Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Pseudo Married Life

(Okay, Nancy, this one's for you...)

I'm always pretty sharp in my critique of the Boomer Generation. I think they inherited a pretty good world and then selfishly screwed up so much that it will take a hundred years to even figure out where they left us. But, just to keep things balanced, it's time to set the penetrating gaze on Gen X. (Of course, Gen X's problems can mostly be laid at the feet of the Boomers, but whatever...) As somebody who has been teaching undergrads and twenty-somethings for the last decade, I have a lot of observations here. Maybe in a subsequent post I'll flesh them out.

But let me start with one of the most serious issues that I see in Gen X. Let's call it, "Defiantly Ignorant." Simply put, one of the things that marks Gen Xers is the way they apprehend attempts to educate them as an assault on their personal dignity. Not everybody, but it is a generational trend. My experience with my students is that they are nearly incapable of debate, because every time you disagree with them, you suddenly find yourselves in a battle with their emotional survival. It makes many of them invincibly ignorant, I'm afraid.

An example of this comes up every time I teach Gen Xer's this class I've got on the nature of beauty. Invariably, after I have gone through the three elements of the beautiful from St. Thomas - wholeness, harmony and radiance - one of the undergrads will prop a limp elbow into the air - what is it with this generation that even asking a question in class has to be a statement on how ambivalent they are about even being there? - and then he or she will issue forth, "I don't agree."

And then I respond, pretending all the while that this is the first time I've heard the astonishingness, "You don't agree that there are elements to the beautiful? Okay, cool. Give me an argument."

"Well, I think, you know, that any body can just decide what, you know, they like."

"That's not an argument."

"I don't need to give you an argument. It's what I think. I have a right to my opinion."

AHHHHHHHHHHH. There it is. The "rights" thing. And the abuse of the word "think." There isn't thinking going on here. There is resentment and petulance and the need to assert one's existence. But it ain't thinking. A huge inhibitor to great art coming out from the young generations today is that the assertion of knowable truth (including all of the skills that go into excellence of craft) comes off to Gen Xers and Millenials as an assault on their autonomy and personhood.

So, the two-part cause of the problem that is keeping Gen xers from adding anything really profound to the lasting cultural canon, is first that they have been so abysmally educated, that they live in chronic, probably insurmountbale double ignorance. They don't know, and they don't know that they don't know. A reflection of double ignorance in Gen Xer storytelling is that they tend to say profound and then banal things back to back, and they really don't know the difference. They don't know when they are actually skirting and even ripping off great ideas that have been out there for three thousand years. And reciprocally, they don't know what "obvious" means. (When I was in college, it was a funny insult to say that someone had "a keen sense of the obvious." Today, I would kill for a room of students with that quality.)

So, I read scripts from my students in which they are wrestling with human freedom, and then in the next scene, a character will suddenly proclaim like it's astounding, "Hey, ketchup. What's that about?"

To which annoyed Baby Boomers more and more are answering. "Pureed tomatoes. Idiot."

Secondly, they have been so wounded by the flailings around of their Boomer parents, that they are often simmering pools of resentment with the craven idol of their own hurt feelings relentlessly jerking them around. So, they don't know, and it HURTS THEIR FEELINGS THAT THEY DON'T KNOW. When I correct my students for bad grammar, they tell me it hurts their feelings. When I call a young employee into my office for not doing her job well, she complains that it is a violation of her feelings. When I gave a student a completely unemotional notice that he had already missed his requisite three unexcused classes, he became pouty and petulant and told me I was harsh and didn't understand him.

The whole generational warfare over Barack Obama has a lot of this dynamic in it with the grey-haired side pulling their hair out, "There's no there there." And the slumping youth constituency, dark and smug, vengefully waving their "Hope and change" signs with the glaring subtext, "Superficial, So There!"

The movie just coming out in theaters from Gen X director Ira Sachs, Married Life is an egregious example of the younger generation's assertive superficiality. It really has nothing to say about marriage. The point here seems to be to vent and brood over the theme, "Sometimes, heterosexual marriages are phony and unhappy and people cheat."

Which theme, is to me, very much like the ketchup insight referenced above.

The best thing in Married Life is the cast of Chris Cooper, Rachel McAdams, Pierce Brosnan and Patricia Clarkson. But that's where the goodness stops. This wonderful team of talented actors has very little to do except sit around having angsty conversations about their own misery and desires. The movie doesn't move, and there is only one eventual suspenseful element, that ends up not paying off in any meaningful way. Basically we watch four adults commit adultery and betrayal of friendship, one plots a murder, but then in the end, everybody settles back into the mundane boringness of unfulfilling married lives without any consequences or resolution. The director and writer didn't have anything to say about marriage here. They thought it was enough to make a movie in which sad and selfish married people commit adultery, like that is a revelation. It isn't - and this is the Gen Xer/Milennial trap: Recreating and then staring at pictures of your own painful upbringing doesn't heal you or entertain me. (And when I found out that the director is a gay man, I found it hard to not see this cynical portrait of heterosexual marriage was not just sloppy and inadequate, but darkly unfair and agenda-driven.)

The production value of the film - recreating the 1950's - is nowhere as good as what we saw in Pleasantville or Far From Heaven. Again in what is becoming a nauseatingly familiar experience at the movies lately, I got tired of the annoying close-ups that littered the first act. (And like most movies that over use the close-up in the first act, the plodding, expensive and unsustainable style of this method ends up dropping out of the movie by the mid-point, making the movie feel aesthetically uneven.)

So, pass on Married Life. Even if you are big fan of the actors here - I actually sat through The Family Stone twice just because I love to watch Rachel McAdams - don't be tempted. Rachel is miscast and badly directed in this piece. She never projects any chemistry with the male leads and she really has nothing much to do. Patricia Clarkson also just sits around on sofas drinking and saying things that are set up to be profound, but are really obvious.

The actors, crew and publicity folks have already wasted their time on this movie. And now I have too. But you don't have to. Pass.

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