While they’ve been slighted & maligned for 30 years, no other generation has been so thoroughly documented in the movies as Generation X
By most reckonings, Generation X is the 13th generation since the founding of America. It’s also the 4th generation that’s had movies on the big screen for the bulk of their lives. Coupled with the 2 generations that’ve come along since Generation X, we’ve now got 6-out-of-15 generations of American life available to mine for stories in the movies, but what sets Generation X apart from the other five is the detail paid to the everyday lives of the generation, chronicling their existence from precocious pre-teens through mid-adulthood, with 2 decades of slice-of-life movies that stand as a durable set of time-capsules to capture the life and times of America’s ‘forgotten generation.’
The adolescence of Generation X was played out on the big screen, not only showing you their lives through high school, but giving them to you in order in the 80s. You can literally watch the entire generation grow up on-screen.
- Fast Times at Ridgemont High was our freshman year
- Sixteen Candles was our sophomore year
- Breakfast Club was our junior year
- Say Anything was our senior year
And while there aren’t any particularly good movies of our college years (John Singleton’s Higher Learning was more polemic than slice-of-life) there’s some excellent chronicles of our post-college lives, too, with Singles, Reality Bites, and Feeling Minnesota all deflating the sense of wonder with which we left high school, and Beautiful Girls & Grosse Pointe Blank showing us that you really can’t go home again, either. Empire Records tried to rekindle that optimism, but it’s perhaps the most Generation X thing ever that the optimism is tied to a part of our world that’s about to get bulldozed by the very technological revolutions the entrepreneurial side of Gen-X was about to unleash on the world. Hackers just proved that the studios didn’t understand the digital revolution that was right under their noses, but they sure did focus on those crazy haircuts.
Along the way, we also get to see our older siblings struggle through post-college life in St Elmo’s Fire, and our younger siblings reflected in Clueless when they weren’t scaring the shit out of us in Kids. We fought the power in Footloose and mocked the power in Pump Up The Volume, and could very easily go right down the credits of any of those movies and start naming the people in our graduating classes who best embodied each of those characters, so stark are the archetypes.
Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful, and Listen to Me are all right-guy-and-right-girl-finally-get-together fairy tales. Ferris Bueller was the ultimate escapism for the children of absentee parents too busy trying to chase the greed-is-good bigger-is-better mantra of the 80s instead of raising their kids, bemoaned by ‘Jack’ in Fight Club (and cleverly connected by internet theorists).
The movies in the two preceding paragraphs all contain completely recognizable & relatable Gen-X characters, but are more concerned with telling a specific story than capturing a broader zeitgeist — the slice-of-life storytelling that understands that not everyone’s tale involves saving the world, but is a tapestry of interconnected threads. Say Anything certainly straddles that line, but the background characters, coupled with Cusack’s stumbling forward beyond graduation, gives it a ‘wider’ feel than just a love story. But the Fast Times — Sixteen Candles — Breakfast Club — Say Anything cycle is more concerned with the everyday lives of the characters reflected on the screen than they are with changing the world.
The Wild Life takes a stab at what life looks like right after high school, but ultimately descends into teen-sex-comedy-farce straight out the well-trod playbook already explored by Porky’s as well as Screwballs and Last American Virgin. Fresh Horses was the hard dose of reality we all needed whenever we thought we were capable of playing grown-ups, almost as the antidote to The Wild Life.
Kevin Smith certainly gives a unique voice to the semi-hopeless suburban slackers of the early 90s, lacking in direction and, well, not really looking for one, either. But given the distinct and elaborate shared world inhabited by the denizens of the View Askewniverse, it’s tough to position Clerks, Mallrats, and Chasing Amy in any sort of wider Gen-X pantheon, even though the characters and stories resonate with their members in the audience.
Heathers might seem like just the revenge fantasy on the flip side of the right-guy-and-right-girl-finally-get-together coin, but when coupled with The Basketball Diaries (and yes, Carrie fits in here, too) there’s clearly an undercurrent of outsider rage bubbling up underneath the ‘society’ that was embodied in our high school experiences. And it wasn’t pretty. The chronicles of Generation X growing up on screen invariably show us the prom kings and the drama queens. They were the star athletes and the smart kids who never worried about where their next meal was coming from. When you got a representative voice from outside that world — John Bender, for instance — it was always a token voice, there to provide contrast to the ‘right’ kids that were clearly the heroes of the story.
After Columbine, video rental shops pulled The Basketball Diaries from their shelves, afraid that it would be seen as an inspiration for future school shootings. Tellingly, Heathers was not pulled, despite the protagonist’s attempt to blow up the entire school. What no film stopped to ask was where this rage came from, and when someone finally sort of did, we got the semi-comedy Napoleon Dynamite 10 years too late. Journalist Jon Katz didn’t pull any punches online, however, and the side of Generation X that never made it into the movies is a dark and terrifying place inhabited by outcasts trying hard to stay out of the limelight, lest they become targets of bullies and the butt of jokes.
Sadly, while there’s a bunch of similar slice-of-life movies for other generations, they are almost universally one-shot flicks, with no spiritual connections to any other movies to carry the viewer along through the growing-up of those generations. Can’t Hardly Wait, Easy A, Jawbreaker, 10 Things I Hate About You, Mean Girls, and Girl Next Door are all parts of what should’ve been an all-new niebelungen-cycle for another generation that never quite fully materialized. Similarly, Dazed & Confused would’ve been a perfect jumping-off point for broader family of movies that would’ve tracked Mitch’s generation through high school, but we ended up with That 70s Show filling that niche instead. Rebel Without A Cause tried to tell the Golden Generation what the Baby Boomers were feeling in their adolescence, and it so scared the shit out of them that it was over a decade before anyone dared to try another controversial slice-of-teenage-life movie.
You’ll never tell those stories on-screen again, tracking a generation through their adolescence into early adulthood, and not just because current generations are glued to their personal, portable screens. You can’t tell it because the big-screen movie format is no longer the way to tell those stories. That maturation is now chronicled on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, and the linear storytelling of a movie seems antiquated and incapable of accurately capturing the half-dozen (or more) multiple, simultaneous, often-asynchronous immediate interactions taking place all-day, every-day in their coming-of-age. Today’s kids aren’t sitting in detention having deeply personal conversations with a bunch of strangers because they’re already having multiple simultaneous conversations with other people who aren’t even in the room.
Someone will figure out how to tell the stories of post-millenial generations. The question is how well-chronicled they’ll be — an extended narrative that builds over 15 years and contributed to by multiple creators, or a series of completely-disconnected one-shots that only offer fits-and-spurts of visibility into what came after Generation X.
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