Saturday, June 8, 2013

Reality Bites in 2013

When I was around 12 or 13 I traveled in a very, very small social circle in which liking any currently popular music would get you shamed, but liking Cyndi Lauper or Patti Lupone ensured social acceptability.  So in the mid-1990s my fondness for Green Day was one of my many dirty little secrets, shared with no one.  Secretly I thought that Billy Joe Armstrong was beautiful, and that I wanted to look like him.  I still sort of do.   So yesterday I was at a used CD store and I saw a copy of DOOKIE on the shelf.  I am one of the only members of my generation who doesn't own it, so I decided the time had come.  I felt very empowered.

That is not the point of this post, but between Green Day and the used CD store it does create an aura of '90s nostalgia that led to it.  Yesterday morning I woke up in a slight panic over finances, so it made a lot of sense to go downstairs, get under my favorite blanket, and watch Reality Bites.  Then I watched it again.  I hadn't seen it in its entirety for years, maybe not since it came out on video in 1995.

In 1995, when I saw it for the first time, I was 12, and I wasn't ready for it.  I didn't understand or relate to most of the nuances that, like the nuances in many mainstream Hollywood movies of the early to mid-1990s, now seem almost miraculous in a major Hollywood film geared towards young people.  I thought it was bland.  I did know immediately that Vickie, the character played by Janeane Garofolo, was a spirit animal, because of her '70s nostalgia, her tendency to imagine that her life was an episode of Melrose Place, and her strange, unexpected cathection to the mall. 

But I didn't understand how either of Winona Ryder's competing boyfriends were at all appealing.

Watching it now, at 6:00 in the morning, I had a lot of thoughts.

I felt so refreshed by the film's portrait of 20-something women.  I've watched both seasons of Girls and Frances Ha, and in many ways I love them both.  But when I saw Frances Ha and realized that the histrionic, boundary-deficient, totally lost and narcissistic 20-something year old girl was becoming a trend, and likely the singular way in which 20-something year old girls would be depicted in "intelligent" programming for years, I began to become tired.  I've always been sort of crazy and awkward and sometimes I've felt lost, but the level of excess with these characters distances me from them, and sometimes I just wish that every emotion and behavior style didn't have to be so BIG, even in small, character driven dramedies.  It is very possible that I was just as histrionic as Hannah and Frances when I was in my early 20s, and I feel uncomfortable with them because they bring to light a part of myself that I was purposefully blind to then and am ashamed of now.  But, I don't know...  Laleina is lost, neurotic, and sort of self-absorbed in a way that seems much more resonant with me.  More subtle and human, without a bunch of neon arrows pointing to it.  She gives as well as takes.  She talks slowly.  Winona Ryder will always, always be one of the actresses whose screen persona I identify with most.

Reality Bites has a few things to say about the increasing mediation and, as a result, fragmentation of our society that seem hauntingly relevant now.  It takes place at a fundamental transitional moment before everything went crazy:  It is a moment when '70s sitcoms and "Tempted By the Fruit of Another" still provide a shared language among college students.

A moment where rich people are still stigmatized for carrying phones around.

It is a moment right before half of the world and community began to take place inside computers.  Unpaid interns-as-replacements are used as threats to people in entry-level jobs in the media industry but, at least in the beginning of the film, the entry level jobs still exist.

Reality still bit in many ways, but there weren't screens everywhere: the presence of screens everywhere in a shot brings with it connotations of satire and judgment, rather than the connotations of something taken for granted.

One of the movie's big plot points, as you may recall, involves an MTV-like network, IN YOUR FACE TV, taking Laleina's An American Family-esque verite documentary about her friends and re-editing it into a program called Reality Bites: a noisy, choppy, pop-song infused mess with a lot of trashy soundbites, product placement, and little of the real human emotion and interaction that she captured.  Of course the subjects of documentaries have complained, seemingly for all eternity, that documentary-makers do this to their lives.  But there's something about the fragmented, histrionic mess that IN YOUR FACE TV makes of Laleina's documentary that hit me.  I think it's disturbing because it takes place in a mainstream popular film for young people that is purposefully distanced from that aesthetic which, so far as I can recall, hasn't happened in years.  Just as Laleina was torn between her verite life and the IN YOUR FACE world, so was Hollywood, and so was our culture. 

I feel like now, more than in 1994, our surroundings look more and more like the bastardized documentary Reality Bites and less and less like the movie Reality Bites.  Maybe that's why Hannah and Frances seem so...chaotic and all over the place in some ways.  I'm not saying that they're poorly drawn characters, I think that they're wonderfully drawn characters, and I do often relate to them.  Or I remember when I would have.  I'm saying that I think that's what our cultural landscape--which is so fast, so choppy, so NEON, so mediated, so pressure-filled and yet sometimes sparse in opportunities-- does to a lot of sensitive and thoughtful people when they're in their early 20s, even more so than when reality bit for people in their early 20s in 1994. That might be why the current "typical 20-something" in popular culture is such a mess, and why I miss everything about Reality Bites so much.

Then there's the love triangle.  So, if I disliked both of the men in the movie in 1994, I'm slightly embarrassed to say that now I really like Michael Grates, the tellingly named yuppie played by Ben Stiller.  I don't think I'm missing the point here just because, for possibly oppressive reasons, I am always drawn more towards the physical signifiers of PATRIARCHY than to long-haired pseudo-intellectuals.  Michael collects Planet of the Apes memorabilia, he's kind and empathic and supportive, he looks good in a suit, he loves Laleina so much that he lets the words slip on the phone, he thinks that Lalaina is brilliant and takes real action to rectify his error after he makes the deal-breaking mistake, saying that they will go to New York and show the producers the documentary AS IT WAS MEANT TO BE SEEN.  The choice seems like a no brainer to me.

Ben Stiller is adorable in this movie.

Troy has serious issues with invalidating his loved ones.  I don't care how tortured his childhood was, I'm sorry.


Maybe I'm boring.  Maybe I'm like Meg Ryan in the beginning of When Harry Met Sally..., claiming I'd choose Victor Lazlo over Rick even though Rick and I had the best sex of our lives.  (I actually probably would, Victor Lazlo is super sexy, and when he leads the French national anthem in Rick's cafe I weep right along with Ilsa).  But I hated what happened at the end of the movie.  I hated it!  What happened to her documentary?!  Ugh, I was so angry.  But I'll say this, I believed it.  When one is in one's early 20s, my experiences and observations tell me that the reality is that one's taste in men usually bites.  Lalaina and Troy would never stay together, no matter what Lisa Loeb says--but they'd probably end up together at that time, and for whatever reason that was probably what needed to happen for Lalaina.  I have a harder time believing that a person like Michael Grates would exist in the first place, but I appreciate that writer Helen Childress didn't make him the nightmarish cliche that, from what I know, is probably closer to reality.

I really need to know what these characters are doing now.  I don't see why Before Sunrise is the only Ethan Hawke movie that gets to continue.  Everyone would go to see...

Do you think a Kickstarter campaign would work?


  1. I LOVED "Reality Bites" as a teenager, and I really love your post about this. "Reality Changes" is a brilliant idea, too. Maybe you could pen this during dissertation breaks. :)