Marc's comment in an earlier post about the notion of "this generation's Star Wars", or "this generation's X" in general reminded me how I'd gotten mud all over my hands when wrestling with that idea earlier. I dug around and found some notes I'd taken to that effect, and then realized on re-reading them that the problem was far more egregious than I thought.
There are big problems with calling something "this generation's [fill in the blank]". The first, and for me the biggest, is that generational experiences do not map to each other with complete correspondence.
The reason something like Star Wars constituted the experience it did for the Kids of '77 was so much a product of both its moment in time and the people of that moment in time that trying to draw an analogy for another generation -- especially one living in the hyperextended shadow of such an experience -- doesn't cut any flavor of mustard.
I was all of six when Star Wars came out, and I was just old enough to remember how galvanizing that movie was, especially for young people whose entire experience with SF up to that point had been a hunt-and-peck operation. There was literally nothing that compared to it -- save for maybe Star Trek, of course, which didn't even have remotely the same flavor (but that didn't imply any inferiority on its part; does a Dorito automatically lose to a Pringles chip?).
The problem is, what made Star Wars so special in 1977 isn't what will make something special in 2013. There is no way to step back into that river again, because everything -- especially us -- has changed.
Okay. Sherman, set the Way-Back Machine for 1977. Now lean on the fast-forward button for a decade or so, and you have a whole generation that grew up in the shadow of this aberrant bit of joy. Likewise, the whole of the culture around them had busted its humps trying to play catch-up, both in obvious ways (Battlestar Galactica) and non-obvious ones (E.T.).
Then the bigger lesson to be learned by Hollywood took over -- that it wasn't so much space fantasy that was the big seller, but appealing to an excitable teenaged mindset via big, flashy tentpole productions that promised adventure of one kind or another. The bigger lesson of Star Wars (and before it, Jaws and The Exorcist) was what kind of moviemaking was electrifying people. SF alone was only one of a number of incarnations or delivery mechanisms.
Now skip ahead another ten years to 1997. By this point something else has happened, namely that popular culture has started to splinter to the point where few, if any, cultural phenomena work as transcendentally shared experiences anymore. It was easier to put everyone under the same tent when there were that many less tents in the first place, and that many fewer varieties of voices urging to be heard.
Sure, something like Titanic could come out and make dumptrucks full of cash, but more because it was a resurgence of the nascent matinee heartthrob / idol romance impulse that a movie hadn't whispered sweet nothings into the ear of for some time. (I'm pleased to report Mr. DiCaprio has not remained stuck at that stage of his career. See: Shutter Island.) And by that time, it was also getting harder to say a movie that sold even a billion dollars in tickets was reaching as many people as one that had sold $500 million a decade earlier, no thanks to the exploding cost of a ticket against other costs-of-living. Titanic made money, but it didn't cut the same kind of deep cultural furrow in '98 that Star Wars had etched back in '77.
And now jump ahead another ten years, where something like Avatar (admittedly, an original) can come out and make tons of money, but just as quickly disappear from the public consciousness like the aftertaste from a mouthful of coffee. Or The Avengers, which for all its success seemed more like the logical conclusion of a given trend and not like the way forward into something truly new.
Something else has been happening during the past thirty years, something which also makes stepping back into the river of old an all-but-impossibility. In 1977, our cultural experiences came through the big screen, the small screen, the speakers of our stereos, and the pages of a book (or a magazine). In 2013, we have more channels, in every sense of the term, than we know what to do with, plus form factors (e.g., on-line multiplayer gaming) that simply didn't exist even a few years prior. The movies aren't the only thing anymore, and right now it's getting hard to say they're even the most important thing.
Looking over all this, it's difficult to believe something like Star Wars can happen again. What happened, and who it happened to, and how it happened, have all changed.
And yet, at the same time, I think we want it to happen again. We want something to come along and give us a single, defining, unifying cultural experience despite all the ways we've made such a thing all but impossible in the last few decades. Maybe that's why we want it in the first place: to remind ourselves that crazy miracles of imagination are always possible. I sure hope they still are.
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