As Adam Gopnik so perceptively observed in an article on “Mad Men” in “The New Yorker” last year, American popular culture tends to follow a nostalgic impulse he dubbed “the Golden Forty-Year Rule”. The rule dictates that contemporary period pieces will look back roughly four decades into the past, romanticizing the era for its timely allure like an aged wine reaching its peak. Gopnik argues that the forty-year rule persists because the gatekeepers of Hollywood and cable television—the producers and showrunners responsible for greenlighting programs like “Mad Men” in the first place—typically come to control the production of popular culture in their 40s, when they begin to feel a gentle tug of nostalgia for the period of their early childhood or the innocent years just before it. Matthew Weiner, creator of “Mad Men”, was born in 1965, which as Gopnik notes makes him “the baby in his own series”.
This seems true enough of mainstream movies and TV, where subjects du jour are indeed beholden to the whims of middle-aged executives. But the independent cinema remains the product of directorial imagination rather than managerial oversight, and as with most artists authoring their own work, independent filmmakers tend to be more interested in telling their own stories than in savoring the milieu of their unremembered infancy. This is perhaps why we find a slightly different rule governing the coming-of-age narrative, particularly in the independent cinema: if we look at the modern ur-text for these cool stories of youth, the rock-n-roll cine-memoir “Almost Famous”, we find a 42 year-old Cameron Crowe looking back 30 years to his days as a 15 year-old “Rolling Stone” journalist, following the fictional band Stillwater cross-country in 1973. Coming-of-age stories, by nature of their autobiographical roots, aren’t based on any strict 40-year rule, but on the age of the filmmaker when he or she is finally able to tell their story.
Over the last year we’ve seen a minor explosion of independent coming-of-age stories set in the halcyon days of the 1960s. The three most important have emerged (or re-emerged) recently: Sally Potter’s “Ginger and Rosa”, set in London in 1962, had a brief theatrical run in the U.S. this March; David Chase’s “Not Fade Away”, set in New Jersey through the mid-60s, was released on DVD and Bluray last Tuesday after being largely overlooked in theaters last December; and Olivier Assayas’s “Something in the Air”, set in Paris and the surrounding countryside following the mass student protests of May ‘68, opened in limited release on Friday after its well-received premieres at Venice and TIFF last fall.
Sally Potter, David Chase, and Olivier Assayas are 63, 67, and 58 respectively, and the ages and timelines of their heroes and films align almost perfectly with these slight variations. Though they couldn't have emerged from less similar backgrounds, the three filmmakers share an approach to telling the stories of their youth: rather than indulge in the romantic fancies of the look and feel of the freewheeling 1960s, as an ordinary period piece might be inclined to do, Potter, Chase and Assayas opt instead to scrutinize their memories of the era from a rare critical distance, rejecting the diary-like format typical of the genre in favor of something smarter and more perceptive. Expected youthful folly becomes, quite refreshingly, mistakes made with some regret, and the solipsism inherent in the form (which all but necessitates navel-gazing) is undermined by the ruthlessness with which each of the three directors take their younger selves to task. It’s the autobiography as autocritique.
Part of what’s always been deeply dissatisfying (if superficially appealing) about “Almost Famous” is the ease with which Crowe presumes our sympathies. The story is likeable because it plays out like wish-fulfillment: we imagine ourselves writing for “Rolling Stone” in 1973 at the age of 15, and we imagine it to be about as awe-inspiring and life-defining as it is depicted in the film. The journey, as it so often is in coming-of-age films, is from childlike naivety to premature adolescent wisdom, seeing the glamor of the rock-n-roll lifestyle exposed for the sham that it is. But despite the illusions of fame is strains to dispel, “Almost Famous” reasserts just as many, making even the downfall of one American dream the fulfillment of another in the form of the budding music writer. There’s no distance there: it’s Cameron Crowe flaunting his own history for the benefit of those who’d love to live through the same.
“Not Fade Away”, ostensibly the closest of the three new films to Crowe’s personal epic, also concerns a young man discovering the wild world of rock and roll, but in the hands of David Chase the journey becomes less one of spiritual awakening or valued self-discovery than of stagnation and perpetual stubbornness. “Not Fade Away” subverts the conventions of the romantic coming-of-age story—and the tropes of the 60s rock film more generally—in order to criticize the self-absorption of the style, suggesting that youth is something to grow out of rather than retreat back into.
His hero is a selfish and egotistical kid, obsessed with the allure of rock music and protest politics but without any real understanding of either; he fancies himself a radical and a luminary but at the end of the day, Chase reminds us, he’s just one more kid following a stupid dream at the expense of those around him. If Crowe used the cliches of the genre to show his personal growth, Chase takes the more cynical view that there’s no ultimate maturation or redemption to be had for the ever-ornery. Draining sentiment from nostalgia, Chase finds the crucial distinction between reminiscence and remembrance: the latter is self-critical where the former is merely fond.
“Ginger & Rosa”, though not quite as ruthless in its self-assessment, nevertheless strives for a like-minded disavowal of sentimentality and cliche. Elle Fanning stars as Ginger, presumably the Potter stand-in, a young idealist caught between the personal tumult of pubescence and the global cataclysm of the Cold War. Potter adopts a well-known framework and sets in on dismantling it from the inside: as the story progresses, what begins as a fairly routine chronicle of an early-60s childhood gradually transforms into a cold, critical look at the ways power plays out around young women, and at home both private and public turmoil can shape the life and mind of a person ill-prepared for it. Potter takes the presumptive romance of the period—especially the many grassroots political rallies and marches attended by an impressionable Ginger—and rewrites it as unworthy of its vaunted legacy, attracting outspoken critics and leftist intellectuals more phony than they ever were pure.
Perhaps the strongest and most striking of these three films, Olivier Assayas’s “Something in the Air” is also the least obviously critical of the purpose of coming-of-age narratives. Unlike “Not Fade Away”, this film doesn’t posit its hero as insufferably self-absorbed or woefully misguided, and unlike “Ginger & Rosa”, it regards the politics of the period as a genuine rallying cry rather than a show put on by faux-intellectuals. What distinguishes “Something in the Air” from something like “Almost Famous” is simply the distance from which Assayas observes the action: if the film is autobiographical (and interviews with Assayas suggest that it is), it’s autobiography written in the third-person, replacing the intimacy for which the genre is known with what sometimes feels like casual disinterest.
“Something in the Air” approaches its characters from across a strange, perpetual remove: they exist, they protest, they love, they grow, but they do so without the apparent guidance of an artist remembering fondly, as though their chance happenings were being recorded in the moment rather than remembered or reflected upon later. The film has been criticized, of course, as too distant, unmoored to the lived experience on which the story is clearly based. But that’s also the film’s principal virtue: rather than unfolding with the uncritical fervor of a memory brought vividly to life, “Something in the Air” seems drawn anew, more about the people and events as historical record than pages ripped from one man’s diary. In so doing, Assayas has essentially redirected the purpose of the coming-of-age story, leading the film toward a clear idea of the era rather than a hazy vision of its recollection.