“X Saves The World” by Jeff Gordinier
“Charlie Kaufman and Hollywood’s Merry Band of Pranksters, Fabulists and Dreamers” by Derek Hill
A few years ago Jeff Gordinier, a writer at Details and Entertainment Weekly magazines, was asked by his editor to look into what had become of his generation. The resulting book, subtitled “How Generation X Got The Shaft But Can Still Keep Everything From Sucking,” is a rambling, discursive examination of the high and lows Generation X has experienced.
Born between 1964 and 1977, the children of baby boomers were finally given a title when, in 1991, Canadian author Douglas Coupland wrote the (superb) novel “Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture”. This was also the year that Nirvana released “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a song that would become anthemic and meaningful to the flannel-clad slacker generation that never had much use for concrete meaning, nor much desire to discover it. They had a healthy disdain for cliché, and a taste for irony, however, and Richard Linklater’s seminal film Slacker, which also came out that year, would help them discover that. It is around these three pop culture artefacts that Gordinier structures his book.
“X Saves The World” is broken into three chunks: “In Bloom,” “Idiots Rule” and “I Will Dare”. The first section looks at what the author sees as the golden age of his generation: 1991-1999. He goes to Woodstock II in 1994, where he sees Sheryl Crow and Joe Cocker onstage, and discovers that the festival had “very little to do with the ethos of Gen X, but a lot to do with boomers reasserting their market dominance in a world that had replaced ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ with ‘I Want to Fuck You Like an Animal’.” He argues a solid case for Gen X being the driving force behind the mid-nineties dot-com boom in Silicon Valley, and visits Darren Aronofsky on the set of Requiem for a Dream, where he finds the director recounting his youth growing up “in the shadow of Coney Island”.
The book opens with a note warning the reader to expect unsubstantiated generalisations, and it’s easy to see why when reading “Idiots Rule,” the middle section of the book. Here, Gordinier makes clear his utter distaste for the “easily amused” millennial generation, a group now more commonly (lazily) given the nomenclature “Generation Y”. Unrepentantly narcissistic, this generation apparently loves nothing more than the sound of their own voice, and spends much of their time slavishly tinkering with various online profiles in between mindlessly consuming yet another episode of American Idol, which he hilariously labels “totalitarian kitsch”. Gordinier concludes the section by catching a Las Vegas performance of Cirque du Soleil’s god-awful Beatles: LOVE acrobatic show. It is a cringe-worthy cultural travesty and a visual (and sonic) nightmare, and he ultimately draws the conclusion of, to (mis)quote The Simpsons: “Can’t sleep, George Martin’ll eat me”.
The final section, “I Will Dare,” is more or less structured around two ideas: firstly, that Xers are inventing social web phenomena like YouTube and Wikipedia, and that these are saving the world; keeping it from “sucking”. Secondly, that newspapers like The Onion, TV shows like Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s South Park, and Comedy Central’s “dyspeptic duo” of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are stopping the 24-hour news cycle from suffocating on its own tail. Gen-X comedians are saving the world through biting satire, proposes the author.
Gordinier is Chuck Klosterman lite: he has the same savvy with pop culture references, but not the underlying, continual strain of humour that persists under the surface of Klosterman’s writing. Still, the snippets of humour here and there, and the globe-trotting pace with which the book proceeds make it greatly enjoyable.
Toward the middle of the first section of “X Saves The World,” Gordinier says:
“Everywhere you looked in 1999, young movie directors and screenwriters were firing a big, swervy slug into the cinematic rule book. Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, Kimberly Peirce, Sofia Coppola, Kevin Smith, David Fincher, David O. Russell, Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne, Richard Linklater, Paul Thomas Anderson—they’d been shaking things up for a decade, but this was their annus mirabilis. Their weird-science visions didn’t just dot the landscape. They dominated it.”
It is this group of filmmakers, plus a few related outliers, that Derek Hill explores in his new book about young trendsetting, game-changing filmmakers. Subtitled “An Excursion into the American New Wave,” this slender, esoteric examination of current innovations in modern American cinema begins by looking at previous movements such as the French New Wave and Hollywood’s second Golden Age (a.k.a. The New Hollywood) in the seventies, which included such influential directors as Hal Ashby, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. Back then, films like The Graduate and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? blew the lid off the establishment. Dennis Hopper’s seminal 1969 film Easy Rider, in Hill’s words “a financial and cultural juggernaut,” paved the way for future explorers of the cinematic avant garde.
Richard Linklater’s first full-length film Slacker, which appeared at the apex of grunge, did the same thing for his generation, argues Hill. Steven Soderbergh’s intoxicating sex, lies and videotape opened at Sundance in 1989 to rave reviews, and filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, Boogie Nights) and Quentin Tarantino, influenced by ’60s counterculture and ’70s rawness, made films that were not only oblivious to mainstream cinema, but occasionally downright derisive of it.
Hill devotes more space to some films than others—for example, David O. Russell and his idiosyncratic existential comedy I ♥ Huckabees receives more space than Richard Kelly’s momentous cult hit Donnie Darko. Alongside extensive analyses of the work of Spike Jonze, Sofia Coppola and particularly insightful commentary on the films of Wes Anderson, there are explorations of David Gordon Green’s underappreciated art films and Michel Gondry’s fabulous, whimsical creations. Underlying it all and tying together most of the strands of the book is an appreciation of Charlie Kaufman, the “wizard of id,” in Hill’s words. Kaufman is the extraordinarily gifted screenwriter of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. His most recent film, Synecdoche, New York, is his first as director, and is mentioned in passing toward the book’s end.
Also mentioned, briefly, is Roman Coppola’s under-seen and unjustly maligned 2001 film CQ, about a young man who moves to Paris to make sci-fi films. The film is not without its faults, but, as one incisive IMDb reviewer puts it, CQ is “A likable love letter to 1960s Eurocinema”.
Hill’s pensive analysis may at first seem impenetrable, but as the book progresses his train of thought is simple enough to follow. Perhaps the best thing about Hill’s book is that it is one of the first thorough essay collections outside of academia to group together these restless young cineastes and give them proper billing, front and centre on a marquee of their own design.