Katie Arnold-Ratliff

The Settlers

A Survey of the Raison d’Être Dramedies, a Film Genre Created to Console Existentially Disappointed Baby Boomers With Magical Realism

Discussed: Steve Martin, A Stationary Exercise Bike, Demographic-Specific Ambivalence, Woodstock, The Winnowing of Life’s Possibilities, Mass Psychological Unrest, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, What Else a Guy Could Want, Transcending One’s Imperfect Childhood, A Few Dozen Acres of Fertile Iowa Farmland, The 1919 White Sox, The AIDS Crisis, Sympathetic Faintheartedness, The Full Existentialist Moon

In the opening scene of L.A. Story (1991), weatherman Harris K. Telemacher—played by the film’s writer, Steve Martin—rides a stationary exercise bike in the middle of Echo Park, and captures, in voice-over, an ambivalence experienced by many middle-class, middle-aged Americans in the late ’80s and early ’90s: “I was deeply unhappy, but I didn’t know it, because I was so happy all the time.”

Martin was born in 1945, at the vanguard of the baby boom. His was the generation that spent its formative years being courted by advertisers, who wielded sufficient cultural clout to make the Beatles the Beatles, and hula-hooping a thing. Reaching adulthood in the throes of the Vietnam War, boomers swelled the ranks of the student-protest movement, bathed in the mud of Woodstock, and railed against an outdated establishment (which happened to be populated by their parents). As Ray Kinsella, Kevin Costner’s character in Field of Dreams (1989), says, “Officially my major was English, but really it was the ’60s.” Martin and Costner’s generation was convinced of the efficacy of civil disobedience and, like no generation before it, of the centrality of individualism.

The thing about young people, though, is that they grow up—and what becomes of a bunch of kids who sloganized “Don’t trust anyone over thirty”? By the 1980s, 3.4 million baby boomers found themselves surviving various stages of midlife and its particular torments: the death of one’s parents, the weight of responsibilities financial and familial, the winnowing of life’s possibilities. These sorrows bedevil mid-lifers in any decade, but the ’80s presented a unique wrinkle. The era was, after an initial slump, a boom time, and consumption was famously conspicuous—so a wide swath of boomers, both materially comfortable and professionally accomplished, watched themselves become the establishment they had once hoped to tear down. They moved to the suburbs, became Reagan Democrats, and acknowledged that the revolution had failed: government was still corrupt; American society, with its moral panics and televangelists, was enduringly uptight; and the idealism that boomers had once cherished had largely leached from their lives. They were deeply unhappy, despite being so happy all the time.

Mass psychological unrest has a way of trickling down, to borrow the locution of the period, and in the late ’80s and early ’90s, this conflict seeped into commercial film. There arose a micro-genre of sincere but funny existentialist narratives, all featuring boomer-aged protagonists who attempted to clarify what really matters and pinpoint how one ought to live. The most interesting of these existential-crisis films—call them “raison d’être dramedies,” or RDDs for short—include L.A. Story and Field of Dreams, as well as Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), Mr. Destiny (1990), Defending Your Life (1991), Groundhog Day (1993), and Heart and Souls (1993). In each, a boomer, usually dissatisfied, interacts with a magical or supernatural force and, as a result, arrives at a conclusion about the meaning of life. Many movies of the era dabbled in goofy fantasy—Back to the Future (1985), Weird Science (1985), and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), to name a few—and others mined the supernatural for a sentimental wallop, like Big (1988) and Ghost (1990). But RDDs used their conceits to ponder philosophy’s basic question, the one a generation might suddenly need answered upon reaching an especially fraught middle age: what’s it all for?

Filmmakers have been compelling characters to learn from magic for decades. But the difference between magical-realism films of yore and those of the ’80s and ’90s was one of stakes: in the past, the starting point for the protagonist before his magic-fueled revelation was appreciably more dire. By the ’80s and ’90s, feeling vague malaise about a comfortable life was conflict enough to carry a narrative.

Consider that beloved proto-RDD, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), in which George Bailey (James Stewart) delays his aspirations time and again to buoy the Bedford Falls Building and Loan, and nearly gets ruined and sent to jail for his trouble. By the age of thirty-five, George is so dejected that it takes a glimpse of a parallel universe to convince him against suicide. That done, he recognizes the value of what he has and vaults into ecstatic gratitude: “I want to live again. I want to live again. Please, God, let me live again.” George’s ultimate lesson is that his place has always been at home, where he is a quiet kind of hero. “No man is a failure who has friends,” the angel Clarence tells him in a letter.

But fast-forward forty years, and the protagonists aren’t so easily convinced. For the heroes of RDDs, it takes a whole lot more than Zuzu’s petals and the dewy Donna Reed to be fulfilled. The Capra ethos—that love and family are all one needs—is obsolete; most of these characters already have love and family, and they still aren’t happy.

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Katie Arnold-Ratliff is the author of the novel Bright Before Us and is a senior editor at O, The Oprah Magazine. She lives in New York.

March/April 2014
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