Friday, July 27, 2007

The Astronaut Farmer

The tag line of this movie is "If we don't have our dreams, we have nothing." In many ways this movie points hopefully to a revitalization of baby-boomers to rediscover the animating spirit of their generation. It is also hopeful in that the protagonist, played by Billy Bob Thornton, does it one his own, contrary to Boomers' youthful dreams of forcing everyone into their Age of Aquarius (on the Left) or into Moral Rectitude (on the Right).

One aspect of his relentless pursuit is the potential bankruptcy of his family. He had had to leave NASA in his youth to go back and save the family farm. But will his pursuit of his dream threaten the farm again? Will he suffer every Boomer male's nightmare and Become his Father? Will he enslave his children in the debt accrued for his dream?

It is touching to see his wife back his dreams and push him to pursue them, especially since "Husband and Wife" relationships are so often portrayed by Boomers as whimsy vs. narrow scold, as practicality vs. dreams, as rivalry not teamwork. G.K. Chesterton said:
"Women are the only realists; their whole object in life is to pit their realism against the extravagant, excessive, and occasionally drunken idealism of men."
And this movie does a great job of capturing the great tension between these male and female aspects while at the same time showing the love and respect for each other within the whole family. The movie indicates that family life can pull Boomers out of their adolescent narcissism while at the same time anchoring their dreams.

The movie also articulates well two aspects of Baby-boomer masculinity. Most Boomer men are shown to be compromised bureaucratic hacks, their souls sold. Farmer is still following his dream, his vision, despite setbacks and costs. On reviewer of the movie on IMDB said
My brother in fact didn't like this movie because he said it wasn't possible. I don't remember him having this much trouble with "E.T." or "Forest Gump". My brother gave up his dream of being a writer, he now teaches high school drama.
In Casablanca we are told that if you scratch a cynic you will find a romantic underneath. The Boomers men here represent the excesses of relentless dreamers and the deficiencies of dreamers burnt out.

Of course there are no Gen Xers in this movie, except for some of the FBI and police roles, who interestingly scorn their spiritually bankrupt superiors and hope for Farmer's success. The children in this movie are Millennials, as if the Boomers psychologically can't acknowledge the generation raised in the moral, political and emotional chaos of the 70s and 80s that they spawned. Again it is interesting that the Gen X characters are law enforcement, as if a generation raised in chaos wants desperately to create order somehow, at least in their own lives, reluctantly taking part in imposing it on others.

The Space Age of the Boomers' youth that is representative here of their dreams, and of man's ability to accomplish the most daunting tasks, is also deeply symbolic of the mechanistic, impersonal and unemotional, industrial and technological world that the GI generation built after WWII. It is both the "emotionless" world of their parents that the Boomers reacted against, diving headlong into an excess of emotionalism at the other extreme -"Follow your Bliss" and all that good stuff- and the root of their aspirations to perfect the world through the application of science and technology.

According to some psychologists, when we are "wounded" at one stage of our development this affects all later development. In order to be whole and fully-developed we have to go back to that stage of our development and work on those character issues. Unless we do this we will continue building on an unsure foundation, like a "Leaning Tower of Pisa" of personal character. The Astronaut Farmer is clearly about Baby-Boomers going back to work on the issues of when they lost their souls, when they were first broken.

Farmer gave up the dream of his youth, the technological wizardry to transcend Earth's boundaries to tend to the practical matters of hearth and home. But he continues to try both to take care of his family and to follow his dream.

In the end his wife pushes him to continue, despite a major setback and massive strain on the family finances, because she does not want him to wound his son as he had been wounded himself. We can see the family, through generational levels, working out the pursuit of their dreams and their practical responsibilities.
In order to do this, however, they spend the inheritance from her father. What the maternal grandfather (Silent Generation or GI) had left for the family, especially the children, is used to go to space.

This is the most troubling aspect of the movie. If Boomers need to go back to the time of their "loss of soul" in order to be more fully integrated and alive, in order to be good parents and adults for the Millennials, does in necessitate spending the Millennials' inheritance?

Will the Boomers look to the outdated forms of work and life of their youth, a "soulless, mechanical, and institutional" world created by the GIs, against which they reacted so wildly in the 60s, to reinvigorate themselves? Or will they look forward as adults who can create their own visions of work, society and life for their families?

Recently Andrew Sullivan commented on the Presidential campaign in similar terms. He asked if Boomer Hillary Clinton was trapped in the paradigm of 20th century foreign policy, a foreign policy put in place by the GIs and if maybe Gen X Barack Obama or Silent Generation Ron Paul are looking to a new paradigm for the 21st Century, a paradigm that may reinvigorate adults but will not bankrupt their children.
And it is a predictable Beltway meme that Clinton did better than Obama this week because she showed "experience" and he showed "naivete". But I wonder if that's the case. I wonder if the country hasn't shifted sufficiently to make total disengagement from Iraq thinkable and Clinton seem a captive of past presumptions about American power and how it should be wielded. Iraq has made the case for a "humble nation" more eloquently than Bush in 2000 ever could.

Boomer Burt Rutan went to space, the Big Dream of boomers in their youth, but he did it on his own in Spaceship One.
Boomers can create the future without looking to the outdated modes of production of the GI hegemony, without bankrupting the rest of us for their dreams.

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