I have a Baby Boomer friend who is a senior manager at a Silicon Valley tech firm, and he was recently running a meeting with his staff, which consists entirely of millennials. He was discussing a problem the team was having and observed, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”
Blank looks all around.
No one had ever heard that line before.
Of course, that line is from the classic 1967 prison drama Cool Hand Luke, which is a seminal film for the entire Baby Boomer generation. The fact that none of the Millennials around the table had ever heard this line was one of those throw-your-hands-up-in-the-air moments. What my friend had on his hands there was truly a failure to communicate.
There are certain universal cultural landmarks that transcend time and generations. Regardless of your age or generation, just about everyone knows things like “Play it, Sam, play it again.” from Casablanca (1942). Or the words to the poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” or Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” or the opening sequence of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.
Some works of popular art, however, are distinctly owned by particular generations and seem lost on those who come after that certain moment in time. For instance, the Andrews Sisters and The Greatest Generation. Whenever I hear “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” all I can think of is my dad waxing rhapsodic about how perfect that song is. My grandmother would go on and on about Rudolph Valentino and “The Sheik.” And I learned to never get my grandmother going about crooners in the 1940s. “They slur all the words and sound like they’re drunk!” she would complain. To be honest, she kinda had a point.
So here goes, Millennials. While you still have to labor under a Baby Boomer boss (and don’t worry, our time on center stage is passing quickly away), here are five movies you really need to watch.
The other night I watched Out of Sight (1998) and there’s that scene in a hotel room where George Clooney takes off his shirt and stands at the opposite side of the bed from Jennifer Lopez and I always think to myself: “Wow, he’s ALMOST as completely gorgeous as Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke.” The movie is a prison drama, and Paul Newman is a Christ-like figure who rebels against the violent and cruel prison leadership of Strother Martin. The great Boomer generation movies are often about one theme that defined our experiences growing up and coming of age—rebellion. There was no shortage of legitimate things for us to rebel against. (And some dumb things we rebelled against, too, but that’s another story.) We rebelled against the lifestyle, the aspirations, and the cultural attitudes of our parents’ generation. Cool Hand Luke is a great movie, often forgotten nowadays, but critical to understanding Boomers’ attitudes about authority. Plus, no kidding, as this movie illustrates, Paul Newman is the most beautiful man ever in the movies. Sorry, George Clooney.
Let’s be honest. This is not that good of a movie. But man, oh, man, do Boomers love it. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper are a couple of guys riding motorcycles around, discovering America. Jack Nicholson shows up as an alcoholic lawyer and joins them on their aimless journey. I will just say this: I’ve owned a DVD of this movie and have probably watched the opening sequence of Fonda and Hopper riding around on motorcycles while the soundtrack plays “Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf about fifty times. Want to know what every Boomer secretly dreams of doing? Riding around America on a motorcycle with no particular place to go. Oh, yeah…
“Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.” This line from near the end of this neo-noir crime masterpiece from a remarkable script by Robert Towne, starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, is a talismanic piece of dialogue for Boomers. It means you’re in a situation way over your head and trying to figure out what to do next is pointless because it is an inscrutable mess. If you’re in a meeting with a Boomer and are discussing a nearly unsolvable business problem, you may hear that Boomer say: “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.” Watch the movie and it’ll all make sense.
For my generation, the Vietnam War wasn’t some abstract, distant war that somebody else was fighting. It was a real, daily presence in our lives. One of my cousins fought there, as did three boys in my neighborhood fought there (one was killed). As we approached draft age and the war dragged on, each of us had to make a decision: would we serve in a war we mostly bitterly opposed? I was fortunate that I was a bit younger than draftable age by the time the US withdrew from the war, but I was 19 and had a draft number of 23 when Saigon fell in 1975. Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter was the first great movie about the Vietnam War and its impact on our generation. If you have never seen this movie, it’s time you did. An incredible cast that includes Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, John Savage, and John Cazale. I saw this in the movie theater when it first came out. In the final scene, a group of friends meet in a bar in a small town in Pennsylvania after the funeral for Christopher Walken’s character Nick, and they sing a melancholy version of “God Bless America”, while George Dzundza sobs and makes scrambled eggs. In the movie theater that day in 1978, you could hear a deep and mournful sigh rise from the audience—the feeling of an entire generation was captured in that sigh. “Here’s to Nick.”
After we went off to college or war, we started our careers, we fell in love, we got married, we had kids. We became grownups… and then everything fell apart. This was one of the first American films that dealt honestly with divorce and single parenthood. It is an intensely intimate movie. Brilliant performances by Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, with Robert Benton directing his own script. This movie is about the hole in your heart that happens when marriages fail and children get caught up in the aftermath. Bring your Kleenex. There’s gonna be crying.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.