Before that annoying guy in the thick-knit cardigan, who keeps telling you between sips of their 100 per cent Arabica flat white that it was actually Nirvana’s first album where the band found their sound (even though you weren’t even talking about Nirvana in the first place), hipsterism used to actually mean something.
Harry Gibson, a jazz pianist popular in the 1940s, claims ownership of the term after adopting the stage moniker ‘Harry the Hipster’ somewhere between 1939 and 1945. It was originally used in this sense to describe middle-class, predominantly white youths who sought to emulate the energetic, predominately black, Jazz counterculture of 1940s America. The culture expanded into the flourishing beat movement in the following decades with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg heading the swelling literary movement that encapsulated the disaffected youth sub-culture which would come to define hipsterism in the mid-20th century.
In this sense, Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause can arguably be touted as the original hipster-flick: it provided a social commentary that encapsulated the generational conflict, societal dissatisfaction, emotional uncertainty and political scepticism which defined this pocket of America counterculture. With the residue of Cold War conservatism still very much present in the country’s social structures, Rebel Without a Cause offered an endlessly relevant and downright essential cinematic expression of a misunderstood, restless, middle-class youth culture who had wilfully lost out on a conformist system very much built to serve them. Whether you identify with culture and its often problematic literary prophets or not, the objective quality of Ray’s film cannot be disputed. He steers away from the easy and exploitative route the film could have obviously taken and produces a passionate yet surprisingly level-headed treatise on disaffected youth which, if nothing else, acts as an excellent historical document for a tumultuous and boundlessly fascinating period in American history.
The culture was always present and became rather indefinable as it amalgamated itself into the various anti-establishment sub-cultures and protest groups which came out of widespread dissent over Nixon’s America and the Vietnam War-era. Admittedly, as we entered the 1980s, 1990s and onward, hipsterism somewhat lost, and arguably never regained, the same youthful energy and anti-establishment fervour that defined it in this period.
Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, although not specifically emblematic of hipster culture, nonetheless acts as an excellent encapsulation of the historically enthralling and downright overwhelming culture it came out of. An absolutely hilarious classic of anti-war cinema, Dr. Strangelove very much captured the mood of a country which, it seemed, was on the verge of imploding in on itself. It’s an essential film on any list; however, in this context, it is a wonderfully watchable, ceaselessly quotable piece of cinema which couldn’t be recreated in a million years. It has a passionate, dissenting energy, which acts as the perfect encapsulation of something that was soon to be extinguished in the hipster culture as we began to enter a period of existential post-modernity, before eventually morphing itself into the hipster of the present-day. In this writer’s opinion, it is Kubrick’s best film; a controversial opinion I know, but, hey, 2001: A Space Odyssey is just too damn mainstream.
Skipping forward a few decades, we find ourselves back where we began: in that small, overpriced coffee shop Instagramming our latte art whilst demonising the guy seated next door because he actually quite enjoys listening to Coldplay from time-to-time. Although hipsterism has sadly lost its power as a site of meaningful protest, its cinematic expression has very much been better. Charlie Kaufman acts as a perfect cinematic positioning for the weepy, existentialist route the culture has taken; however, Spike Jonze’s Her perhaps offers the best example of hipster cinema to come out of the last decade.
Hipsterism as it stands now, or at least as it should stand now, is about introversion: it’s about retaining a quiet, thoughtful voice in a world where everyone is shouting at once. This has somewhat been lost by the hipster stereotypes that people take to be representative of the culture, which is why it is up to films like Her to reclaim the culture for what it should be. Spike Jonze created an introvert’s dream whilst simultaneously putting a wonderfully unique, existentialist slant on the all-too-familiar love story format. It has a surprising amount to say over the nature of love and our toxic relationship with technology. It gives what feels like a troublingly prophetic vision of the near future which, one can’t help feel, will become more and more relevant as we sink deeper and deeper into our collective glaring phone screen of a culture. It really is essential watching for our times as a result: it is the understated, thoughtful voice we all desperately need right now, exactly what hipsterism should be but sadly often is not.
Although it has become a site for ridicule, admittedly for very understandable reasons, hipsterism actually has a far richer history than people give it credit for. Cinema acts as an excellent representation of the times, it always has and it always will, and hipster cinema is as worth exploring as anything else. Really, there’s a lot more that could be mentioned here: dissatisfaction historically creates the best artistic expression and, as a result, hipster culture is an amazingly rich and varied cinematic field in which to explore. So maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on that guy with the flat white: whether he knows it or not, he’s the product of a fascinating cultural history which warrants exploration, and cinema offers an excellent site in which to do so.
Image: Eliza Peyton