Saturday, September 29, 2012

Between X and Y Part II

Something strange happened after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.  All the euphoria quickly faded.  The world suddenly seemed more confusing, complicated, and a little ominous.  We always want a happy ending; however, in history there is no such thing.  Oliver Stone's 1991 film JFK drove a stake through the triumphalism of the early 1990s with its direct attack against an official narrative of American history (the Warren Commission) by mixing fact with fiction.  The three hour film followed New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, played by Kevin Costner, in his obsessive investigation of the Kennedy assassination which by the end left me wondering if social studies classes were full of shit.  But this led me to watch films that questioned authority such as All the President's Men, Dr. Strangelove, The French Connection, and several others that reveled in the corruption and ugliness of the modern world.  All institutions were untrustworthy.  Why believe in anything?

The 1990s was replete with Irony.  And distractions were everywhere.  And entertainment. And more consumption.  An obsession with pop culture started to wipe away everything in its path.  In addition to television and movies, there was the world wide web.  Technology loomed like an unstoppable force too attractive to ignore.  It made everyone a little meaner and insensitive.  

Musically, the decade mirrored the fragmentation across the American landscape.  Grunge gets the nod for moving rock into the new century.  The happy, good time party/all night music of 80s rock gave way to a more serious music full of anger and angst that owed much to punk and heavy metal.  Nirvana came on like a wrecking crew that blew everyone away and then left as just as they arrived.  Kurt Cobain may well have the last rock and roll star to move his generation, but also the most reluctant one.  When Nirvana released their LP Nevermind, they usurped Michael Jackson from the pop charts and their video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" received constant airplay on MTV.  Rock critics, who were desperate for someone to recapture the freethinking charisma of the SIxties icons like Lennon and Dylan, declared Cobain the savior of rock.  But the band eschewed their fame. During High School they were the outcasts and not even considered remotely cool. The chips on their shoulders were well earned.  When jocks and frat boys started rocking out to Nirvana songs the band reacted with disdain.  At their concerts Nirvana began to appear in drag and shame their fans (a growing number of fratboys) for their homophobia and mindless conformity.  Listening to their final haunting unplugged performance, made a few months before Cobain's death is sad.  In their sublime unplugged performance, I hear a new American sound emerging - moodier, darker, thought provoking.  Their rendition of David Bowie's, "The Man Who Sold the World," is so melodic and filled with imagery that it lets you envision the man who sold the world (your pick - LBJ, Nixon, Reagan, Bush I, Bush II).  Nothing is more emotionally wrenching than than Cobain's last two songs "All Apologies," and Leadbelly's "Where did you sleep last night"?

Pulp Fiction is without a doubt the most influential film of the 1990s.  Quentin Tarantino's epic homage to gangster cinema restored the auteur to American film.  Tarantino, a movie buff who spent most of his 20s as a video store clerk, made waves with his debut film, Reservoir Dogs.  For a generation raised on the blockbusters of Spielberg and Lucas and all their disciples, Pulp Fiction brought a new type of storytelling: interweaving story lines, long dialogue sequences, and a unique fictional universe.  A shameless lover of cinema in all its forms, Tarantino had lots of fun with Pulp FIction.  He embraced pop culture nostalgia with his casting choices and soundtracks replete with obscure 1970s music.  From literary references ranging from Mark Twain to Elmore Leonard to Flannery O'Conner, Pulp Fiction is like the Ulysses of modern film (I'll stand by that reference).  Like James Joyce, Tarantino openly made allusions to all genres and left critics and fans much to think about.

Clerks also deserves mention.  It is like the Waiting for Godot of the 1990s.  Perhaps no film captures Gen X more that Kevin Smith's low budget comedy set in a bleak New Jersey convenience store.  It follows two underachieving clerks as they carry on philosophical discussions on Star Wars or the movie tastes of their customers.  I knew guys like this in a job I worked after High School.  They were smart enough to know their circumstances sucked, but showed little initiative in getting out.  Being stuck in a dead end job does awful things to the mind and soul, and no film illustrates this better than Clerks as we follow Dante and Randal in their descent into retail hell.  Smith proved an equal to Tarantino in writing sharp dialogue and went on to make on to make films that bravely took on controversial topics such as sexuality in Chasing Amy and religion in Dogma.

For myself the decade passed over like a like long, exhausting, endless summer.  Growing up in a small isolated town I was removed from most of culture.  I have little interest in revisiting the glum tedium of high school.  The future looked imposing as the new century drew closer- perhaps that's why America became a conspiracy theory nation.  Boredom.  You can talk about the JFK assassination  aliens at Roswell, New World Order, terrorists as elite puppets, inside jobs, NSA surveillance, crop circles.  The X-Files took us through all this.   Were there any alternatives offered in film or literature as proper ways to live in a world getting crazier by the second?

The Coen Brothers provided some relief.  In Fargo, the Coen brothers hero Sheriff played brilliantly by Frances McDormand used common old decency to combat the evil that threatens her North Dakota town.  Another way is out is the Dude.  Jeff Bridges brilliant performance in The Big Lebowski, as a stoner/hippie, who uses his indolent nature as the only sane reaction to a crazy world of scheming capitalists, criminals, nihilists, and posers.  Bowling is the glue holding the dude's world together, inspiring all who feel adrift as America approached 2000.
The "dude" abides

More to come on the 1990s and early 21st century.