Saturday, February 23, 2013

The View from the Couch

Since the earlier post More Dust, More Disks more DVDs have spun their tales in my den in an ongoing home project to play the contents of my DVD shelves that I otherwise would be unlikely to watch without prompting. The decisions to keep (shelve) or toss (unshelve) follow.

Compelling Evidence (1995) – I don't know how this DVD got on my shelf in the first place, because I certainly didn't buy it. I must assume a guest once brought it (why?) and left it behind (I know why). The movie has a 1.3 rating on IMDB. Robot Monster (1953) has a 2.9. The famously awful The Room has a 3.6. Compelling Evidence stars Brigitte Nielson, best known for the Conan spin-off Red Sonja: a so-so pic, but she looked good in warrior garb and probably inspired Xena. Maybe warrior garb would have helped this movie, but I doubt it. Compelling Evidence co-stars Dana Plato, of all people, who at 13 had been in the cast of the family sitcom Diff'rent Strokes. This flick was made between Dana’s arrest for holding up a video store and her fatal drug overdose. I’m struggling to find something positive to say about this movie, but all I can muster is that the felonious Dana looks surprisingly good naked.

The plot: just before the release of his most recent movie, a successful action movie star announces he is quitting the business; he also says he is leaving his wife. He has a girlfriend but cheats on her, too. His wife is murdered (we see the crime but not the perpetrator) and then other people connected to the actor are killed. He has motive and no alibi in each case, but the police have no proof of his guilt. The publicity is great for the studio and the new movie however. Yes, I know: it’s not a bad idea for a script – but not this script and not this production. The writing, acting and direction are dreadful.

This DVD is Unshelved with a vengeance, though I might give it as a present to someone I really dislike.

Decoys (2004) and Decoys 2: Alien Seduction (2007) – Both of these are bad movies by any reasonable standard, but unlike Compelling Evidence, they achieve the coveted so-bad-it’s-good redemption. At St. John College in New Brunswick Canada, gorgeous coeds arrive on campus, and the guys find them astonishingly…um…friendly. Uh-oh, they’re aliens, and they don’t look so pretty when they’re just being themselves. Their race is facing some kind of genetic crisis and they need to blend their DNA with humans if they hope to reproduce. Unfortunately, this involves shoving tentacles down guys’ throats. Since they come from an icy planet, they have trouble getting the temperature just right while they are doing this; time after time they accidently freeze their lovers to death, but they keep trying. In Decoys 2 they are back, this time just across the US border, but a former St. John student is on campus and recognizes them. (The concept is a gender-reversal of a common sci-fi B-movie plot, as in I Married a Monster from Outer Space and Mars Needs Women.) The films are goofy and sophomoric, but in their own way fun. Shelved

Cherry 2000 (1987) – This is one of the many postapocalyptic movies popular in the 1980s. Following some unspecified catastrophe, much of the world has survived and rebuilt, but large swaths of US territory are still outside the rule of law. Also, industry has suffered a major technological setback, so “trackers” can make good money scavenging tech goods from the lawless zones for recycling. Robotic technology had reached a high level before the disaster; lots of humaniform robots survive, but they cannot be replaced. They seem to be used almost exclusively for sex, which is unsurprising considering how badly the human sexes get along in this version of the future. Sam’s love-bot, a stunning high-end model Cherry 2000, shorts out beyond any hope of repair. He hires a tracker to take him into the lawless Zone 7 (the environs of Las Vegas) where Cherry models are believed to be stored in abandoned sand-covered casinos. Melanie Griffith is the tracker, a sort of Mad Maxine, and, as you might imagine, she makes Sam wonder if he really wants a robot. They are up against Lester, a crazy wellness guru whose well-armed cult runs the Zone. He hates trackers. Parts of the movie barely make sense – such as the way they cross the Colorado River – but it is somehow likable for all that. It turns out pretty much the way you would expect, but that’s OK. A little unabashed sentimentality is agreeable sometimes. Shelved.

Bullets or Ballots (1936) – This might seem to be a classic movie that I would rewatch without prompting, and therefore would exclude from the project. However, I’ve never been a fan of gangster movies as a genre. Oh, there are exceptions such as The Roaring Twenties (1939) or Scarface (1932) which rise above the usual standards, but generally speaking I pass on them. Bullets or Ballots needed a prompt. Any movie with Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, and Joan Blondell in it can’t be all bad, and this isn’t. Edward G. pretends to be a cop gone bad and infiltrates “the rackets.” There is tough guy talk and much punching of noses for no good reason. Eventually (a political message suited to the 1930s) he uncovers who truly is secretly running the rackets: a cabal of Wall Street bankers. It is not a bad movie, but it never delivers more than one expects and never gets past what by 1936 already was cliché. Shelved, but I won’t be upset if someone borrows it and forgets to return it.

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) – A Seattle magazine sends a reporter and two interns to a small seaside town to see who posted an ad in the newspaper seeking a companion for time travel. It reads:

Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.

They expect to discover some kook for a human-interest story. The fellow who placed the ad is named Kenneth (Mark Duplass), and he does indeed seem delusional though not in a dangerous way. He appears to believe in time travel and he is convinced that secret agents are following him. He refuses to talk to the reporter, but the young female intern Darius (Aubrey Plaza) gains his trust by pretending to answer the ad. Darius has a weird darkness to her nature and humor, but this appeals to Kenneth. The clincher for him is her very real reason for wanting to go back in time: the preventable death of her mother. Kenneth has his own personal reasons to timetravel. (Who doesn’t?) Darius learns that Kenneth truly is being followed, and he is building something with lasers. What if he isn’t delusional? There is a sidestory involving the reporter and an old high school flame – another sort of time travel and one that doesn’t need lasers. This is a well-written, well-acted, and clever little movie. It proves yet again that you don’t need a high budget to make an impressive film, just a good script. Shelved and recommended.

Cecil B Demented (2000) – John Waters has said that American culture is trash culture. He doesn’t mean it as an insult. He has produced and directed some extraordinary trash, and I don’t mean that as an insult either. Cecil B. Demented is an underground film director who attacks the mainstream Hollywood industry by kidnapping self-obsessed film star Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) and forcing her to perform in his movie, including scenes of live guerilla strikes on film-industry targets. Originally resistant, Honey turns to the point of view of her captors and actively participates with them. (With irony typical of John Waters, Patty Hearst is in the cast.) This film is definitely not for everyone, but recommended for those whose tastes are slightly…well…demented. And I don’t mean that as an insult. Shelved.

The Last Horror Film (1982) – Caroline Munro, thanks to her brief swimsuit scene in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), went on to a very busy career in cheap sci-fi and horror films. Sometimes, as in Starcrash (1978), her bikini is the only thing of merit in the production. In The Last Horror Film, a Troma production, a creepy taxi driver becomes obsessed by scream queen actress Jana Bates (Caroline Munro) and follows her to Cannes in hopes of directing a movie with her. (There are repeated references in the film to Hinckley’s obsession with Jodie Foster, and Taxi Driver.) His efforts to meet with her are blocked, and the people who block him start to die one by one with the usual Troma gory effects. But is he really the killer? This type of tongue-in-cheek horror aims for camp, but camp is a very small bullseye on a very big target. It wasn’t struck here. It’s better than Compelling Evidence, but nonetheless Unshelved

Black Widow (1987) – This film got a lot of air and cable time in the 90s, but since then largely has vanished from the small screen. The actress Theresa Russell is sultry. She can’t help it. (She is also charming – I’ve met her at Chiller Theater conventions.) This has served her well in films such as the police drama Impulse (1990) and the bluntly titled Whore (1991). She was the perfect pick for the seductress in Black Widow who has a knack for marrying wealthy older men who then die from causes that appear natural. Debra Winger is a federal Justice Department researcher who by happenstance notices that the photos of the wives of two deceased men look a lot alike. Further digging convinces her that a serial killer is at work, though the evidence is thin. She becomes obsessed with tracking down the black widow, finally befriending her in Hawaii where she hopes to entrap her. Winger’s obsession with Russell is not just professional; there is also an element of envy and perhaps even attraction. The movie has some flaws, but on the whole it is well-plotted and acted. Shelved.

High School Confidential (1958) – This movie is high camp. The 50s slang, the Jerry Lee Lewis soundtrack, the street races, and Russ Tamblyn’s bombshell aunt (Mamie Van Doren) combine for a truly enjoyable 90 minutes. Let’s not omit the coffee house Beat poetry: “Turn your eyes inside and dig the vacuum.” Santa Bellow High School is plagued by marijuana. Tamblyn is the new kid in school. He wants to take over the pot trade along with the affections of the wealthy and pretty pothead Diane Jergins; he also wants to sell harder drugs. The drug kingpin in town is none other than Jackie Coogan (better known as Uncle Fester in the ‘60s Addams Family sitcom). Marvelous stuff. Shelved.

Husbands and Wives (1992) – This is not the easiest film to watch, and not because of its peculiar style which alternates between traditional filmmaking and a faux documentary with hand-held cameras. It is because of the subject matter. Relationships are hard, and marriage is hardest of all – which may explain why so many folks these days are on what Psychology Today blogger Jen Kim calls a marriage strike. Gabe and Judy (Woody Allen and Mia Farrow) are forced to confront strains in their own marriage when their friends Jack and Judy announce their impending divorce. What follows are series of betrayals, make-ups, harsh feelings, romantic feelings, and infidelities (including a near one with a young Juliette Lewis). If you are in a long-term relationship, there is much in Husbands and Wives to cause unease. Some of the dialogue, in light of real subsequent events, has unintended irony, as when Mia asks Woody if he hides things from her such as “secret yearnings.” Despite that (or because of it) the film also is hard to stop watching through to the end. Painful, but in a good way. Shelved.

Counting the two Decoys as one, that gives us an even 10 which is a nice round number for this week. (Tangential old joke: There are 10 types of people, those who understand binary and those who don’t.) Top recommendations: Husbands and Wives for the squirm, Safety Not Guaranteed for the heart, and High School Confidential for the laughs.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Who’s Got the Baton?

The discussion of generational differences a couple posts back prompted me to pick up Generations: The History of America’s Future 1584 to 2069 by William Straus and Neil Howe. The same authors wrote The Fourth Turning, one of the earliest books about the Millennials. Both of these books are now two decades old, yet the passage of time has been kind to Straus and Howe – the events and tone of the past 20 years lend credence to their theories. Some of the predictions in the books are downright eerie: “Sometime around the year 2005, perhaps a few years before or after, America will enter the Fourth Turning.....a spark will ignite a new mood...In retrospect, the spark might seem as ominous as a financial crash, as ordinary as a national election, or as trivial as a Tea Party.” Speculating on other possible sparks (again, this was written 20 years ago), the authors suggest a major terrorist attack prompting Congress to declare war while “opponents charge that the president concocted the emergency for political purposes.” The financial possibilities include “an impasse over the federal budget reaches a stalemate…Congress refuses to raise the debt ceiling. Default looms. Wall Street panics.”

But don’t such crises appear independently of generational cohorts? Not entirely. They intertwine. Take, for example the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor which set the mood for what the authors call the GI Generation and brought the US into WW2. It didn’t happen in a vacuum, but in the context of what the Japanese perceived as US hostility (notably the oil embargo) over the war in China. What if such a war had been in progress a decade earlier when another generational cohort was in power? We actually know the answer to this, because a war in fact was in progress. The Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1931. The US response was a giant ho-hum; there was no thought of an embargo. So, while some external events can intrude with apparent randomness, the type and magnitude of the response is shaped by the differing characteristics of generations -- more precisely, by individuals influenced by their generation. The aftermaths of World Wars 1 and 2 also show a distinction. Both ended in total victory, but the response of the rising Lost Generation (a cognate of Generation X) was cynical and disengaging whereas the GI response was confident and expansive. Moods matter.

The authors first address whether generational cohorts are real. After all, people are born and die all the time, so aren’t divisions between them arbitrary and meaningless? No. People earn money across the income spectrum, too, but economic class is still a useful concept. So, too, with generations. Members of a generation feel a commonality – most Boomers feel like Boomers and Xers like Xers, as examples – because they came of age at a particular social moment. Sometimes a single year can make all the difference, as is obvious in one case where the demographers got it wrong. In the 1960s, the term Baby Boomers was applied to children born in the high fertility years between 1946 and 1964, and it has been used in that sense ever since. Yet, those born 1961 to 1964 never really felt part of the Boomer group: they missed the core experiences of the 1946-60 kids. Other than the national fertility rate in their years of birth, in every major statistical and social way (divorce rate, social attitudes, musical tastes, employment, etc.) the 1961-64s have had much more in common with Generation X, and really should be considered a part of it. On the other hand, people born in 1944 do feel like Boomers. Generations are rather like watersheds, formed by ridges (social moments) that need not be tall. How and where we flow is shaped by which side of a ridge on which we live.

Generations is really an American history book. (A global generational history was something more ambitious than Straus and Howe were prepared to write, given that generations in different nations are not always in sync.) Straus and Howe argue there typically are four extant generational cohorts, each in one of four phases; the phases are Youth (0-21), Rising Adulthood (22-43), Midlife (44-65), and Elderhood (66-87). There can be relatively brief transitional moments when there are five (such as the GI fifth today, though its ranks are getting very thin). There are four recurring types of generations (spanning an average 22 years apiece, though this can vary a bit) and they always succeed each other in the same order – with a single exception: the Civil War was so devastating and upending that it caused generational types to skip a beat. The four types are Idealist, Reactive, Civic, and Adaptive. Which one is in which phase of life explains a lot about any particular period in history. At the moment (in descending order of age), the remaining GIs are Civic, Silents are Adaptive, Boomers Idealist, Xers Reactive, and Millennials Civic. To find a generation with a life cycle and mood similar to one’s own, one needs to look back four generations.

The book offers an unusual way to consider the passage of history, but a convincing one. It is not the only valid approach, to be sure – traditional political and economic histories remain valuable, too – but generational analyses certainly deserve a place on the shelf alongside the others.

As the title of their book indicates, the authors speculate about how current generations are likely to age, and how they will handle a Crisis that is definitely coming. (One always does, and it is not necessarily the same as the “spark” mentioned above, though it may follow from it; the current lingering economic malaise, for example, may only be a prelude to a true debt crisis sometime before 2020.) The authors openly hope the Boomers (who include George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton in their ranks) are not in charge when it does. Given their tendency to take their ideals seriously (whatever those ideals might be) and thereby to regard opponents as evil, Idealists are more dangerous than pragmatists (e.g. Xers) at such times. Said Henry Adams of Robert E. Lee, a member of an Idealist generation, “It’s always the good men who do the most harm in the world.” The authors have high hopes for the Millennials who, despite prevalent expectations and typical Civic arrogance, are suited to rise to the occasion as the GIs did if the Crisis catches them at the right moment. It’s all in the timing.

One minor side note: a peculiarity of Civic generations is that gender differences increase in them. That doesn’t mean sex roles need become more traditional (that in fact happened with the GIs, but not in previous Civic generations), but only that the sexes become more distinct in the way they present themselves. The authors merely mention this in passing (it was too early to judge the Millennials) without trying much to explain it. Today, one sees this in the way Millennials dress and act even though they in no way are traditionalists; women continue their economic advance and men their (relative) decline, but the unisex look is definitely out.

This is certainly a kinder take on the Millennials than that of Jean Twenge in her book Generation Me. Perhaps Straus and Howe even are right. Too bad it will take a full-blown crisis to find out.

Um, let’s rethink the “hope I die before I get old” lyric

Sunday, February 10, 2013

More Dust More Disks

Last April I began a deliberate effort to view the DVDs that had accumulated in my closet (see Of Dust and Disks), excluding classic films (e.g. The Philadelphia Story or Casablanca) that I was pretty certain to re-watch anyway without prompting. I wrapped up the exercise in June. In the several months since than, however, DVDs have continued to appear on my closet shelves faster than older ones have vanished. By January the time had come for another video-fest to determine which DVDs should remain shelved and which should be resold on Amazon. Reactions to a dozen follow.

Super Eight (2011) – The success of the Blair Witch Project in 1999 spawned a whole genre of faux amateur videos including the likes of Cloverfield and The Fourth Kind. Super Eight is a variant of the category, with amateur footage as an element within the movie. Plot: in 1979 some tween kids with directorial, screenwriting, and acting ambitions are shooting a movie they wrote themselves with their Super Eight camera. They shoot one scene at the local train station when, by pure happenstance, they catch on camera a major train wreck that releases an extraterrestrial. The government wants to suppress the story (as it always does in these tales) and seize the kids’ film. Meantime the loose alien is on a tear, in part because of his treatment at the hands of the army and in part as a way of collecting what he needs to repair his ship. (Why 1979? I don’t know, unless because it was easier to cut off communications to a small town then, which simplifies the plot.) The flick is not bad if you take it for what it is: a scifi movie targeted especially at tween boys. Shelved (at least for now)

Drive (2011) – This film received generally positive reviews from the critics, but it isn’t for everyone, and I’m one of those for whom it isn’t. Ryan Gosling’s laconic character has an uncanny driving talent, which he uses on the race track, as a stunt driver for movies, and as a getaway driver-for-hire by crooks. He falls for his neighbor, Carey Mulligan, who, amazingly, has even less to say about anything than he does. Complications ensue when her husband gets out of jail and Gosling drives on a botched robbery. I didn’t actually dislike the movie, but it doesn’t pass the “Do I plan to watch this again?” test for taking up space on my shelf. I don’t so plan. Near the end of the film there is an extended scene in which we wait to see if Gosling has survived. I didn’t care, and that, simply, is why it doesn’t pass the test. Unshelved

.45 (2006) – Milla Jovovich’s parents (a Serbian physician and a Russian actress) moved to the US when she was a child, obviously early enough for her to have no trouble at all credibly playing all-American lowlifes, whether an Okie redneck in Dirty Girl or a streetwise illegal gun dealer in .45. In this film she is paired with Scot actor Angus MacFadyen, playing a fellow crook whose unabashed and unrestrained male energy is both attractive and scary. Drunk and jealous, he comes home one night and beats her, which turns out to be a very bad mistake. Our natural sympathies for Milla become more complex, however, as we realize how manipulative she is of everyone in her life. “Breaking the fourth wall,” she addresses the audience at the beginning of the film and at the end, when she tells us, “Life is like sex. If you want it done right you have to do it yourself.” Shelved.

The House at the End of the Street (2012) – Jennifer Lawrence is on a roll lately, and if you happen to be one of her fans you’ll probably want to see this movie for that reason alone. You won’t find many other reasons. Plot: Elisabeth Shue and Jennifer Lawrence rent a house at the end of a street next to a house where two people supposedly were murdered by their own daughter. The teen son still lives there. Is he dangerous? And what happened to his sister? I generally dislike horror films with supernatural elements (I have trouble suspending disbelief long enough for them to be scary), so the fact that the threats, real or perceived, in this movie are all-too-human counts in its favor. Nevertheless, the film is formulaic and never succeeds at being more than OK. Not truly bad, but just OK. Unshelved.

Gone (2012) – In this somewhat less formulaic suspense drama, Amanda Seyfried is the victim who got away from a psycho kidnapper. Now he is back and has kidnapped her sister as a way of entrapping Amanda. Because she has had psychological issues from her earlier trauma, the police don’t believe Amanda; they are more worried about her running around armed than they are about a possibly imaginary kidnapper. Not a great movie, but marginally shelfworthy. Shelved.

The Hunger Games (2012) – This is the film that made Jennifer Lawrence a major star. In a dystopian future, a ruling elite in the Capitol demands as tribute two young people from each of 12 formerly rebellious outer districts to compete in Hunger Games. The contestants go out into the wild and vie with each other to the death until only one survives. By rooting for their own local contestants, the denizens of the 12 districts become invested and implicated in the games and in the society. The high budget wasn’t wasted on this entertaining movie. My one complaint is that Katniss (Lawrence) is too conveniently spared the necessity of killing other sympathetic characters in the games. We’ll see if that is repeated in the sequel due out later this year. Shelved.

Tangled (2010) – Disney still does animated adaptations of fairy tales the best. This variant of the Rapunzel tale is witty, heartfelt, smart, funny and beautifully animated. There is no prince in this version. There is a road trip with a bad boy thief. Tangled did reasonably well at the box office but was not the hit it deserved to be. When you feel like letting out your inner child, this is as good a pick as any. Shelved.

Fritz the Cat (1972) – This X-rated Ralph Bakshi animated feature from 1972 (set a few years earlier) is a very different cup of tea. The characters are based on those of iconic 60s cartoonist Robert Crumb. A peek at the dark side of the 1960s, this film is not for the easily offended, but its portrayal of counterculture arrogance, establishment brutality, race conflict, and domestic terrorism was on target for the day and still resonates in 2013. It even is funny – also a little depressing. Shelved.

The Loved Ones (2009) – In this minimal budget Australian teen horror flick, Lola invites Brent to the prom. He declines, saying he is going with Holly. Bad move. Kidnapping and torture follow as Lola and her dad, with whom she has a quasi-incestuous relationship (maybe a tad more than quasi), endeavor to make her prom night with Brent special. Well, it’s better than The House at the End of the Street. This is a tough call because there are far worse horror flicks than this, and under-21s (a few of whom turn up at my house now and then) probably would like it. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t pass the plan-to-see-again test, so Unshelved.

Killer Joe (2011) – Matthew McConaughey is Joe, a Texas police detective who is a contract assassin on the side. Trailer park resident Chris and his father Ansel hire Joe to kill Chris’ mother (Ansel’s ex) for the insurance money that they are told will go to Chris’ sister Dottie (Juno Temple). Dottie is indeed a bit dotty – not firing on all synapses – but she is a sweet young thing who manages to be innocent and seductive at the same time. Joe normally demands his fee ($25,000) up front. Chris and Ansel don’t have the cash, but Joe accepts Dottie as a “retainer.” This film caught some heat from critics for the weird and degrading way Joe establishes his authority at one point, but the scene fits his character. English actress Juno Temple pulls off her role perfectly. A disturbing movie, but nonetheless Shelved.

Hesher (2011) – The boy TJ and his father are troubled because TJ’s mom died in a car accident. While expressing his frustrations with minor vandalism, TJ unintentionally disrupts the illegal living arrangements of Hesher, a young man who doesn’t believe much in shirts despite (or because of) obscene tatoos, and who drives a beat-up van that blasts heavy metal music. The anarchic Hesher moves uninvited into TJ’s garage. Hesher isn’t consciously mean, but he has no sense at all of what is socially acceptable to say or do, and doesn’t care to learn. He does pretty much whatever catches his fancy, including starting fires, setting off explosives, saying unimaginably inappropriate things, and trashing a stranger’s swimming pool for the hell of it. This is not someone you want in your garage. Yet, there is no denying that there is something refreshing about his primitive lack of concern for conventional standards. His kindnesses are unforced as his felonies, and his eulogy at a funeral is something one needs to hear to believe. (And yes, the grandmother is indeed Piper Laurie.) Shelved.

Submarine (2010) – Oliver Tate is a 15-year-old boy in Swansea Wales whose parents’ rocky marriage is made more rocky by the arrival in town of his mother’s old flame. Oliver’s efforts to preserve his parents’ marriage interfere with his efforts to win and keep his schoolmate Jordana as a girlfriend. He misjudges his priorities, sticks his nose where it doesn’t belong, and fails to stick it where it does. Submarine is an off-beat and likable coming-of-age film about a very humanly flawed young man who, like most of us, doesn’t always do the right thing and has to deal with the consequences. Shelved.

And there we see the shelf-space problem. Out of 12 possibilities, I’ve unshelved only three, and one of those was a close call. Perhaps I need tighter standards – or more shelves.

A Keeper and a Dropper (Start and double-click for full screen)

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Maybe Really

Are generational differences real? I’ve heard the question asked in all seriousness within the past week. Short answer: Of course they are. Said L.P. Hartley accurately in a 1950 novel, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Accordingly, I grew up in a very different country from that of my parents and from the one of today’s teens and twenty-somethings. That is not to say all members of a generation fit a stereotype. Those who turned 20 in, say, 1880 (just to pick a non-overlapping generation) included capitalists and communists, free-lovers and monogamists, radicals and arch-conservatives, and so on. Yet, a Victorian conservative still would have more in common with a Victorian radical than either (if transported in time) could have with a 21st century 20-year-old, even one who shared political and social views. The Victorians’ shared cultural experience would ensure that much.

When generations overlap, the case may seem murkier since we do inhabit the same country for part of our lives; however, our early cultural experiences form the prisms through which we see the world, and new prisms are not the same shape as the old. Knowing when a person turned 12 tells us as much about him or her as any other single fact. Someone my age sees the past 20 years in terms of how they evolved from what went before, but they are the only score of years a 20-year-old ever has known. Of course it makes a profound difference. And yes, one can make generalizations about a generation, even while knowing some people won’t fit them. My parents, the WW2-era folks, really were more traditional in their values and ambitions by and large than the Boomers, for example; “I want my kids to have the things and opportunities I didn’t have” was a refrain I heard often from that generation while growing up – far more often than from my own peer group. My group (once again, by and large) was less dedicated and more self-involved. Tom Wolfe dubbed the 70s the Me Decade and from this the Boomers acquired their second sobriquet, the Me Generation. Yet, according to Jean M. Twenge, PhD (author of Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled--and More Miserable Than Ever Before), “Compared to today’s young people, they were poseurs.” She reversed the word order for the current crop of young folk, aka Millennials, to emphasize the Me. “Born after self-focus entered the cultural mainstream, this generation has never known a world that put duty before self.”

Twenge is not just emptily pontificating. (That’s my job.) She does serious research. One of her favorite sources is the American Freshman Survey, which has been given to thousands of college freshmen every single year since 1966 (9,000,000 have taken the survey in all – a huge sample), and she continually updates her findings and analyses. The changes in answers to the survey over time are telling. Confidence, self-esteem, and career ambitions have risen uninterruptedly over the decades, spiking in recent years. A large majority of current freshmen consider themselves well above average in academic ability and talent, even though their scores on objective verbal and math tests are much lower than freshmen in the 1960s and 1970s. They also work less hard: a third study six or more hours per week compared to half in the 1980s. They expect lofty success in careers and life. The number of freshmen whose answers qualify them as narcissists has risen 30% since 1979: “Narcissists put themselves first in every way… Other people don’t matter much to them. It’s all about ‘what can you do for me?’” Narcissists often say the socially correct or acceptable thing, but only as a method of self-posturing. Though tolerance of others’ public lifestyles (notably sexual preferences) has increased, personal ethics have declined. The number of those who admit cheating in their classes, for instance, has skyrocketed and there is little evident shame about it. The overblown expectations current freshmen have about their futures can set them up for rude crashes when, instead of achieving instant wealth and fabulously independent lives immediately upon graduation, they find themselves living in mom’s basement with a load of student debt. Twenge doesn’t blame the kids themselves for any of this. They are only what they’ve been brought up to be. She blames an entitlement culture in which every player on a team gets a trophy, and a popular culture that celebrates narcissists.

Twenge isn’t mindlessly youth-bashing. Her point is not that this generation is particularly horrible. My Boomer generation, for example, is just awful in innumerable ways. Rather, she simply means that the ways in which generations excel or fail differ, and these are the special characteristics of this one.

Dr. Twenge’s message plainly was taken to heart by Paul Downs Colaizzo, a 26-year-old author who uses her “Generation Me” coinage in his play Really Really, currently in previews at the Lucille Lortel Theater in Greenwich Village. The play is set primarily in two shared apartments of college students the morning after a huge party in one of them. The events of the night before lead to conflicts among the characters notable both for melodrama and for moral vacuity. No one in the play has any problem with (sometimes ruthless) deceit, disloyalty, or criminal acts, only with the practical consequences that could follow getting caught. In case the audience misses Colaizzo’s point, he attached a side scene of a young woman who gives a speech to a conference of her peers about the challenges to her generation. Despite a surface innocence, the speech is positively Nietzschean in its amorality: “What can I do to make this work? What can I do to get what I want?”

I attended Really Really this past Saturday in the company of three 21-year-olds and a friend roughly halfway between their ages and mine. The three members of Generation Me not only liked the play but were surprisingly un-offended by it: “Yeah, that’s us alright.” I enjoyed it more as anthropology than as drama, but (fair warning) my mid-range companion absolutely hated it; there were no likable characters and their conflicts held no interest for her. So, if you wish to explore generational quirks but prefer drama to dry nonfiction, you might want to consider Really Really – but only if your companions are Me-ers or amateur armchair anthropologists.

One more quasi-generational note: should I complain about the age-ism of the waiter at El Caliente Cab Company (a Mexican restaurant) afterward who, out of the five of us, automatically handed me the bill? He was right, of course, but…

Perhaps the Difference Is That This Was Humorous in 1980