“On Our Closing Decade, While We’re Young and the Death of True American Cinema”

The thought occurred to me a couple of years back, being reinforced by the fact that we’ve seen no new styles materialize, that the enterprise of visual art, as in creative art paintings, and its cultural efficacy, or power, deteriorated right before or with the onset of the pop culture icon Madonna. Wikipedia has it that abstract expression, the splattering paint style for which Jackson Pollock is known, developed in the 1940’s. So if it were to have died in the mid- or late-’70s, that would put its lifespan at about one generation (reinforcing of course the phenomenon of its kids hating it when they see it). Although Madonna’s first album wasn’t released until 1983, she was busy even before that, moving to New York City and making her manager taking her to Talking Heads shows and such [1]. MTV was first launched in August 1981 and Madonna achieved a record deal in ’82, so we can see how the visual component of music’s grandiose new marketing stage galvanized her aesthetic draw and embodied the perfect spotlight for all her revealing forms of dress like the “coned bra.” This, in the early ’80s, was America’s, and essentially the world’s, new “visual art,” in no wise emaciating the possibility of painters coming along later and stirring up admiration and feeling in spectators, just limiting their potential prowess in standing as centers of culture. In similar fashion, I’m not deeming it impossible for a filmmaker to write and direct a film that’s enjoyable or influential following 2014’s While We’re Young, which I consider elite, but rather that said film would intrinsically possess certain limitations that were less its own fault than that of our society at large.

Wikipedia took the words right out of my mouth: “While We’re Young is a 2014 American comedy-drama [2] film written, produced and directed by Noah Baumbach… The film stars Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, and Amanda Seyfried; its plot centers on a New York-based documentary filmmaker and his wife who develop a friendship with a couple in their 20s.” Internally, the film manifests its own literary reference to Henrik Ibsen’s “The Master Painter” it finds applicable, featuring it in the film’s trailer: one character deciding “I’ve become so disturbed by younger people! They upset me so much that I’ve closed my doors.” Another character in the play provides the bald but telling reply that “Maybe you should open the door and let them in.” Although seemingly insipid, the exchange is furnished as semantically central to the film, one in which two main couples struggle with the reality of approaching their mid-40s (Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Horovitz, Maria Dizzia) and salvage the situation by befriending two love birds just out of college (Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried). Paul McCartney’s “Let ’em in” then moves the trailer toward its next phase.

If that name Adam Horovitz rings a bell to you it’s because it’s none other than Ad-Rock, one third of mid-’80s-borne hip-hop group the Beastie Boys (and in which case you’d be sharper than the New Yorker scribe who previewed this film contemporary to its release). Since the death of the group’s member MCA in 2012, as it turns out, the other two members have not only declined to strive on as the Beastie Boys, but also have not initiated any creative music operations whatsoever. An interesting shift in hip-hop styles happened this decade as well, with a sweeping transition from boom-bap juggernauts like Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music to “trap,” a style as reliant on singing as rapping as well as gunshot-like snare beats, a couple progenitors thereof being Fetty Wap and Bryson Tiller. Trap is predicated on the idea of the ghetto being, and insofar as it’s universally enjoyable the ghetto being a microcosm for life itself being, a “trap,” literally, in which people are placed to their own detriment and on which there’s no point in philosophically commenting beyond just trying to find a bit** (or a “trap girl,” to use the parlance of the zeitgeist) and some weed. Truth be told, the style is a creative “trap” unto itself, not allowing much breathing room for structural creativity or emceeing skill, and seems to by 2019 surely be on its popular decline. Hereby, the simultaneous waning of cultural forces on the parts of both hip-hop and comedy raises an interesting debate about the interrelated mechanisms the two might have shared in speaking to a larger audience. But While We’re Young marks the one creative expedition Horovitz has taken on since 2013, landing in cinema and juxtaposing it against his zero new musical endeavors, which implicitly grants it a sort of esteem in the scope of Horovitz’ once-vaunted and voluminous, musically peppered career as a creative person.

One theme manifest in While We’re Young is our current immersion in the information age, in which just by going on the Internet a person can find out just about any fact he wants, within reason. There comes a time in the movie when Stiller’s and Driver’s couple are debating about something and are in need of a certain fact. Stiller’s character goes to look it up on his phone and the younger Jamie, played by Driver, suggests “Let’s just not know.” In a sense, this topical discussion in the film aligns with our current age when America’s visual art has basically boiled down to women’s bodies and less and less is left up to the imagination. It’s the same malady in the realm of information and its quest: access it easier and readier than it ever has been.

Now, the conversation I pinpoint here isn’t really too important in regards to the PLOT of the film: the information they’re seeking doesn’t find anybody’s life or livelihood hinging on it, or anything like that. The reason why I mention it is that it’s symbolic of the only possible recourse that an individual, and maybe we as a societal whole, can have for reversion into a true cinematic era like the ’90s which featured the garish human horrors of Pulp Fiction and the extreme slacker authenticity of Clerks (and Richard Linklater’s Slacker, as well). Driver’s obstinate refusal to look up the statistic represents a vital sort of willful condemnation of certain truths, or pessimisms, that have lambasted people’s faith in the everyday and the common place. As long as the most distant stars are at your fingertips, what is the charm in walking down your own miscellaneous block and talking to the old cat lady? And so we have a deluge of Star Wars films, we enlist superheroes, call in aliens and killers to entertain us, but While We’re Young shows that the problem with cinema is one that’s deeply embedded in our society and the way we think — it’s that, ironically, despite all of the advancements in technology and the changing landscapes of the world around us, life itself, in the 2010’s, has lost its mystery. That Baumbach allotted this heroic refusal to “know” to his younger character, too, is no coincidence. This is, in a sense, a spiritual revelation on the part of an individual who has more years yet to live on this unveiled planet than his older constituents. Deeper, than, is his repertoire for continually rendering shrouded charm, and thereby, as well, cinematic magic.


[1] This per the handy Madonna: Like an Icon by Lucy O’Brien.


[2] This is Wikipedia translation for “comedy.” While We’re Young is a comedy.


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