Lloyd Dobler and the spirit of Generation X

A few years ago I put together a list of my own personal top 100 films, those movies have been the most influential on my love of movies. I’ve just updated the list (see it here) with a few films from the early 2000s, but for the most part, the films on the list cluster in the 1980s and early 90s, because I’m a Generation Xer and that’s when my brain was in its most malleable, most warpable period. And because Xerness is in many ways synonymous with geekiness (as I’m attempting to chronicle at Geek Philosophy), many of these 100 films have come to be understood, in that telepathic way that pop culture seems to work among us Xers, as geek classics… and the ones that aren’t seen that way, well, I can connect them.

So, in no particular order, I’ll take a quick look back at the films on that list, one film each Wednesday. Today:

#38: SAY ANYTHING (1989):
It’s a sort of universally acknowledged truth among GenXers that John Cusack has ruined an entire generation of women for romance — except, perhaps, romance with Cusack himself — and that started right here, in Cameron Crowe’s now classic romantic comedy. Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler is, as Hank Stuever in The Washington Post recently described him, the “imperfectly perfect boyfriend,” sensitive, devoted, a little dorky, sure, but he’s his own man, a nonconformist, a great uncle, and damn cute to boot. No heterosexual woman between the ages of 30 and 40 can hear Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” without a little sigh for what might be, if only John Cusack were in love with us. And John would love us, we’ve no doubt, if only he had the chance to get to know us. We might not be as pretty as Ione Skye, but we’d never do anything so crass as give him a pen.

That boombox moment has become a cliché — Stephen Colbert recently demonstrated his devotion to John Stewart on an episode of The Daily Show with a CD player hoisted high over his head. It’s hard to imagine, in fact, that Say Anything wasn’t the source of much of what we consider romantic-comedy clichés. Though the film was not a huge financial success at the box office, it almost instantly, in those heady early days of the home-video revolution, became a cult favorite, and surely spawned a host of imitators — not direct copies, of course, but movies that tried to capture that imperfectly perfect Lloyd Dobler magic, that tried to create heroes who could get away with the things that Lloyd got away with, like that boombox stunt. (By a decade after Lloyd, in 1999, The Onion paid homage to the failure of this experiment with its article ”Romantic-Comedy Behavior Gets Real-Life Man Arrested.”)

But the romantic ruination of Xer women is not what makes Say Anything a geek classic, as I’m sure Xer pop-culture critic Chuck Klosterman would agree — he laments in the opening chapter of his book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs the powerful influence Lloyd holds over the women of his acquaintance, and clearly, not enough real-life males heed the advice of Lili Taylor, as Lloyd’s best platonic gal pal: “The world is full of guys,” she tells Lloyd, “Don’t be a guy. Be a man.” No, what makes Lloyd an archetypal Xer is that he put into words the defining existential itchiness of our generation:

I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career — I don’t want to do that.

This is mistaken by many — including one of the Lloyd-loving women in that Post article mentioned above, someone who obviously should know better — as an indication of shiftlessness, of a lack of ambition. But that’s simply wrong. To want to avoid being a cog in a giant corporate wheel is not to lack amibition but to want to funnel that ambition into another direction. It is an expression of the entrepreneurial spirit of Generation X. I bet Lloyd Dobler today runs the hottest kickboxing school in Los Angeles — you know, the one he founded.

[also posted on Film.com]

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