That 90’s Show


Remember when nothing was less cool than the 1980’s? Shoulder pads, big hair, synthesized pop and oddly-out of focus photographs were the bete noir of us kids growing up in the 1990’s. We were much more into the sixties and seventies, drawing peace signs in our notebooks and performing disco bastardizations at school assemblies.

Each era thinks the one that immediately preceded it utterly sucked and the one before that was kind of interesting. As if on cue, as soon as the nineties ended, fashion designers trumpeted the return of the 1980’s (and did so every other season for the rest of the decade). Rediscovering CDs I burnt during undergrad (circa 2003) I’m shocked at how many eighties songs I thought were, at the very least, of minor camp interest (although, there is no excuse for Tiffany).

And now, at the beginning of yet another decade, and with designers reviving grunge and minimalism, the timing seems right to talk about the 1990’s, and it doesn’t get much more nineties than ‘Reality Bites’.

The 1994 film may have the most nineties cast imaginable: Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Jeanne Garofalo, Ben Stiller (who also directed), even absurdist character actor Steve Zahn. As Chuck Klosterman wrote in ‘Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs’, “You don’t often see ‘Reality Bites’ mentioned as an important (or even particularly good) film, but it grows more seminal with each passing year. When it was originally released, all its GAP jokes and AIDS fears and Lisa Loeb songs merely seemed like marketing strategies and ephermeral stabs at insight. However, it’s amazing how one film so completely captured every hyper-conventional ideal of such a short-lived era; ‘Reality Bites’ is a period piece in the best sense of the term.”

Ryder places Lelaina, an idealist with videographer aspirations. The movie begins with her valedictorian address at graduation. “And they wonder why those of us in our twenties refuse to work an 80-hour week just so we can afford to buy their BMWs,” she reads. “Why we aren’t interested in the counterculture that they invented, as if we did not see them disembowel their revolution for a pair of running shoes. But the question remains: what are we going to do now? How can we repair all the damage we inherited? Fellow graduates, the answer is simple. The answer is…” She loses her space in her notes. “The answer is…” Panicked, she discards her speech. “…I don’t know.”

She smiles and the audience cheers.

“I’m not a valedictorian, but I play one on TV!” Lelaina explains as her gang later celebrates on the top of a Houston skyscraper.

You’d be hard pressed to find a better introduction to Generation X: in one opener we have the distrust and rejection of Baby Boomers, the disavowal of simple solutions to the world’s problems, and, when cornered, the reliance on the distancing power of pop culture (“play one on TV”).

Of course, Lelaina has trouble finding her dream job, or any job for that manner. One perspective employer stumps her by asking her to explain ‘irony’ (a definition which was also problematic for that other 1990’s princess, Alanis Morissette). So she ends up hanging out in her apartment most of the time with Garofalo (who plays the Betty Page-haired Vickie, in a part she beat Gwyneth Paltrow for), and her love-hate best friend Hawke, a self-important proto-hipster who doesn’t work, smokes a lot of cigarettes (when’s the last time you saw anyone in a movie spoke?), and beds and abandons comely young women like line-less Renee Zellweger.

All this hanging around is fine, as Lelaina is working on a documentary about her friends and all their hanging out. The characters gain their nutritional sustenance from junk food (they get all their groceries from gas stations, and years before Juno, Lelaina is surgically-attached to her Big Gulp slushie) and their conversation  from the TV shows of their youth; they sing songs from ‘School House Rock’ and play drinking games based on 1970’s sitcoms.

They are so immersed in pop culture that they are often unable to cope with serious, real-life experiences without comparing themselves to TV. When Vickie is waiting for the results of her HIV test she says, “It’s like it’s not even happening to me. It’s like I’m watching it on some crappy show like ‘Melrose Place’ or some shit, right? And I’m the new character. I’m the H.I.V.-AIDS character and I teach everybody that it’s OK to be near me, it’s OK to talk to me. And then I die, and there’s everybody at my funeral wearing halter tops and chokers or some shit like that.” Near the climax, Lelaina whines that she thought her life would be like ‘The Brady Bunch’ (good heavens, why?) and that “by 23, I thought I’d have it all figured out,” a line which received hoots from this 25-year old viewer.

Lelaina gives her tapes to Ben Stiller who works for ‘In Your Face TV’ (a thinly-disguised MTV) and says that his producers are interested in making it a series. They end up taking Lelaina’s sincere footage and turning it into a jumpy-cut, irreverent reality show, in the manner of ‘The Real World’, aptly named ‘Reality Bites’. She watches in horror as Vickie’s AIDS scene is spliced together with Salt n Pepa’s ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’ and a clip of cattle doing it. The final straw is a sequence in which all her friends discuss pizza, ending with an advertisement for Pizza Hut. Lelaina storms off, furious that another young person would so spectacularly sell out her generation to The Man.

But there’s a fundamental contradiction in ‘Reality Bites’: Lelaina and her friends have been practically raised on TV, pop culture being the only institution which unifies the generation and hasn’t abandoned them. The most interesting, original parts of the movie are when the characters are discussing Cool Hand Luke; when they speak seriously, the script becomes clunky and cliché. But Lelaina must feel that, amongst all the ironic pop culture in-jokes, there is some kind of authenticity which ‘In Your Face TV’ corrupted. Perhaps the re-appropriation of pop culture is the authenticity. Speaking of ironic, Lelaina flips out about Pizza Hut product placement in a film which features multiple mentions of Diet Coke, Sneakers and the GAP.

In an essay about the actual ‘Real World’ series, Klosterman alleges that, over the course of the nineties, the reality show reminded him less of real life than the people he met in real life reminded him of characters from reality TV: “People started becoming personality templates, devoid of complication and obsessed with melodrama.”

Perhaps this is the main difference between Gen X and the lamely-named Gen Y, other than my guess that our ‘Cabbage Patch’ purchasing parents probably treated us better than the divorced parents of latch-key kids in the seventies. Maybe if ‘Reality Bites’ was remade today (with, I don’t know, Kristin Stewart in the Lelaina role) she would have no hesitation about repackaging her friends into one-dimensional TV personalities. And it gives one pause to realize that we wouldn’t need scary, suited men at networks to force us into archetypal TV personas; through ‘The Hills’ and ‘Jersey Shore’, through facebook profiles and self-confessing blogs, we’ve done it to ourselves.