yet the significance of Gen-X filmmakers disseminating their generational identity through motion pictures is more than a historical footnote about people capturing their collective experience on celluloid. Soderbergh and his contemporaries stand to replace the movie brats of the 1970s (and the empty stylists of the 1980s) as the world's most prominent filmmakers during the early decades of the twenty-first century. For while the careers of such 1970s wunderkinds as Spielberg and Lucas are still thriving, they and their peers slipped into the safe cocoon of respectability many years ago. Only Martin Scorsese, the most consistently experimental of the movie brats, still has a semblance of the youthful zest that made his early pictures so fresh and exciting.
The ascension of Gen Xers to dominance of the film industry is not entirely as promising, however, as was the process by which the movie brats brought their counterculture sensibility to Hollywood.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, youth-oriented films such as "Bonnie and Clyde," "The Graduate," and "Easy Rider" gave a moribund art form a slap in the face. The intense violence and bleak morality of Scorsese's early movies, notably "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver," brought new vitality to cinematic portrayals of urban life; similarly, Coppola's brilliantly revisionist "Godfather" movies added bloody authenticity to crime films and depicted gangsters as living, breathing human beings. Cutting-edge filmmakers such as Hopper, Bob Rafelson ("Five Easy Pieces"), and Mike Nichols ("Catch-22") explored topics pertaining to the counterculture, while classicists such as Peter Bogdanovich ("The Last Picture Show") melded youth-oriented themes with old-fashioned style. Collectively, the movie brats injected unprecedented realism, social consciousness, and invention into their work, thereby shaking American cinema free from the stifling constraints of the dying studio system.
Gen-X directors, however, seem more concerned with blending layers of fiction than with pursuing realism, and this tendency to employ ironic storytelling has everything to do with how Gen Xers have been bombarded with incessant information since their youth. The explosion of mass media in the 1980s, in addition to the emergence of around-the-clock news coverage, resulted in a new entity called "infotainment," which is alternately defined as news packaged as entertainment or entertainment packaged as news. Whatever the definition, the existence of infotainment reflects how the line separating reality and fiction blurred in the 1980s, and that blurred line crosses straight through the cinema of Generation X.
Characters in Tarantino's films often bond by discussing the ephemera of pop culture, as in the "Reservoir Dogs" scene of several crooks sitting around a diner table and discussing their varied interpretations of Madonna's song "Like a Virgin." In addition to forming a link between characters, such scenes gently reach through the "fourth wall" separating fiction from reality by forming a link between the characters and viewers from Tarantino's age group. Gen Xers who grew up listening to Madonna are intimately familiar with her work, so when it's debated onscreen, it's a conversation in which Gen-X audience members could easily participate. The insertion of pop-culture references into movie scenes was the logical next step from the way baby-boomer filmmakers used rock and roll to score films; it's a simple matter of speaking to viewers in their own idiom.
In actor-comedian Ben Stiller's first directorial effort, "Reality Bites," he plays Michael, an ambitious professional who courts a woman named Lelaina (Winona Ryder). His competitor is Lelaina's ne'er-do-well friend Troy (Ethan Hawke), a young adult so aimless and unmotivated that Lelaina describes him as a master of "time suckage." In a crucial scene, Michael picks up Lelaina for a date while several of her friends, including Troy, watch a rerun of the 1970s program "Good Times" and challenge each other to remember sitcom arcana. When Michael tries to edge his way into the conversation by mentioning a "Good Times" episode costarring diminutive actor Gary Coleman, Troy rudely tells Michael that they've already been there, done that. At the end of the scene, Michael is embarrassed, Troy smugly triumphant. The content of the scene is traditional -- two suitors clash in the presence of the woman for whose affections they are competing -- but the idiom of the scene is pure Generation X. It is also, not coincidentally, purely superficial.
Unambitious, jaded layabouts like Troy recur throughout the cinema of Generation X. In the most pervasive stereotype, these "slackers" are the Gen-X equivalent of hippies: They withdraw from the rat race as a half-assed rebellion against dehumanizing cultural forces. Yet slackers seek no revolutionary means for overturning or even healing the culture that appalls them. Rebellious boomers hit the streets to demonstrate against misguided military actions, repressive politics, and other such ills, while slackers echo the previous generation's discontentment but have neither clearly defined antagonizing forces nor clearly defined reactions to such forces.
The nebulous ennui that informs the slacker stereotype is a powerful force in the cinema of Generation X. Tarantino, Smith, and other key filmmakers address this spiritual sadness directly through sociocultural dialogue exchanges and the portrayal of slacker characters, and indirectly by employing narrative structures that both reflect and deconstruct the conventions of mainstream cinema. These structures regard classic Hollywood through the same informed, skeptical gaze through which slackers regard American culture. The combination of pop-culture references, unconventional narrative structures, and the jaded, know-it-all posture that many Gen Xers wear as a status symbol produces a peculiar brand of reflective postmodernism, and this postmodernism is the modus operandi of many important Gen-X filmmakers.
The principal manifestation of Tarantino's postmodernism, for instance, is his affection for nonlinear storytelling. He deconstructs the timelines of story events so thoroughly that viewers often don't know how all the characters and events in a given movie relate to each other until well after the picture is over, by which point they've been able to reorder scenes in their minds. One possible explanation of why this kind of storytelling fascinates Gen-X directors is that because they've been exposed to junk narrative all their lives -- via copycat movies, endlessly rerun sitcoms, and moronic music videos -- conventional storytelling strikes them as mundane. They long for fresh ideas but habitually settle for clever spins on old ones.
Tarantino, Stiller, and many others deal with metafiction -- fiction about fiction -- while the more socially alert of their peers use postmodern approaches to dig beneath superficiality. Fincher's "Fight Club," worlds removed from the sitcom-influenced cuteness of Stiller's debut feature, is an abrasive parable about young men waking themselves from society-induced slumber by using violence as a narcotic. The film is subversive on myriad levels: Gleaming actor Brad Pitt undercuts his heartthrob image by playing a slovenly anarchist; the principal characters express their hatred of consumer culture by blowing up buildings; and the picture depicts a twisted semi-reality in which neither characters within the movie nor viewers watching it can be absolutely sure what is supposed to be "real" and what is meant to be perceived as an artificial construct.
The picture's most audacious device is to suggest that Pitt's messianic character, Tyler Durden, may be a figment of another character's imagination. Because Tyler represents the psychological and sociological liberation of the character whom we're told may have imagined Tyler, the suggestion that he's not real implies that Gen Xers' boldest rebellions occur in their imaginations, not their lives. This provocative concept positions Tyler as a perfect symbol for a generation widely accused of political apathy: He represents the nihilistic social action that Gen Xers might take if they bothered to put down their remote controls and get up off the couch.
Clever narrative structures, pop-culture references, and "Fight Club"-style edginess aren't the only tools that Gen-X directors have at their disposal. Texas-based filmmaker Richard Linklater, a crucial but comparatively obscure figure in the Gen-X firmament, scrupulously avoided such devices when he and Kim Krizan wrote "Before Sunrise," a wonderfully thoughtful romance composed almost entirely of a single, far-reaching conversation. In the film, listless American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) meets a beautiful French student named Céline (Julie Delpy) on the last day of his trip through Europe. Jesse convinces Céline to explore Vienna with him, and during the course of a long day and evening, they chat, commiserate, debate, and, finally, become lovers.
By focusing on the way young people talk to each other -- sometimes in grand, sweeping terms bloated by postadolescent arrogance, sometimes in fearful awe informed by the looming specter of adulthood -- Linklater captured a vivid snapshot of the inspiring, terrifying transition made by young people on their way to becoming grownups. And even though Jesse is unmistakably a slacker with his fashionably trimmed goatee, shaggy hair, laundry-day wardrobe, and prematurely jaded attitude, he isn't limited by his generational identity. Other characters in slacker-themed movies -- such as the one Hawke played in "Reality Bites" -- are constructs used to represent Generation X as a whole. Jesse is a believable, complex character who happens to belong to Generation X.
The irony that one of the most mature Gen-X movies is about immaturity sends a mixed message that is typical of the murky sensibility shared by Generation X's most important cinematic representatives.
In the decade following Soderbergh's arrival on the scene, he and his peers made everything from vitriolic tracts to easygoing satires to old-fashioned character studies. But the most intriguing Gen-X movies are the hardest to categorize: What, for instance, is the best way to describe "Pulp Fiction" or "Fight Club," two complex mixtures of action, comedy, sex, and violence? At the risk of being flip, the best way to define these pictures is to call them exercises in Gen-X style, because the speed and irony with which their makers blend pop culture, traditional narrative ideas, and postmodern storytelling is totally informed by the attitudes, experiences, and cultural savviness shared by "Pulp Fiction's" Tarantino, "Fight Club's" Fincher, and their myriad peers.
Although each Gen-X director has taken a different approach to content and style, the attributes that bind them are telling. Just as the tuned-in films of the late 1960s and early 1970s captured the identity of that era's counterculture, the Gen-X films of the 1990s and beyond reveal several intriguing things about their makers. Among the insights: Slackers do, in fact, perceive an antagonistic force in their lives, albeit an amorphous one; some Gen Xers carry the activism torch passed to them by the previous generation; and postmodern style, as practiced by Gen-X directors, is not style for style's sake, but rather a spirited, if not always prudent, attempt to seek new means of conveying thematic material.
Excerpted from "The Cinema of Generation X" by Peter Hanson (McFarland & Co., 2002)
© 2002 Peter Hanson