Reality Sucks

Welcome to Generation X

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From the July/August 1994 issue

I HAD NEVER HEARD OF KURT COBAIN UNTIL THE OTHER day when he killed himself. Apparently, between suicide attempts, he had been selling tens of millions of records on which he sang despairingly about his hatred of life. His greatest hit contains the trenchant line, “Oh well, whatever, never mind.” His music is called grunge rock, a style in which the bratty anger of punk rock collapses into tired despair. While the music is dreadful, it does sound genuinely miserable and appeals to people who share Cobain’s misery, or at least share the stylish affectation of it.

Cobain blamed his unhappiness on his parents’ divorce when he was 8. Some of his fens hold society culpable for making him more rich, famous and successful than he wanted to be, while some of his critics attribute his depression to his multiple drug abuses. His wife, Courtney Love, a dropout heiress reported to have used heroin during her recent pregnancy, assigns responsibility for his suicide to an ill-advised effort to get him off drugs. For whatever reasons, this 27-year-old superstar, in his second suicide attempt of the month, blew his head off with a shotgun, leaving his baby daughter a note saying, “I love you.”

The inevitable canonization and romanticization of a celebrity who dies at the height of his fame is reminiscent of James Dean (death by fast car in 1955) and Elvis Presley (death by drugs, alcohol and hamburgers in 1977). Rock stars, mired as they are in perpetual adolescence, often die before they grow up, but few blow their heads off with buckshot. It was an apt end to a life of public misery, as if his career were snuff art, culminating in Cobain’s gathering of a huge crowd for his long-promised public suicide, just to punish his parents for divorcing his family. In cover stories and obituaries, Cobain has been called the Poet of Alienation and the Crown Prince of Generation X. But who and what is Generation X?

Coming as it did after the baby boom, Generation X is a sparsely populated and easily overlooked scattering of neglected souls whose parents have never said “no” to them, and rarely said anything else. The Xers have been raised by hippies and sexual revolution warriors whose value system was simply, “If it feels good, do it” and whose ideas about child raising were inspired by such films as Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976), in which the child really is the devil in disguise. These cabbage-patch lads were raised offhandedly and without hope or direction during the divorce orgy of the ’70s. They are the generation that comes from families that did not hold together long enough to get them raised.

Xers come quite naturally by their existential anomie. They believe, rightly or wrongly, that they are downwardly mobile, the first generation who can expect to make less money and live less well than their parents. They are resigned, with no sense of their ability to change the world, or even to change their underwear.

Every generation goes through a struggle for definition and identity, and each of these struggles is celebrated in coming-of-age films that provide the generation’s enduring cinematic symbols and icons. In the 1930s, the coming-of-age image was Mickey {Andy Hardy} Rooney, energetically overcoming the depression by putting on a show with Judy Garland. In the ’40s, boyish, freckled Van {High Barbaree) Johnson went off to war and was killed while June Allyson stayed home and sobbed.

In the ’50s, James (Rebel Without a Cause) Dean mumbled petulantly that he was being misunderstood, and when he was too inarticulate to get Natalie Wood’s attention verbally, he played a game of chicken and drove a car off a cliff. In the movie, he survived the death-defying puberty ritual of driving crazily; in real life he did not. By sacrificing his life in this way, James Dean virtually invented adolescence as a permanent lifestyle, almost a separate species of human animal, rather than simply as a stage of development along the route between childhood and adulthood.

In the ’60s, before the stringy-haired skinny-dippers at Woodstock and dope-smoking cyclists in Easy Rider, there was Dustin (The Graduate) Hoffman defying parents, God, state, society and Mrs. Robinson by eloping with Katharine Ross from her wedding. In the ’70s, John {Saturday Night Fever) Travolta dressed up in a spotless white suit to pose on the dance floor, and seemed far more interested in himself than in his partner. In 1983, teenaged entrepreneur Tom (Risky Business) Cruise, playing the air guitar in his jockey shorts, turned his parents’ home into a whorehouse for the weekend and profited without penalty. What goes up must come down. In the 1990s, the most apt metaphor for Generation X may come from My Own Private Idaho (1991), in which the late (drugs) and quintessentially Generation Xer (raised by real hippies, no less) River Phoenix plays a narcoleptic drifter and distracted hustler who, in moments of emotional stimulation, curls up and goes to sleep on the highway in the middle of traffic. These Xers are sleeping on the job and going nowhere.

Generation X looks a little bit livelier, but a lot more tortured, in a pair of disparate recent films, Reality Bites and Six Degrees of Separation, which comment on relations between these sleepwalking slackers and the generations that casually and thoughtlessly spawned them.

THE OFFICIAL GENERATION X FILM, the one that sets out deliberately to define the generation to itself, is Reality Bites, a mildly funny, romantic comedy written by Helen Childress and directed by Ben Stiller, son of the over-the-top comedy team of Stiller and Meara. The movie follows the first post-college year of four Xers in Houston.

Janeane Garofalo works at The Gap, takes courses in folding jeans, and blames her failures in life on being conceived while her parents were on an acid trip. She sleeps around, tabulates her promiscuity precisely, and stays in a panic about AIDS. Steve Zahn turns his celibate homosexuality and his fear of coming out to his mother into a full-time job. For him, being gay becomes an alternative to a life.

The blankly handsome Ethan (Dead Poets Society) Hawke gets and loses a dozen jobs, all of which he considers beneath him, while he demonstrates his superior intelligence by defining the word “irony” and quoting Cool Hand Luke. As he pouts over his parents’ divorce and father’s distance (the old man, who screwed around, is dying of prostate cancer), he lies around in his friends’ apartments, eating junk food, wearing junk clothes, watching junk TV and smoking constantly.

Gorgeous Winona (Age of Innocence) Ryder, valedictorian of her college class, is too superior to take a job and too snotty to keep one. She blames her plight on her parents’ divorce and their remarriages to idiots, but she lives off her father’s gas card and drives her despised stepmother’s discarded BMW. Her raison d’etre is her art: she videotapes her friends’ self-pitying complaints about their lives. Hawke is her ideal: he works least and whines most passively.

Ben Stiller, an inarticulate and hardworking yuppie, falls for Ryder and tries to bring her art to the world, but he lacks the self-righteous Kurt Cobain-ish, self-pity of Hawke and the low-class aspirations that are considered integrity for the ’90s, so there is little suspense. Stiller, with his deep-eyed, Montgomery Clift intensity, displays all the virtues that would characterize the hero in any other era he is trustworthy, loyal, brave, obedient, kind, clean, hard-working and competent but he becomes the loser in love and the villain of the piece by lacking the essential aphrodisiac of his age not only does he lack self-pity, he doesn’t fully honor it in others.

While the film relies on garish, gimmicky MTV techniques to keep the audience awake, the script fails to offer much stimulation. It mostly relies on lame witticisms, worthy of Saturday Night Live, intended to define the generation (Q-. “Why isn’t reality like life on The Brady Bunch? A: “Because Mr. Brady died of AIDS.”) There are a lot of product references and allusions to TV shows, reminding us that these kids were raised by television rather than parents, conditioned to be consumers of junk culture, educated merely to not offend others, and offered little expectation of usefulness. Any ambition, if it were even noticed, would be seen as selling out to the hated mainstream of the self-indulgent parents. They huddle together without hope, rewarding one another’s passivity. Reality Bites is a discouraging film because it captures so accurately the ennui of the generation it celebrates.

THERE COULD HARDLY BE MORE contrast between films than that between the jerky, grungy Reality Bites, a film pandering to underemployed and still-dependent adolescents in a surly mood over their Mures, and the wittily sophisticated Six Degrees of Separation, which gives us the parents’ view of Generation X. Based on John Guare’s successful and highly acclaimed play, the movie is telling the more or less true story of an encounter between an artsy, upper-middle-class couple in Manhattan, whose Generation X children want no part of their parents’ lifestyle, and an aspiring yuppie con man, who wants to steal a place in the couples’ lives.

Whether in his native Australia (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, A Cry in the Dark) or elsewhere (The Russia House), nobody uses location more effectively than director Fred Schepisi. He has filmed this unapologetically contrived play in amusingly apt Manhattan settings, catching the kind of self-conscious trendiness of the upscale types satirized in New Yorker cartoons.

The art dealers are played knowingly by Stockard Charming and Donald Sutherland, a couple married so long they finish each other’s sentences. Their densely packed lives are pretentious and anxiously cash poor. They display their two-sided Kandinsky and their Victorian silver beaver inkwell, while sucking up to a rich friend from South Africa -whom they hope will invest in a Cezanne they want to sell to Japanese investors for a few million dollars to tide them over.

Suddenly, a handsome, black preppie in a blood-stained shirt bursts in, tells a tale of being mugged in the park and lets slip that he is not only Sidney Peltier’s son, but a friend of their children at Harvard. “Paul,” the talkative young character (Will Smith, an earnest TV actor who unfortunately lacks charm and seems overwhelmed by his lines) easily seduces them with his yuppie rethinking of Holden Caulfield and his perfect tuna and sun-dried tomato pasta. The couple melt when Paul tells them how lovingly their children speak of them, while the enthralled South African buys in on the Cezanne and plans an all-black film festival in Capetown. And, of course, all three harbor hopes of appearing as extras in Daddy Poitier’s next film, Cats.

The couple insist that their prize guest spend the night, but they awaken to discover him in bed with a young male street hustler. Shrieking in fright and wielding symbolic brooms, they sweep the naked young trash out of their treasure-packed home. They soon learn that Paul is an impostor. But to their bewilderment, none of their treasures are missing. What did this young con man want?

They soon find other families whom Paul visited, telling the same story of having gone to school with their children. To help them unravel the mystery, they call in their nasty and contemptuous children from Harvard, Dartmouth and Groton. These overeducated, undermannered children live, in Paul’s words, “in a constant state of luxurious despair and constant discovery and paralysis.” They insult their parents for their divorces, their pretensions, their lack of social consciousness, any little way in which they foiled to spoil their children completely enough, and storm out. Charming and Sutherland’s grungy daughter shouts an anthem of Generation X, “I’m going to Afghanistan. I’m going to ruin my life and throw away everything you want me to be because it’s the only way to hurt you.”

In time, Charming and Sutherland learn the young man is continuing his con games, but nowpassing himself off as their son. Still numbed by her children’s familiar venom, Charming realizes, in awe and adoration, that Paul “wanted to be us. Everything we are in the world, this paltry thing our life he wanted it. He stabbed himself to get in here. He envied us. He did more for us in a few hours than our children ever did. He wanted to be our child.”

The couple tells the story at trendy gatherings of aging, yuppie parents who are enthralled with the notion that someone would want to grow up to be them and live their lives. For Sutherland, the episode becomes merely a story that will get the attention of potential clients for his art business. But while Sutherland is using the story, Charming eventually realizes that the life of pretense she and her husband are leading is also a con job.

She wants Paul to come back she wants a child who wants a life like the one for which she is sacrificing her life. This unsettling film makes its sad point that life is empty when children don’t want to grow up to be like their parents and that parents aren’t passing on anything their children value. It is lonely belonging to a dead-end generation. Apres yuppies, what?

This dependent, hopeless generation does not have the luxury of running away from home or bending the world to their service, as their parents did in the ’60s and ’70s. When they spent their children’s inheritance, consuming so much of the world’s goods, services and emotional attention, they left little but debt, anger and insecurity for their kids.

The children of the poor and disenfranchised still may, like the hustler Paul, aspire to a life of yuppie comforts and still may achieve it. But children whose parents are as greedy as social-climbing Manhattan art dealers or as selfish as Houston divorce orgiasts, may be repulsed by lives of hedonism or irresponsible high living. After all, each generation’s job is to differentiate.

A low-maintenance generation would be a welcome relief but not if they’re going to blow their heads off, fall asleep on the highway, or bore the rest of us with their interminable self-pity. We really must worry about a society that has raised a generation that finds nothing lovable or marketable in themselves except self-hatred.

Frank Pittman

Frank Pittman, MD, was a longtime contributing editor to The Family Therapy Networker.