Pop Culture Commentary: The Rise of the “Boomer Doomer”
By Michael Marano
Hippie Boomers have morphed from being figures we were horrified to see victimized (think “Easy Rider”) to the kind of people that audiences are positively happy to see get their comeuppances.
At the end of Easy Rider, instant hippie (and Boomer) icons Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda are shot-gunned by workin’ man rednecks (“Why don’tcha git a haircut?”). It is a moment so traumatic to a generation that Stephen King in Danse Macabre called the film the “quintessential sixties counterculture horror film,” with an ending that defined “the hate, paranoia, and fear” of the late ’60s.
Hippies at screenings of Joe, identify star Peter Boyle with the titular blue collar character who uses a deer rifle to hunt down a commune of hippies. They yell to the screen “I’m going to shoot back, Joe!” to the point that the actor is worried he might get shot walking down 46th Street.
The last crowd-pleasing half of Panos Cosmatos’s film Mandy (set in 1982), features workin’ man, blue collar hero Nicolas Cage butchering a hippie collective of ’60s holdovers, including a few on gnarly bikes who might be the mutant, cinematic progeny of Hopper and Fonda.
Quentin Tarantino invites audiences to enjoy a hippie slaughter: blue collar hero Brad Pitt throws a can of dog food into a counterculture chick’s nose and Leonardo DiCaprio finishes her off with a flame-thrower.
Wendy, Benh Zeitlin’s riff on Peter Pan, gives us the Lost Boys as a tribe of grotesquely aged Boomers, responsible for the ecological destruction of their Island Paradise, while they still cling to what they perceive to be their youthful hippie innocence.
According to its press release, The Film Detective reissues the 1971 killer hippie movie The Other Side of Madness because of the popularity of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
In the world of print, Emma Cline’s 2016 The Girls, a horror novel, garnered an almost unheard of $2 million advance for the first-time novelist. Her publisher outbid 11 other houses for a book that depicted Boomer hippies as monsters. Envisioning Boomers in an abominable light has become a motif in non-fiction studies, among them Bruce Cannon Gibney’s 2017 A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America (the book gave Boomer Jane Smiley pause when she reviewed it) and Joseph C. Sternberg’s 2019 work The Theft of a Decade: How the Baby Boomers Stole the Millennials’ Future. And then there is Tarantino’s recently announced novelization of his screenplay for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, slated for a June, 2021 publication.
So, what happened? In the era of Easy Rider and Joe, violence inflicted on hippie Boomers inspired alarm, even despair. Today, a number of films (and a Blu-ray release) give us hippie Boomers as ogres to be slain or overcome. Boomers have morphed from being figures we were horrified to see victimized to those whom audiences cheer to see get their comeuppances, be it via the dog-food can thrown expertly by late Boomer/Early Gen X-er Brad Pitt playing a working-class hero stuntman, or by decapitation via a home-made axe wielded by late Boomer/Early Gen X-er Nicolas Cage in the role of a working-class hero lumberjack. Pitt and Cage’s characters are modern “Joe’s,” rehabilitated as Boomer Doomers, putting down the bad guys.
The transformation seems to have been triggered by a sense of betrayal, ideals trashed. The epigraph of Stephen King’s 1999 collection Hearts in Atlantis, which details his many disappointments with his generation, is a quote from the penultimate scene in the “quintessential sixties counterculture horror film”… Peter Fonda’s line, “We blew it.”
The monster who symbolizes generational backstabbing in the current Boomer-phobic sentiment in film and The Girls is, of course, Charles Manson, the weird-looking, silly little man who took nice, Boomer kids and turned them into anti-social vampires. As children, the Manson Girls might have been daughters in the sitcoms riffed on in WandaVision. Cute Leslie Van Houten came from a good middle class home. Patricia Krenwinkel’s dad was an insurance guy who wore narrow ties, and her mom was a homemaker. Squeaky Fromme’s dad was an aeronautical engineer of The Right Stuff era, her mom stayed home, and Squeaky as a child was an adorable member of a dance troupe.
Manson is a character in Once Upon a Time (played by Damon Herriman, who also played Manson in Season Two of Netflix’s Mindhunter, a hit show over which Manson cast a semi-constant shadow). The Peter Pan in Wendy is a cult leader, not as vile as the Manson-surrogate antagonists of Other Side of Madness, Mandy, and The Girls, but one who nonetheless spirits kids from their parents to a dusty Neverland as isolated as the Spahn Ranch.
Love-ins do not define Boomers in these books and films.
It’s not The Beatles on Ed Sullivan.
It’s not Woodstock.
It’s not kids thwarting the will of that nasty old Mayor Bluster on Howdy Doody.
Perhaps Manson wasn’t a teratogen or mutagen that made his followers monsters. Maybe he just gave them permission to be socipaths. In Smiley’s review of Gibney’s polemic, she cites former Congressman (and current talk show host) Joe Walsh’s monstrous, tweeted response to Jimmy Kimmel’s Frank Capra’s-Regular-Guy-like plea for decent health care for all, inspired by the birth of Kimmel’s son, who has a heart defect: “Sorry Jimmy Kimmel: your sad story doesn’t obligate me or anyone else to pay for somebody else’s health care.”
Walsh, a Boomer, was born in 1961. Contrast his Randian, Gordon Gekko, all-mine outlook to healthcare to that of Harry S. Truman, who said of polio at the start of the Baby Boom in 1945: “The fight against infantile paralysis cannot be a local war…. [o]nly with a united front can we ever hope to win any war.” Ten years later, Jonas Salk’s reply to Edward R. Murrow’s question regarding who owned the polio vaccine Salk created was, “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” Walsh’s Tweet reflects the sociopathy Gibney explores his book, the variety of extreme conservatism that many believe that Boomers embrace. As Gibney told Vox: “Starting with Reagan, we saw this [Boomer centric] national ethos which was basically the inverse of JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.”
The phrase “Starting with Reagan” is telling. The Boomer, consumer-driven mentality has been going on for decades, but now some are projecting that sociopathy back to the halcyon days of the ’60s. These filmmakers and authors are saying things were rotten almost from the beginning. Thus, the current popular and cultural awareness of Manson: a man who yammers yammered crazy, paranoid, white supremacist bullshit while promising to shepherd his Boomer faithful to a new utopia that demanded the subjugation of brown people, once he had led chosen whites through an apocalyptic American Carnage that he called “Helter Skelter.”
Things were rotten from the beginning, at least according to some. Thus the popular and political appeal of Manson: he yammers crazy, paranoid, white supremacist bullshit while promising to shepherd his Boomer faithful to a new utopia that demanded the subjugation of brown people, once he had led chosen whites through an apocalyptic American Carnage that he called “Helter Skelter.”
On a national scale, we’ve seen Boomers, and former Hippies, become the acolytes of a newfangled Manson. A majority of Boomers supported Trump in 2016, pollster Silas Lee told The Hill.
Trump, like Mason, cultivated fears in white Boomers, born into shag-carpeted comfort and suckled by consumerism, that minorities would take over. And that meant the fall of the American Civilization. Like Manson, “only” Trump could lead them through this crisis. Pollster Lee said of Boomer support of Trump: “We are observing a demographic last stand, whereby many voters who were born in the late ’40s, they are in a climate of uncertainty, in particular, they feel economic anxiety, social anxiety.”
Trump, like Manson, encouraged his followers to be their worst selves, to the point that, as Adam Serwer articulated at length in The Atlantic, “the cruelty is the point” of Trumpism. (Though, to be fair to Walsh, despite his statement to Kimmel he’s renounced Trumpism because of its cruelty.)
Sadism defines the Manson movie knock offs and The Girls. Cruelty… and ridiculousness. The Manson of Once Upon a Time is an inane little weasel. The Manson surrogate of Mandy flies into a rage when his limp cock is mocked. The Svengali-like influence of the Manson surrogate in The Girls is proportional to the weak minds and character of his followers. The Peter Pan of Wendy is a bellowing brat prone to tantrums as he exiles his followers for the slightest deviation from his rules or hermetically sealed worldview.
We have now reached the point that the regular “Joe’s” of the world, once condemned as monsters for killing hippie Boomers, are now our heroes. The polarities of the “quintessential sixties counterculture horror film” have been reversed: his once-admired rebels “blew it” and metaphorically deserve death for having brought the country down. Roger McGuinn singing Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” at the close of Easy Rider is no longer ironic in today’s popular culture. It really is alright that they’re bleeding.
Since 1990, Michael Marano (www.michaelmarano.com) has been covering film for the nationally syndicated Public Radio Satellite System program, Movie Magazine International, which airs in 111 markets in the US and Canada. He’s provided film reviews and pop culture commentary for a variety of national publications, and Tweets at @MikeMarano.