Cigarettes, Dirty Laundry, and Mangled Manifestos: Reality Bites

There seems to be a puzzling trend lately of non-fiction authors in their 40s publishing defenses of “The Greatest Generation.” But, contrary to the presumption that this title refers to those of the World War II era, as it commonly has before, the new (self-)decried honor instead refers to Gen Xers, although these authors frequently lament over the validity of the title, or any title at all. These defenses are similar in their reporting of the history: Baby Boomers are a selfish lot, incessantly urging credit for influencing some kind of revolution. But that by the 1980s, this wave of liberalism was instead replaced by the one-track capitalist ambition of the Yuppie. The “revolutionaries” getting their pictures in the paper for their part in a protest are now driving the kids to soccer practice in a minivan. But the demand for credit never ceased, and continually intrude to remind or altogether impose their values and ideas on the generations of youth to follow.

By the 1990s, with college graduates facing one of the most hopeless periods in the job market, the overhyped myths of the Boomers fell on deaf ears in a way that mirrored the brief punk boom in the late 1970s, with its snarling recognition (and acceptance) of a cultural, social and economic apocalypse. (Compare Leggs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s oral history of punk, Please Kill Me to Michael Azzerand’s Our Band Could Be Your Life). The Gen Xers penning these books proclaim their generation to be the smartest and the most creative (spawning a major transformation with YouTube, MySpace and Google). Although, puzzling enough, the examples always stem from a limiting and definitive Holy Trinity: director Richard Linklater (Slacker), author Douglas Coupeland (Generation X), and Nirvana. The Generation X histories remind their audience that the lifespan of Gen X was brief, and their contributions are frequently masked by the Boomers who refuse to acknowledge their irrelevance. Ironically, these histories also skip over any mention of a Generation Y to chastise the Millenials as a worrisome return to everything the Gen Xers had declared as wrong: self-absorption, obsession with celebrity, mass obedience, and worst of all, insatiable material pursuit.

This shaping of Gen X’s mark on humanity was already told years ago during its brief existence, although in the medium of film, the Gen X biographies were frequently shaped by Hollywood Hands, no matter how attractive it was to call something a product of the Alternative or Grunge Era. In particular, there were three histories that survive memory. One was writer/director Cameron Crowe’s 1992 romance dramedy, Singles. The second is Linklater’s improvised vignettes, Slacker, a favorite in the cult circuit released in 1991. And the third is, Reality Bites, marking Ben Stiller’s directorial debut (written by Helen Childress), followed two years later.

While Singles served as a time capsule of the Gen X lifestyle, it is really only ancillary to it’s primary focus on the romantic relationships of its various characters. It was something of a bust at the box office. Slacker has dominated the discussion when it comes to Gen X films, but Reality Bites deserves some spotlight in the analysis of life as a twenty-something in the early 90s – fresh out of college, full of ambition, jaded, and about to cement their cynicism. (“The script was initially turned down by all the Hollywood studios because it tried to capture the Generation X market like Singles and that film was not a box office success.” 1)

It is worth noting that the application of generational titles, although always marked by some range of birth dates, is that it’s usually not all inclusive of it. There’s always the unspoken distinction in demographic, or socio-economic status, or some other variable. Though Generation X is said to refer to anyone born between 1965 and 1981, its histories really tend to be dominated by whites that met this criteria. And more specifically, college educated whites. For those outside of that demographic, but born within that time, does Generation X even have the same meaning? Does it even apply?

Reality Bites frames Gen Xers in the same way as the Gen X histories do today (though it’s more first-hand than the material coming out now), doing so through a variety of themes: romantic relationships (obviously), commercialism of art, contempt for parental values, overeducated and underemployed graduates, AIDS, homosexuality, and so forth. The movie centers on the dynamics of four college friends (three having just graduated and one having dropped out) sharing a house in Texas. Lelaina (Winona Ryder), one of the film’s major characters, works a thankless job as a production assistant for an arrogant morning talkshow host (John Mahoney). The documentary filmmaker assumes her art will be her escape, though it never seems likely to get off the ground until she befriends an entertainment executive (Ben Stiller). Troy (Ethan Hawke), the other central character, is extremely smart, jaded, and both frequently unemployed and aloof. (The real Troy Dyer is reported to be a financial planner these days). The witty Vicky (Janeane Garofolo), rarely finding herself in positions of responsibility in her career and relationships, starts to turn this around. And the least seen, Michael (Steven Zahn), is a homosexual who eventually, though anti-climatically, comes out to his friends.

The linear history of Reality Bites is nearly identical to the celebratory histories released of late, even opening with the impetus for the principals of Generation X. Valedictorian Lelaina (Winona Ryder), addressing her graduating peers, has no advice about their post-college futures, as even she is uncertain what direction is best. But one thing she is adamant about: criticizing their parents’ promise of revolution, but despicably trading it for material ambition. The claims of perfect families and perfect lives that really weren’t, a statement supported by quick cut scenes from Lelaina’s documentary which features clips of her friends describing their parents. Divorces for some and indifferent marriages for parents of Lelaina’s friends that did stay together. Which leads to the construction of their ultimate dogma: avoid everything your parents did. For that reason, Reality Bites, whether just in retrospect or even when it was released, makes the Generation X crowd seem like the bubbly hippies they criticize.

The self-proclomations of the generational revolution, like those before it, once again settled as an embraceable myth. But, although the recent biographies of Generation X doesn’t just claim this to be the Generation’s defining principal, but it’s most admirable one (at least where it worked out without much flaw in retrospect), this blanket rebellion seems naively inflexible, fruitless, and excessive. Something, in other words, to hail at a young age, until reality kicks in after enduring the more difficult trials and error of life. The philosophy is embodied in particular in someone like the stereotypical Troy (Ethan Hawke), often simply characterized as the rebel philosopher, one with equal parts intelligence and cynicism coupled with zero motivation. Says Lelaina to Troy in one scene: “I have to work around here, and unfortunately Troy, you are a master at the art of time suckage.” Lelaina’s staunch refusal to let her artistic integrity be compromised is another example. She is appalled that her documentary is given a demeaning Mtv revamp once executives get a hold of it, illustrating the great fear of Generation X culture was the dreaded act of selling out.

While it is urged by some not to be taken as a serious portrait of the early 90s, though it should not be entirely dismissed as a falsehood of the times. Just like a lot of movies about the rise through adulthood (Lelaina: “I was really going to be somebody by the time I was 23”), whether the it’s twenty-somethings or thirty-somethings (The Last Kiss is a recent example), there’s this eventual realization that the difficulties that started with adolescence never conclude just because you leave your teens. The confusion of growing up is consistent.

All Your Synthetic Charms Are Belong To Us: Making Mr. Right

“Who am I? Why am I here? What does it mean to be human?”

– Paul M. Sammon, drawing the common philosophical questions presented in Blade Runner and its source novel, Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Romantic science fiction comedies are rare, but it’s a genre that seemed to have found its niche in the 1980s. Blade Runner, released in 1982, approached the subject of relationships between human and non-humans in the story of an agent who, assigned to kill an illegal brand of synthetic human called replicants, instead falls in love with one. It was a story that paralleled much older fiction: Mary Shelly’s novel, Frankenstein. They were Man’s creation and declared monsters by their creators. In the replicants case, they were designed to first fight in Man’s wars, then were resigned to be their slaves in the colonizing of conquered planets. Most all of the replicants were aware of their design and consequently, their fate.  The Nexus 6 replicants of this story don’t really seek baseless revenge – they desire to reverse their tragedy.

After Blade Runner, the anthropomorphic android was removed from the typically dark, technophobic context of contemporary science fiction, and was instead placed into causal, modern life. Adapting to the most abstract of human emotion (love), aliens (Starman, Earth Girls Are Easy), computers (Electric Dreams), and robots (Short Circuit, Heartbeeps) alike became the new source of competition for human affection. They made potential mates.

Director Susan Seidleman’s third feature film, Making Mr. Right, written by Floyd Byars and Laurie Frank and released in 1987, ventures into this fusion ofscience fiction/romantic comedy genre and borrows on that narrative of non-humans trying to understand core human emotion. But in this case, the lesson in love is imperfect – a curious android seeks his guidance from a woman who is just as confused (and cynical) about relationships. Hell, most of the characters are.

For this film, Seidelman places aaide her usual setting of kitschy New York City (Smithereens, Desperately Seeking Susan and returning to this in 1989 with her fourth film, Cookie) Making Mr. Right is set in Miami, a location that nonetheless allowed Seidleman access to her trademark fusion of art deco and 80s new wave (in both visuals and soundtrack). It also enabled her characteristic commentary on lavish consumerism.

Ann Manguson plays Frankie Stone — characteristically bold, fashionable, witty and… currently single. She exhibits that perfect pop feminine chic central to Seidleman’s leading women. Roger Ebert’s 1987 review highlight’s the director’s sensibilities of character perfectly: “…she hits her stride as a comedy director who would rather be clever than obvious, who allows good actors such as Malkovich to go for quiet effects rather than broad, dumb cliches).” There is often that risk of coming off as pitifully saccharine with a story like this,but, Seidleman’s work always managed to steer from being disastrously campy and in largely because her choice of leading women in particular were key in maintaining that momentum. And, Manguson was perfect for the part.

Bumped by her colleague as the public relations lead for the mayoral race, a move that coincided with her breaking up with the conceited candidate, frazzled career woman Frankie Stone is hired by NASA to work on their latest project: a human-looking robot named Ulysses (played by a young John Malkovich). Originally designed to explore space where physical, mental, and emotional limitations (think: isolated missions) could not allow humans to do so, the business-minded team of engineers want to expand the android’s uses, eying marketing potential for the robot as a domestic servant and emergency services assistant. Ulyesses, unlike predecessor robots, has the ability to learn and adapt, both mechanically and socially. Unfortunately, Jeff Peters (also Malkovich) the brilliant but incredibly arrogant scientist who invented the robot (and modeled its apearance on himself), is hopelessly incapable of “humanizing” Ulyessus; making him seem less robotic and more human. And that’s precisely what Frankie is hired to do.

In the isolation of the lab, Ulyessus’s lone source of knowledge about people, about human interaction, about the outside world, is all learned from Frankie, whom smitten Ulysses falls for. But, as Frankie tells her inquisitive, robotic pupil, the existence of true love is doubtful and the.perfect man is impossible.

But, the more interesting element, rare to narratives like this one (expanding beyond Blade Runner‘s meta-physical posturing), is that the android and the human (in this case, his inventor) increasingly become a mutual doppelganger. Ulyessus becomes more sociable, more curious about human interaction and the oustide world. And, for his innocence, he’s hypnotically charming. (This leads to two particulary great scenes – a shopping mall date with Laurie Metcalf’s character, who mistakes Ulyesses for her ideal love interest Jeff, and a scene in which Glenn Headly’s character think she’s accidentally decapitated Ulyesses when his head falls off during sex.) On the other hand, Jeff is increasingly defined more by limited social qualities of a pure robot – little else than mechanical, scientific genius (save one brief attempt to be personable). It is perhaps John Malkovich in one of his most versatile roles, simply because he had to exhibit such a wide range of personality (or lack thereof) for both parts. For once it was not merely the robot steadily transforming (as much as he could) to human, but his maker had increasingly taken the form of the robot (and happily so), indifferent to social connection and its consequential emotional attachment.

*Credit to AC for the title.