The Deviates (1959)

Raymond Jones
Beacon 242
(first published as The Secret People, Avalon 1956)

The genre, believe it or not, is science-fiction. And the teaser, "One man alone had any woman--every woman--in his power!"?....not a chance.  Not even remotely related to what's going on here.

After the nuclear world war, various genetic mutations are moving through the population. Some are awful, leading to "uglies" that are kept hidden "Boo Radley" style in the family home.  Other mutations are more beneficial, as in having telepathy and extended life span.  All "deviates," however, are considered a menace to human kind, and so a global genetics board decides who does and does not get to reproduce.  But the grand poobah of the genetics board, Robert Wellton, has a secret...he himself is a "deviate"--telepathy, extra-smart, etc. Even though human policy is to expunge any and all "deviates," Wellton believes the "beneficent deviations" (such as himself) should gradually be allowed to interbreed with the "normals" and save the human race (the eugenics program for "normal" humans, we are told, is slowly driving the species toward extinction). 

Most babies are created by matching "normals," with the resulting offspring shipped out to various families.  Rarest of all is the nuclear family as we know it, bio-mom/bio-dad and the bio children all under one roof (they are so rare and envied, in fact, that they must live on guarded compounds to escape the wrath of would-be but thwarted breeders).  Five years earlier, Wellton lost his own wife because she couldn't handle not having a "real" family.

But then, suddenly and unexpectedly, she returns....with a baby...that she says is Wellton's!  Wellton lets her in on his plans, resulting in the  following prose: 

The thing I should have told you is a new race is being born. For thirty five years, I have carried out a program of substituting my own deviate sperm in suitable instances, instead of the normal kind stocked by the Institute.

Wellton's deviant sperm children have been born to mothers around the world.  Each is a telepath who knows Wellton only as the God-like "Father" who comforts them from afar.  At the appropriate age, each of Wellton's progeny is encouraged to escape to a hidden compound somewhere in the wilds of Canada.  Each also has a suicide pill should they ever be taken captive by the world government.

Retiring from his post at the genetics board, Wellton is at last ready to put his plan into effect.  He arrives at the secret compound in Canada and announces that he wants his children to reintegrate into "normal" society, take on important positions of authority, and eventually convince the "normals" that they must accept the beneficent deviates to insure the future of the race.

But there's a problem.  Wellton's first and thus oldest son has a plan of his own.  Unbeknown to "Father," he has had the children working on a space ship.  If the normals want to hunt us down and kill us, he reasons, then screw them...we'll take our chances in space.  But Wellton is determined that not happen.  The deviates still owe a debt to the earth, to the human species, that must be repaid.  There's some more intrigue about Wellton's wife.  And the baby, Timmy, gets bayoneted by the genetic police.  All leading up to the final confrontation of "Father" and first-born deviate sperm baby.

All in all, not bad.  Still seems odd to slap an urban noir cover on a sci-fi title (thus ensuring that crime readers get mad when they actually started reading, while making the book pretty much invisible to  science-fiction readers).

25 More Imaginative Deaths for Charlie Harper

1. Butt-plug misfire.
2. Complications from experimental Hep-3 treatment in Mexico.
3. Beaten to death by Gaddafi's crack team of female bodyguards.
4. Hummer. Hummer. Cliff. Pacific.
5. Murdered in violent altercation with Hollywood celebrity Charlie Sheen.
6. Melody to new cereal jingle accidentally opens fifth circle of Hell.
7. Killed in duel for the hand of Miss Kandy Kardashian.
8. Toxic blood condition created by years of exposure to unrestrained farting in house.
9. Pornslide.
10. Autoerotic asphyxiation while watching DVD of Platoon.
11. Mauled at L.A. zoo in drunken attempt to fellate tiger.
12. Eaten by .5 Man.
13. Bloody bathroom suicide that Bertha simply will not clean up.
14. Drawn and quartered in accident with new sex harness.
15. Beaten to death with tire iron by the ghost of Jack Warner.
16. Killed by Alan Harper in attempt to harvest and transplant magical penis.
17. Murdered by his own prostate. 
18. Stroke triggered by sheer hilarity of all-night Punk'd marathon on MTV.
19. Complications from most violent yet most hilarious kick to groin ever captured on film.
20. Rose found wearing his skin.
21. Body spontaneously dissolves leaving behind only a stain of liquid putridity.
22. Crushed by safe containing 25 million dollars thrown randomly out a window.
23. 3  x 8-ball = 24-ball.
24. Utter f@#king boredom.
25. Dildo on staircase.

Strip Wench...or Die! (1963)

Gene Cross
Art Enterprises, Inc.

In addition to having a great name, Rip Austin has somehow landed the enviable job of being an insurance investigator who apparently only works cases involving strippers.  When his boss suspects a phony death claim up the coast from L.A., Rip jumps in his car to check things out.  No sooner does he arrive in town and start pumping some gas into his ride when a beautiful 18-year-old "dancer," clad only in a thin robe, runs from the club across the street and asks for his help.  Someone is trying to kill her!  Sure, baby, hop in!  Rip, you see, is ready for any eventuality, especially those involving crime and strippers.

And they're off!  Rip is such a man's man that even as the duo are chased at high speeds by thugs taking shots at their car, he still has the presence of mind to reach around and cop a feel off his new passenger, who of course is most open to such advances.  Even though the mob wants her dead and she's only just met Rip, she seems to understand intuitively that she'll feel just a little safer if she lets Rip grope her a bit in a fast-moving car.   But, unfortunately for both of them, a spin-out and crash kills the young lady and leaves Rip out-of-action for a couple of days.  But not for long.  Soon he's back on the trail of crime and corruption ripping this "wide-open fun town" apart at the seams. 

Turns out the owner of the club is killing off his strippers for the insurance money (just the kind of job Rip Austin works, as it so happens).  Chapters alternate between Rip bedding the town's various exotic dancers, past and present, and the gathering of the necessary evidence to take down the slimy stripper boss.  A classic of its kind, I suppose.

The true showstopper here, however, is obviously the title and cover.  Strip Wench...or Die!  aka: If I don't get to see you naked I will kill you!  Somehow the brazenness of an already crass title is made even more skeazy by the publisher's decision to go with a photograph of an actual stripper rather than the usually stylized paint-and-brush fantasies typical of these books.  Racy in 1963, no doubt, the photo now underscores the unvarnished materiality of the mid-century nudie circuit--bad dancing and bad jazz served up to a room of drunken yokels, many of them presumably imagining how awesome it would be if their jobs in insurance and banking involved working exclusively with the stripper accounts.

It’s Never Sunny Anywhere

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia just began its seventh season on FX.  With any luck, the series will bounce back from a sixth season that, as any objective Phillyphile would agree, was uneven at best.  Last week’s premiere, “Frank’s Pretty Woman,” was certainly a good start, returning “the gang” to the moral muck in which they thrive best (Frank decides to marry his favorite prostitute, the gang decides she needs to be "classed up," hilarity ensues).

Sunny may well be the most distinctly “American” sitcom on the air at the moment.  That claim will make many bristle, I’m sure, especially those sensitized by post-graduate name-calling to resist any and all such sweeping generalizations about nationhood and identity.   So let me clarify: the series does not (and could not) speak to some impossible unity of “American experience,” whatever that might still mean for anyone beyond Tea Party time-travelers; instead, it rather doggedly documents a certain mindset that is unique (or perhaps just particularly widespread) in the USA of the twenty-first century.

Like many sitcoms, Sunny is a hybrid of earlier successes given its own distinctive twist—what might best be described in industry shorthand as a more loathsome Seinfeld meets a downscale Cheers.  From Seinfeld, the show borrows the now ubiquitous formula of urban singles who seemingly have little to no responsibilities beyond cultivating their skills at bantering.  Sunny also replicates the 3 guys/1 gal structure—but with the crucial addition of Danny DeVito’s “Frank” as the gang’s debauched and wholly irresponsible patriarch (Frank was a brilliant addition to the show’s architecture.  Father to the borderline American Psycho Dennis (Glen Howerton) and his ever-annoyed sister Dee (Kaitlin Olson), Frank doesn’t really seem to give a shit about anyone other than himself—devoting his senior years to drinking and whoring.  But as he either has (or had) money stashed away, he becomes the default protector/bankroller of the gang’s various misadventures). 

But while Seinfeld and company most often worked over the everyday minutiae of middle-class aggravation (“first-world problems,” as some now call them), Sunny’s crew seems to bicker endlessly about absolutely nothing at all.  More to the point, each character is typically so dug in defending his or her own delusional take on the sitcom situation at hand that, in the show’s best moments, it creates a polyphonic exchange of variously narcissistic and selfish monologues that amplify more than answer one another.  Often this is the crucial ingredient in separating the best episodes from the average—whether or not cast and director have captured the best possible group rants on film (last season, for example, some of this banter—typically so “natural’ to the cast—seemed a bit more forced, for whatever reason).    

Obviously, people everywhere in the world often argue about completely stupid and pointless things.  The distinctly American flavor of Sunny, I would argue, stems from the fact that each character, despite being a woefully uninformed and misguided idiot, is always completely and wholly convinced that he or she is 100% correct in any and all arguments—so much so that any actual communication, dialogue, and persuasion as we typically know them rarely if ever take place.  Characters will on occasion convince one another to cooperate in enacting a scheme of some sort, but most often these are only alliances of momentary convenience—each member of the gang is ready, willing, and able to screw over the other at the drop of a hat.  If Seinfeld famously lived by the credo “no hugs,” Sunny remains steadfastly committed to the principle of “no empathy”…for anyone…ever. 

Set primarily in the crappiest bar in Philly’s most dilapidated neighborhood, Sunny also references Cheers, but with an emphasis on capturing more honestly the milieu of the chronic drinker (Paddy’s, or its Boston equivalent, is where Cliff and Norm would eventually end up after drinking away their pensions).   The “bar” set (or its displaced cousins like “Central Perk” and the “Peach Pit”) has long been central to TV architecture—public spaces where characters can congregate for jokes and plot points.  Typically these sets weave the characters into a larger social world—the cast surrounded by various extras that circulate to signify the characters' integration with our own reality.  True to the wicked inversions of Sunny, however, Paddy’s bar is a bleak and generally empty space.  It is occasionally packed on special occasions in service of the plot, but for the most part  has no clientele and merely serves as an echo-chamber for the inane bickering of the cast.  This isolation is further underscored in the exterior establishing shots that invariably depict the bar as standing alone in a beaten-down warehouse district devoid of all humanity, a place where one expects to see a tumbleweed blow by festooned with used condoms and dirty syringes (at left, L.A. exterior used for Paddy's--courtesy Flickr Yousuba&!).

American comedy is frequently concerned with the invisible shell-game of “class,” typically in ways that stylize poverty to make it either a momentary comic irruption in middle-class life or the launching pad for eventual middle-class success.  Sunny, on the other hand, is particularly candid in examining the thin line dividing crippling destitution from out-and-out homelessness.   Given their location, the gang is constantly mixing with addicts, prostitutes, criminals, and—perhaps most magically—various shady characters that Frank and Charlie meet “under the bridge.”  Slightly better off than their neighbors, the gang’s relation to the human misery all around them is like that of most Americans—instrumental indifference (their repeated dealings with “Cricket" come to mind).  Building on this bedrock of a permanent underclass with no possibilities or aspirations, individual episodes often focus on the particularly American delusion--cultivated by almost everyone occupying a position other than Fortune 500 CFO or crack whore—that every citizen of the USA  is middle-class and rising.  Dennis, Dee, and Mac (Rob McElhenney), in particular, are constantly misjudging their positions on the economic, educational, and cultural ladder (Frank and Charlie (Charlie Day), for different reasons, don’t appear to care one way or another).

If nothing else, Sunny signifies how far television has come from the days of Buffalo Bill.  A noble one-season failure in 1983-84, Buffalo Bill was a much-heralded MTM sitcom starring Dabney Coleman.  The show garnered a lot of attention as the first sitcom to feature a lead character who was often “unlikeable” (a matter of judgment, obviously, as all of us no doubt have a sitcom lead from the 50s, 60s, or 70s we would like to punch in the face.  I’m looking at you, Hawkeye).   With Sunny we have an entire ensemble of assholes.

With one notable exception, perhaps unexpected in the show's original design.  Despite the program's general commitment to venal nastiness, Frank and Charlie’s warped father-son vibe has become somewhat of a moral anchor for the series.  Frank, again, has lived the middle-class “dream” of marriage, kids, and a house in the ‘burbs—but has decided, rather courageously, that he’d rather crash in a horrifying studio apartment and devote his time and energy to getting fucked up and laid as much as possible.  Meanwhile, his room and Murphy-bedmate Charlie is the show’s sole remaining innocent, a guy that one could imagine, given the right circumstances, might end up institutionalized either out of injustice, inconvenience, or a simple misunderstanding.   Like the rest of them, Charlie has his schemes.  But he also seems relatively content to never leave Philadelphia so that he might continue devoting his life to trapping the bar’s prodigious rat population.   

So, to summarize: uninformed, narcissistic idiots constantly arguing at cross-purposes, standing in a dying business in a dying neighborhood, ceaselessly scheming their way toward greater class mobility and failing utterly, but protected from their unrelenting idiocy by the residual capital reserves of their putative father—what could be more American than that?

The Deadly Duo (1959)

Richard Jessup
Dell Books

Brunette sister is briefly married to the son of a rich British family.  They have a boy, separate, and then the husband dies in an accident.  Since the brunette is American trash, her aristocratic mother-in-law is determined that the boy shall be raised as befits his lineage.  She offers a cool five million for the brunette to hand the kid over, but no dice.  Enter the brunette's trashy blond sister, a bosomy has-been Hollywood actress who needs the scratch and needs it bad.  Blondie tells sister she would be a sucker not to take the money.  But blood is thicker than five million, at least for the brunette, and she refuses.  Looks like Blondie will have to take matters into her own hands...with murder!

Despite the intriguing premise of sororicide, this one has nothing really to recommend it.  Jessup later adapted the book into a film in 1962, directed by Reginald Le Borg.  Of course, in the Hollywood version, the sisters ended up being identical twins, either to cut down on acting costs or for greater uncanny bafflement. 

The Greatest Secret Finally Told (n.d.)

John Daniel
End Times Messages

Another entry into the always popular "who is the beast?" of Biblical 666 fame.  Before the big reveal, however, Daniel wants you to take note of the fact that various streets in Washington D.C. connect in such a way as to reveal a pentagram, evidence that the "Founding Fathers" were stone cold occultists.  From here we turn to the Washington Monument and its origins in the pagan cult of sun worship dating back to ancient Egypt and the story of Isis and Osiris.  Easter, as it turns out, is a remnant of this era, while church steeples are symbols of Osiris' phallus restored.  Some numbers are then brought out that add up to 666 in various ways, moving us to the central enigma--who is Mr. 666 (or less likely, Ms. 666)?

It's the pope.  Which pope?  Any and all popes.  Pontifex Maximus across history is the "beast."  "Rome" has always been the enemy of "true" Christianity and always will be--that is until Jesus returns and kicks Catholic ass.  In the meantime, the USA is destined to remain the military wing of Rome.  This is because Jesuits and Freemasons streamed into the American colonies in the mid-18th century to counteract the creation of a new Protestant nation.

Fairly standard anti-Catholic rant, but points for making Mr. 666 an abstract title rather than a specific individual.  Mr. Daniel has another book/pamphlet (left), The Grand Design Exposed.

Exploded Fortress of Solitude

If you plan on being in London anytime in the next couple of months, I recommend you check out the new exhibit by American artist, Mike Kelley, at the Gagosian Gallery (6-24 Britannia Street). Exploded Fortress of Solitude bookends an earlier show at the Gagosian in Los Angeles (Kandor 10 / Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #34, Kandor 12 / Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #35)--both exhibitions staging an momentary point of exchange between Kelley's series of Kandor sculptures and his ongoing 365-part EAPR project.  In the interests of self-promotional full disclosure, I should say up front that I wrote the essay for the exhibit catalog (forthcoming from Rizzoli), so I am a particularly enthusiastic supporter of the show.

For those who don't know Kelley's work, the Kandor series is an ongoing sculptural project based on the "shrunken city" of Kandor featured in the silver-age Superman comics.  The capital of Krypton, Kandor was miniaturized and stolen by the evil Brainiac moments before the destruction of Superman's home planet.  At some point, Superman himself came into possession of the tiny city and its citizens, securing them beneath a large bell jar in his fabled Fortress of Solitude until he could find a way to return the Kandorians to their normal size (a task that took some 20 years of comic book time).  Fascinated by the fact that Kandor, as inked in the comic book, seemed to mutate into different forms with each new appearance, Kelley has over the past decade translated several of the comic panels into large sculptural form (Kandor 14 is to the left).  Like much of Kelley's work, the Kandor series plays with Freudian exchanges between the popular unconscious and the unconscious popularized, presenting Kandor as an insistent and quite literalized symptom of Superman's boyhood trauma.  In many ways, the sculptural pieces expand upon a reading of the Superman mythos that Kelley first introduced in 1999 with Superman Recites Selections from The Bell Jar and Other Works by Sylvia Plath, a video that
presents exactly what the title suggests--Superman reading The Bell Jar to the bell jar that hangs over Kandor.  If you find that as hilarious and as poignant as I do, I highly recommend taking a look at the catalog from the 2007 Kandors exhibition in Berlin. At the current London exhibit, the Kandors range in size from small table-top studies to the immense installation, Exploded Fortress of Solitude (at top), which requires the viewer to step inside to view a hidden Kandor 10B.  And even if you have little to no interest in Superman and/or Freud, the Kandors are well worth seeing if only for the beautiful play with color and texture that runs through the series.  Each is, in its own way, a truly remarkable object.

The EAPR series, meanwhile, is an ongoing video/sculptural project based on Kelley's 1995 piece, Educational Complex.  Below is a description of this project taken from the catalog,  Mike Kelley Educational Complex Onwards: 1995-2008 (2010, JRP Ringier).

In 1995, Mike Kelley devised the Educational Complex, an amalgam of every school he attended and of the house he grew up in, "with all the parts I couldn't remember left out"--a total environment, "sort of like the model of a Modernist community college." The blind spots in this model represent forgotten ("repressed") zones, and so are reconceived by Kelley as sites of institutional abuse, for which specific traumas were devised (each having their own video and sculptural component). For Kelley, this work marks the beginning of a series of projects in which pseudo-autobiography, repressed-memory syndrome and the reinterpretation of previous pieces become the tools for a poetic deconstruction of such complexes and the way we interact with and narrate them.

The Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction project (EAPR) is to be a 365-part video/sculptural series addressing the "repressed" blank zones of Educational Complex.  Each EAPR is a promiscuous mix of personal memories, pop culture, and standardized "recovered memory" scenarios.  The London show debuts #36 in the series, "Vice Anglais," which imagines the life of Dante Gabriel Rossetti staged as a Hammer horror film.  Rossetti, displaced here as "M'Lord," leads a gang of perverts on a subterranean tour of debauchery, loosely organized around Rossetti's own famously salacious biography. Particularly stunning is the sudden appearance of M'Lord's muse, Golden Rod, an ambulatory yet mute corn cob creature apparently visible only to M'Lord.  At another point in the video, M'Lord wanders alone into a cavernous chamber and encounters--without explanation--the seemingly abandoned Kandor 10B. 

The London show also features a number of sculptural works independent of either the Kandor or EAPR series. Topo Gigio Topographical Model (detail at left) is a particular favorite of mine in its odd mixing of the whimsical and the creepy, a difficult tone that Kelley is particularly adept at achieving, here and elsewhere.

So if you're in the vicinity of Kings Cross, stop by and take a look. The exhibit runs through October 22 and the catalog should be available shortly thereafter. 

Faithful For 8 Hours (1963)

Alfred Blake
Beacon Signal B596F

At long last, a pulp that finally delivers exactly what it promises.  After graduating college and receiving a few good notices for his theater performances in the small town of Earth Hill, Idaho, virginal David Storm is heading to New York City to make it big on the stage.  His equally virginal sweetheart, Valerie, plans to stay behind in Idaho until David gets his career off the ground--then she will join him in the Big Apple for marriage and housewivery.

Arriving at La Guardia, David asks the cabbie where you can get a cheap but not horrible hotel in the city, one appropriate for "artistic" types looking to live inexpensively.  The cabbie smiles knowingly and dumps David in Greenwich Village.  No sooner is he set up in his room than he meets Laurel, an aspiring actress who quickly convinces the rubester to loan her twenty bucks.  They spend the night walking around the Village, Laurel introducing David to all the local haunts.  A perfect gentleman, David escorts her back to their hotel and says goodnight.

Next morning, he sees Laurel in a coffee shop. They have coffee.  Then they walk back to the hotel and Laurel tells David that she "likes him."  To bed they go, and just like that, David Storm is no longer a virgin.

He feels bad about it, what with Valerie still back in Idaho, but not so bad as to refuse an invitation from Tink Tinkers to go to a wild Village party the following evening.  Tink is a Village institution, known for her love of shocking and then seducing young men who have just arrived in the city.  True to form, she takes David to a party that features various world-weary bohemians and includes a "private" room for spontaneously staged sexual spectacles.  After watching two women making out in the private room, Tink and David return to her place.  Her plan has worked, and David is now twice-removed from his virginity.

And so it continues.  Next he beds Dee, the sister of an experimental, weirdo playwright, and then, after scoring a role in an off-Broadway production, David sleeps with his co-star Mert.

Meanwhile, back in Idaho, Valerie has her hands full repelling the attention of local boys who sense David is probably gone for good.  After a few defensive nights at the drive-in, she finally has one drink too many and loses her virginity to a local yokel named Ben.  She feels bad about it, like David did, but decides there's nothing she can do about it now.  But she is determined she must meet David in New York and soon as possible, and so she heads down to the bus station.

By the end, David has gotten a small part in an actual Broadway show and his career is looking promising.  He also realizes he's fallen in love with Laurel.  She feels the same; moreover, she's tired of hanging around the Village pretending she's going to be an actress some day.  She just wants to settle down with the right man, and that right man is David.

Valerie, meanwhile, arrives in the Village and finds out about David's impressive series of conquests during the previous week.  She decides to make him jealous by circulating in the same circles.  At one of Tink's decadent parties, various Village sharks circle around Valerie to see who will be the first to defile her.  Then, suddenly, a character named "Art Sanson," previously the most senior, cynical and debauched of this little circle, realizes Valerie is an innocent, beautiful Goddess that must be saved and protected.  He chases away the sharks and embarks on a "real" relationship with Valerie.  So everyone's happy in the end. 

A particularly great feature of this pulp is the handy time-line on the back cover, which gives us a precise accounting of David's sexual encounters during his first week in the Village by date and time.  Note also that David, despite being from Idaho, is identified on the back cover as arriving from Ohio--no doubt because the New York copy editor for this book didn't know or didn't care about the difference between the two.  After all, both have some 'i's, 'o's and 'h's in the them, so who cares. 

How to Be Cool (1997)

Suzanne Weyn
Simon Spotlight

Michelle, of Full House fame, is saddened that her classmates do not consider her to be as "cool" as Loreen, who everyone agrees is extraordinarily cool.  After consulting some teen fashion magazines, Michelle cuts diamond-shaped holes into all of her clothes and dyes her hair blue.  Unfortunately, this has only minimal impact in elevating her cool quotient at school.  She is also momentarily humiliated when her blue hair dye attracts bees during a big soccer match, compelling her to opt instead for a Halloween wig that she cuts to be hip and spiky.  Renaming herself "Jet," Michelle's new persona begins to have the desired effect at school.  After bragging about her talent for playing the electric guitar, "Jet" is invited by the supercool Loreen and her boyfriend Spike to join them in rehearsals for the upcoming talent show, an invitation happily accepted by the now extremely cool Michelle/Jet. Though she doesn't play guitar, she is confident her uncle can teach her in a week.  After joining the band, Jet quits the soccer team and begins to ditch her life-long friends, actions that are roundly criticized by other members of the "full house."  The night before the big rehearsal, Jet remembers that she still can't play guitar and so she tries to cram all her lessons into one night.  As this is impossible, Jet devises a scheme whereby she will pretend her electric guitar is broken so that she can have more time to learn.  This plan, of course, goes horribly awry, and in the end Jet has to admit she can't play the guitar.  Moreover, she misses soccer and her old friends, so she decides to go back to being plain, old, boring "Michelle."  Everyone agrees Michelle is pretty cool just as she is.

Generation X: Still Relentlessly and Hopelessly Screwed

If you were born in 1970, you certainly don’t need me to tell you that you recently turned 40.  Nor do I need to tell you that you are smack dab in the middle of that grumpiest of demographics, "Generation X" (a term variously deployed through the century, but most commonly associated with Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel about the post-boomer baby-busters). While the exact parameters of this generation remain unclear (some go as wide as 1960 to 1982, others as narrow as 1965 to 1979), X’ers have long been regarded as the most cynical, detached, and ironic of population clusters.  Boomers, the logic goes, got all the good jobs and prime real estate, while Gen Y (aka, “the millennials”) got a renewed sense of earnestness, enthusiasm, and optimism.  X marks the spot in between—those pissed off at baby-boomers for their narcissistic entitlement and pissed off at the millennials for not being more pissed off.  Terrifyingly, Generation X is now beginning to send its own kids out into the world—a group that so far has yet to generate an appropriately pithy label (although “Generation Z” and “Generation Text” seem the most likely contenders). 

Of these four admittedly amorphous categories, why do X-er’s in general remain the grouchiest?   After all, being a member of Generation Y is no picnic, especially if all your earnestness, enthusiasm, and optimism eventually force you to move back in with your parents.  Generation Z, meanwhile, may well be the most screwed of them all.  Luckily, as most Z’s have only a vague memory of the pre-Bush v. Gore world, they’ve known nothing but escalating bullshit for their entire lives.  They thus have no baseline of non-suckitude to cultivate bitterness or nostalgia.  Generation X’s “bad attitude,” on the other hand, has always been a function of living in the boomer shadows—culturally, economically, politically, and so on.

Just how resentful is X?  Two movies currently coursing their way through the tributaries of paid cable speak to the diabolical nature of the X-dilemma: Greenberg (2010) with Ben Stiller and Everything Must Go (2010) with Will Ferrell.  Do not be deceived by the fact that both films were aggressively marketed as comedies—they are not.  In fact, if you are a few years either side of 40, I would be sure to give yourself a break between the two screenings so that you don’t end up eating a box of razorblades.

Greenberg’s ad campaign positioned the film as just another comedy of regressed masculinity: 40-something man-child moves to L.A. and realizes the time has come to grow up (in L.A. no less!).  This has become something of an idée fixe in contemporary film comedy over the past decade.  The 40-Year Old Virgin, Knocked-Up, I Love You, Man, and Step Brothers are all, in varying degrees, about guys creeping up on 40 who need to put their toys away (literally) so that they can successfully impregnate a woman (I have yet to see Our Idiot Brother, but I’m willing to guess it has its own unique take on this genre).   The back-story here is that Greenberg (Stiller), born and bred in L.A., has spent the past fifteen years working in New York as a carpenter.  Recently released from a mental hospital after a breakdown of some kind, Greenberg returns to L.A. to housesit for his brother and sister-in-law while they visit Vietnam.  He also boasts it is his opportunity to “do nothing” for a while, a life goal that his eventual love interest Florence (Greta Gerwig) finds courageous, given his age.  Of course, the sad joke is that Greenberg has been committed to doing nothing for his entire life—it is up to us and the less-than-stable, twenty-something Florence to figure out why. 

From there, Greenberg runs the table on the various humiliations of the mid-life crisis scenario. There is the delusional fantasy of rekindling a romance with an old flame who has long since transformed into another person entirely.  Incensed at how stupid and poorly run everything is, Greenberg spends hours everyday firing off angry letters to anonymous institutions (like Starbucks), tirades that are to be read as feeble evasions from taking control of his own life.  When his niece arrives and throws a big house party, a coked-up Greenberg (in probably the film’s best scene) delivers an agitated generational rant against “these kids today” and their wholly unearned sense of confidence (a recurring X-er complaint about the young ones).  There is also the age-inappropriate haircut that Stiller gamely endures for the entire film. 

Eventually we learn that the great trauma in Greenberg’s life, as well as among his former circle of friends, was the formation and subsequent break-up of their "next-big-thing" rock band back in the early 90s.  On the verge of making it to the national stage, Greenberg refused to sign a record deal that, he claims, would have sacrificed the band’s artistic freedom and turned them into "sell-outs."  Such is the central conceit of Gen-X cinema: the only moral compass that really matters in the end is the issue of subcultural authenticity, a divide as old as the celebrated case of Punk v. Part-Time Punk. Everyone else, as it turns out, would have gladly become plastic popsters, and they all still resent Greenberg for screwing everything up.

This premise, it should be noted, speaks to a certain contradiction in this genre.  If, as the film argues so adamantly, Greenberg (and by extension all X-er’s) need to “grow up” and become functional adults, then it would seem he did his band mates a favor by breaking up their adolescent fantasy machine and forcing them into real jobs with real wives and real kids.  Strangely, however, no one sees it that way.

Will Ferrell’s “Nick Halsey,” meanwhile, has taken a different route in Everything Must Go.  When we first meet Nick, a slimy twenty-something is firing him from his job as Assistant Vice President.  Halsey, we learn, is a recovering alcoholic, and his termination stems from a relapse at the Denver office that may or may not have led to the sexual harassment of a co-worker.  On the way home, Halsey loads up with some 12-packs to make his fall off the wagon official.  Arriving at his home, however, he finds that his wife has thrown all of his possessions out on the front lawn, changed the locks, and left a note demanding a divorce.  Dealt this double-whammy of adult problems on the same day, Nick takes the one reasonable course of action available—he decides to live on his front lawn for a few days in a drunken stupor until he can figure things out. 

From this inspired premise (courtesy of Raymond Carver), Everything Must Go doesn’t really know what to do with Ferrell or the situation.  Through movie logic we establish that Nick has five days to get his shit together (literally, by clearing his lawn, and figuratively, by devising a plan for the future).  Nick spends the five days checking off many of the same plot points that occupy Greenberg.  He also revisits an old romantic possibility, showing up unannounced on the doorstep of single-mom Laura Dern. Nick also finds a twenty-something woman (Rebecca Hall) to feel his pain—a new neighbor that seems to have relationship problems of her own.  Nick eventually learns “everything must go” in a giant garage sale, except of course for his impressive collection of vintage and thus authentic vinyl (there’s that Gen-X line in the sand again—it’s all about the good taste of appreciating “real” music, a quality that, in truth, does tend to make every male over 35 basically insufferable).

The strongest link between Greenberg and Everything Must Go, however, is a rather relentlessly heteronormative insistence that the only thing preventing both characters from achieving happiness is successful reproduction.  Greenberg is unmarried and childless at 40, while Nick notes, when asked if he has any kids, that he and his wife “have fish” (a collection of Koi swimming in the back yard).  Drunk and crossing the line with his new and very pregnant neighbor, Nick predicts how her marriage will eventually fall apart just like his (as a salesman, Nick prides himself on “reading people”)—but by the end, when her absentee husband finally arrives, her prodigious baby-bump tells us maybe, just maybe, they’ll be okay. 

Of course, stepping straight from the “irresponsible” narcissism of childlessness to becoming a dad is not something that can be done in one step.  Happily, both films provide their dysfunctional X-er’s with a “training child” so they can get some practice first.  Greenberg must care for a suddenly ailing German Shepard, forming a temporary interspecies family with Florence.  Nick, meanwhile, temporarily adopts a chubby, fatherless neighborhood kid to help with his garage sale (“Will you teach me to play baseball?,” the kid asks at one point.  No, I’m not kidding, he really does say this).  As the film ends, we sense Nick is probably only a few months away from acquiring the necessary skills to take over in the Dern household (he’s been invited back, once he gets his life in order). 

Now, here is what makes Greenberg and Everything Must Go such a diabolical one-two X’er punch.  Nick goes to college, gets married, gets a job, buys a house, and works like a chump for 15 years—only to be end up divorced and miserable on his front lawn.  Greenberg, meanwhile, stays “true to himself,” refusing to join the rat race of marriage, work, and responsibility—only to end up institutionalized, alone, and borderline suicidal.  The generational message for 40-somethings could not be any starker:  work or don’t work, marry or don’t marry, join society or reject society—it doesn’t matter, you’re fucked either way.  Goddamn boomers!

I think my favorite of this genre remains Step Brothers (2009), featuring Ferrell once again, this time alongside John C. Reilly.  It is a much broader, borderline gross-out comedy that actually seems more intellectually honest than either Greenberg or Everything Must Go.  Ferrell and Reilly play two guys in their mid-30s who, having been insulated from the "real world" by virtue of their rich single parents, basically live the dream-lives of 14 year-old boys. When the parents get married, the two must learn to live together as "step brothers," which they do blissfully until thrown out to fend for themselves.  As each takes the first tentative steps toward adulthood, there is a major falling out and ongoing feud.  What is their reward for becoming adults?  They both become incredibly boring and generally miserable.  Courageously, the film finds a way for them to remain "independent" at the end while also allowing them to regress back into their personas of endless adolescence.  I haven't read Judith Halberstam's new book on The Queer Art of Failure yet, but Step Brothers seems a likely candidate for inclusion. 

For those annoyed, finally, that this genre is so obsessively focused on retarded masculinity, you might want to check out The Future (2011), written and directed by Miranda July.  Here the specter of adopting a sick cat sends a 30-something couple into a major life crisis, constituted in large part by their realization that by the time the cat dies (in about five years), they’ll both be 40 (“and 40 is the new 60,” they both agree in classic anti-Boomer logic).  From here the film becomes an art cinema hallucination with July suddenly and seemingly randomly having an affair with a 50-something man, presumably because he’s an actual adult who owns an actual house.  I’d write more about it, but as that would require me accessing a form of subjectivity that I don’t fully understand, I’ll leave it there.  Some, I’m told, find July’s movies insufferably cutesy, but I appreciated the fact that the film made at least some attempt to escape the scourge of Hollywood naturalism. And it was nice, for a change, to see a woman as the center of all the generational floundering. 

Standing in a Miracle (2002)

The Virgin Mary (as channeled by Carolyn Kwiecinski)
Heavenly Grace Foundation

With nothing much else going on at the moment, the Virgin Mary decides to manifest at a prayer group in central Michigan.  "Received" each month by Ms. Kwiecinski, Mary dispenses some homilies about love, prayer, faith, and generally being a good Catholic.  This book provides a transcript of each visitation.

Pretty standard stuff, although there is the fascinating detail in the introduction that the published text has been approved by "the Bishop of Lansing."  First, I had no idea that Catholic bureaucracy had become so extensive that even Lansing warranted a Bishop.  I thought that was usually a multi-state jurisdiction, not multi-county.  At any rate, the Bishop of Lansing apparently reviewed this manuscript for "theological error and harmony with church doctrine."  Now, I find this somewhat extraordinary.  If all involved really believe the Virgin Mary is speaking through Ms. Kwiecinski, then who is the Bishop of Lansing to edit her eternal wisdom? On the other hand, if the Bishop of Lansing received this manuscript and thought, "oh great, someone else thinks Mary is talking through them," than why would he be complicit in fostering such (extra)-delusional behavior? 

Of course, this is the dilemma that has faced the clergy for centuries now--encouraging abstract belief in supernatural intervention on the one hand while taking care to monitor and thus police the "authenticity" of any specific manifestation of said supernaturalism.  Whether she knows it or not, Ms. Kwiecinski is practicing good-old fashioned Spiritualism.  But because she channels "Blessed Mary" rather than simply an ordinary dead person, the Church seems willing to give her a pass.

You might be wondering at this point, as I was, just what is Mary's rank in the Church.  I conclude with the following answer to a FAQ about the Virgin Mother: 

When a Catholic, out of ignorance, calls the Blessed Virgin Mary by the title of "Divine Mary," that person creates problems for the Catholic Church. Such a title gives the Protestants sufficient reason to say that Catholics view Mary as a God and they worship her. Catholics do not worship Mary; they worship Jesus through Mary. Nor do they consider Mary to be God or equal to God.

Remember, it's all about making sure those stupid Protestants don't get even more ammunition to attack the Pope!

Payment in Sin (1961)

Kay Martin
MacFadden 50-201

Beautiful Julia works the fair circuit selling "Hollywood" cosmetics to rubes and yokels.  She's doing so well she even just hired an assistant to help her with the pitch--plus she's caught the eye of Larry, the money and brains behind the carnival retailing circuit.

But Julia has a problem.

Years ago, when she first came to New York City to be a model, Julia dated a young kid named Lenni, the shy son of the owner of the modeling agency.  They had some kicks at first, but Julia eventually realized she didn't love Lenni and so she gradually broke it off.  Lenni was devastated.  So much so that he eventually shot himself dead straight through the temple.

At first Lenni's death didn't seem to affect Julia all that much, but eventually she began to have the compulsion to go out for "walks," which stands here as code for brutal, dehumanizing sex with complete strangers (or as the back cover puts it tastefully, "Anything in Pants").

Payment in Sin focuses on a fateful week in Julia's life as she tries to put the old ways behind her, working her booth at the fair and imagining a possible future with Larry.  Unfortunately, after six months on the straight and narrow, a nip of the demon gin brings back all the guilt and the irresistible desire to once again go "walking."

Author Martin handles this nicely by dividing Julia's world into two kingdoms--there is the big arena where respectable Julia sells cosmetics alongside other itinerant merchants, and there is the "fun zone," a sleazy midway of carnival rides and sideshows where slutty Julia goes for her "walks."  There she hooks up with Roddy O'Bannion, drunken son of the drunken sod who runs the Peep Show.  As you can imagine, Roddy is a real winner.  Soon they're both plastered and rolling around after hours on the stripper stage, a session that culminates with Roddy throwing some punches and putting out a cigarette on Julia's skin.

When she wakes up a few hours later, shame and remorse have set in.  She tries to sneak out and back to her hotel, but Roddy has other ideas.  He wants to go get his friend "Tuscaloosa"--a skinny, pimply kid who works the midway--so they can have a little "3-way" action.  Julia manages to escape before Tuscaloosa gets back...but her troubles are only really beginning.

The crisis grows more acute as Julia tries to evade the unwanted attentions of Roddy and Tuscaloosa while also trying to keep things going with the long-suffering and incredibly patient "Larry."  And of course, these two worlds must eventually collide.

If you examine the cover of this book closely, there is a note that  Kay Martin is "the author of the $10,000 Putnam Award Novel."  I doubt Payment in Sin was the winning entry (and strangely, in the age of Google, I can't seem to find which book did actually win Martin the prize)--but the book is certainly a cut above the standard sleazer.  And that cover!  Everyone should smoke with that expression on his or her face.