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Zachariah Pippin
Dr. Miriam Clarke
Contemporary American Literature: The Long Form
18 November, 2015
Lost and Searching: Richard Linklater and Generation X
The term “Generation X” refers to the generation of people born after the post-World
War II Baby Boom, that is, in the ~20 year span between the early 1960s and the late 1980s. It is
also one of the most important generations in the public consciousness at the moment, just now
becoming poised to reach the height of its sociopolitical influence, but while this type of political
power will be new to them, Generation X has held sway for over a decade in the arts, especially
film, from action directors like Michael Bay (Armageddon, Transformers) and Joss Whedon
(The Avengers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) to more subtle and elicate artists like Quentin
Tarantino (Pulp Fiction) and the Coen brothers (No Country for Old Men). One such director is
the less immediately recognizable but nonetheless distinctive auteur, Richard Linklater.
While Linklater has enjoyed both popular success (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock)
and critical acclaim (Before Midnight, Slacker), he was only just recently able to achieve both in
one fell swoop with Boyhood in 2014. The ambitious project’s explosive success cemented
Linklater in the popular consciousness as a director able to stand on equal footing with the other
greats of Generation X, but Richard Linklater has something beyond the interesting conceit
behind the production of Boyhood that separates him from his colleagues. Many other
Generation X filmmakers write and direct movies informed by Generation X sensibilities, but
Linklater’s movies are of a different breed. He does not only let the cultural standpoint of
Generation X inform his work, but positions his films as commentaries on the generation itself,

tracking the innate angst and sociopolitical challenges faced by Generation X and painting them
as a profoundly lost group of people mired in angst, frustration, and eternal boredom, lacking an
identity among the massive goings on in the world around them.
Dazed and Confused (1993) is the best place to start dealing with Linklater even though it
is not his directorial debut because it is the earliest setting which Linklater depicts. The
characters of Dazed and Confused are the earliest people who might have been considered
Generation X, coming of age in 1976 and by extension born in the very early sixties. One of the
running themes of Dazed and Confused is a constant comparison between early Generation X
and the Baby Boomer generation that preceded them. We hear comparisons throughout to the
Baby Boomers having social events and upheaval, compared to the time they were living in with
the Cold War beginning to wind down and a relative sense of security and stability, which is, to a
young person, boring. A character in the film, Cynthia, says it best, “The ‘50s were boring. The
‘60s rocked. The ‘70s obviously suck.” The comparison to what the group of people just older
than them may have been doing makes the characters feel bored and purposeless. We also see the
frustrations of social anonymity portrayed in the character of Mike. Mike is introduced to us as a
socially conscious and well educated young man with a plan for his life after leaving high
school. He wants to become a lawyer and help the disenfranchised, but that goal begins to
change as the film goes on. We see him confess to Tony and Cynthia that he doesn’t even like
the people he intended to help, much less have any real desire to help them anymore. Through
the film, Mike’s angst toward his future morphs him into a ball of pure, condensed frustration
that expresses itself as an aggression which can only vent itself through physical and verbal
conflict, and we see him get punished for that conflict seeking nature. We also see a portrayal of
the Baby Boomer generation, particularly in the teachers and parte4nts. All of them are depicted

as having common bonds. Be it the left-wing political activist history teacher or the middle
school teacher who was a Vietnam veteran, they all have a direction and what seems to be a
sense of binding unity, in direct opposition to the teenage protagonists of Generation X, who
have absolutely no direction in their lives and certainly no sense of unity. In fact, the main
character’s arc can be thought of as achieving some fraction of that camaraderie that the
generation before him takes for granted.
This is how Linklater paints Generation X’s adolescence, but to see how he paints their
early adulthood, we can take a look at Slacker (1991) Linklater’s directorial debut. It is also the
film that Linklater explicitly intended to represent Generation X. In his production notes, he
describes it as, “a film locked within the moment and place of its own making” and states that
“over every aspect of this film, the result will necessarily be sincere and honest.” Slacker is an
almost unsettlingly quiet film with tight cinematography full of long, sweeping shots as if to
position itself as a quick abridged version of the generation’s entire early adulthood. Slacker
takes place in 1989. The Cold War was two years from ending, and the Berlin Wall would fall
later that year. At long last, America seemingly had no more dragon to fight. A time of peace and
prosperity seemed as though it would ensue, but for a generation already lacking in direction,
nothing could have been less convenient. The young adults of Generation X are depicted in
Slacker as having too much time and not enough to occupy it. Many of them are urbane and well
read. We hear political and literary references, all of which are delivered with high rhetorical
language, but none of the characters’ poetic speech is ever leant any weight by actions. For the
most part, the characters are almost completely inactive. Not many of them do very much, and
any actions that they do take have only symbolic weight and next to no actual value. Not only
was the country finally moving toward peace, but the Baby Boomers were in control. Generation

X not only lacked any kind of unifying purpose, they lacked any kind of agency. What was there
to do? Nothing. Read, watch TV, and talk about things they’ve read and watched. We hear a
symbolic explanation of this as the first spoken dialogue in the movie. A character played by
Linklater describes his dream, “Instead of anything bizarre going on, I mean there was nothing
going on at all. Man, it was like The Omega Man. There was nobody around. I was just traveling
around. You know? Staring out the windows of buses and trains and cars, and when I was at
home, I was just flipping through the TV stations endlessly.” That frustration is still present, and
they end up in the exact same cycle as Mike was in in Dazed and Confused. Trapped in the cycle
of frustration and venting. We hear Linklater describe this as the central conflict of the movie,
“characters’ desire to act contrasted with their inability to do so.” He positions the essential
young adult struggle of Generation X as one of vitriol against impotence.
The next part of Linklater’s Generation X chronology is the Before Sunrise Trilogy,
providing us with short glimpses from the lives and relationship between a man and a woman
(both members of Generation X) over the course of the eighteen years between 1995 and 2013.
When these two characters, Jesse and Celine, meet each other in the first film, Before Sunrise
(1995), they do nothing but talk. Like the characters of Slacker, they have long, very literate but
ultimately impotent conversations about everything from sex to politics, but at the same time,
their conversation is about nothing because it is ultimately an unhelpful act born of impotence.
We see each of the characters seeking their identity within the present landscape. Jesse finds his
within the social landscape, centering his worldview and his sense of purpose around his
girlfriend. It’s established that his life revolves around her, but she breaks up with him before the
movie begins. His wandering is the result of that characteristic Generation X angst returning to
him. Since the woman that gave him a purpose and an identity is gone, he is free floating again

and uncomfortably aware of his own impotence again. We see something similar from Celine,
but unlike Jesse, she has absolutely nowhere to run from her own confusion. She seeks her
identity in the political rather than social arena. She speaks like an activist, constantly worried
about what is going on in the world. She seems to be genuinely compassionate and worried for
her fellow man, but her frustration is born of the fact that she is completely powerless to help.
Between the Cold War and the War on Terror, the world climate was focused toward
humanitarian issues, and this was the first time something like that had happened on a global
scale during the age of mass communication. The first world had a front row seat to the struggles
of the third world, the rape, starvation, and genocide of people around the world, for the first
time in human history, and Generation X’s heart broke. We see Celine painted as a woman who
is completely unable to help the people she feels the need to help, and we get a similar tension to
what we got in Slacker. It is the pull of angst against powerlessness, the desire to act versus the
inability, just like Linklater wrote in his notes.
The second film in the trilogy, Before Sunset (2004) shows us a different picture but
perhaps a natural progression for these characters. Jesse is a writer trapped in a loveless
marriage, which is a fitting dramatic result for his character arc in the previous movie. Jesse’s
love of being loved, need to be needed, and desire to flee from his own generational angst
essentially presses him into settling down with the first woman who comes along rather than the
woman he is in love with but can’t be with. He essentially uses this woman as a kind of
generational morphine. She exists, in his mind to numb the pain of his own generational angst.
He doesn’t know any other way to cope with what he perceives as an inability to positively effect
the world, so he hides inside the arms of whatever woman will have him, and it isn’t until Before
Sunrise that he begins to realize that using people in such a way is not only destructive of that

person but self-destructive as well. In a desire to flee from the specter of his generational angst,
he has created a completely different kind of misery in which to live. Celine’s journey is, again,
focused on the political sphere. In the early 2000s, the Baby Boomers were still running the
country, and the world was in political upheaval again in the wake of the September 11th Attacks
and the beginning of the War on Terror. Environmental issues were just beginning to come to the
forefront of the public consciousness, as scientific evidence brought it to light that perhaps
humanity is more capable of damaging Earth than we initially thought. This is the environment
you might expect someone like Celine to thrive in. Political upheaval always suits the activist,
and indeed Celine has become involved with the environmentalist movement and is in a
relationship with a photojournalist. However, she still seems empty. She still feels tied to that
same generational angst. Despite having broken out of the Slacker mentality, she still finds
herself tethered to a feeling of impotence because she feels no control over her own social life
despite her involvement in politics. It is here that we discover an essential truth about Generation
X that Linklater has been building since the very beginning of his filmography. The feeling of
loss and frustration is inherent to Generation X. Every member feels it, albeit not to the same
extent, and it can never be outrun.
The last movie in the trilogy, Before Midnight can be talked about in conjunction with
Liniklater’s latest film, Boyhood because they both depict Generation X members at the same
stage of life: parenthood and middle age. Jesse and Celine now being officially in a relationship,
we might think that they are finally expressing their own agency. Celine is still an activist, and
the two are finally the masters of their own social destiny, but this is only the surface. We see
Celine having difficulty dealing with the now turbulent political climate of the 2010s. She feels
completely impotent to do anything and finds herself getting ready to get out of the activism

business to go to work for the government, even though she finds herself disagreeing with them
on some subjects. The bottom line for her is that she feels incapable of making a difference
because despite the fact that they are now very elderly, the Baby Boomers are still running the
world in no small part. Despite being of age to hold serious power, she still feels powerless
because that is where her generation is. In other words, despite her relative notoriety and control,
she feels impotent and unable to be of use. Yet again, it seems as though she feels she is not
master of her own destiny. We see similar feelings from Jesse, as he struggles to keep some
semblance of control over his relationship with his son. He lives half a world away from his exwife, and yet he can still feel the tendrils of her control over one of the most important aspects of
his life. Jesse’s pre-teen son is pulled away from him at the beginning of the movie despite a
clear desire on Jesse’s part for him not to go, and that, again, represents a feeling of
powerlessness. Celine once more represents a lack of power in the political arena, and Jesse
represents a lack of power in one’s own social life. We see a similar message in Boyhood, mainly
represented through Mason’s parents. They are not the main characters, but we hear directly
from Linklater that they are still very important to the film, as he told Rolling Stone that
Boyhood is largely about “adults sort of bumbling through parenting.” Mason’s mother begins
her story in her late twenties in a similar headspace to Jesse and Celine in Before Sunset. She
feels lost and unable to cope with the fact that she has not really done anything with her life
beyond having children. She attempts to deal with this feeling by advancing in her career,
becoming a capable and intelligent woman, but she, like Celine in Before Sunset and to an extent
Before Midnight, is unable to keep control over her social life, marrying and divorcing three
times, no man ever seeming to be a good one. She buries this feeling of impotence beneath her
children, until Mason leaves home, at which point, she breaks down. The inescapable angst of

her generation finally catching up with her. Mason’s father is a different kind of character, rather
similar to the characters of Slacker. He hold strong beliefs and seems to have the education
necessary to back them up, but he does little with them, rather staying the prototypical
Generation X slacker, wallowing in his own lack of purpose rather than making any earnest
attempt to fix it. He maintains this mentality well into his thirties. He sought independence in
Alaska at the beginning of the movie, but it appears that he came back ready to accept his own
impotence with almost Socratic peace. Even at the end of the film, he hasn’t changed
tremendously. Perhaps he’s become more responsible, but his personality and mentality have
largely stayed the same. Mason’s father doesn’t ever separate himself from his generational
identity either politically or socially, and in the end, he turns out to be one of the most
consistently happy Generation X characters in Linklater’s oeuvre, implying that the only way to
liberate oneself from the angst is to embrace it.
Richard Linklater is one of the seminal voices of Generation X, not just in filmmaking,
but in the world of art at large, cementing his already solid legacy with boyhood, but beyond
being juwst another voice from the generation, Linklater positions himself as the voice of his
generation, almost a kind of unofficial chronicler for Generation X. His movies aren’t only
informed by the perspective of Generation SX, but they speak for that generation, particularly to
its flaws. The angst and confusion of Generation X within the sociopolitical context of the late
Twentieth and early Twenty First Centuries is one of the main themes of Linklater’s work,
particularly as it pertains to powerlessness in the face of politics and society

Works Cited
Before Sunrise. Dir. Richard Linklater, Perf. Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy. Warner Brothers, 1995.
Stream.
Before Sunset. Dir. Richard Linklater, Perf. Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy. Warner Brothers, 2004.
Stream.
Before Midnight. Dir. Richard Linklater, Perfl. Ethan Hawke, Julie Delopy, Warner Brothers,
2013. Blu-Ray.
Boyhood. Dir. Richard Linklater, Perf. Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei
Linklater. IFC Productions, 2014. Blu-Ray.
Dazed and Confused. Dir. Richard Linklater, Perf. Jason London, Wiley Wiggins, Matthew
McConaughey. Universal Studios. 1993. Blu-Ray.
Linklater, Richard. Richard Linklater: About a ‘Boyhood’. Rolling Stone. 15 Jan. 2015. Web. 5
Nov. 2015. http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/features/richard-linklater-about-a-boyhood20150115
Pierson, Rosenbaum, Linklater, et al. Slacker Criterion Collection Blu-Ray Insert Booklet. The
Criterion Collection. 2013. Print.
Slacker. Dir. Richard Linklater, Perf. Richard Linklater, Rudy Basqueze, Jean Caffeine. Criterion
Detour Filmproductions, 1991. Blu-Ray.


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