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FILM: Enough With The Old Guys-Young Girls August 27, 2008

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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Getting Tired of May-December

Elegy is just of the most recent in a long line of boring old man/younger woman romances. Time to put this trend to bed.

Elegy_large

Every once in a while I discover a new movie pet peeve. I already have a few: gratuitous gore, gratuitous indie quirk, spoof movies, Owen Wilson. After deigning this past weekend to see Elegy, the only non-blockbuster playing in New Jersey I hadn’t already seen, I discovered a new one: movies about older men dating younger women.

This is a difficult pet peeve to have, perhaps the hardest. In fact, scores of movies have older men dating younger women, especially classic films. It was once very much in vogue, almost required, much more so than today. Some classics include Last Tango in Paris, Manhattan (yes, and every other Woody movie), and half the movies with Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe. Why? Put simply, a male actor could afford to look old in a film. Nary an actress could do the same, lest those wrinkles show and boobies sag.

So glaring and overdone has this become that recent movies have hit publicity nirvana by featuring older men falling in love with women their own age—Something’s Gotta Give, most notably, but even films as disparate as the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair and Sex and the City make the cut. With all its faults, one virtue of Sex and the City was its glamorization of being female, over 40 and able to get men of comparable age. Kim Cattrall nabbed the hottest lover and is 52. But this isn’t revolutionary. Other movies have inverted the stereotype, showing older women with younger men. Both Alfie movies, the recent Being Julia and Freudian Savage Grace have all marketed themselves as stereotype-busters. The most famous is (of course!) The Graduate, but let’s not forget that the late, great Anne Bancroft was a mere 36 when the movie came out and Dustin Hoffman was only six years her junior! That’s hardly May-December. More like May-July.

With all this baggage, Elegy, starring Penelope Cruz and Ben Kingsley, was on a short leash before I even entered the theater. Sheer boredom alone compelled me to the buy the tickets, and I certainly didn’t trust the good reviews, aware that most critics are older men who would quit their jobs and families for just one night with Ms. Cruz. But the film had its draws: a female director, Isabel Coixet, known for subtle, artful directing, a story by Philip Roth, infallible Cruz and effortlessly capable Kingsley. I thought: this should be pleasurable enough.

It was, but only to a point. The direction was artful, yes. Cruz did her best with a thinly drawn character. Kingsley was as vile and charming a character as I’m sure Roth intended. But Coixet made a mistake in my book: she took too long. A full two hours with Kingsley’s character—the older man fearful of his fading virility—was too much for me to handle. And [SPOILER ALERT] that Cruz had to lose her breasts in order to finally be acceptable to the older man was equally infuriating (maybe Roth explained it better).

I’m not an absolutist. I will continue to see movies with older men exercising their right to frolic with women one-third their age before keeling over in erotic delight. It’s unavoidable, and directors today are—thankfully—exploiting this cliché with some irony and humor: to hilarious effect in John Turturro’s Romance and Cigarettes and with great subtlety and subversion in Steve Buscemi’s Interview. But I simply lack the patience to indulge overly earnest depictions of older men who insist on throwing away all they have for women younger than their children. I can handle it if done coolly, with charisma, as in almost every James Bond movie. But it’s insufferable when the man is a stereotypical academic who fears his own mortality. I don’t need to pay to see that. It might be my life in 50 years. Besides, Ingmar Bergman did it better in Wild Strawberries than anyone since and did it without over-fetishizing youth. Please, Hollywood, retire it.

It’s enough to send me running to the Estrogen Lovefest that is The Women, the movie directed, written, crewed and cast all by women coming out next month. Yes, it’s a cheap chick flick, but at least I won’t have to see Ben Kingsley chasing Eva Mendes around like an old dog hungry for a fresh bone.

WRITING UPDATE: Love, in 24 Hours August 19, 2008

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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Love, in 24 Hours

Some of the best recent onscreen romances take place within a calendar day.

Aymar Jean Christian

Medicineformelancholy_large

From Medicine for Melancholy

Love, in 24 Hours

Recipe:

1 Boy, depressed, perhaps cynical
1 Girl, slightly neurotic
1 City, stunning, lyrical, preferably in black and white
2 Pairs of Shoes, for walking, cycling optional
2 handfuls of Banter, witty, awkward, convivial
1 dose of Metaphor, between city and love
1 Bittersweet Goodbye, more sweet than bitter
Bake for 24 to 48 hours, serve at local IFC or regional film festival

Am I a complete cheeseball for loving movies about people who fall in love too quickly?

Above is the recipe for one of my favorite cinematic concoctions: the 24-hour romance. Two strangers meet-cute in some adorable way and spend 24 to 48 hours together, exploring a city and falling in love, ever so subtly. Now, I’m the first to confess my soft spot for cheap romantic comedies, but these movies are films for people who appreciate solid, heartfelt cinema. They do well because they ruthlessly exploit our fantasies of the city, our desire for love at first sight, and our hope for random connections in the lonely urban forest. Yes, love at first sight is hooey, but movies are for magic and what could be more magical?

Over the past year a few youthful day-romance movies have been released, cooked to sweet perfection, with the latest opening two weeks ago: Alex Holdridge’s In Search of a Midnight Kiss, a gorgeous paean to young love in Los Angeles. I saw it this weekend, and it was such a pleasure I started to wonder what other movies of its kind I’ve enjoyed. Certainly there is Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004)—the latter being the stronger of the two and one of my favorite romances of all time. Roman Holiday (1953) — or perhaps It Happened One Night (1934) — is probably the grandmother of the bunch, and a movie I never really loved, mostly because Audrey Hepburn’s character was mind-numbingly dull. There have many entries since, including the perfectly fine One Fine Day (1996) with George Clooney and Michelle Pfeiffer. But there are numerous recent additions to the family, last year’s Quiet City (2007), Medicine for Melancholy (2008) and perhaps Luc Besson’s Angel-A (2005), an unconventional take on the subgenre. A day-romance film hinges on the charisma of its leads and its commitment to its host city. Cities are the key. Roman Holiday has Rome, Before Sunrise has Vienna, Before Sunset and Angel-A have Paris, Medicine for Melancholy has San Francisco, and Quiet City has New York.

Midnight Kiss is a surprise of a movie. What I expected was an overly earnest, slow, self-indulgent indie, populated by uninteresting characters with little substance. Yet the movie is strong, supported by two pillars: Vivian and Los Angeles. Vivian (Sara Simmonds) is the female lead, and what a breath of fresh air she is. Finally a love interest who is assertive and smart. She’s also hilarious: for the first 20-30 minutes, she’s all cuss-words and one-liners. It’s all a facade, of course, a defense mechanism. Throughout the movie she slowly unravels—much like Julie Delpy in Before Sunset—takes off her sunglasses and opens up as she and Wilson (Scoot McNairy) roam Los Angeles. And L.A.—GASP!—is Kiss‘ greatest strength. The director shoots L.A. almost it’s like New York in the 80s: abandoned theaters and storefronts, a gritty subway, classic buildings, warehouses with the windows blown out, sparse foot traffic. But it’s more than scenery. The movie integrates the city into its narrative, using the “dead city” motif as a metaphor not only for America but also the relationship: they are just getting to know each other, love’s seed under barren soil.

Medicine for Melancholy, an as-yet undistributed film traveling from festival to festival, is similar to Kiss. It incorporates Web 2.0 technology into its love story, but it’s mostly a story about a city and a couple. Here, the city is the blossoming San Francisco, becoming richer by the year, but also gentrifying and pushing black people out. The young couple in this film is black, and so the drama and romance of San Francisco—between black and white, old and new, young and old, indie and yuppie—becomes the drama and romance of our young city dwellers. It’s a subtle and entrancing film, aided by its comedic male lead, played by Wyatt Cenac, and its director, Barry Jenkins, who smartly de-saturated the color from the picture, giving Medicine some depth and complexity. It looks almost black-and-white, not quite colorful, not quite drab.

Quiet City, directed by Aaron Katz, whose Dance Party USA is one of my favorite mumblecore movies, came out last year. It’s not great. Its leads are none too compelling—okay, they’re boring and unattractive. But Katz’s saving grace was his decision to shoot New York as it is rarely shot these days: empty and calm with the occasional hipster art party thrown in. Brooklyn was the perfect canvas for his portrait of two people who are not really interesting and whose paths awkwardly cross.

The final scenes of Quiet City, Medicine for Melancholy and Midnight Kiss are pitch-perfect. That final moment, when the couple meets for the last time, can make or break a day-romance flick. Most end with a parting of ways, which is pretty realistic and gratifying. After all, most of the top love stories on AFI’s top 100 have couples who do not end up together. Most first dates go nowhere; most marriages end in divorce. But these movies also leave enough love behind to give us hope. Will our lovers meet again? Will one character turn around and say “I can’t live without you” as is so common in romantic comedies? Is there such a thing as love at first sight?

FILM: In Search of a Midnight Kiss August 16, 2008

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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For those of you who know, I write a lot about mumblecore. Well, lucky for you, this was not a mumblecore movie. This was, instead, a movie about youth that had some shocking components: Character development! Humor! Wide-angle shots!

It’s a pretty damn good movie. Only time will tell if it makes it into the canon of “24 Hours Love” picks — in which two people meet and spend the day/night together and fall in love. (Think Before Sunrise, Roman Holiday, Last Tango in Paris, etc.)

In Search of a Midnight Kiss (2008, dir. Alex Holdridge) – A guy posts an ad on Craigslist for some company on New Year’s Eve and spends the day and night with a sassy girl who has a secret.

In Search of a Midnight Kiss is, by my count, the third movie of its kind in the past year: restless twenty-somethings walking a city and discovering each other. The other two are Aaron Katz’s Quiet City (New York) and Barry Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy (San Francisco). In Search is — GASP!!! — Los Angeles of all places, which is its greatest strength. One of the pleasures in this movie is seeing L.A. as if it were New York — ten years ago: abandoned theatres and storefronts, a gritty subway, classic buildings, warehouses with the windows blown out, sparse foot traffic. (It isn’t all dire — LA’s downtown has gentrified too, and as the movie progresses, you see more, like the famed Frank Gehry-designed symphony hall). This isn’t just a backdrop, the movie integrates the city into its narrative, using the “dead city” motif as a metaphor not only for America (there’s a reference to fallacy that America will always progress) but also the relationship: they are just getting to know each other, love’s seed under barren soil. L.A. works perfectly as the backdrop for a tale of urban loneliness.

Even more refreshing was the female lead. Finally, a love interest who is assertive — at first, comically bitchy — and smart without being a proxy for Woody Allen (like the incomparable Julie Delpy in 2 Days in Paris). Vivian is an aspiring actress (I’ll forgive the cliche; c’mon, there’s a lot of actors in L.A.), who has never heard of MoCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) but who is an art lover nonetheless. She takes photos of lost shoes she sees around the city, and, in one of several nods in the film to Web 2.0, publishes them on a website. She is fan of what sounds like PostSecret.com, or a close cousins, in which people write in confessions on postcards. She likes art from the street, in other words, not stuck in a museum. I appreciate that.

She’s also hilarious. For the first twenty to thirty, she’s all one-liners. Most of the audience in my showing didn’t laugh, but you can’t expect straight people to appreciate excess and exaggeration. In one great line, the male character, Wilson, remarks in his goody-two-shoes way that she shouldn’t have rejected so quickly a man who’d also responded to her on Craigslist because he might go home and commit suicide, slit his wrists. The guy was loser: old, fat, ugly. She remarks: “people who get to that point should go ahead and do it because once you get to that point you’re going to hell anyway.” And then she skips onto the subway. NBD.

We find out later that this is all a facade, a defense mechanism. Throughout the movie she slowly unravels — much like Julie Delpy in Before Sunset — takes off her sunglasses and opens up. This is Vivian’s movie. Once again: how refreshing to see a male director take the attention off the angsty male lead and give it to the strong woman.

It was such a delight to see a movie about young people who have some direction in life, even if if life’s curve balls throw them life, and to see a film who’s writing, direction and cinematography (the movie’s gorgeous) and strive to integrate love, loneliness and the city.

The Value of Facebook August 15, 2008

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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It seems this is really an internal problem, but could this mean that Facebook has been overvalued all along? Is this drag down from the overall economy or a Facebook-specific situation? Is the site losing growth-potential? These are all important questions, because it seems Facebook has two choices: a Google-like behemoth that dominates social-networking, swallowing up competitors and innovating fast enough to keep users from migrating OR a regular, pretty good social networking site that has a loyal base but whose aspirations do not lie outside its modest URL. I think Facebook wants the former, but can it get there? Is its business versatile enough?

I’m very unsure about it.

Has Facebook’s Value Taken a Hit?

Insiders are selling stock in the company—and getting a fraction of the price it appeared to command last year

http://images.businessweek.com/story/08/600/0807_mz_facebook.jpgFacebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Noah Berger/The New York Times/Redux

Insiders at Facebook are selling stock in the social-networking giant, and the prices they’re getting for their shares suggest the sky-high valuation backers once placed on the company may prove unrealistic.

Just a few months ago, Facebook was widely viewed as the next Google (GOOG) in Silicon Valley. Microsoft (MSFT) bought a small preferred equity stake last October that the two companies said implied a valuation of $15 billion for all of Facebook. Shareholders in the still-private company appeared to be setting themselves up for a blockbuster initial public offering.

The prices for Facebook shares in these transactions reflect a total valuation far lower than $15 billion. Albukerk, the founder and managing director of EB Exchange Funds, says that two current directors and one former executive recently contacted him about selling some of their stock for prices implying a $5 billion valuation. He also says that two investment firms have bought large chunks of Facebook stock at a valuation of about $3.75 billion. Hans Swildens, founder of Industry Ventures, a San Francisco firm that buys stock in private companies, says his firm has been talking with a growing number of Facebook employees. “There’s a lot of interest among people to sell shares,” says Swildens.

WRITING UPDATE: In Defense of Woody Allen August 13, 2008

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In Defense of the Nebbish

A string of mediocre features and some, ahem, questionable personal decisions have caused younger people to overlook Woody Allen. It’s their loss.

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From Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989).

Who hates Woody Allen?

I forgive you if you screamed, “I do! I do!” After all, he married his stepdaughter. He casts beautiful young women as his lovers in films, despite having never been attractive—not in 1970, not now. He’s pessimistic. He hasn’t bought a new pair of eyeglasses in at least 40 years. His portrayal of women is highly suspect. It took him decades to write his first decent black character, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s in Melinda and Melinda (let’s not count the hooker in Deconstructing Harry). He revels in stereotypes: of New Yorkers, Jews, intellectuals, older men. I think he even revels in people’s disgust of him. I can’t name one Woody fan among my group of twentysomething friends.

Finally, no one I know is as excited as I am to see Vicky Christina Barcelona—coming out this week with the best reviews Allen has received in years and the fourth film in a world tour that started in London with Match Point.

I’m here to publicly declare my crazy love of Woody Allen’s’ films. No, I’m not 72 years old, or Jewish, nor a white man attracted to young Asian women. The exact opposite actually. I’m simply a film lover who appreciates a writer-director flexible enough to cross genres but self-assured enough to have a recognizable style. Allen has done thrillers, slapstick comedies, Chekhovian tragedies, and mixtures of all three. Most of all I love his consistently mature outlook on life. For years he has had the heart of old man: miserable, fickle and cynical. “To live is to suffer,” the latest Newsweek has him saying.

Most people my age haven’t even dipped into the vast ocean that is Woody Allen. They likely know the recent not-so-great Woodies—Scoop, Match Point, Melinda and Melinda. More will know Annie Hall and Manhattan, his two bona fide, canonized classics. If they are a little more sophisticated, they may know Hannah and Her Sisters, Deconstructing Harry, and a sprinkling of others.

All can be forgiven for wondering what the big deal is. To most, there isn’t a big deal. Allen’s movies don’t make much money: few gross more than $20 million, which is about how much The Dark Knight made in its first two and half hours.

Okay, so you’ve seen Annie Hall. But have you seen September and Interiors, two of Allen’s darkest dramas and tiny masterpieces in their own right? In September an emotionally weak Mia Farrow—was she ever anything else in his movies?—pursues a man unattracted to her while her mother torments her with horrors from her past. Located entirely in a summerhouse in Vermont, the film delves deep into the torment of living, even as the incomparable Elaine Stritch gives a hilarious performance as a vicious diva. Interiors explores similar themes of misery and loneliness but employs much more artful camerawork and lighting. Both films do what I like the most: carry the plot crisply and calmly to a logical and cathartic end. It’s what Kafka, Chekhov and Strindberg did best.

Wait a minute, you say, Woody Allen is supposed to make us laugh! Yes, he is funny—kind of, sort of. I don’t think he’s the funniest director of the century. Maybe not even Top 10; many more are funnier. But Allen is at his best when his outlook on life—relentless, agnostic—is so extreme that all one can do is laugh. The best example is a scene in Deconstructing Harry with Kirstie Alley. Alley, playing Allen’s ex and a therapist, is so enraged at him she cannot sit still in a session with a patient. She keeps getting up and yelling at him in the next room. We hear her screams from the patient’s perspective, as he lies patiently in another room. Each time Alley returns to continue the session she is increasingly upset and inconsolable. It’s absolutely hilarious. She’s a therapist who can’t keep it together. Fun!

Let’s not forget the obvious. Allen is perhaps the single most dedicated documenter of New York in film history. He’s captured many of the city’s flavors: its romance and lyricism in Manhattan, its gentrified cleanliness in Anything Else and Melinda and Melinda, the industrial emptiness of Soho in Hannah and Her Sisters, and the charm of the boroughs in Radio Days. One reason I probably love Allen so much is I often long for New York. I grew up right outside the city but went to school in the Midwest and now reside in Philadelphia. Watching Woody is like coming home.

Now in Vicky he ventures to Barcelona, in what should be another shot into left field: a steamy, amber-hued romp with three of the hottest actors working today. Where has the old man’s heart gone? Has he finally found joie de vivre? Unlikely, I think, and I’m eager to see how film’s great cynic manages to squeeze realism from the lips of Penelope Cruz.

So for anyone who has yet to jump headfirst into Allen’s whirlpool of delightful misfortune (40-plus films and growing at a rate of about one film per year): jump! For those who are old at heart, or who want to know what it feels like to be 72, there is no better way to enjoy the pleasures of misery and meaninglessness.

FILM: SAW, the Indie August 12, 2008

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Am I the last to know that the Saw movies are indies?

Note: There’s a reason this isn’t a “Watching” post. I’ve never seen a Saw, and I never will. I really can’t stand the vast majority of horror movies. From the brief plot summaries of Saw I’ve heard from friends, there is no way in hell I would ever enjoy them.

So The Saw V trailer is out, which made me think: how much do these movies make anyway? I went to Box Office Mojo, and to my surprise they make a shitload! Ok, not much of a surprise, since they’ve made five of them so far. Each one, until IV, has made more than the previous, reaching about $160 million worldwide with III.

That’s a respectable sum for a major release. But what’s really interesting is the production budget, which is pocket change. The first Saw was made for an eye-popping $1.2 million, the next $4 million, the next $10 million. Figures for IV and V are unavailable, so the budget’s likely gone up, but logic would place them at under $20 million. Most of the increase probably arises from pay increases for the key actors, and the director for II, III and IV.

I say all this to give Hollywood — or, I supposed, Twisted Pictures — a pat on the back. One of the major problems with the movie industry today is that they spend too much on films, and often overspend. Movies are still incredibly popular, so there’s no reason why most movies shouldn’t be profitable. But Hollywood often overpays for stars and marketing, making it very hard to turn a profit. But the Saw pictures are smart. It keeps production costs low and hopes the movies’ inherent appeal will make the money. I’m sure they don’t overspend on marketing since the movie always comes out on Halloween, every year, making it an expected event for fans. It seems like, from the outside, an incredibly lean operation. Had they spent $30 to $50 million making each flick they’d be taking a risk. What if the movies eventually lose their appeal? But at current costs the audience could shrink in half and they’d still probably be alright.

Smart.

WRITING UPDATE: We are a generation of hustlers August 8, 2008

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New piece for Splice.

http://www.splicetoday.com/moving-pictures/hustlin-not-mumbling

Hustlin’, Not Mumbling

There’s a lot to like about mumblecore, except that its depiction of today’s 20-somethings couldn’t be more wrong.

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Youth, wasted on the fictitious young. A still from Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation.

If you’ve never thrown a small object at a movie screen, perhaps you should watch Funny Ha Ha. No offense to Andrew Bujalski, the film’s director, who managed to do something fresh with film and whose talent I don’t doubt, but as a movie written, directed and starring twentysomethings living in the digital age, Funny Ha Ha paints a pretty bleak picture of my generation. Restless, meandering, inarticulate, emotionally stunted and utterly unprepared for the real world. We are a well-meaning bunch, but we can’t quite articulate what we mean, Bujalski suggests.

Why do I care about a tiny indie film few people have ever seen? Because the critical establishment—old people—seems to think this is an accurate portrait of my generation. A small bunch of films have followed in Funny Ha Ha‘s footsteps, in a genre often called “mumblecore”—after each character’s general inability to communicate—or “Slackavetes” (after John Cassavetes) or “bedhead cinema.” The genre’s directors—Ry Russo-Young, the Duplass Brothers, Joe Swanberg, Aaron Katz, among a few others—paint similar portraits of an ineffective, urban, over-educated youth who don’t know who the hell they are and have little idea where they are headed. They are the arty cousins to the stoner films of Judd Apatow.

I like Apatow. And I admire a lot about mumblecore. Stylistically direct and clean, emotionally sincere, the films are a powerful antidote to the Hollywood machine, as most realist films are.

There’s one problem: we are not a generation of slackers!

We’re hustlers: eager and willing to do anything to get ahead, desperate for self-publicity, optimistic about the prospect for change, worldly, forthright, and well-equipped with enough episodes of Tyra and other pop culture psychology to know how to run our lives. Maybe Bujalski is a slacker—but probably not, since at 30 he has directed two major feature films and acted in several others.

The older generation is taking notice. “Today’s whippersnappers—they all take their cue from Monica Lewinsky, who had regular sit-downs with Vernon Jordan to discuss her career trajectory—are the most careerist, focused and entitled generation in the history of the planet,” Barney’s fashion guru and pop culture opinionista Simon Doonan wrote in the New York Observer in 2007. “Why can’t young adults just be the big, fat, freewheeling losers that people in their 20’s are meant to be?”

We are not the baby boomers. We are their children—Chelsea Clinton spring to mind. Have you ever seen someone in their 20s more mature and together than Chelsea Clinton? I can imagine her rolling her eyes at her less-than-perfect parents: “Ugh, you guys are so immature.” Our parents told us we could be anything we want to be. It was a lie, but it motivated us nonetheless.

Among my friends I can count a successful investment banker with more in savings than my parents, an aspiring comedienne who produces her own stand-up shows, a playwright who co-runs a theatre production company, an architect working in downtown Manhattan, a director working at marketing firm and applying to graduate school, a graduate student who makes art and freelances op-ed pieces, and on and on. All under 30, everyone has job. Everyone’s hustling.

Think of the new digital working-class, young people working tirelessly for no money whatsoever in the hopes of achieving fame. YouTube’s most productive vloggers produce hundreds of videos a year and often without pay. Several young people have—also without pay—created web TV series and become quite successful. Bloggers like Perez Hilton work 10-hour days just to provide information to the greedy masses. The founders of Google and Facebook were all under 30 while developing their companies, now collectively worth about $200 billion. Who’s slacking? When our parents were our age they were smoking weed, having copious amounts of sex and living in bad apartments. We’re only doing one of those things.

But we aren’t only about money and fame. Consider Barack Obama’s campaign, fueled as it is by the efforts of young people. When I went canvassing for Obama before the Pennsylvania primary, almost all of the volunteers were students. Obama even has volunteers under 18 and unable to vote helping his campaign. His progressive message of “working” for change struck a chord with an optimistic generation tired of baby boomer cynicism: “We gave peace a chance, it doesn’t work. Now lower my taxes, please.” Even Hillary Clinton had her avid youth support, and I have several activist friends participating in groups in Philadelphia, New York and Washington, D.C. who refuse to accept the world as set in stone and who are willing to put in the hours to change it.

So tell Judd Apatow—however brilliant he is—and his cadre of stoners that they are a minority. My generation is working to make the world a better place—or make ourselves rich. Either way, we’re hustlin’.

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