a movie for each generation

Following tangents and rabbit trails is one of my favorite teaching methods. Those seem to be the moments when everyone – including the professor – perk up a little bit from their PowerPoint induced malaise. In a recent class I got side tracked by a conversation about movies. We were talking about how movies are often good communicators of a cultural mood or a pervasive worldview. If you want to know about a culture, pay attention to its movies. Additionally, movies can provide insights into the moods of a generation. I illustrated this with a movie from Generation X (my generation) as well as a movie that I believed (erroneously in hindsight) represented the Millennial generation.

This has got me thinking. Is it possible to identify an essential movie for each generation? I’m not talking about a movie that necessarily blew up the box office. I’m talking about a movie that almost perfectly captured the mood of a generation. How could you go about even trying to identify such a movie?

Well, in order for a movie to capture the mood of a generation, it has to capture the mood of that generation at a particular time. In other words, Millennials might remember fondly how the original Toy Story captured their imagination, but I don’t think this qualifies as the Millennial movie. Generations seem to reach their stereotypical peak in their college years. In other words, everything that we think we know about a generation is most fully formed when that generation is roughly between the ages of 18 and 25 – right as they are getting ready to enter into adulthood. We could fudge the numbers a little especially since adulthood started to get pushed further and further back starting with Gen X. But I don’t think I’m off by very much. People only started writing books about iGen when they started going to college. And people pretty much gave up writing about Millennials ever since they left college and entered adulthood. So, in order for a movie to be a generational movie, it would need to be released when there is the largest number of college-aged people in that generation.

Assuming that a generation is around 15 years long and people enter college age at 18 and exit at around 22, it would look this way…

generational movie

A generational movie would likely be released towards the end of the window in order to make the greatest impact. So here’s what it looks like. Tell me if you think I’m wrong.

Greatest Generation – The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)

This is a slam dunk. An entire generation shaped by the ugly realities and battlefield virtues of war. What movie better captures the mood of a generation than this one? And who better to star in a generational movie than John Wayne himself?

Silent Generation – Dr. Strangelove (1964)

The only generation neglected more than Gen X is the Silent Generation. They were a generation born into chaos and uncertainty. Their teenage years were haunted by the war stories of their fathers and fresh fears of nuclear annihilation. How absurd to win a World War and then be incinerated by mad men? What better movie to capture the mood of this generation than Dr. Strangelove, and what better director to capture the insanity of it all than Kubrick?

Boomer Generation – Kramer Versus Kramer (1979)

Nothing is more quintessential boomer than a movie about the realities of divorce, single parenting, evolving gender roles, and the balance between work life and home life. Plus, the movie stars two quintessential boomers in Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep.

Generation X – Reality Bites (1994)

If the mood of Generation X is cynicism, can there be another movie besides this one? Reality Bites is the movie title as well as a complete sentence describing the mood of the post-boom 80’s. This is the movie for a generation obsessed with irony, even though somewhat ironically it can never seem to define it properly.  Hawke, Ryder, and Garofalo remain icons of the in-between generation.

Millennial Generation – Social Network (2010)

I have always liked Garden State as a great example of a Millennial movie, but it was too early (2004) and not quite iconic enough. The Social Network perfectly captures the mood of a generation coping with rapidly expanding horizons of opportunity mixed with the personal and relational anxiety that come along with those opportunities. And in a weird way, this generation’s John Wayne looks a lot like Jesse Eisenberg.

iGen – TBD

This generation hasn’t had its movie moment yet, but it will probably have something to do with technology induced loneliness and the search for meaning in a world bursting with information. My friend Doug Welch has suggested that maybe Get Out (2017) is the first iGen movie since wokeness – and the inevitable backlash against wokeness – will almost certainly come to define this generation.


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