Warning: the cultural landscape, once lush and fragrant, has been plagued by a terrible and long-lasting drought. The lush foliage has shrunken into pale patches of grimy moss. The shards of glorious sunlight have darkened into just a glimmer of shadows. Rainbows no longer include the colors green and purple. The sociological touchstones that once served to ground us are often now misunderstood or completely ignored.
It was only a matter of time really. I saw most of the signs, even the ones I pretended for a while to ignore. I would show The Graduate to my students and one of them would always ask, “Is this Simon and Garfunkel?” and I would smile and tell them how Mike Nichols had gotten the duo involved with the soundtrack and I’d see some slight nods of recognition and hear at least two whispers of “My parents like them” and it didn’t matter that the kids themselves weren’t fans; at least they were somewhat aware that a group called Simon and Garfunkel once existed on the planet.
After the movie ended, I’d sometimes pass out the lyrics to The Sounds of Silence and we’d delve into it like it was a poem and analyze what the figurative language was trying to convey and then I’d ask them to explain in writing how the words of the song encapsulated Ben’s inner monologue in the film. Doing any kind of close textual reading with kids who are just a few months away from graduation is rarely something they will thank you for making them do, but I recall with something resembling pleasure how some of them would discuss how the line, “Hello darkness, my old friend” so perfectly summed up the alienation and lack of optimism constantly felt by Benjamin Braddock. My joy wouldn’t even be compromised when some guy wearing a lacrosse jersey would suddenly shout out – after seeing a young Dustin Hoffman appear onscreen – “Is that the guy from Meet the Fockers?” I mean, it was like a butter knife in the stomach a little bit that Hoffman was recognized for a shitty Ben Stiller sequel instead of for Midnight Cowboy or Kramer vs. Kramer or Tootsie or even Rain Man, but at least the kids sort of knew who the guy was and just a glimmer of a clue is often enough to satisfy me in the moment.
This year, I showed my classes both The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. They enjoyed both, but only about six kids recognized the music from the soundtrack – including the song Mrs. Robinson, which most of them didn’t even blink in recognition at – and not one of them had ever heard of Warren Beatty and most of them had never even heard of the real Bonnie and Clyde and the ones who did know about them knew about them because of the Jay-Z song. It never concerns me howthey know about something; I just want there to be a flicker of detection flashing across their features because otherwise all I see is a stark blankness and it’s frankly really fucking depressing.
When I started teaching Film, I would make references and comparisons to other movies within the libraries that exist inside of a person’s memory and mind. I found that when I would teach what a tracking shot is, I would show an example from a movie like Jurassic Park, which was something they’d all seen and had a positive affiliation with so they would go into the lesson feeling kind of recognized and maybe a little bit excited. Then, to follow up, I’d sometimes mention the shot of Henry Hill walking into the nightclub in Goodfellas and I’d tell them that was a stylistic and extended tracking shot and most of them would kind of mumble something like “oh, yeah” or “I fucking love that movie,” and I would so happily ignore the profanity because who fucking cared? They’d seen a Scorsese movie – and that was all that mattered.
This year as I began my early lesson on film techniques, I used a variety of clips to illustrate the kinds of shots a camera could execute and the meaning those shots would communicate to the viewer. Each clip was maybe ten seconds – all I needed them to see was the technique itself – and I used movies like Pretty Woman and Halloween and Grease and E.T. and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Almost every kid had seen Grease. Hardly any of them had seen even one of the Indiana Jones movies and over half of them never saw E.T. – and that includes the ones born in this country and not in some hemisphere very far away.
Before, when there was a kid or three who hadn’t seen E.T. or Say Anything…, I would bring in the DVD the next day and shove it into the kid’s hands and I’d tell him to watch it with his parents if they hadn’t seen it either and the kid would always bring back the movie the very next day and his eyes would sparkle a little bit when he told me how much he had loved the movie and that his mother hadn’t seen it since she was a young girl and there was a bonding thing that took place between us right there, a sharing of love for something magical, a common touchstone we could both see and, from that point forward, every single time I made an E.T. reference in class, the kid would nod and he would look almost pleased with himself that now he too was part of some inner sanctum.
This year, more of my students have not seen E.T. than have. And my first reaction – well, after the shock and a gripping of a wall in a way that might have appeared overly dramatic but I felt the disappointment even in my toes – was to start listing some other movies and I asked if the kids have seen them. Want to know what a majority of my eighteen-year-old students have not seen? Brace yourself:
The Breakfast Club
The Usual Suspects
Boyz in the Hood
The Shawshank Redemption
Anything that came out before 1990
It’s probably a total sucker who continues to be befuddled by the same things year after year. If that’s the case, then I’m a sucker because I am stunned each time by what these kids have not seen and have often never even heard of. It’s really very confusing to me. When I was in high school, I would go to the movies all the time to see the newest releases and the nights I saw Cape Fear and The Silence of the Lambs both endure in some recess of my mind as some of the most vividly terrifying moments I have ever experienced. But even though I saw the new stuff, I was still always interested in seeing what I thought of then as “the classics.” Now, there’s obviously a distinction to be made here and I would never ignore such a thing. I always wanted to teach Film, an odd career goal to be sure, but one I was able to make into a reality. With that as the key interest for basically my entire life, obviously I would have a bigger desire to see movies from eras not my own, but even if I hadn’t gone out of my way to see those movies, I still heard about them. It seemed impossible not to hear about them. There were constant allusions on television and in books and in commercials to that line from Network about being mad and not being able to take it anymore. There were older kids in camp who bent their finger and whispered, “Redrum” in a creepy voice whenever we’d gather around the campfire on an isolated field. There was a copy of the book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on my father’s shelf in his office. It seemed impossible to not eventually notice those ubiquitous movie references and eventually have the desire to actually see the films. But it seems that level of connection and curiosity has gone missing.
I do not mean to create a piece here that sings of doom or gloom, and for those of you who are not around teenagers every single weekday, please know this: many of these kids are smart and perceptive and interested and interesting. Unfortunately, many of them are not. Not only have they not heard of a cultural touchstone kind of movie, but – when it’s brought to their attention – they rarely care enough to want to see it. And when they do see it, there are a few who – no joke – just gaze into space instead of gazing at the large screen that’s at the front of my classroom. Sometimes I’ll look up from grading papers or from typing on my computer and I’ll see that they are staring at me – and that feels weird – but I’m more annoyed that they’re not looking at the movie. Stare at me all you want, I’ll think. But be able to say ‘yes’ the next time someone asks you if you know who Jack Nicholson is.
I think I’d be able to be more accepting and more forgiving of this apathy and barrenness if their lives and minds were crammed with all of the recent artistic masterpieces that have come out during their lifetime, but that’s not usually the case. I mean, they’ve all seen the cinematic opus that was Project X and most have seen every single installment of Final Destination, Saw, Paranormal Activity, and The Fast and the Furious. Almost every single time that a part seven of a franchise rolls into the theatres, I spend the beginning of class on Monday listening to student after student coming in to tell me personally how shitty the latest film in the series was. “It wasn’t even scary,” is usually their biggest complaint – which I prefer far more than an “It was so stupid!” because at least they’re giving me a reason for their lack of enjoyment. “Did you think it would be good?” I usually ask them – and I’m always stunned when they tell me that no, they didn’t expect that it would be good.
Why did you see it then? I’ll often ask. And why did you see it on opening night like it was something you were actually anxiously waiting for? And then they’ll just shrug and I’ll try to explain that the more frequently they go see a movie on opening night, the more often the studio will read that as economically promising and it will only be a matter of time until part eight of the series comes out – and that one won’t be scary either.
I think what I can’t help but find odd is the fact that these kids have a constant access to movies and information. They can get movies On Demand or on Netflix. They are surrounded by computers in every classroom and they all have phones that allow them to go online with just a flick of a finger and yet they still don’t seem to care about anything that happened before they were born. I didn’t live through the sixties either, but I was raised to know that it was a defining time, one rife with conflict, one that created a revolution on our own soil, and I was always curious about that era. And I cannot possibly be the only one who is still interested in a time that is now over because there are constant specials that come out that examine that period and look at all facets of it, whether it’s the space race or the drug culture becoming mainstream or cults rising up from the ashes of the mass move to suburbia that took place in the 1950s and early 1960s.
How can kids now not care at all about what came before? How can those same kids also not know much about what is happening right now?
I did a lesson earlier this year where students were asked to take recent photographs that had been taken during the Ferguson riots and make key aesthetic changes to them that would include the visual iconography of German Expressionism. And when we spoke about protests and different ways artists over the years have confronted issues they did not agree with, I bought up Bob Dylan – and I was met with blank stares.
“How many of you have never heard Bob Dylan’s music?” I asked. Almost every single kid put his hand into the air.
“How many of you have never heard of Bob Dylan?” I ventured next – and again the hands soared high.
“Do you all know who The Beatles are?” I asked and they nodded their heads so at least I didn’t need to go stick my own head in an oven, but I think it might simply be a matter of time.
I have movie posters all over my classroom, but I also have some magazine covers up of people I admire. There’s Springsteen – obviously – and one of Jon Stewart hugging Stephen Colbert. There’s one of Hitchcock sitting at the end of the bed on the set of Psycho and one of Brad Pitt being almost blinded by the flashes from the storm of cameras that surround him. My students know who Brad Pitt is. They have seen him in movies like Troy and Mr. and Mrs. Smith and at least one of the Oceans 11 movies. But they have never seen Fight Club and they have never even heard of Meet Joe Black or Thelma and Louise and a few of the fathers that enter my room on Open School Night point to my Springsteen pictures and smile and tell me that I’ve got good taste, but my students don’t know who he is and they are in a classroom with his image for a full year and they leave still not knowing who that scruffy guy might be – and they never ask.
It’s that lack of curiosity that gets to me – that infuriates me – and I don’t even want to try to understand it. Just a few weeks ago, I showed two classes Almost Famous and the scene came up where the new label-friendly manager goes into the backstage area to inform the band that they are not doing well economically, that they owed the record company more than they had. And he explained that this was the time to make the money – right now, while they were young – because if they thought “Mick Jagger would still be out there trying to be a rock star at the age of fifty,” they were all sadly mistaken. I saw that movie in the theatres. I recall perfectly the knowing laugh that rumbled through the room. I started teaching the movie a bunch of years ago, and though I shift my syllabus around frequently, that movie has never been replaced. And I’ve watched and listened to that line mean less and less to the audience made up of my students year after year, the laughter once full-bodied that began to sound like a lilting giggle that has finally moved to absolute silence. In both classes this year, there was no reaction to the line whatsoever, and that silence was even worse than when I heard a student last year whisper to someone else, “Who the fuck is Mick Jagger?” because at least he still cared enough to find out.