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Kramer vs Kramer vs Consumerism

There are films that never lose their emotional wallop, despite how many times you’ve seen them. Steel Magnolias, The Color Purple, Stella Dallas and An Affair To Remember come to mind. There is no element of surprise in the viewing; in fact the memorized dialogue and outcome are part of the pleasure. But the way in which the stories are crafted pull the viewer in for the punch. Of course there are reasons to revisit a dramatic film besides an opportunity to use tissues and visine. Films can tell us an awful lot about how we lived or thought. A film is fantasy of course, but it is a reflection of a director, screenwriter or producer’s viewpoint. Attitudes portrayed about gender, race, sexuality and religion are often an accurate reflection of the time. A film shot in the early 1970s will not only look very early 1970s but sound it too. Women might be referred to as “girls” or “honey,” bottoms might be patted. Generally, if non-white actors appear it’s to make a point. The storyline probably has nothing to do with any of these details, but the details are telling nonetheless.

You might remember the film; Kramer vs Kramer. (For those who don’t; it was a cutting-edge tale of divorce and custody starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, set in New York City.) The emotional wallop of the film doesn’t diminish with time. Much of what will rip you to shreds is the incredible performance of (8 year-old) Justin Henry. You’d have to be made of stone to not crumble at the raw hurt and anger on his face. Meryl Streep’s eyes do most of her talking. She has perhaps twenty lines and expresses pages and pages of dialogue with her eyes. The viewer understands everything about these people and their anguish. But there is also (now) a story on the periphery of that story. The year is 1979 and times were decidedly different. The family is middle class (daddy works in advertising.) They are educated people living in a two-bedroom high-rise apartment uptown. The child attends a neighborhood school and they frequent Central Park. Sounds rather timeless, no? It’s what you don’t see that is so telling. The family (before they weren’t one) is living comfortably on one salary. There is no car, there is no private school and there is no luxury. The child’s bedroom has been hand-painted with clouds by the creatively frustrated mother. (In 1979 this was considered somewhat decadent.) However, there is no Pottery Barn kid’s furniture or matching bedding and window treatment. There are some books, some toys, and later a framed photo of mommy. The chaos that ensues with mommy’s departure is linked to the time period. There are no babysitters or nannies on call or even in existence. (Nannies were still for the posh or the British.) Daddy must master grocery shopping and food preparation as take-away was not ubiquitous and children did not dine out. Luckily for daddy there are no play-dates (there is only play) and there are no enrichment programs or team sports for a first-grader.

Now no one would suggest that the late 1970s were halcyon times. The demise of the marriage in question hinged on the fact that the wife felt marginalized. She left her husband and child to “find herself” (aka get some analysis and a job.) But had the marriage worked, and had she felt able to go out and get a job, their lifestyle wouldn’t be that much different. There’d be an after-school babysitter no doubt. But the minimalistic consumption wouldn’t alter. Sure, she might need some work clothes, but shopping wasn’t a legitimate hobby in the 1970s. New appliances would’ve only been purchased if every attempt at repair had been exhausted. There were no strollers being sold for the same price as a moped. In short, they would have had more money and more time (not running from expenditure to expenditure) than they would today. Something to contemplate while watching the film and choking back the tears

 

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The Generational Divide is Garbage

Social scientists (and critics) are forever trying to decipher a generational fulcrum that transcends the year one was born. What is today’s quick and easy litmus test to discern wherein lies your allegiance? A dozen years ago email was the magic crystal. Those who preferred it to telephone calls were clearly in the “What’s an answering machine?” camp. How one experiences media is a favorite litmus of seers today. Still watching television on a television? It might be time to up your iron and ginkoba. Still reading printed materials? Have you updated your long-term care policy lately?

The sticking point with some of these formulas is that they tend to rely too much on new technology. While it’s true that in broad terms, younger people are more intrigued/gullible and will adopt any and everything new, it is also true that some older people will do the same. There are younger people (we’ll call them hipsters) who actually eschew technology and/or gadgets. They choose to demonstrate their rugged individualism by roughing it with LPs, land lines, a pocket full of quarters and a mental map of pay phones. There are people well past their retirement age who are wickedly plugged in. Some of these seniors use technology to literally and figuratively connect with their grandchildren (“hey if I buy something new, Braydon/Aiden/Jayden will come over and set it up.”) Other older tech adopters actually like technology and enjoy staying current.

What might be a more useful tipping point is that of consumption habit. Without any data whatsoever, and armed only with a dark sinking sense of the world leaving me behind, I posit that generation Y and incoming Zs, view major consumer goods as disposable. There was a time when purchasing a television (that thing that older people use to watch programs) was a major event. They were expensive and the size of a credenza. They got smaller but remained pricey for quite some time. A 30-inch color television set was a lavish retirement or 35th anniversary gift. If something went awry with the set a repairman could be summoned to the house. When is the last time you saw a television repair shop? Was it somewhere near a pay phone? People not only toss a set into the trash when it falls ill, but toss perfectly healthy sets when it’s time to “upgrade.” As televisions get smaller, flatter and then bigger again, people buy them. The programs haven’t changed, but we feel more accomplished watching it on a brand-new device. Now, it’s not a hard and fast rule, but you’d be hard pressed to find people of a certain age tossing out perfectly good appliances. Generation X and boomers may adopt new technology, but they don’t necessarily toss the old stuff out. (Is it all that surprising that older people see the worth in older things?) Don’t believe me? Let’s take a virtual road trip to Florida. Fear not, I have a cooler of whole foods and an iPod set on shuffle. We’ll be fine. Let’s pull into a gated retirement community shall we? Now surely there are no discarded t.v.s dotting the sidewalks. And good thing too, can you imagine the hazard to pedestrians and golf cart drivers? After visiting many of these communities you will see that…Oops, what’s that?! A rather new looking set with a friendly sign stating; “perfectly good set. my son the big guy with the fancy banking job bought me a new set. if you can show me how the hell to turn it on, this perfectly good set that I liked very much is yours for free.”

Things aren’t made as well as they once were. No one would argue that. But cars really should last more than ten years, no? Furniture (unless it came with a plate of swedish meatballs) should last between twenty years and forever. Though you wouldn’t know it to look at a landfill, appliances do in fact last longer than their style or color fashion. However there are generations without any first hand knowledge of a depression, military draft or odd and even days at the gas station, whose orientation to big ticket items is that of disposability. Capitalism, consumerism, it’s what makes the world go round. There’s nothing wrong with that. But there is something telling about generations who covet the newest iPod simply because it’s new. To put it into generation X terms; Do you remember how you clutched that hard won walkman with all your might? Do you remember the months of babysitting, lawn mowing or burger slinging that bought you that little box? How much birthday/christmas/graduation pleading led to that cherished high tech gadget? You kept that sucker past the ill-fated discman didn’t you? There is no shame in that, but for the record you’re now probably too old to take up wakeboarding; says the woman who ain’t too proud to tweet she prefers David Cassidy to Justin Bieber.

 
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Posted by on July 30, 2012 in Cultural Critique, Media/Marketing

 

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