The evolution of Gen X filmmakers Whit Stillman and Richard Linklater

May 23, 2012

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This spring has brought a good crop of cinematic pleasures (yay for the creepy and clever Cabin in the Woods!), chief among them new films from Whit Stillman (Damsels in Distress) and Richard Linklater (Bernie). And though they vary wildly in their choice of subjects and style, the two are bound by a notable distinction: Both made mighty contributions to one of my favorite periods/genres of movie-making: the '90s era, Generation X film.

Now, if we limit the genre to films made by actual members of Gen X then neither would qualify – both were born prior to 1961. But to quote Stillman's film The Last Days of Disco, "for a group to exist someone has to admit to being part of it." In their shared interest in a cohort emerging out of the ashes of the Baby Boomer cultural free-for-all and headed into the full-on fire of Reaganomics, Stillman and Linklater clearly reveal an affinity for the concerns of X.

Linklater fits more comfortably or obviously within the category, thanks to the shambling, grunge-appropriate attitude of films like Slackers and Before Sunrise, which are kissing cousins to other ur-Gen X texts like Kicking and Screaming, Reality Bites and Clerks. But in his comedy of manners or "doomed bourgeois in love" trilogy (Metropolitan, Barcelona and Disco) Stillman too mines specific subcultures and generational shifts. He's just chosen to focus on the more rarefied end of the social spectrum: the upper class, or the 1 percent, as we now hail them. 

The two do share a number of hallmarks. Each has an interest in deeply self-conscious and self-absorbed protagonists who find themselves at odds with or at least freely floating through their times – in but not of the scene. Fittingly, their narratives are driven less by plot, more by endless talk and potentially awkward social situations. Each made films of their moment and films that looked back (Dazed and Confused takes place in 1976, Disco "sometime in the early '80s"). And both helped launch the careers of actors who not only came of age during the Gen X years but literally became the face of it: Chloe Sevigny, Chris Eigeman, Ben Affleck, Parker Posey. 

So, are their concerns still aligned with those of Gen X? Damsels in Distress is Whit Stillman's first film in over a decade. And at first glance yes – he's still observing young, upper crust Ivy League types still caught between holding onto and updating the rules of their game. His damsels are an appealing blend of wit, snobbery and much discussed if poorly actualized sexuality. They look as if they've shuffled on over from a Doris Day film and their agenda is likewise out of step with the times: to ward off depression and male barbarism through a quixotic application of proper hygiene and sedate tap dance routines.

But by casting Generation Y actors (Greta Gerwig, Adam Brody) Stillman gets to remain in place and catch up with the new kids: he's like Woodson, Matthew McConaughey's character in Dazed and Confused, who loves high school girls because even as he gets older "they stay the same age." What's different is that Stillman has turned up the fantasy or fairy tale elements that simmered through his previous films, a move that pays off in authenticity. Their mission may be frivolous but the director and his actors fully commit. Which makes Damsels the perfect feel-good film: an indie musical that's silly on the surface, sincere at heart, and slays the hell out of the average Hollywood rom-com.

Linklater's Bernie is simultaneously more mannered and more deeply rooted in the realism that defined a film like Slacker. The film's based on a real-life crime and Linklater employs a documentary technique – the talking head – as a kind of Greek chorus/commentary on the doomed relationship at the center of his film. The heads are both actors and actual members in good standing of Carthage, Texas, the community where Bernie is set. These plain-spoken folk come off as a cast of stereotypes, especially in their preference for colorful turns of phrase. But paradoxically they serve to deepen the character of the film. Which is welcome, because the relationship between the main characters, played by Jack Black and Shirley MacClaine, is more lightly sketched than fully fleshed out.

Black gets the better end of the deal – his development as an actor is wonderful to watch (and his singing and dancing is superb). Linklater too has matured. He long ago moved away from a singular focus on the "frozen" or stuck youth that define Gen X films, to a wider world, one that can embrace both Bad News Bears and Orson Welles. But he's remained committed to exploring the concerns and values that bind groups together, and in doing so, has produced a deeply layered and nuanced portrait of a faith community (he also conveys the regional differences that break Texas into geographical factions as at odds with one another as are Sunnis and Shites).

At a moment when political disputes are easily and hatefully translated into cultural or religious divides, how welcome it is to encounter a community taking positions that don't necessarily have a right or a left. These people are free spirits – and they are spiritual. Like the young protagonists of Damsels, they want to do good and do right by one another. Only difference is, they've got a much stronger – or shared –  grip on how best to proceed.