Generation Gap

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WoodstockThe other day my teenage daughter sat at the kitchen table and started reading off a list of 100 famous movie lines: everything from “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” to “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” A few were vaguely familiar to her. But for the most part, she had no idea where most of the lines came from or what they meant.

“How is ‘Rosebud’ such a famous line?” she demanded. She also wanted to know why Humphrey Bogart was the speaker of so many famous movie quips. As she went down the list, occasionally she asked me to replicate the intonation of the line as it was spoken in the movie. But it’s hard to convey, say, the hair-raising quality of the little girl in Poltergeist when she turns away from the television and says, “They’re h-e-e-e-re.”

My husband and I realized right then that we had failed to indoctrinate our children in the all-important canon of memorable films. Indeed, in so many areas – music, theater, television, history – there’s a generation gap between our own experiences and knowledge and that of our kids.

Much was made of the so-called generation gap during the 1960s. After the hardships and deprivations of two major world wars, members of the “Greatest Generation” were cautious, conventional, and level-headed. They enjoyed the economic well-being of the Fifties and saw it as a result of hard work and sacrifice. Self-expression was not valued as much as order and peace.

The Baby Boomers, children and grandchildren of the Greatest Generation, were born into relative peace and prosperity. As they grew up, they chafed at the older generation’s insistence on conformity and favored freedom and experimentation. Hence, the social unrest, drug use, and wildness of the hippie generation.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, the famed three-day music festival in the farmland of upstate New York. There have been all kinds of retrospectives on Woodstock and what it represented to the people who were there. Interestingly, my daughter has been captivated by Woodstock and has spent hours with my husband watching a PBS documentary on the subject. She even had a conversation with a family friend who was at Woodstock, and I’m sure in her mind she was comparing his experience with her own immersion in Lollapalooza a couple of weeks ago.

The friend explained that he and many of his friends had planned to meet at the festival, but that, in the days before cell phones, there was really no way to connect with them once he’d arrived at Woodstock. There were hundreds of thousands of people amassed on the Yasgurs’ farm. Security consisted of volunteers with no weapons at all simply trying to convince the crowds to be cool. When food ran out, people from nearby farms contributed produce, and festival-goers themselves prepared and served the masses.

Although it’s definitely not my cup of tea to attend a huge music festival, there was something magical about the way Woodstock unfolded. Many of the greatest musicians of all time performed there. The PBS documentary showed footage of Jimi Hendrix rocking “The Star-Spangled Banner” on his guitar. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young performed live for only their second time on the Woodstock stage. It was music history in the making.

It’s hard to describe to young people what it was like growing up in a different era. Mine was one less saturated with media and technology. My kids can scarcely believe that my husband and I would be out and about on our bikes all day long without any contact with our parents. Now if they don’t pick up their cell phone on the second ring, I immediately go to DEFCON 1!

I think it’s great that my 18-year-old daughter has become interested in the past, especially the recent past as experienced by her own parents. After all, we are not only creatures of the present but of the accumulated past, the men and women and events that came before us. And learning about that past is one way to bridge the inevitable gap that each generation experiences with the one before.

Fact or Fiction?

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During Oscar season, I noticed that many of the nominated movies featured real people: pianist Don Shirley in Green Book, Ron Stallworth in BlacKkKlansman, author Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and, of course, the late great Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. The film Vice told the story of the Bush years with uncanny performances by Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, Sam Rockwell as George W., and Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney. The Favourite, though a work of fiction, depicted Queen Anne, a real life historical figure. Even Roma was a thinly disguised autobiographical story of director Alfonso Cuaron’s childhood.

In the Trump era, truth is certainly stranger and more riveting than any fiction could be. Each news day features a revolving cast of characters in the White House, manic tweets from the president at all hours of the night, investigations, accusations, and counter accusations. Fox News has become little more than Trump’s mouthpiece, and suddenly fictional stories like Wag the Dog, Being There, and, most ominously, 1984 have become eerily prescient.

Yet the world of fiction still holds a fascinating allure. While the MPAA favored reality film in its Oscar nominations this year, superheroes and their villains dominated the box office. Such films as Venom, Aquaman, Deadpool 2, Ant Man and the Wasp – as well as the latest sequels in such franchises as Spiderman and The Avengers – all made tidy profits for the movie studios at a time when theater audiences have been dwindling. The smash hit Black Panther, the first black superhero movie, was even nominated for Best Picture along with numerous technical awards.

Our appetite for escapism will always co-exist with our interest in real life drama. And the intersection of the two is often the key to unlocking truths about the human condition. I’m thinking particularly of dystopian and science fiction. These genres take us into the future, but they are really making commentaries on the present. I recently read Joyce Carol Oates’ latest novel, The Hazards of Time Travel, which depicts an authoritarian North American state in 2039. The main character, who has the temerity to ask questions and think for herself, is sent back to 1959 Wisconsin for “re-education.” As I read the book, I couldn’t help thinking about the slogan “Make America Great Again.” The manipulation of truth, control over the media, and other horrors of Oates’ fictional future feel ominously close to American society today.

Fact or fiction? Either way, our interest in stories may be the key to saving civilization. As long as we are able to think and feel about the human condition, we will continue to question and challenge the status quo. In the legendary words of Abraham Lincoln, “you may fool all the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all the time: but you can’t fool all of the people all the time.”

As we venture into another presidential election cycle (God help us!), let’s hope Honest Abe was right.

 

Falling Star*

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* There are spoilers in this blog post.

It took me a while to get around to seeing the latest iteration of A Star Is Born. I’d seen two of the previous three versions and figured I knew the story backwards and forwards. And I was somewhat right. The Oscar-nominated fourth version doesn’t really break new ground except to give us some beautiful new ballads in the Lady Gaga oeuvre and to make us aware that actor Bradley Cooper has some musical chops.

But as Cooper, who directed, co-wrote, and starred in the film, says in a special features extra, there is something so timeless and powerful about this story of gaining and losing stardom, of love against the odds. In each of the four versions of A Star Is Born, a movie or music star falls in love with an unknown talent, whose star begins to rise as his begins to fall.

The latest version of Star is particularly good at depicting the ruthlessness of the entertainment world, which deprives a person of privacy and is pitiless when that star fumbles. In a chilling scene towards the end of the movie, Ally’s manager tells her addict husband Jack, “We’re not friends,” and goes on to chastise him for jeopardizing Ally’s career and to assure him she’d be better off without him, indirectly impelling Jack to take his own life.

The film also shows that the business side of artistic creation can sometimes be damaging to the art. Jack becomes disgusted with the pop star package Ally has become, with dyed hair and backup dancers and inane songs about sexiness. Although his hurtful criticism is tinged with envy and fueled by alcohol, he does have a point. The Ally he fell in love with, musically and personally, seems compromised by the demands of fame.

Artists often pay a high price for their gifts. Many of our greatest painters, musicians, composers, and writers have been tormented by mental illness or substance addiction. They have often lost any semblance of a family life as they became consumed by both their artistic visions and their demons. Perhaps those demons are what compelled them to become artists in the first place.

In any event, A Star Is Born shows us the high price of stardom, the loneliness of artistic minds, and the choices we make for love. While I’m not sure we needed yet another version of this timeless story, I did enjoy the soulful journey taken by these two characters as portrayed by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper.

And I’m still haunted by the lines of the song Ally and Jack sing together:

When the sun goes down
And the band won’t play
I’ll always remember us this way

 

Why Representation Matters

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I finally had the chance to see the blockbuster hit Crazy Rich Asians. I had been so excited about the film ever since learning that Kevin Kwan’s fabulous satire was being made into a movie.

I’m happy to say that the movie version of Crazy Rich Asians was as delightful as I’d hoped. I took my Chinese-born daughter with me, and her reactions after seeing the film highlighted for me why this movie with an all-Asian cast is so important. First of all, she found it gratifying to see so many Asian characters and actors in a movie. More surprising, though, was her comment that she’d like to visit her homeland of China some day.

This was a first for my very American daughter. As much as I’ve tried to interest her in Chinese culture over the years, she has always just wanted to be a regular American girl. She has even complained at times about her Asian middle name. Any time I’ve mentioned a heritage trip back to Anhui Province in China, where she was born, my suggestion has been met with indifference.

Such is the power of representation in popular culture. The characters in Crazy Rich Asians are not stereotypes or relics from a far too distant past. They are rich, modern, fashionable, and subject to the same foibles and machinations as the characters in a Jane Austen novel. At the same time, their Asian languages, customs, and sensibilities are important parts of their characters. In other words, Crazy Rich Asians is not just a version of Dynasty with an Asian cast.

When someone like my Chinese daughter can see herself represented in popular culture, whether in movies, television, books or music, it enhances her self-esteem and widens her expectations for herself. And for whites, minority representation helps tear down stereotypes and encourages us to see people of other races and ethnicities as individuals, not members of a monolithic group.

Years ago when my son was about 4, he asked me, “Mommy, can boys be doctors?” Score one for feminism, I laughingly thought to myself. But the question also gave me pause. In his young life, my son had never met a male doctor, so he wasn’t sure if it was a role that was open to him. I can only imagine how demoralizing it must be never to encounter professionals, actors, or even fictional characters that look like you.

The phenomenal success of Crazy Rich Asians is so much more than just a coup for author Kevin Kwan and director Jon M. Chu. It is a sign, I hope, that we are hungry for stories about all kinds of people from all walks of life in all parts of this great big, beautiful world of ours.

Love, Actually

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Last night my daughters and I watched the movie Love, Actually. This 2003 film has fast become a Christmas classic for many viewers, with its humor and light romantic touch and its climax occurring on Christmas Eve. But the movie is about so much more than romantic love. It is about the enduring bonds of friendship and family, about loss, about bridging gaps between cultures, and about the triumph of love in the midst of life.

The first time I saw Love Actually, I’ll admit I was mostly focused on the couples, or the would-be couples, in the movie. Hugh Grant’s charming turn as a single British prime minister in love with an employee; cuckolded Colin Firth finding romance with his Portuguese maid; a little boy bereft of his mother falling in love with a classmate; wonderful Emma Thompson getting short shrift from her long-time husband, played by the late Alan Rickman. I felt the young man’s pain as he endured the love of his life marrying his own best friend, and the angst of a young woman in love from afar with a coworker but burdened with responsibility for her mentally ill brother.

What I like about the movie is that it is not all “happily ever after” for each romantic pair. And that is because other kinds of love often trump romance. For instance, when the woman and her colleague finally get together, the woman gets a call from her brother, and that familial love continually forces her to sacrifice her own happiness. Likewise, the forlorn member of the love triangle struggles to keep his feelings to himself so as not to harm the friendship he has with her husband. The young boy may be in love with a young girl, but it is the story of him and his stepdad and their growing relationship in the absence of a wife and mother that really takes center stage. And the Emma Thompson character stays with her unfaithful husband (for shame, Alan!) for the sake of their family.

At the end of the movie, to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” we see love in all its many permutations as loved ones are reunited at Heathrow Airport. Parents and children, lovers, friends – all embrace in the comfort of their love for each other. Each snapshot is strung together on the screen until there is a “wall of love.”

Love, Actually is a cute, clever, but also surprisingly realistic depiction of the ties that bind. What better way to finish out Christmas Day with the family?*

 

*The movie is rated R for nudity, subject matter, and language. So save it for when your little ones are mature enough.

 

 

3D or Not 3D?

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Last night my family went to see the critically acclaimed Disney Pixar animated movie Inside Out at our local movie theater. The film was the usual clever, entertaining, emotionally resonant experience we have come to expect from the makers of Toy Story and Finding Nemo, and of course it made me cry. (See my prior blog post “Cry Baby.”)

Because most of the showings were offered in 3-D, we didn’t really have a choice but to don the annoying glasses and watch random images pop out at us. However, 3-D added absolutely nothing to the movie-going experience.

I have read that films shot in 3-D can give viewers an immersive experience, wherein they feel as if they are in the world created by the filmmakers. Inside Out was not such a film. Yet the growing popularity of 3-D movies, especially in the animated field, often gives viewers no choice but to participate.

3-D movies have been around since the Fifties. They always seemed like a gimmick to me. And I find it frustrating that films in 3-D often cost more per ticket than regular movies. In a time when the movie-going public has increasingly chosen to stay home and watch movies on their huge flat-screen TVs, it seems foolish to be charging even more per ticket to fill up the empty theater seats. At last night’s showing, our family and one other family of five were the only customers.

I say filmmakers reserve the 3-D experience for select movies that can best take advantage of the feeling that the viewer is part of the experience. I for one have no trouble immersing myself in the two-dimensional world of movie storytelling. And I can do so without those pesky glasses.

Summer Lackluster

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It’s just beginning – the season of the movie blockbuster. As summer nears, I start seeing the full page newspaper ads and movie trailers for the upcoming crop of high budget, low brow entertainment. Already, the talk of the town is yet another remake of “Godzilla.” In fact, the plethora of sequels during the summer boggles my mind. Does the world really need yet another “Transformers,” X-Men,” or “Planet of the Apes” movie?

I have hard time sitting through such movies with their emphasis on action and special effects. Though I would hardly expect a science fiction, fantasy or espionage thriller to mimic real life, I find the unbelievable death-defying sequences to be, at times, ridiculous. Recently I was watching an action movie that featured a high speed chase with the hero on a motorcycle. The preposterous acrobatics performed by this motorcyclist, all the while dodging bullets and rush hour traffic, were apparently supposed to have me on the edge of my seat. Instead, I couldn’t help but laugh. No amount of suspending disbelief could convince me anyone would ever survive such an ordeal.

Modern day action movies have mind-numbing amounts of violence, destruction, and chase scenes. And the body counts in them are ludicrous. I try to picture a city enduring one of these onslaughts and then going about its business the very next day. Years ago, watching a film called “Ronin,” I began to sigh, “Another chase scene?” about two thirds of the way through.

My biggest problem with these escapist entertainments is that they often lack much of a story. If I can’t get to know the characters and their motivations in any meaningful way, I have a hard time caring if they make it or not. Even when the movie does have an interesting story, such as in the “Batman” series, it gets overshadowed by so much loud, over the top action.

It’s a shame because I really do love going to the movies. I enjoy settling into a stadium seat with my popcorn and immersing myself in  the world portrayed on the big screen. I revel in the big emotions of love, hate, fear, exhilaration, sorrow and hope that are depicted in good movies. For me, the summer is a desert time of waiting until the really juicy dramas and heartwarming romantic comedies return in the fall.

So instead of checking the theater listings this summer, I’ll head to the library and pick up some good beach reads.