Millennial Malaise 00: What It Is

Twenty years ago was 1999.

Now, on balance the year itself was nothing too notable. Between the political bickering of the Clinton impeachment (he was acquitted in February of ’99), and events like the bursting of the dot-com bubble and the 2000 presidential election, it stood, in hindsight, as a relatively placid year in the history of big events. That’s not to say important things didn’t happen. No, tragedies like the Columbine school shooting and the war in Kosovo were present and felt, and their respective aftermaths still reverberate in the larger world today. It was a notable year for film releases, enough so that there are entire articles and podcasts dedicated to the subject, but that kind of stands more as a fun point of trivia to be noted at parties.

1999 wasn’t important because of its content, but because of what it represented.

In the 20th century the turn of the millennia was seen as a hinge. A great moment where some sort of cosmological apocrypha would reveal itself and inverse the course of civilization. The speculation was frequently earth shattering: computers would glitch and destroy the world as we knew it, culture would finally reach some sort of apotheosis with the structures of the past disintegrating, advances in technology would lead to either a cyber-wonderland or AI infused nightmare, or that some sort of grand spiritual awakening would imbue each human with a sense of kindness and well being.

Of course none of that happened. And from our perch here in the future (I mean Blade Runner and Akira are happening right now) it seems rather obvious that the hinge of the modern world came two years later.

But what I want to know is what caused all that wondering and how we expressed it in our art: The grand postulations of transcendence or apocalypse. That all systems of the past would be discarded as newer technology and forms of communication gripped the globe. That we would be foiled by our own ignorance and complacency. That our love of irony and detachment would further isolate us in an ever more populated world. That society would march willingly into tech based dystopias, or maybe, just maybe become something more.

All of these cultural questions and anxieties rushed out during that odd period in the late 20th an early 21st centuries when people thought we had it figured out, and had no idea what was going to happen next.

This time span also proved to be fruitful ground for cinema all over the world, as people wrangled with meaning and purpose in the strident approach of globalism, tech, the internet, and communication. Films act as an emotional conduit for society, reflecting ideas and concerns on a larger canvas, and in this period these thematic undercurrents frequently made it to the big screen.  Not every movie made during this time is explicitly about those things, but a good many of them hold that uncertainty and wonder of the time period.

So this is what this series will be about, movies made between the end of the Cold War and 9/11 (and even further on either side if they engage with certain thematic point) that also pontificate about what the social, scientific, and economic shifts leading up to the turn of the century meant; movies that bask in a sort of Millennial Malaise. Films that move through certain aesthetic principles reflected by the quickening integration of digital technology in day-to-day life. Films that grapple with the world swiftly tilting towards more instant communication and the supposed homogenization of society. Films that unpack the generational fissures that appeared between those who lived in a world where a computer was a whirring colossus in a basement, and those who had PCs in their bedrooms connected to the now archaic forms of the internet.

I have no grand thesis about the whole of these projects, but I want to really dig in and explore them. Call this the full blooming of 90s/early 00s nostalgia if you wish, but excavating the culture of the time could lead to some interesting connections to the culture of now.

So come along with me, this won’t be solitary work. If you have suggestions of books, docs, or essays about the time period that might deepen my understanding send them my way. If you want to suggest a movie to cover I’ve a got a pool in a letterboxd list that can be added to. I’ve put a hard limit on projects released between ’90 and ’05, broad enough to catch interesting outliers, but tight enough to not just talk about everything. And since this is my first time doing work like this, constructive feedback is always appreciated.

I’ll kick off the project later this week with Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 cyberpunk thriller, Strange Days.