Thursday, February 09, 2006

Free Enterprise Special Edition Available March 7

The late '90s saw the release of two quintessential Gen-X films, Swingers (1996)and Free Enterprise (1998). Both films center their narratives on small, tight knit, groups of friends dealing with the romantic struggles typical of Gen-X 20-somethings. In a way, they are both a kind of Generation X version of Diner, but unlike Diner, the films star members of the generation the narrative is about, a kind of Diner in real time.

Swingers is the more frequently discussed film, having a kind of Sundance indie cred, but as well as Swingers captures the feel of Gen X as society understands it Free Enterprise captures Generation X as I experienced it. While the "youth culture" market and teen culture first emerged in the post-war Rock-n-Roll era, that market came into its developmental zenith with Generation X.

People who were born in the late-60s to late-70s experienced the first wave of what has been a continuing explosion of popular culture. Kids in the 40s could actually purchase every comic book published, and every fantasy/scifi novel, etc. But Generation X has been a generation both obsessed with, and struggling to keep up with the expansion of, popular culture. Generation X was exposed, thanks to syndication and cable television, to both new and old entertainment media. It is not uncommon to hear a Generation X member have a discussion of how much they love Alfred Hitchcock, Harold Lloyd, The Cure, Superman, G.I. Joe (the original "action figure", the smaller real action figures, and the cartoon), Beethoven, Rollerball, the O.C., and their Xbox 360. In fact, that list barely scratches the surface.

Sure, members of older -- and younger -- generations may discuss the same things, but the explosion and resulting obsession happened during the youth of Generation X and is as defining a characteristic as Drive-ins and drag-racing were for the "American Graffiti" generation, or protests and the "Summer of '69" were for boomers. A large part of what defines a generation is shared cultural experience, and for X-ers that generally means popular culture.

A few of key pop cultural experiences that most Gen-Xers share are Star Trek, Logan's Run, and Star Wars. In fact, when I was an undergrad fraternity member, the question I used to ask "young women" when they were at fraternity parties to see if they were old enough to hit on was, " old were you when you saw Star Wars on the big screen?" It was a quick and easy way to see if they were 18, and one that didn't seem unnatural for most of the people I met.

Free Enterprise is the story of Generation X turning 30. I would say growing up, but that isn't what actually happens; at least not in the way that term is typically used. Generation X has a long way to go before they "put aside childish things" as Paul did in 1 Corinthians 13:11. Generation X is almost entirely defined by those childish things. To tell its story Free Enterprise centers its narrative on the lives of two men approaching "Last Day," a Logan's Run (movie) reference to their 30th birthdays.

Robert (Rafer Weigel) and Mark (Eric McCormack of Will & Grace) are two friends struggling through life in Southern California attempting to make a living with activities associated with their obsessions. Mark is the editor of Geek magazine, who has hopes of becoming a screenwriter/director and has been pitching his latest idea "Bradykiller" in the hopes of achieving that goal. Bradykiller is a kind of The Brady Bunch meets Silence of the Lambs film. Robert is a struggling editor at a direct to video production company. But Mark and Robert have a deeper connection than their interests in popular culture; they both have had William Shatner as an imaginary friend. Shatner (the imaginary friend) has "helped" both of these young men at one time or another in their pasts, and Captain Kirk is the major hero of these men's lives.

Little do these Star Trek, the original series only please, fans know how their lives are about to change when they meet the real William Shatner (played by William Shatner) while they are stopping by a Southern California used book store, the very real Iliad Bookshop. They are looking for pulp paperbacks when they stumble upon their idol. From their first meeting with William Shatner, Mark and Robert begin to discover how much they have in common with their hero and how human their hero is. As they learn that William Shatner is not Captain Kirk, and have to deal with the shock of such a revelation, they find that Shatner is a very human and very likable, if very eccentric, man.

Shatner does wonderful self-parody in this film. My favorite moments with him are when he tries to explain to Mark how it would be great if Mark would help him create his next great project. Shatner wants to do a rap version of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, with Shatner in all the roles.

The film is a witty, cool, and savvy film about geeks coping with growing up that manages to produce laughter without ever being cruel. The film has so many easter eggs, you have to watch it at least twice.

I highly recommend this film.

For further reading, a great deal of cool trivia regarding the movie can be seen here. Mindfire Entertainment should be releasing a sequel some time this year.

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