By Ray Sawhill
Over and over I hear — sometimes from young people, sometimes from video-parlor clerks — that people in their 20s won’t watch black and white movies. Yet ads and music videos aimed at young people often use black and white.
How to account for this? My guess is that it isn’t just a question of pacing. In the ads and videos, black and white is used as a sign. We read its meaning: “low-budget integrity,” “drained of affect,” “1950s glamor” — nostalgia for the childhood someone, somewhere must have had. In the old movies, black and white doesn’t need de-coding.
20somethings seem to find it inconceivable that one might move into and inhabit a language. Suggest that it’s possible, and they look at you with “what kind of dinosaur are you?” disbelief. External reality consists of a desktop to be customized, and icons to be clicked on.
Movie language, evolved during the “organic unity” modernist era, strikes young people as fit only to be parodied, referred to ironically, or shunned.
The baby boomers who now run the media were once known as the Movie Generation. The 20somethings, their progeny, may be the Anti-Movie Generation, even when they make movies. In their films, people wander out of frame, someone horses with a videocam, partners shift, time drizzles by. Finally, someone confesses that he feels miserable.
“Bodies, Rest and Motion,” “Clerks,” “Reality Bites,” and the grandaddy of the genre, “Sex, Lies and Videotape” — even the titles demand a lower-case, sans-serif typeface. There’s something abroad that’s beyond language, we’re being told. It demands diagramming-out, new thought patterns, new technologies.
“Late Bloomers,” by David Lipsky and Alexander Abrams, is subtitled “Coming of Age in Today’s America: The Right Place at the Wrong Time” (Times). There aren’t any surprises in the Generation X complaints it sets forth: AIDS, the deficit, divorced baby boomer parents. GenXers of the most self-conscious type — MediaSomethings — Lipsky and Abrams spend most of the book worrying about media portrayals, complaining about them in one paragraph, using them to bolster their case in the next.
The MediaSomethings have grown up surrounded by cameras and recording devices. They seem to want to protest against the society of the spectacle, and to be videotaped doing so.
As prose writers, the MediaSomethings have two major modes: the mock-selling (ie., commercial) style, and the no-style (ie., truth or art) style.
The commercial style seems to come equally from ads, stand-up comics, e-mail, and video jockeys. It’s raucous — full of imperatives, YO!-style attention-grabbers, dropped subjects, and invisible auxiliary verbs. It’s prose that wears its baseball cap backwards, and pushes its snout into a wide-angle lens. Entire sentences seem to turn into contractions. “Never mind those stories about … “; “So it’s gross. So what did you expect?”
The art style is in love with the poignancy of nothingness. Lipsky and Abrams stand firmly, or limply, in this camp. Their specialty is the forlorn, stray clause, and the whimsically dangled participle: “It wasn’t a surprise, exactly … Perhaps, in a weird way … Divorced, you see them as people … ” These are words lying immobile among dirty sheets, mourning another drab day, unable even to shut off the alarm.
Elements of the MediaSomething magazine style include mix-‘n’-match visuals, splatter-font typography, and tail-end-of-the-roll photos. In book-jacket design, the wan, faded-and-blurred photograph has already become a cliché. So have brackets used for no grammatical reason.
The mainstream has been quick to pick the style up. Nonsense brackets have made appearances in ads for Ikea, the discount-furniture chain. New York Magazine’s recent makeover features blocks of type crushed together, and a color-Xerox-and-video palette. When layouts first started being done on Macintoshes, the idea was to use the machines to streamline the design process. Now ads, magazines, and books are made to look like computer screens. The world inside the computer has become primary. “The trash can in your office has become an icon for the trash can on your Mac screen,” an artist friend says.
Another artist tells me that when he shows his students a slide of, say, a Velázquez, he can’t get them to see it as a unique work. It registers instead as “Old Master.” “To them, an image is only an example of a category of images,” he says.
The professor and critic Hal Foster described in the Times what he sees as a new “ethic of the loser,” and managed a good description of Nirvana’s music: “a lullaby droned to the dreamy beat of the death drive.” Still, I think he’s wrong to find only defeatism there. Not working in a media factory, he may not hear the sound — it may be a whine, but it’s a self-confident whine — of the MediaSomethings making their way.
My theory is this: the MediaSomethings were raised under the spell of victimology and deconstruction, yet they still crave stardom and sex. So they brandish not self and language, but the signs of victimhood. Hence, young guys in granny dresses and dreadlocks, young women in washed-out babydolls and tatoos.
A man who once did business with Kurt Cobain told me (with wry exasperation) that what isn’t understood about Cobain is how badly he wanted stardom. My theory suggests that Cobain’s suicide was the ultimate act of MediaSomething self-assertion. Bookstores are awash in new titles by and for MediaSomethings, but none have sold many copies. Why? Shannon Maughan and Jonathan Bing report in Publishers Weekly that young people prefer to buy products that blur boundaries — CD-ROMs, book-and-disc packages. A bookstore manager tells me that what he sees young people buying are books about television. One hit was “The Entertainment Weekly Seinfeld Companion.”
Publishers are still trying to find a formula, according to Maughan and Bing. Silhouette has kicked off a series of romance novels featuring “dismal entry-level jobs, credit card debts, drugs and HIV infection.” One agent has reached a sensible conclusion. Since “corporate America is obsessed with marketing to Generation X,” he said, let’s sell the books about 20somethings to the baby boomers.
- Peter Plagens and I profiled the influential designer David Carson.
- An interview with Gen X icon Winona Ryder.
- Rick Marin reviews the history of Grunge.
©1995 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.