Recently, Peter Travers created a bit of a stink when he announced The Social Network (aka The Facebook Movie) as one of his 12 movies that "Define a Generation". Travers managed to to draw ire from three very different sources over a single choice. Some were angry over his referring to the film as "defining a generation" before most had even had a chance to see it and it had any chance of sinking into the culture enough to resonate in such a capacity. Others were upset that he included the film in a list of honest to god classics -- the types of films that really are generation-defining works. And lastly, some questioned whether a film can be generation defining at all, arguing that the premise itself is silly.
So can a movie define a generation?
I certainly think so; in fact I've been arguing that for years. For my generation, no film defines the era it hails from like Fight Club. My generation grew up in a post-AIDS world. Sex was bad, the Soviet Union was gone and we had nothing particularly pressing to fight for or against. Men who longed for their chance to fight had no wars; men who wanted to protest had no wars to march against. The internet was still pretty much worthless, music was trending towards glossy sugar pop and we were angry, only we didn't have anything to be angry about. Fight Club is a last, passing glimpse at what that world was like – the pre-9/11 world in which our protagonist could be a revolutionary who blew up buildings with giant, homemade bombs and a well organized terror network.
The film perfectly captures what it felt to be an American male of that age at that time. We were frustrated and felt the only way to express ourselves was to lash out at the world created by the generation before us. It was, in its own way, much like Easy Rider, Rebel Without a Cause and The Breakfast Club (all of which Travers wisely included on his list) it expressed the generations discomfort with authority and showcased its feelings on how best to deal with it. Thirty years from now, guys like me will look back and say "That's what it was like."
Personally, I understand why Travers picked The Social Network as a generation defining film. I think he's wrong, and as someone two generations removed, I think he's not going to be party to that decision. I think the film is the definitive one about the dawn of the internet; I think as far as technology goes, this is the film that best illustrates the murky legal world of backroom business and intellectual property. But I find it hard to believe that a generation is going to identify with a kid already going to the world's most prestigious school, who happens upon an idea that makes him one of the world's richest men, just because he's hung up on a girl and abusive to people who remind him of his past tormentors. That's for the current generation to decide. I don't think this generation has found its movie yet; when they do, I'm sure they'll let us know.