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October 31, 2003

Generation Gap


Sorry about being AWOL the past few days, but the whole fire-and-evacuation thing, while fortunately a false alarm, kind of scrambled my ability to focus on blogging for a while. you may recall, I was an enthusiastic Super-8 moviemaker during our student days at our Lousy Ivy University. My moviemaking follies actually predate that; I was making movies since the 9th grade with a buddy who went on (amusingly, somehow, given our unbelievable initial clumsiness) to be a professional cinematographer. I bring all this ancient history up only to provide context for a recent parental moment: when my daughter showed me her first movie slapped together on her Mac.

She had edited some home movies taken of her 2-year-old brother and added a pop-music soundtrack. What made my paternal bust swell with pride was the fact that she had created a genuine (and genuinely funny) video essay on how my young son strides through life with pop-star panache, unreflectively certain that he is, and deserves to be, the cynosure of every situation.

I couldn’t help but compare her maiden effort with my own early movies—all of which, it goes without saying, were unspeakably lame. None of these had any (intentionally) documentary elements at all—they were all story films that just happened to feature my friends, our basements, our parents’ cars and the suburban Detroit landscape. We constantly struggled to think up plots that could be executed with a budget of approximately zero dollars, to advance our narrative film skills, to figure out the camera and lighting basics—which we got pretty good at, eventually—and to develop strategies to inveigle our female classmates to act. (The shortage of women in our movies was, of course, directly related to the state our non-existent love lives.)

The stories in these films were derivative, silly and idiotic, of course, but the point is that we believed in stories. We were convinced that we needed stories. A narrative was the one acceptable organizing principle of my youth. One of the chief sources of pain in my teenaged life was that it didn’t seem to make much sense as a story.

And my friends and I weren’t alone in this. The society we grew up in also believed in stories. The “national story” that played in the background while we were making movies in high school had originally been one of heroic resistance to communism in Vietnam, although it gradually gave way to another narrative which featured evil capitalist imperialism and bold, freedom-loving peasants armed with Soviet small arms. Nonetheless, whichever story was finally selected, we were gonna have a story. As a society we weren’t about to give up on meaningful narrative.

In contrast, my daughter seems to find the real world around her full of amusing and interesting elements that she seems to feel no need to make add up to some overarching, highly dramatic, beginning-middle-and-end type whole. My first, unthinking assumption was that she’ll adopt more of a story structure when she gets older. But the more I think about it, I’m beginning to wonder if this doesn’t say more about me than about her. I wonder if she’ll ever feel the need for such narratives to make sense of the world.

I don’t have much insight into today’s youth in this regard. Is my daughter’s apparent disinterest in stories merely personal, or is it common with her generation? Do her classmates feel the same pain I did when my life didn’t seem to have much narrative shape?

You seem to be the generational guru around here. What do you see going on?



posted by Friedrich at October 31, 2003


You have taken me aback ("aback" is a word that I only see in books, I don't know if anyone actually says this!).

This reminds me of MBlowhard's observations that young people are fine with just downloading 15 seconds of a song, and then downloading the next, without needing to hear the whole song, or certainly the whole album.

Also, his comments that they have no attention span and no knowledge of history. Maybe those things are extraneous if one is simply taking the interesting bits of life as they come, and not needing "context" or an overarching plot line. Maybe what has been commented upon as "shallowness" is really just being "in the moment"---something the love children of the '60's said they were striving for. Maybe...their kids got there, if they didn't. ("Life is what happens while you're making other plans.").

Boomers (and I'm at the very end of the Boom) are a self-absorbed lot, and perhaps needing the seriousness of a story line is part of our self-importance. Maybe (just postulating) the need of a storyline weighs us down and causes us to miss things, the little moments that make life worth living. Sometimes I believe I am a happier and lighter soul when I don't sweat the overarching importance of the theme of life.

Perhaps the younger generation can teach us something! Who'd-a-thunk-it?

Question: do you still feel you need a storyline? Are you happier now when you have one, or does it's absence still cause pain?

Posted by: annette on October 31, 2003 9:04 PM

Maybe Zen enlightenment has happened. How lovely -- although, of course, we seem to have missed out on it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 31, 2003 11:17 PM

Thrilled to hear the fire alarm's over. But is it completely over? Are the flames still threatening? Must be bizarre, packing up and leaving the house behind. I envy you the California sunsets and hillsides. The fires and earthquakes, though ....

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 31, 2003 11:29 PM

F. Blowhard---P.S.---"...another narrative which featured evil capitalist imperialism and bold, freedom-loving peasants armed with Soviet small arms." This is a really great line!

M. Blowhard---Well, we don't have to have missed out on it---we're not dead yet!!

Posted by: annette on November 1, 2003 7:45 AM


Question: do you still feel you need a storyline? Are you happier now when you have one, or does it's absence still cause pain?

You raise a kind of interesting question. What was it, exactly, that a story would provide that I felt I needed as a teenager? I think I wanted an author's helping hand--the kind that intrudes on the main character's life and gives him a shove in an interesting direction to get the whole tale going. I would say that my teenager-hood was very frustrating in that there seemed to be no way to get traction on any road that was going somewhere other than what I saw as boring, middle-class adulthood. When it finally dawned on me that no "author" was going to step in and help out, I started having a few adventures of my own (tawdry and pathetic, I grant you, but my own.) Thirty years later, I still wouldn't describe myself as a finished character, but I guess I no longer spend much time waiting for an "author" to intervene--and in that respect, I no longer suffer because my life doesn't resemble a story.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 1, 2003 11:35 AM

"my young son strides through life with pop-star panache, unreflectively certain that he is, and deserves to be, the cynosure of every situation."

Would this character study would fit right into Winesburg, Ohio, if that were a more upbeat collection of "stories"?

Annette's question and your answer put today's query in sharper focus.

Posted by: j.c. on November 1, 2003 12:16 PM

Well, does the ability to appreciate the moment translate into a lack of feeling that you live in a story?

Or is it just something that changes with age?

When I was young (and I am post-boomer)I also had a very strong tendency to see myself as part of a story, and spent a lot of time trying to figure out what my "character" was supposed to be doing. I also had much more confidence in my ability to predict events, the way you can in many stories; if I do A, he will do B, and so on. And when you're a kid, having relatively few decisions to make and a smaller group of people to interact with, this assumption doesn't get challenged very much. You usually *can* predict what the adults around you might do, day to day.

As I got older, and came to see how unpredictable and messy life and people can be, I had to let go of my idea that I could predict the narrative arc of my life. I had to concentrate more on the present, because everything else had become impossibly complex.

In fact, now I am suspicious of adults who cling to a feeling that they know the narrative of current events, without a doubt; they know that if the US would only do A, then B will inevitably happen. Or if person C would just perform action D, then her life would all come right. History (and our own experiences) promise no such things.

Not that we should be paralyzed with uncertainty. But having some respect for the chaos and unpredictability of life is a sign of maturity, in my opinion.

And maybe "those kids today" know that a little earlier than the previous generation. Maybe the boomers can take credit for letting us in on that bit of wisdom a little sooner than we might have known it otherwise.

Posted by: emjaybee on November 1, 2003 7:04 PM

Interesting to note too the way what you describe in your posting corresponds to the change from modernism to po-mo. Modernism being taken to be the search for what the academics like the call the "grand narrative" -- Marxism, Freudianism, and who knows, maybe movies. A search for deeper meaning. Po-mo being taken to be an acceptance of the state of there being no grand narratives or deeper meaning, and a kind of wading through the bits-and-pieciness of it all...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 1, 2003 7:28 PM

In the same way MBlowhard gets frustrated by economists, I get frustrated with academcis who categorize the way he described. I think perhaps the deeper meaning is IN the "bits and pieces." It isn't one or the other. It's just that by establishing the "grand narrative" (i.e., deciding in advance what that is) you miss things. By having a need for a story, you skip this other opportunity over here because it wasn't "fitting into the story." It is not a case, to me, of there being "no deeper meaning." It's that by being in the moment, you see the meaning when it arises.

Plus, have you ever seen a grand narrative (Marxism, Freudianism, Keynesianism) that you couldn't find about five thousand exeptions to that the "-ism" couldn't explain? The stuff that doesn't fit in the predetermined story. The weakness is in The Story, not in what is actually happening.

Posted by: annette on November 1, 2003 7:48 PM

I need a storyline. I'm 26. However, that said, I see stories where my parents don't. Oh, and btw, I say 'taken aback' all the time.

Posted by: Courtney on November 1, 2003 10:56 PM

" being in the moment, you see the meaning when it arises." Annette - I'm a little confused. How does a moment have meaning without context? Altman, who is nothing of not a subtle publicity whore, likes to see he isn't interested in "stories," he's interested in "behavior" - as if a person's behavior has any meaning with the context of what that person hopes for and can expect... Each of the women in "The Women" is trying to make the world fit her grand narrative and Altman knows damn well that movie has all those stories and the reality the women live in.

Autism is "behavior" without a story - at least without a story the rest of us can follow.

That said, I'm not sure I see a storyline in my life. Does classifying yourself a type of person and accepting a set of responsibilities count as a story line? (The popularity our personality quizzes indicates the people like the idea of taxonomy. Although, even as a pre-teen reading Cosmo and Redbook, I wondered who the hell are these people who need a quiz to find out.)

Posted by: j.c. on November 2, 2003 1:40 PM

Hmmmm...this isn't really an intellectual thing to me so I may be struggling to find the words. Or struggling to figure out what it is I actually mean, in fact!

No, I don't necessarily mean that moments need no "context", certainly. But I think we can totally miss the right context if we are so busy creating or deciding upon the "context" that we don't really experience the "moment." Look at the bigger picture of Vietnam in FBlowhard's posting: we summarized it neatly in a "storyline": We were the noble country fending off communism. Were we? Didn't we miss the truth for awhile coz of the "storyline"??

The people who need the Cosmo quizzes to tell them who they are, seem to be needing feedback to tell them that they are OK as who they are: She's an "optimist"; she's a "flexible femme" That's her "storyline." Once she's decided that (Cosmo told her! Cosmo is the invisible author's hand) look at all the moments she might miss which might state otherwise! (And in reverse: a girl who feels like she got told in her childhood that she was "plain." If that becomes her storyline, how many admiring glances she might miss even noticing?). Like in the movie "Private Benjamin": when Goldie Hawn is bluntly told by her boot camp mates that they've never met anybody more selfish, she says, "That's not true! I'm a lovely person---everybody says so! I never go to anyone's house emptyhanded!" That's her storyline. Think she's "in the moment" in her life...ever? Think of that same character later in the movie, when she punches out her husband-to-be at the altar and says "Don't call me stupid!" Then she glances over at her parents and calmly says, "Daddy---Mommy just fainted." SQUARELY in the moment. It's not there is no context, it's that the context is absolutely clear because she's in the moment. She's not muddying up her own context by saying "But wait---I can't stand up to this bully---I have to be the prissy wife of a rich doctor. That's who I AM!"

When you ask---does classifying yourself as a particular type of person constitute a "storyline"---I guess it doesn't matter unless focus on the "storyline" causes you to miss the fact that you aren't really that person, or you aren't her anymore, because you're missing the moments. Or if the storyline has taken on such importance that you miss the moments. I remember Kathleen Turner saying that it was always at the moment that she thought she was at her most glorious that she would split her pants or something. It made her laugh. You can either laugh at that as one of life's great moments, or collapse because "I am a glorious person and I DO NOT SPLIT MY PANTS!" But maybe it wasn't the pants that made her glorious---maybe it was the ability to laugh.

Totally IMHO.

Posted by: annette on November 2, 2003 2:44 PM

Annette - I think we're in agreement, then. I was thinking some people might mean storyline in the extrovert sense - when people expect the rest of the world, including observers, to play along.

Looking at the bigger picture of Vietnam in Fried's posting I don't see a storyline that any reasonable person believed so much as storylines that were useful for different people who needed to believe certain things, or at least to assert certain things in arguments. And, now that the tapes are out, we know LBJ was caught up in a storyline about a country that never lost a war, couldn't lose a war, makes the world safe for democracy, while also recognizing that he thought it was a stupid mess he wanted out of as quickly and easily as possible.

Reasonable person? Yeah, I know, they're rare.

Posted by: j.c. on November 2, 2003 7:06 PM

This post reminds me a recent paper in the journal Philosophy by Samantha Vice, titled "Literature and the Narrative Self", which unfortunately isn't available for free. Here's the concluding paragraph:

"Characters that move us the most, that we care about most deeply, are those that transcend their role in the plot, that break into personhood despite the artifice of their world. We forget that they are not actually persons because they remain mysterious, they grow beyond the words on the page and live on beyond their written end. I suggest that such characters are ‘true to life’; that great art does, in the end, imitate life. The narrative view wishes us to think about ourselves as characters in lesser, rather than greater works of fiction. In so doing, we risk seeing ourselves and others falsely, of ignoring their irreducible individuality and ultimate impenetrability, through the consoling veil of our need for unity and meaning."

She's responding to a "narrative view of self", something that makes stronger claims than what you're suggesting. She discusses self as author, self as a character, etc.

Now, I'm a little uneasy with her conclusion, because it sounds like "good literature gets at the truth", something I've heard Iris Murdoch suggest in an interview. To take that view seriously would require me to reject a lot of the books and movies I consider "good".

That doesn't answer your question, but I thought it was interesting anyway.

re what annette et al. are discussing, Vice writes:

"The narrative view is on stronger ground when it claims that we are characters than when it claims we are authors, for characters, at least, find themselves in a world not of their own making. However, thinking of ourselves as characters has its own dangers when this is interpreted in terms of roles, as we find in MacIntyre and Bruner, for example. Rather than thinking of myself as author, I may think that I am a character in a story already written for me, that I have a certain ‘role’ to play because the ‘plot-lines’ of my life are set down. In thinking in this way, we risk mythologising, restricting possibilities, misinterpreting events and people as we see them as irrevocable elements of a larger story of which we are protagonists. But stories are, precisely, artificial; their elements are arranged in the interests both of verisimilitude and aesthetic form. We may give our lives such form retrospectively, but it is far from apparent that we really do so as we live them, or that we should."


" we not quite innocently ‘try on’ roles for ourselves to see what fits us best? Doing so seems especially an integral part of adolescence... Thinking of ourselves as if we were characters in stories presses us to think of ourselves in ways that are potentially dehumanising and falsifying. Human beings are not always predictable; they do not fit into patterns, they are not exhausted by roles or plots."

Despite Vice, projecting a narrative, even a traditional one, onto the world still seems compelling to me, in the right key or mode, if only to be playful.

Posted by: Shai on November 3, 2003 12:32 AM

The difference, it seems to me, has more to do with genre than generation. You were making fiction films when you were younger; your daughter has made a documentary film. Now, I know the term "documentary" comes from the 1930s, and the rules of this genre weren't firmly in place until well after WWII. I'm aware that early examples of the genre often used extensive fictional footage for the sake of narrative. But television changed much of that. From the 1950s onward, documentary films have tended not to resolve themselves into familiar, linear "plotlines" -- especially if they're shot on the fly as the events are happening.

From your description of your daughter's film, I'd guess that she is about as postmodern as Robert Drew or Albert Maysles -- and uncannily insightful to boot.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on November 3, 2003 11:44 PM

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