In Which Hawke’s the Last Real Thing You Got
The culture of the United States in the 90s was one based around the inability to properly define conflict. For the past 80 years of American history there had always been one big thing that the culture at large could struggle collectively against: the World Wars, Prohibition, The Cold War. Issues where someone could declaratively stand on one side or another on the battlefield of ideas and fight it out. But these simple dichotomies evaporated during the last decade of the 20th century. Morphing into a morass of self reflective philosophy and pondering at the purpose of living in a world where the problems of the past seemed sorted and the future paved towards some unified tech based society. Within this quest for definition came a new field of struggle in the culture wars: the battle for authenticity.
The relative stability and prosperity of America in the 90s created a conundrum for those engaged with culture. What to do when things seem to be mostly okay? It’s hard to rage when there doesn’t seem to be any direct thing to target that anger at. Yes the seeds of modern terror and right-wing extremism were being planted, but their sources at the time seemed diffuse and hard to nail down. So the frustration and anger at the time was sent in a vague upwards direction. Targeting politicians, corporations, and big entertainment producers as the gentle machine that was suffocating a generation to death. At the time teenagers and young adults decided that deigning to engage with these structures of power at an earnest level was an act of selling out. To give up your one true self to the soulless voids above you was the epitome of uncool action. They didn’t want to be like their parents, hypocrites who flipped from counter-culture heroes to stodgy Reaganites.
Other cultural forces fueled this emotional fire as well. Alt-rock and gangsta rap both prided themselves as being “real” music, cutting out the excesses of the past to get to the heart of modern living. The independent film boom was in full swing; offering more realistic or grimier alternatives to the standard Hollywood fare. Into this world Reality Bites was born, as greasy and smug as the day is long. Proclaiming its authenticity by sneering headlong at parents, television, and minimum wage work.
Ben Stiller’s 1994 romantic dramedy follows a group of post-grads as they make their way though life in the 90s. Lelaina (Winona Ryder) was the valedictorian of her class, but is now merely reduced to PA position on an annoying morning show. She’s also romantically torn between nerdy TV producer Michael (Ben Stiller) and the layabout philosopher Troy (Ethan Hawke), who is also bunking with Lelaina and Vickie (Janeane Garofalo) after losing his job. Sammy (Steve Zahn) is also there; he’s a closeted gay man, that’s about it for Sammy.
The film boldly pronounces its central thesis in the first minute of its runtime. Lelaina is making a graduation speech where she asks how, “we can repair the damage we inherited.” She builds up to an answer, and then has none. The title flashes on screen and the audience applauds at her uncertain assertion about her generation’s future.
Stiller, and screenwriter Helen Childress, think that the answer is love. But not just any old love. Authentic love. Coffee and cigarettes love. Love that can only come from a man who is emotionally unavailable, financially unstable, and in a horrendously named alt-rock band (hey, that’s my bike). And this authenticity is expressed through the film with another film. You see Lelaina has been recording her friends for the past year or so, capturing the quotidian and transcendental moments of their lives. Digging into harsh truths and the mundane realities of an existence that didn’t turn out as most of them had hoped.
This documentary is Lelaina’s passion and her fling with Michael offers her the opportunity to sell out with the footage. Michael works for an edgier and stupider MTV knockoff called In Your Face TV, and the suits up in New York want to buy the footage and make a show out of it. Lelaina is initially thrilled. Finally her passion will pay off and the work she loves will find purpose. But that’s not the case. At the premiere of the show she is horrified that the footage has been chopped and screwed into a sub Real World reality TV montage. Taking everything truthful and exciting and discarding it for cheap sensationalism. Michael then represents everything wrong with the culture writ large. He says he has own vision and creativity, but he kowtow’s to the corporate overlords at every step. He embodies the hypocrisy of the past, a poser in the cooler than thou culture of the time.
Troy must then be the honest counterpoint. A man who represents an authentic emotional state, who won’t corrupt Lelaina’s work, who will present her with opportunity beyond the life she current leads. Except he doesn’t because Troy fucking sucks. Besides being one greasy asshole, Troy is an emotionally manipulative fuck up who doesn’t provide anything except gen-x platitudes about being “real” and not selling out. He can only provide true romance in the form of early mornings with cheap coffee and cigarettes, and ditching her after the first time they have sex. He condescends to other people’s issues, and interrupts genuine moments that Lelaina experiences, but still he insists that he is, “the only real thing you have.” For Reality Bites “real” is still the post-grunge, pre-Kobain-death ideal of just dropping out and joining a band. Its better and more authentic to disregard and disengage, what’s the purpose of trying when, as Troy says, life is a, “random lottery of meaningless tragedies.”
One of the reasons that this ironic detachment is so frustrating is that there is genuine thematic interest in the corners of the film. Most of it stemming from the two characters that the movie seems committed to sidelining. The best of the two is the tale of Vickie, a woman proud of her accomplishments and terrified by the mistakes she might have made. She’s happy that she got promoted to manager at the GAP, she likes hanging with her friends, and she’s frightened that she might have HIV. For Vickie the “realness” of life isn’t binary. Her job is real, her friends are real, and her fear is real. The moment when she admits her terror at the possibility of contracting HIV to Lelaina is the most affecting scene in the film, and Garofalo plays it perfectly, never sliding too far into sentimentality or glib sarcasm.
Sammy has the groundwork for an interesting arc, but its so shoved back that one wouldn’t blame a viewer for blinking and missing the whole thing. Sammy is a closeted man and in two, incredibly short, scenes we see his coming out story. Awkwardly rehearsing the reveal with his friends before struggling with the fallout later. It’s a strong character dynamic completely undercut by how half-baked the whole thing is. Later when Lelaina visits Sammy he gestures to his new boyfriend. A figure who has no name and barely exists beyond the edge of the frame. That is the extent of Sammy’s growth, a shadowy movement to the side of the diner bar.
A lot of these good moments stick because of the man behind the camera. That’s right multiple Academy Award winning cinematography Emmanuel Lubezki shot this, and you can tell. The lighting is more emotional, favoring solid coloring to match the tone of the scenes. Steady-cams and longer takes are employed to allow the geography of the space inform the actions of the characters. All those wonderful shots of Ryder and Hawke are probably one of the reasons this movie still persists in the cult film subconscious.
But it is still caught up in its own coffee house profundity, offering bits of advice and platitudes to an audience of a seemingly satisfied era. That your jobs are expendable, your work only good if untouched by anybody, and romance only validated by the burnout in your house. In ’94 this might seem more on the money, but 25 years later it feels facile and frustrating. I can’t imagine anyone in media today rejecting the offer to create a TV show a year out of college. I’ll take my lumps for being inauthentic if it meant the possibility of gainful employment in my field of interest.
This attitude is best explicated during Lelaina and Michael’s first date. The two of them are in a back of a car listening to Frampton, noshing big gulps, and discussing their love of astronomy. Both of them admit that they wanted to study it in school, but dropped the class once the math came up. Both of them sigh and wonder why can’t astronomy just be gazing at the stars from a rooftop. The answer is that astronomy has to include complex math, because that’s how planetary movement and stargazing works. But why engage when you can be naïve instead, isn’t it more real just to look at the stars without knowing the systems that move them. Just as it’s easier for Lelaina to look at her doc and refuse to engage with the systems that might get it broadcast. Better to be out of the loop than in and working towards something, and that is the type of life that people like Troy, and the film itself can provide. Real, authentic, untethered, and disconnected.
Odds and Ends
- Despite the generally poor quality of Hawke’s band the rest of the soundtrack is pretty stacked.
- One scene here that I think exemplifies the idea of “real” in the film. The group goes out to buy snacks from a gas station. When My Sharona comes on over the radio they force the attendant to pump up the volume so they can dance to the music in the aisles. It’s fun in a French New Wave kind of way, but feels hollow in the context of the rest of the story.
- If it weren’t for the overly earnest and sentimental end Reality Bites almost feels like a parody of early Linkater films. Just bunch of people in Texas talking through life.
- Ben Stiller has had an incredibly bizarre directing career. It seems impossible that the same man is responsible for this, Tropic Thunder, and Escape at Dannemora.
Next week Millennial Malaise goes to the other side of the globe to find love in the bustle of Hong Kong in Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 romance Chungking Express.