ÂWhat is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?Â
Â Â -W.H. Davies, 1911.
In 1911, W.H. Davies feared a lack of time to stand and stare. ThatÂs because in 1911 people still worked.Â There were few opportunities for lazy reflection. Seventy years later, roots rocker Tom Petty expressedÂ a similar fear when he penned the lyric ÂTHE WAAAAA-AIIIIII-AAAAI-TIIIING IS THE HAAAAAARDESTÂ PART.Â And now, in 2013, with our antidepressants and our robots and our glowing screens, we haveÂ nothing better to do than stand and stare. Stand. And. Stare.
We Millennials are criticized by Generation X for being lazy and entitled. Generation X: the sameÂ generation that brought us ÂSlackerÂ and that Ben Stiller movie with Winona Ryder. ItÂs a fair criticismÂ Â assuming, of course, that the hypocrisy of a critic canÂt invalidate their criticism. They were terminallyÂ bored by the picket-fence-and-mistress model of success. But the Generation Y life is defined by waiting:Â sitting in bed with a laptop or some other glowing screen, reading trivia and waiting for our lives to start.Â You wonder what came first: Millennials not caring if what they post online effects getting a good job, orÂ there being no good jobs so Millennials donÂt care what goes online. From here, even the picket fencesÂ and mistresses sound okay. But thatÂs all gone. We just stand and stare as the void approaches.
Millennials, Generation Y, the irreversibly doomed and damned, whatever you feel like calling us Â weÂreÂ defined by ennui. Luke EpplinÂs Atlantic piece, ÂYou Can Do Anything: Must Every KidsÂ Movie ReinforceÂ the Cult of Self-Esteem?Â, complained that kidsÂ movies create a false ideal for children. That theyÂreÂ given an ill-advised commitment to believing in themselves when no one else does. Dare to dream.Â There is always a place for dreamers.
Epplin wrote about the cult of self-esteem: the idea that everybody is innately talented and shouldÂ pursue big Â no, impossible Â dreams. This is nonsense, of course. Not everybody should dream big.Â Most of us shouldnÂt dream at all. Believe me. I grew up as an only child in East Bakersfield, surroundedÂ by dust devils, Merle Haggard records, and ennui on ennui. IÂll do Epplin one better: dreaming is over inÂ America. And not just for little kids. And if one sets to dreaming big in rural America, one will rapidly findÂ oneself embalmed in Wild Turkey and Camel Straights.
Dreaming has always been a liability to me. I canÂt conceive of a universe where thatÂs a useful skill toÂ have. KidsÂ movies need to change. TheyÂve sent us into adulthood with misguided idealism and outsizedÂ career goals. The Millennial ennui hits harder when you expect miracles. It turns us into bad BruceÂ Springsteen characters Â not the kind on ÂBorn to Run,Â but the kind on ÂHuman Touch.Â HollywoodÂ needs to close down its dream factory to the upcoming labor force and start lowering expectations,Â to blunt the lonely misery waiting just a little down the road. Social mobility, career, healthy personalÂ relationships: thatÂs the stuff of folklore now. ItÂs dated.
So letÂs do a little thought experiment: I wrote what is known as a spec screenplay, a HollywoodÂ euphemism meaning Âoverreaching fan-fiction,Â for a new Toy Story sequel. It abided the rules of theÂ Pixar universe and better reflected the Millennial experience. Since Toy Story grows with its audienceÂ and the last one was for college students, then Toy Story 4 caters to 25 year olds who are probablyÂ bombing adulthood. We have here a movie without dreaming Â a movie that doesnÂt pretend self-actualization is a viable Millennial goal (because it isnÂt).
The first step to a Toy Story that reflects the zeitgeist is normalized expectations. So Andy, who leftÂ for college in Toy Story 3, naturally couldnÂt afford to finish his education. He couldnÂt get backing onÂ enough loans senior year, and now heÂs back home with a Zoloft prescription and a vague sense thatÂ a grown man needs to work for a living. We donÂt treat his failure dramatically, but instead as the coldÂ reality that it is. Failure is normal for us, and so Andy is normal.
He comes home to a disappointed and increasingly distant mother, and a sister, the baby Molly from theÂ first film, leaving for college herself Â and with all the idealism and hope Andy has all but lost. HeÂs goÂ a chip on his shoulder now: he knows the American college experience is generally a shell game testingÂ only perseverance, an investment that almost always leaves one maladapted to everything that comesÂ after it. But he doesnÂt tell his sister this out of affection.
So Andy retreats to his old room in his motherÂs house, burned out and nostalgic. Nostalgia, especiallyÂ the sickly sentimental kind, is a major component of the Millennial disease, by the way. Missing theÂ good times, and missing them even more with the aid of bottom shelf rotgut booze, Andy, alone inÂ a quiet room, doesnÂt feel at home anymore. So he pours some coffee, gets within striking distanceÂ of sober, and reclaims his old toys from the little girl he gave them to in Toy Story 3. (He gave herÂ brand new toys in return for his old ones, if that makes you feel better about AndyÂs behavior in thisÂ hypothetical). AndyÂs toys are a symbol of normalcy and a happy past. And normalcy, more than theÂ coping drugs he will no longer be able to afford once heÂs off his momÂs insurance, is what he desires.
And with this he puts his toys back on the shelf. He has no intent to play with them, of course. He justÂ wants to stand and stare, and he usually does that while getting rocked on the Old Crow he stores in hisÂ repurposed high school backpack. He sits in his bed and he uses his laptop, sometimes looking for jobsÂ but mostly drifting into solipsism and loneliness (assuming those are different things). If there was everÂ one iconic symbol of the Normal Millennial, I should mention, itÂs an adult-in-name-only lying down in aÂ twin bed, halfway to drunk, looking at recycled image macros out of sheer listlessness.
The toys Â all the characters we grew up loving Â are now as depressed as Andy. TheyÂre watching himÂ settle into unemployment and sporadic drunkenness. They rarely have the opportunity to come alive.Â The boy sits in his room for days on end, with occasional interruptions to walk around the block andÂ smoke. HeÂs in bed now, drunkenly skimming job postings. Sometimes he switches tabs to post gamingÂ hashtag jokes on twitter. Just to feel like part of something.
One day, Andy gets up and pounds a shot of Old Crow. He coughs a few times and puts a pack ofÂ Marlboro Reds in his shirt pocket. He grabs a novelty lighter from under his bed Â itÂs shaped like WALL-E (this is a screengrab easter egg for all you Pixar fans out there). We then follow him around the blockÂ as a jazzy, minimalist piano piece plays. He fumbles with his cigarette and wistfully looks at his WALL-E lighter. Sid is crossing the street, clutching an energy drink, and coming to say hi. They can no longerÂ afford to be enemies.
While Andy is gone, the toys reluctantly come to life.
The toys spring into action. The band is back together! Woody proposes a modest, attainable goal: dragÂ AndyÂs bottle of booze to the bathroom and dump it out. Woody, Slinky, and the bucket of army guysÂ will carry out the plan. Buzz, of course, is on lookout detail. Andy gets home from his walk, staggers toÂ the bed, and the toys hit the road. ItÂs rough going for the toys these days Â their plastic is brittle withÂ age and everyone knows not to pull on WoodyÂs string.
They make it to the bathroom and empty out the bottle, but they drop it on the edge of the sink,Â whereupon it breaks into several pieces. The toys consider it a partial victory and scram to theirÂ designated bookshelf. Except for Woody. HeÂs too slow to react and must fall asleep next to the brokenÂ bottle when he mistakenly thinks he hears AndyÂs footsteps.
The next morning, a groggy Andy finds Woody and the whiskey bottle by the toilet. Smiling at theÂ juxtaposition of his childhood toy lying next to the great destroyer, Andy chalks the accident up to aÂ drunken spiritual awakening, and decides heÂs finished with booze. For good this time. As he retreats toÂ his bedroom, hungover but with a new lease on life, we hear his mom yelling from downstairs. ÂI knowÂ what youÂre doing in the bathroom. YouÂve got zero chances left.Â Andy knows this yet keeps smiling,Â and he goes to the bedroom once again and shuts the door.
The toys smile because heÂs smiling. Andy combs his hair and puts on a button-up shirt. Everyone looksÂ on, happy that, despite his failures, he hasnÂt given up. Andy walks with purpose to his window, and heÂ pushes it all the way up. He leans out and lights the morningÂs first cigarette, with Woody by his side.Â But Andy realizes only one of his problems has been solved, and his smile fades away as he observes theÂ colorless streets, coated as they are by the muted light of winter.
Andy stares with righteous intent as wisps of smoke creep above his face and ashes fall. Woody staresÂ too, and puts his arm on Andy. The camera studies AndyÂs face, then slowly leaves the window andÂ ascends to the sky. A Randy Newman song plays. Andy stands and stares.