Sunday, October 22, 2017

Book Review: The Cinema of Generation X: A Critical Study by Peter Hanson

Published in 2002, The Cinema of Generation X by Peter Hanson, is an early study of the youthful voices who defined American movies in the 1990s. Each chapter analyzes various themes in Gen X cinema and the creators behind them. Hanson uses the arbitrary dates of 1961-1971 as the birth range. They came of age as the open wounds of Vietnam and political upheaval loomed over the culture, in addition to an increasing divorce rate, the AIDS crisis, and across the board cultural malaise. 

If one could not find solace in family or institutions, the only remaining refuge was pop culture. Hence the pop culture obsessed characters that populate so many of these movies. The two convenience store employees in Clerks (1994) debate obscure plot points in Star Wars, while violent mobsters in Reservoir Dogs deconstruct Madonna's song lyrics, and the college grads in Reality Bites (1994) cannot stop talking about 1970s sitcoms.  

Ironic. Slackers. Spaced Out. Ennui. Those are all words used to define Gen X and ideas the movies are obsessed with. As the children of flower power and Ronald Reagan ethics, two competing influences in 1990s America, they looked at the world with weariness and cynicism. Slackers saw the moral bankruptcy of both world views:

Slackers do . . . 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 . . . is not for style's sake, but rather a spirited, if not always prudent, attempt to seek new means of conveying thematic material (17).

Steven Soderbergh gets credited with first Gen X film; sex, lies and videotape came out in 1989, its themes of sexual dysfunction, video technology, and fractured relationships, would all become preoccupations of the decade. Quentin Tarantino delighted in twisting traditional narrative in his first two films Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994). Paul Thomas Anderson made the captivating three hour film Magnolia (1999) that follows disparate misfits trapped in self imposed misery. Kevin Smith's quartet of films in the 1990s: Clerks (1994), Mall Rats (1995), Chasing Amy (1997), and Dogma (1999) are perhaps the best primer for Gex X cinema.

These movies took a personal approach to politics. Despite the generational confusion, their films embraced new ideas about sexuality, while at the same time looked at the ominous side of the sexual revolution. Male filmmakers still dominated the discourse, although Hanson does cover the early work of Sofia Coppola and Kimberly Pierce. White filmmakers tended to avoid racial issues entirely, a task left to the African-American directors Spike Lee and John Singleton.

Politics also extended to the workplace, or lack of opportunities awaiting the new generation. Reality Bites followed an aimless group of privileged college graduates troubled about whether going corporate would make them sell outs. Mike Judge's Office Space was a hilarious take on white collar ennui. 

There's also a fascination with violence. Tarantino dared audiences to revel in the violent criminal worlds of his imagination. Not a surprise, since the criminal life looked more appealing than the "McJobs" that were available. David Fincher's Se7en (1995) and Fight Club (1999) were bleak tales that toyed with Nihilism. The Wachowski siblings blew up the Sci-Fi genre with The Matrix, a visionary statement that struck a cultural nerve.

The year 1999 marked the high point of Gen X cinema: Office Space, Dogma, Boys Don't Cry, The Matrix, Fight Club, Magnolia, The Blair Witch Project, The Sixth Sense, American Beauty, Three Kings, Girl, Interrupted, and The Limey are all modern classics. As Hanson points out, the low budget Blair Witch Project, a found footage about 20 somethings lost in the woods, was the perfect metaphor for Gen X. 

Hanson's study is well written and engaging. An early attempt to understand 1990s cinema, the energy from these movies still pops off the page. And many of these directors are still working and producing great work! 


Hanson, Peter. The Cinema of Generation X: A Critical Study. Jefferson: McFarland, 2002. Print.