Can a movie really define a generation? The Social Network comes damn close. It uses the tangled roots of Facebook, created by anti-social Harvard undergrad Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) to show how technology is winning the battle against actual human contact, creating a nation of narcissists shaping their own reality like a Facebook page. If youth can't see itself in this movie, it's just not paying attention. Here are 12 other movies from the past half century that caught a generation in the act of defining itself.
A never-better James Dean, in the only one of his three starring roles that ironically did not get him an Oscar nomination, captures teen alienation better than anyone had up till that point. Dean's death at 24 the year of Rebel's release cemented his iconic status. As his character Jim Stark tells a cop: "If I had one day when I didn't have to be all confused, and didn't have to feel that I was ashamed of everything, if I felt that I belonged someplace…"
No one expected that this tale of 1930's-era bank robbers, played by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, would reflect a 1960's world of sex, violence and a need to rebel. But it did. Director Arthur Penn, who died this week, used his movie to mirror the world in which he lived. He succeeded in classic style.
Dustin Hoffman's Benjamin Braddock gets out of college with no hint of where to go ("Plastics?") at a time when every other graduate seems to be starting a revolution. Time has only enhanced this satire's comic bite. Some scenes could be right out of The Social Network, as when Benjamin's asks Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the older, married woman he's screwing, "Do you think we could say a few words to each other this time?"
Stanley Kubrick gave the 1960's a head trip to define itself in this futuristic tale of space travel. It seems prescient now that HAL 9000, the film's hero and villain, is a machine with a human fear of death: "I'm afraid," he famously tells Dave, the astronaut who disconnects him: "Dave, stop. My mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it."
When Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper hopped on their hogs to find "the real America," young America followed. This low-budget hippie road trip was so successful it changed the way movies were made in Hollywood. Youth was king to a soundtrack with a hard vibe of sex, drugs and rock & roll. Fonda's final line still resonates: "We blew it."
Stanley Kubrick headed into the future again, after 2001, in an odyssey of brutality that added song and dance to a rape scene and showed humanity draining from its characters. It's still chilling to listen to Malcolm McDowell talk to his droogs, getting hyped up on drugs at the Korova Milkbar to "make ready for a bit of the old ultraviolence."
For a while there, a generation longed to be reporters like Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) and use a scandal like Watergate to topple a corrupt President and his government. As Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards, Jr.) tells his star journalists: "Nothing's riding on this except the First Amendment of the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country." How that's working out, do you think?
You don't have to live in galaxy far, far away to see yourself in George Lucas' hymn, disguised as a space adventure, to youth in revolt. What kid doesn't identify with Han Solo (Harrison Fod) climbing into a broken-down spaceship and heading off to parts unknown? Forget the second trilogy that went nowhere, the Force is still with the first Star Wars.
The worship of music is inherent in any generation, and Rob Reiner's fake documentary (it mocks the thing it loves) is the greatest rock movie ever. Low-budget and largely improvised, the film tells the tale of a bogus band of heavy-metal Brits: Christopher Guest's Nigel Tufnel, Michael McKean's David St. Hubbins and Harry Shearer's Derek Smalls. Together with Reiner, who plays the documentarian Marty DiBergi, these comics came up with an unpredictably poignant portrait of rock and the people who live for it. It's not just a comedy, it's a love story. And it goes all the way to eleven.
When writer-director John Hughes died last year, many of us took stock of how strong an effect his movies had on us. For anyone who grew up with The Breakfast Club — just five kids sitting around talking during detention — the memories are bittersweet. And the cast — Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Ally Sheedy, Emilio Estevez and Judd Nelson — seem cemented in that time and poignant place.
Spike Lee's third movie — and still his best — is set during one summer day in the black Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Lee plays Mookie, stuck making deliveries for Sal's Famous Pizza, a joint run by Italian-American Sal (Danny Aiello) and his sons. When Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) enters Sal's with his boom box playing Public Enemy's "Fight the Power," Sal's temper flares. He smashes the radio that is Raheem's pride. Police, white, are called. Raheem, choked by a cop's nightstick, dies, and a pent-up fury is released. Lee offers a towering portrait of black America pushed to the limit.
Coming full circle here, back to a film directed by The Social Network's David Fincher. It's another zeitgeist epic. How do you not relate to a movie that pulls you in, challenges your prejudices, rocks your world and leaves you laughing in the face of an abyss. Edward Norton gives a career-best performance as a white-collar work slave who meets his polar opposite, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt, never more dynamic). It's Tyler who introduces this insomniac "Ikea Boy" to fight club, where men get in touch with their feelings by pummeling each other to a bloody pulp. Talk about defining a generation. After opening poorly at the box-office, Fight Club achieved status as an uncompromising American classic on DVD.