A Page turned

One of the striking things about Juno is the way, right from the opening credits, it establishes the magical wise/innocent world inside the head of its main character as the epitome of coolness.

One key moment is at the end of the opening credits, when Juno walks out of her cartoon-rendered inner world, into the real world of other people. There is a second or so where the left side of the screen still shows a little bit of the cartoon world – you actually see both worlds on the screen at once. And that cues in the audience, right from the start, that Juno always carries her alternative world around with her.

Juno is the latest in a long line of magical-innocent heroes. What is striking about her, as opposed to, say, the cartoonist Hoops McCann played by John Cusack in One Crazy Summer, is that she is not marginalized. Rather, the world around her ends up recongnizing that she represents the future, the way to enlightenment.

This same cultural transition can be observed in the 1960’s, as popular culture gradually emerged from a reality centered on Eisenhauer-era post-war materialism. In 1966 the Juno-like character of Murray N. Burns played by Jason Robards in A Thousand Clowns was still perceived as being disconnected from the outer world, unable to have power within that world, even though he was a figure of grace. And yet the same year saw The King of Hearts, in which the “real” world is seen to be, ultimately, completely irrelevant – only the people who are innocent to the point of insanity have any importance.

I would argue that the cultural movement of about 40 years ago glorifying the rebellious innocent, also seen in Godspell, Harold and Maude and many other plays and films of that era – and of course going hand-in hand with escalating popular revolt against the Vietnam War – recurs about once every two generations. It is generally a statement that “The approach taken by you grownups has failed, and now it is time for the children to take over.” Kurt Vonnegut, the novelist of that era who was perhaps most self-consciously positioning innocence as a rebellion against the old order, actually subtitled his novel Slaughterhouse Five “The Children’s Crusade”.

This cultural response to “grown-up thinking run amok” is far from new. After the horrors visited upon Europe by World War I, the Dada movement deliberately embraced an aesthetic of pseudo-insane innocence in rejection of the grown up thinking that had led to the devastation of the Great War.

I think we are going through a similar transition now. The power of the rebellious countercultural innocent is on the rise, and I sense that this is fundamentally due to a rejection of the age that we’ve been living through, a neo-Eisenhauer age of rich old white men in suits, a creeping punative fascism in the culture and its public discourse, and a paranoia leading to dimunition of personal freedom and dignity.

In such times, the popular culture responds. In the midst of jingoist war-heroes, the rebelious losers start to appear like small furry mammals between the legs of the mighty thunder lizards. First they show up as antiheroes, and then they start to take over, to emerge ad full-fledged heroes, objects of desire. Just a few years ago Napolean Dynamite had only limited power; he was able to enter a place of grace only through the side door, the one reserved for nerds and outcasts. Similarly, Judd Apatow’s characters in Freaks and Geeks may have been attractive, but they were never allowed to see themselves as heirs to the kingdom.

In retrospect, Linda Carellini’s Lindsay Weir was a kind of proto-Juno. But in 1999 the culture was not prepared to accept her as a figure of power. She was a queen without a realm.

But now we’re going full circle yet again, and anyone who stands up and effectively employs the rhetoric of innocence and rebellion against the old white guys in the suits (I won’t name names) is going to have a good shot at taking over. But nothing is certain. As Bob Dylan once rather perfectly put it: “Something is happening here and you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr. Jones?”

And then Nixon got elected.

One Response to “A Page turned”

  1. sally says:

    i liked the film as well, and saw a lot of F&G’s lindsey in Juno.

    what i liked most about this film–aside from the other points mentioned, is its being of its time, for its generation. i found it elightened me to the inside of a new generation type that is outside my own, right down to the music, and style of the individual characters preferences. i liked her parents. funny, though jennifer garner was the only “star star” i recognized in the flim, i thought she was one of the lesser talents. the film for me captured the power of the female to initiate mating behavior, and to give life, and it showed the puppiness of Juno, as not quite aware of that power, then suddenly, as you say, how she completely grew into it.

    i especially liked her dad.

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