FADE TO ORANGE: The Theory of Receptivity and Some Thoughts on Ethan Hawke’s Face



Call it the Theory of Receptivity. It’s the idea, often stated by young people and applied as a dismissive accusation to even marginally older people, that one’s taste in music, or film, or literature, or fine cuisine, petrifies during life’s peak of happiness or nadir of misery, at any rate during the period(s) when one is most open to and absorbent of the things we can all agree make life worth living, most curious about the world and energetic in chasing down its offerings.

During these periods—second year of university, sleepaway camp right before your bar mitzvah, the year you were captain of the hockey team and the baseball team, the time after you got your license and before you totaled the Volvo, the spring your parents split up and you moved to Oregon, the winter after you found out the man you love is marrying someone else—you are acutely attuned to your culture, you reach out and into it, and consume it in vast quantities whether due to tutelage, access to new, interesting people, or to stay an excess of leisure, emotion, disposable income,  or extant and as-yet unaffiliated brain cells. When this period ends, the relevant neurons seal off what they have absorbed and contain them in a place your brain has categorized, for better or for worse, as definitive: This is the music I like; these are the films I like; this is as good/bad as it gets for me. The theory suggests that we only get a couple of these moments in life, a couple of soundtracks, and they usually happen early. If you happened to grow up in the mid-70’s, for instance, you may espouse a relatively shitty cultural moment as the last time anything was any good simply because that happened to be the last time you were open and engaged with what was happening around you, the last time you felt anything really—appallingly—deeply.

I worry about this theory. I worry because it suggests that receptivity is tied very closely to youth, and firsts, and I worry also because as with most theories that I want to reject out of hand, there is a grain of truth to it. My worry started a couple of years ago, when I felt myself slowly separating, almost against my will and better judgment, from what I had unwittingly, effortlessly been a part of for two decades: “The Next Generation.” It’s when I noticed myself taking a step back from the yellow line when the R-train blows into the station, rather than a step forward, like I used to, like the kids flanking me still do. It’s when I began giving more than a passing thought to the age of the people around me, then much more, to the point where I find myself calibrating the age of new acquaintances as a matter of course, ranking a given group in a way that is new and troubling to me, not by interesting eye color or willingness to engage intelligently or suspected willingness to engage carnally or crack comic timing (not actually true, I will always rank by crack comic timing) and not even specifically by age but by age in relation to me. For me it was the subway thing; for others it’s a first gray hair or death in the family or week-long hangover or time they heard an indie sensation’s breakthrough single and thought it sounded like a family of moles recorded it in a cutlery drawer. Between about age 28 to maybe age 43 seems to be a gray area where anyone within that range could be any age within that range, and paradoxically it is this cohort that gets most wigged out about how old they are and how old the people in that same cohort might be.

People respond to this conundrum differently. “Your friend mentioned her age a lot,” another friend of mine said after a dinner party recently. “Like, a whole bunch of times. It was weird.” The observant friend had just turned 31, and hated admitting it. My other friend had just turned 34, and couldn’t stop talking about it. “Maybe she’s trying to remind herself,” I said. The numbers only sound more unlikely as they mount, after all. At a different party, someone I barely knew asked me, in front of a room full of people I didn’t know at all, how old I was. Whereas it would have been ordinarily rude and possibly condescending even, say, five years ago, something about the question and the context had a political, almost passive-aggressive sting. He was 34–older than I was, but only a little–as was everyone else in the room. I know this because most of them were actresses whose heads, once the question was asked and the social etiquette gauntlet was down, swiveled in my direction, not unkindly but with wide, hungry eyes. I want to say—and in fact suspect it could be true—that an actual hush fell upon us. The dude was history, it was the actresses I looked up the next day. But then I find myself on IMDB fairly regularly lately. I am suddenly in possession of the ages of a number of actors and actresses whom I have been watching for years, in some cases decades. We’ve been the same age the whole time, as it turns out, it just never occurred to me to check, or to care, until now. Movie stars were in a distant, ageless realm that had nothing to do with me; if anything they were generally perceived as much older or much younger. I remember seeing ET when it came out and thinking Drew Barrymore was a tiny little sprite; the epitome of childhood innocence. But we were almost the same age, I was a little younger, even. I know that now.

One of the great, time-released pleasures of movie-going is watching the actors of your generation grow older. Maybe pleasures isn’t precisely the right word, but maybe it is. I am only now beginning to discover it, seeking out some sign of accreted wisdom, pain, or contentment–experience–in their faces. This one had a baby, that one just lost her dad. Watching Ethan Hawke in Before Sunset was probably, along with the R-train moment, which happened around that same time, the beginning of my realization that time was really passing, that this thing was really happening. Life began to show itself as more than a series of days, or movies, all in a row, which I might or might not attend. He was gaunt and slightly stooped, but it was his face—rough skin and sunken cheeks, with an angry, exclamatory furrow wedged like a hatchet blade between his eyes—that transfixed me. Some said he’d come through a divorce, and it took its toll; that that’s what life does to people. I’d heard about such things but never really seen it in action on the face of someone only a few years older than me. There was something awful and yet so marvelous, so real and poignant and right, about Ethan Hawke’s face, and about getting to see it in this beautiful meditation on what life does to people, a ten-years-in-the-making sequel to a film about people too young and smitten to be too concerned about what life might do to them. And what was life doing to me? I worry.

I worry, specifically, about 1999. I worry more about 1993, but let’s stick with 1999 because this is a film forum and not a music one. The contents of my iPod might suggest that at least a third of me is stuck in 1993, and I’d have a hard time defending myself against the Theory of Receptivity in that case, because 1993 is the last time I remember being blissfully, boringly happy, for a good long stretch. 1993 is my gritty grain of truth. But 1999 is a different animal. There’s nothing really special about it in terms of my own personal barometers—fairly crap, but nowhere near as crap as 2000, which I declared an official do-over. But it was an extraordinary year in film. It was, I am prepared to argue, one of the greatest years for film in cinematic history, and certainly the best year since I had been alive. Possibly the best year in the second half of the twentieth century, but there’s a two-drink minimum if you want me to summon the table-rapping righteousness I’d need to go that far. It’s ten years later, now, and more and more the people that I would argue about such things with are younger than I am, and when I make these arguments sometimes I can see what they’re thinking: “But you were really young in 1999. That’s the last time you felt anything really—appallingly—deeply. I call the Theory of Receptivity and now find you slightly sadder than before.”

But it’s just not true. I was young, yes, but I was a terrible young person, I was an embarrassment to my kind—I only thank God it was ten years and not now, where every weekend needs a new photo gallery and every quip its own web page, because I take a flash like a bullet and hated answering the phone when it was couldn’t follow me everywhere I go. 1999 for me was a non-starter, hardly a time, I think, when I found things new and exciting because I was young, or that I now associate with my new and exciting, young world. If anything I felt old and worn out and generally skeptical: I was just out of school, I thought everyone was full of shit, especially me, and it just so happened that the only thing I was really good at was spending a lot of time alone, in the dark. I probably never saw more movies in a single year, it’s true, but it was my great good fortune—and I remember thinking at the time: Can you fucking believe this? Again this week?—that so many important directors of the last generation and the next one seemed to be cramming their best work into the final seconds of the century.

Why the confluence? Does somebody chart these things? Some critics get their dudgeon up about making lists of a year’s best and worst films, but it seems to me there is something to the grouping, particularly when a year’s harvest, like 1999’s, is so clearly, almost freakishly accomplished. Leaving aside the big ticket items that weren’t half bad like The Sixth Sense, American Beauty (okay, half bad), The Insider, and, say, Sleepy Hollow (and also leaving aside weirdo phenomenon The Blair Witch Project), something was up with the output of smaller, largely independent, wildly inventive and ambitious films. An era was either peaking or having a really intense, pre-expiration paroxysm. It was a culminating moment in any case, where there was still something like legitimate independent film and the people with money weren’t as frightened about taking risks; perhaps the co-opt had begun, but there was still some fight left in the independent system. And even the old pros were stepping up their game, trying something new: Spike Lee brought Summer of Sam, David Lynch had The Straight Story, Kubrick’s love it or lump it Eyes Wide Shut, Woody Allen had the underrated Sweet and Lowdown and Pedro Almodovar broke through with All About My Mother.

1999’s domination began with the release of Rushmore, in February 1999. Forebear of all things fresh and wonderful, it set the tone and the bar for the year. (Read this lovely, strange story of Wes Anderson arranging a private screening for Pauline Kael. “I don’t know what you’ve got here, Wes,” she said.”) Then came The Matrix and Office Space in March. I remember sneaking off to see the latter, leaving my own stultifying office job for an extra-long lunch. There was a multiplex underneath our office, and another close by, and I recruited as many people as I could to cut out and watch Mike Judge’s first film. Then there was Go, Hideous Kinky (remember when Kate was cool? And slightly nuts?), Open Your Eyes, eXistenZ (I didn’t like eXistenZ, but will cede to those who do). And then Election! Glorious Election. Then Last Night, a scene of which was shot in my apartment building’s elevators, Buena Vista Social Club, yes, the first Austin Powers sequel, Run Lola Run and the goddamn South Park movie. What a great time—a great summer—to be dating, now that I think of it; with South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, I could tell in the first five minutes, when I was cramping up from the laughter coming from an astonished, ecstatic, awesome wellspring inside of me that had certainly never been accessed in a movie theatre, that Mr. Easter Island beside me would never do.

Dick! Romance. And then kicking off the fall season was the amazing Three Kings. The fall is where things really get ridiculous: next is the one-two crunch of Boys Don’t Cry and Fight Club, both of which had me wandering out into the streets with the anguished, bleary look of someone who’s been kidnapped, injected with adrenaline, alienation, and heartbreak, and kicked out of a moving car. American Movie, Dogma, 42 Up, Sunshine, Girl, Interrupted, Holy Smoke (remember when Kate was cool/crazy squared), and Mansfield Park are comparatively minor but still pretty fucking good. Then came Being John Malkovich, a truly exhilarating, paradigm-shifting film, and The End of the Affair, which I am prepared to fight about, and finally Magnolia and one of my favorite films of all and ever, The Talented Mr. Ripley.

My dad’s an English professor, and at the end of every year he worries that the final entry on his syllabus is also the last book those kids will ever read. In 1999 I had just spent four years studying the film and the literature of the past, as though that is indeed where all good things can be found. To experience such a radical burst of cinema in my own time stopped me in my tracks, but hardly permanently. If anything it kept me seeking that feeling, of being a part of something remarkable, and staying awake enough to know it. And yet the older I get the more protective I feel of 1999; I want to see it get the respect,  the recognition, the eye-peelingly boring masters seminar it deserves. A chapbook, a documentary, a blog post–something.

Believe me, young people, I know the case against me better than you ever could: I rarely go to shows anymore, I don’t troll myspace for hot new sounds, I can’t really get into Mumblecore, too often I read new books because I’m being paid to, and it’s probably a matter of months before I look in the mirror and see Ethan Hawke staring back. I’m right there with you. But tell me, have you seen 1999? I was young then, but it didn’t mean that much to me. We’re ten years gone now, it’s as good a time as any: Look in your hearts, look in your calendars, look in your DVD collections, your youth, your own favorite years, look beyond not your own subjectivity but mine, and tell me I’m wrong. I want to take the grain of truth nagging at me, insisting I might be, and shove it.


Read more Fade To Orange.

Michelle Orange's writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Village Voice, The Nation, The Virginia Quarterly Review, McSweeney's and other publications and has been collected in The Best Sex Writing 2006 and Mountain Man Dance Moves. She is the author of The Sicily Papers and the editor of From the Notebook: The Unwritten Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a collection found in issue 22 of McSweeney's. Follow her on Twitter @michelleorange. More from this author →