Martinian has one that I can’t answer, but maybe y’all can. Quoted in full, because there’s lots of good stuff here and I want to make sure to get to it all:
We’ve been discussing generational pathologies a lot on the blog (well…what else is the study of history, in some sense?), and so accurate diagnosis has been on my mind.
Regarding Boomers, a thoroughly Boomer AP US History teacher of mine in the 90s once showed us clips of The Graduate and said that it was a great example of a movie that was what the 60s was really about without all the hippy-dippy, sex-drugs-rock’n’roll stuff. I still think that’s a quite astute judgment. Watching Ben and Elaine on the bus at the end, I feel like I have a much better sense of the fundamental problems of their generation that ended up manifesting themselves in Flower Power, etc., than from reading the Port Huron statement or watching footage of Woodstock.
So my question to you is: Is there a similar drama (or Comedy-Drama, since laughter is often better at revealing truth) that you could point to that really gets to the heart of what Gen-X was all about and what its fundamental problems were, i.e., without the all the punk cynicism and world-weary sarcasm, since those are clearly the Defense Mechanism symptoms for a deeper fundamental problem. And as TLP[*] loves to tell us, the defense mechanism is the false explanation that’s easy to swallow in order to distract us from the real problems. (again, no surprise that whenever The Graduate comes up — except for that one instance with a superb teacher — it’s because someone is talking about the music or the famous actors or the goofball awkward comedic moments (Plastics!), but never, never, never the severe dysfunctions blatantly on display throughout the film)
Considering the same question myself as a backwards-looking early Millennial, I’d have to talk to my more movie-savvy friends. But off-hand I think there’s a case to be made for Igby Goes Down.
First, some disclaimers: I haven’t seen The Graduate, so I can’t comment one way or the other, but even if Martinian’s teacher was “wrong,” what you just saw was a great example of the art of instruction. It takes quite a bit of immersion in the sources to really get the sense of an era — insofar as it’s possible, and there’s no way in hell I’m getting into the philosophy of that — and one of the big problems in making the attempt is: getting distracted by the “great” stuff.
Since The Greatest Novel Ever Written has been under discussion here lately, let’s go with that as our example. I’m told by people who claim to have read the damn thing, and claim to understand it, that Ulysses is, simultaneously, both a Great Novel and a Great Irish Novel. I think that’s some kind of oxymoron, but let’s stipulate it’s true. Let’s further stipulate that we all force ourselves to read it, and that in doing so, we all smoke as many bowls as necessary to “get” it. Now: how much does Ulysses tell us about life in turn-of-the-century Dublin? Doesn’t the very fact that it’s Great Literature (again, arguendo) obscure a lot of the quotidian stuff? Or, to put it another way, wouldn’t you be a bit uneasy if I started claiming to be an expert on The Victorian Poor because I read Oliver Twist?
Given that: Whether or not The Graduate is a great film, the very fact that all the Boomers seem to think so, and the fact that everyone else at least loves the soundtrack, makes it nearly impossible to look at The Graduate as anything but “art.” To strip all that stuff out, to regard it merely as an historical artifact, is quite a trick. Hats off to Martinian’s teacher.
A further problem, as we’ve discussed below, is that the pop culture creators are quite often a generation behind the consumers. “Rock Around the Clock” was supposedly the anthem of youthful rock’n’roll rebellion, but as we’ve noted, it was written by two guys in late middle age — one of whom was born in the 19th century. That’s not to say those guys don’t “get it” — obviously they do, since the consumers all think this stuff “speaks to them” — but it does mean that there’s an additional filter to consider. Someone like Quentin Tarantino, say, was uber-popular in the 1990s, and my first thought for “most 90s movie ever” is that it must be a Tarantino flick, but… he was born in 1963. It’s silly to maintain that 1965 was the hard cutoff between “The Baby Boom” and “Gen X,” nothing works like that in real life, but it’s something to keep in mind.
The other problem with nominating a Tarantino flick is that, in his early days at least, Tarantino was actually trying to do something new, or at least newish. Since I probably can’t offend the Great Littra-chuh crowd any more than I already have, let’s bring our homie James Joyce back for an encore: Attempting to read Ulysses, I get what he’s trying to do; I’m just not sold on the idea that it needs to be done, let alone at such length. Same way with Tarantino flicks, especially Pulp Fiction. All my movie buff and arty-farty buddies loved it — “dude, it’s mind blowing!” — but though I could see that he was trying to play around with narrative structure within the tropes of old gangster flicks (how’s that for pretentious?), I’m just not sure it needed to be done. It had a few funny cracks, and both Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta owe Tarantino their entire careers, but in all I found Pulp Fiction a slog….
…but it was a new(ish) slog, an innovative(ish) slog, which alone disqualifies it for the title of Most 90s Movie. Martinian’s right that the punk cynicism and world-weary sarcasm of the 90s were defense mechanisms, and the underlying syndrome they were defending against was, for lack of a better term, an existential crisis. I’m aware that sounds way too heavy for a generation that brought us “MMMMMbop” and “Mambo Number Five,” but I can’t think of anything better. As a card-carrying Gen Xer, you weren’t allowed to do anything new or innovative, or even newish or innovative-ish, because our not-so-secret crippling fear was that it had all been done. The Boomers may have thought that Bob Dylan was a poet and Andy Warhol an artist — or maybe vice-versa — but at least they were sincere about it…
….were still sincere about it, and that’s the problem with trying to do anything new: When the generation above you is still stuck in adolescence, still somehow living the sex-drugs-n-rock-n-roll lifestyle in their own minds even as they drove the Volvo down to the partners’ meeting at the law firm, what’s the point? Had the Boomers simply manned up and admitted it — “yeah, we’ve been having you on, Bob Dylan sucks” — we maybe could’ve done something with our lives…
…or maybe not, because for fuck’s sake, we were grownups. The way to be a true Grunge kid is to pretend that even though you’re seventeen, your soul (not that we’d say anything so lame as “soul”) is really 45 — and not just any 45, a Charles Bukowski-level 45. For those who don’t know, Bukowski (born 1920, how’s that for Grunge?) enjoyed a brief renaissance upon his death in 1994. His stories and poems seemed to embody all the bullets the Boomers, those lucky bastards, somehow dodged — they’re all about getting blind drunk and evicted and beaten up in dive bars. That’s what you Boomer bastards deserved with your “40 is the new 30” antics, but somehow you never got it…
See what I mean? We were adults, for pete’s sake, and even when we weren’t, we were deeply invested in the idea that we, not they — the Boomers, our “parents” — were the real grownups in the room. But instead of actually manning up and acting like adults, we let ourselves be consumed with puerile jealousy and existential ennui, with its attendant sarcasm, irony, and, obviously, cringing pretentiousness. The only sane, rational, and proper response to the assertion that “40 is the new 30” is: “ok, dude, whatever,” followed by actually getting on with your own fucking life, leaving those fossils with their delusions.
We were just aces at the first part, but somehow never got around to the second. And that’s ALL on us.
All of which is undoubtedly way too long a walk for way too short a payoff, but here it is: Given all that, my candidate for “Most 90s movie ever” is Deadpool, which was actually made in 2016. It’s one of the angriest movies ever made, since if you strip away all the snark and self-conscious sarcasm — which starts immediately, as in, with the opening credits — all you see is rage and jealousy. Deadpool is the movie guys who weren’t cool enough to hang out with Joss Whedon (born 1964) or Tarantino would’ve made back in 1993, if they hadn’t been college sophomores at the time. Oh, you people think “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is all that, with its cute little Deconstruction-lite of classic horror tropes? See, she’s a cheerleader, but she fights vampires, how cutesy is that. Ya like that? Then chew on this! Fourth wall breaks! Masturbation references!! Snarky snark about the fourth wall breaks!!!
But above all, don’t take any of it seriously, because it’s all ironic. Oh, sure, we’ll take your money — you suckers!! — but if you actually like it, you’re an idiot, because it’s all just smoke and mirrors, just party tricks. And the hell of it is, we’re actually pointing the stupid tricks out to you as they happen, and you still arf like seals, you fucking dumbasses. I mean, we’ve even got a “joke” in which Ryan Reynolds, the actor playing Deadpool, jokes about how some actor named “Ryan Reynolds” only gets roles because he’s an airhead pretty boy who will read whatever’s on the page. How PoMo is that?!? Not even Quentin Tarantino would’ve been that obvious… which is the meta-joke, get it? And if you don’t think a deconstruction-of-a-deconstruction is brilliant, then fuck you, we’re just joking (Jon Stewart was born in 1962).
What do you think, Twenty Readers? I don’t particularly like that answer, but I can’t think of another. The floor is open.
UPDATE: I’m going to do at least one update inside the post itself, because the discussion is generating some good stuff that should go above the fold.
Prodigal Son‘s suggestion of The Big Lebowski is a pretty good one. The Coen Brothers (born in 1954 and ’57) could profitably be likened to the songwriting duo behind “Rock Around the Clock” — though of the previous generation, they “got it” enough to help set the zeitgeist of the next generation. I’m taking it as read that you can’t have a 90s anything that isn’t a “deconstruction” of some kind. “Grunge” is deconstructed arena rock (Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is famously a sludgy parody of Boston’s “More Than a Feeling”); novels like Generation X (which I could never stomach enough to finish) and Fight Club and Microserfs are deconstructions of either the traditional Bildungsroman (sludgy parodies of The Catcher in the Rye; the former) or whatever you call the “slice-of-life” office novel (sludgy parodies of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit; the latter two).
And since Deconstruction is “weapons-grade” European philosophy (in contrariandutchman’s wonderful phrase) that broke containment like a bat from a Wuhan lab sometime in the late 1950s, it’s no surprise that not-really-Xers like Douglas Coupland (born 1961, and a German-born Canadian to boot) and Chuck Pahlaniuk (born 1962) were so good at mainstreaming it. It’s also no surprise that both are gay — Deconstruction, like Grunge, is deeply appealing to outsiders, and back in those days gays were still pretty far out there. Thus The Big Lebowski — a sludgy, stoner parody of Chinatown — is a strong candidate for “most 90s movie”). It also takes some very angry shots at Boomer pretensions: “Some say my work is strongly vaginal. Does the word bother you, Mr. Lebowski? Vagina;” and of course The Dude’s assertion that he was one of the authors of the Port Huron statement — the real one, not the watered-down second draft.
What say y’all? I’d also add that on those criteria — sludgy, angry parodies of Boomer stuff — the novel American Psycho has to be in there if we’re expanding the discussion to “most 90s artifact” in general. Same deal — Bret Easton Ellis is a gay guy born in 1964. The movies made out of his novels don’t really work in our discussion of 90s stuff (Less Than Zero; American Psycho; and especially The Rules of Attraction), and the books themselves are real slogs, too, but you could do worse, I guess. The movie version of American Psycho is either really pointless and boring, or hilarious, depending on how black your sense of humor is — mine’s like the ace of spades, so I loved it — but it’s not a 90s movie; it’s a Millennial movie through and through, though writer/director Mary Harron was born in 1953.
Pickle Rick has several good suggestions, including Singles (1992). If I had to pick the 90s movie that most influenced me, personally, I’d probably go with that one, as I was sure that upon graduation from college I’d move to Seattle and get some kind of deeply meaningful job like that one guy had (who I was certain until just now was played by Paul Rudd), get involved with (and eventually dumped by) Kyra Sedgwick, and hang out with Matt Dillon, except, you know, not a loser. But since thinking about Singles only reminds me of Reality Bites (1994), which, in an uber-90s meta move, is a near-contemporary sludgy parody of Singles, let’s move on.
[I’ll leave it to y’all to discuss the merits of Reality Bites as a slice-of-90s-life. I got dragged to it by my college girlfriend, and y’all, it was painful. For one, it’s a bad movie — one of the least funny “comedies” you’ll ever see. For two, Ethan Hawke really nailed his character; that pseudo-badboy douchebag was everywhere in the 90s; that part is spot on, and imagine really living with that guy. For three, my girlfriend truly believed she was the Wynona Ryder character, but she was really the Janeane Garofalo character, and though Garofalo wasn’t as insufferable about politics back then, she was twice as insufferable about everything else. I’m sure you’ll be shocked to learn that we broke up not long after this date.
For the record, by 1994 I was rapidly resigning myself to becoming Ben Stiller’s character, for which crime against humanity I want to invent a time machine, just so I can go back and kick my own ass].
Anyway, Singles: I’d have to re-watch it with my most jaundiced eye, because it’s The Graduate of the Grunge years, in the sense in which every Boomer but Martinian’s teacher still seems to regard The Graduate — that is, as the movie just incidentally attached to an era-defining soundtrack. If you want to hear the very best Grunge music can do within the form’s very obvious limitations — and if you really want to understand what those limitations are — then the Singles soundtrack is required listening. Pearl Jam comes in for a lot of hate around here (from me, anyway), but “State of Love and Trust” is the “Mrs. Robinson” of the Grunge years, for both good and ill. I love it, but I can’t hardly stand to listen to it — along with “Nearly Lost You,” from Grunge also-rans Screaming Trees, “State of Love and Trust” is pretty much everything I felt for every girl I ever dated, or even fantasized about dating, in the 1990s.
I know, I know, I should seek therapy.
Re: Pickle Rick’s riff on war movies, that’s another whole huge discussion we should probably have someday. Deconstruction, and PoMo in general, aren’t all wrong; goofy Frogs like Baudrillard actually had a lot of useful concepts. He’s dead on, for instance, that “media” mediates our experience in a way it didn’t — couldn’t — for earlier generations. Most near-contemporary writing about WW2, for instance, doesn’t mention war movies, because war movies were all but invented during the war itself (with the admittedly huge and important exception of All Quiet on the Western Front). American soldiers watched a lot of movies during the war, but they weren’t watching movies about the war they were currently fighting.
Come Vietnam, and the phrase “this is exactly like a war movie” shows up in just about every description of a writer’s arrival in-country, and “this is nothing like a war movie” invariably shows up in his description of seeing the elephant. Soldiers shipping off to Vietnam, in other words, had an entire cultural frame of reference that filtered their experience. But even they weren’t watching war movies about the war they were in. That was left to later generations (one might usefully analyze the 1999 film Three Kings, about the 1991 Gulf War, in our earlier context); the guys currently overseas are so media-saturated that I’m told their favorite pastime is playing Call of Duty. I can’t even fathom coming off a patrol — especially one in which you took fire — and “unwinding” by playing an immersive wargame, but they apparently do it all the time.
Understand that, and you’ll really get something important about the younger generation.
[Oh, and a final note on Singles: Xavier McDaniel’s cameo is the finest acting performance by an athlete in the history of cinema. I’m willing to discuss, modify, or even abandon my most deeply held convictions in the face of enough evidence, but I will brook absolutely no dissent about this. “Oh, and Steve…. don’t come yet.”]
*The Last Psychiatrist, which would be required reading if I were still in the syllabus-making biz.