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Grunge Cinema: Five by Three for X
Fredrick Barton

For the last two years I've worked with a young production assistant at a New Orleans television station to which I contribute regular pieces of film commentary. Now nearly 27 years old, Rhonda is bright, energetic, capable, hard working and likable. She is also, in the eyes of this aging baby boomer, more than a little odd. In the time that I've known her she's changed her hair style almost monthly, its color nearly that often. She currently wears seven different earrings in her left ear. She had a nose ring for a while, but has given it up (thank God!). Last week she got a tattoo. She likes working at the TV station, but doesn't think she'll make a career of it. She doesn't know what she might like to do instead. But she isn't in the least concerned about that fact. Rhonda is a bona fide, card-carrying, full-fledged member of the so-called Generation X.

They are too young to remember the trauma of Vietnam and the turbulence of the 1960s. They lost their innocence at an amazingly early age, and they grew up cynical rather than idealistic. They are sometimes depressed, but they are seldom angry. Their parents experienced the sexual revolution, but they came of age in the era of AIDS. They wear their baseball hats backwards, dye their hair funny colors, sport tattoos and pierce parts of their bodies other than their earlobes. They didn't graduate from college in four years. They are slow to leave home and remain undecided about their careers.

These are some of the stereotypes of Generation X, that part of the American population born after the Baby Boom. They have reached adulthood now. The oldest are already in their thirties. And the nation's pundits are still trying to tag them with a single word or phrase the way the young people of my generation were labeled "hippies" or "draft dodgers." Madison Avenue tries to design ads appealing to them. Hollywood, of course, tries to make movies they'll want to go see.

And Hollywood has been as inept as usual. The musical heroes of Generation X emerged from the nation's garages to play "grunge rock." Their cinematic heroes are now emerging from the independent film movement. The budgets are low. The acting is spotty. The images are grainy. But there's some very impressive work being done, primarily because the writing is often so fresh. One Generation X filmmaking hero, Quentin Tarantino, has already come to wide public attention. Two of his peers you should look out for are Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith. This threesome is young and talented, and I hope they'll be making movies for years to come. Their product, however, shows some of the characteristics for which their generation is infamous. Each of the five features these three have made exhibits flashes of brilliance marred by structural sloppiness and thematic murkiness.

I

What if the violent mob flick Goodfellas was written by Samuel Becket? Or better perhaps, what if Waiting for Godot were adapted for the screen by Martin Scorsese? In the second of these formulations you'd have a lot of crooks in cheap suits cursing a blue streak while waiting in a bare space for a guy named Joe. And, of course, you'd have some pretty graphic violence. In other words, what you'd have is Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs.

The narrative in Reservoir Dogs concerns a jewel heist gone notorious­ly bad. A mobster named Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) puts together an ostensibly professional team of thieves for the purpose of knocking over a wholesale jewel company. To insure security for the operation both before and after, Joe deliberately hires a group of men who don't know each other and insists they use code names. Harvey Keitel is Mr. White, Tim Roth is Mr. Orange, Steve Buscemi is Mr. Pink, Michael Madsen is Mr. Blonde and so forth. With such elaborate preparations and precautions, the job ought to come off in a snap. But it doesn't. Two of the robbers are killed, as are store employees and policemen. And the surviving crooks all suspect that one of their number is an undercover cop. Gradually the survivors rendezvous at a warehouse. Nobody is happy. With the exception of Mr. White and Mr. Orange, who evidently have come to see themselves as partners, everybody is suspicious of everybody else. And where in the hell is Joe?

The narrative in Tarantino's Pulp Fiction is cut up into three parts with an intersecting cast of characters. In the first story, a drug-trade foot soldier named Vincent Vega (John Travolta) is asked by his forbidding boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) to look after Marsellus' wife Mia (Uma Thurman). Vincent is extremely apprehensive about this assignment because the last thug to escort Mia ended up getting thrown out a window. The second narrative concerns a boxer, Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), who refuses Marsellus' order to take a dive and has to fight his way out of town. In the midst of trying to kill each other, Butch and Marsellus abruptly become allies. And in the third tale, Vincent and his partner Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) try to get out of a jam they get into when Vincent accidentally murders somebody in Jules' car. Hiding out in the suburban garage of an ill tempered buddy, Vincent and Jules are aided by The Wolf (Harvey Keitel), a dapper mob functionary who specializes in cleaning up crime scenes and disposing of incriminating evidence.

Richard Linklater's debut feature, Slacker, is notable for its unusual style. Slacker introduces a score or more characters, each discovered sequentially as if by chance. The striking style is intimately connected to the picture's substance. All of the film's characters are intellectual poseurs and economic hangers-on. They possess a little education and find it a dangerous, incapacitating thing. Like the series of characters in its lens, (and arguably like the stereotypical member of Generation X), the camera cannot hold focus; it is forever wandering off with somebody new.

Linklater's second film, Dazed and Confused, looks at Generation X in its youth. Set in an unnamed middle-American locale on the last day of school in May of 1976, Dazed and Confused is the story of a group of teens in transition. When the closing school bell rings, Randy "Pink" Floyd (Jason London) and his friends quit being underclassmen and become high school seniors. A few blocks away, Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins) and his friends finish eighth grade and become high school freshmen. By tradition, the two groups collide immediately because it's the job of the new seniors to initiate the new fresh­men through a ritual of hazing. As he does in Slacker, Linklater introduces us to a huge cast of characters. A hectic afternoon of hazing gives way to a wild night of partying and petty vandalism. Eventually a new day dawns and pitifully little is meaningfully different.

Stereotypes of the members of Generation X are perhaps most fully exploited in Kevin Smith's Clerks. Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran) is nearly 23 years old. He's a high school graduate, but he hasn't made much progress in college, a fact persistently aggravating to his current girlfriend Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti). Dante lives in a cluttered one-room apart­ment and makes his living running a cash register at a working-class neighborhood Quick Stop in New Jersey. Dante's best friend Randal (Jeff Anderson) is the cashier at the video store next door. As Clerks begins, Dante is called by his boss to report to work on his scheduled day off. When he arrives, things begin to go wrong. A gum salesman tries to intimidate customers dropping in to buy cigarettes. A patron dies in the restroom. Dante is ticketed for selling cigarettes to a minor. And things take a bad turn in Dante's private life as well. Veronica offhandedly confesses to some sexual indiscretions. One of Dante's old girl­friends dies and another for whom he continues to carry a torch announces her engagement to be married. In a self-pitying mantra that might have been written by Kurt Cobain, Dante repeatedly complains, "I'm not even supposed to be here."

II

Tarantino, Linklater and Smith all write smashing dialogue resulting in comedy more delicious than any other currently being produced in world cinema. A shared tactic is a parody of popular culture delivered with the seriousness of a graduate school seminar paper. Reservoir Dogs opens with the crooks having lunch in a diner. Full of macho posturing, rude insults and taunting jokes, their con­versation is brilliantly written and hysterically funny. While the others kibitz, Mr. Brown (Tarantino himself) holds forth with an interpretive analysis of Madonna's "Like a Virgin" that ought to be required reading for intro classes in literary criticism. Later, as the lunch meeting breaks up, the crooks launch into an inane debate about the protocols of tipping. A subsequent flashback to Joe's first meeting with his men chronicles such craziness as Mr. Pink arguing passionately for a more masculine color.

One long wonderful passage in Pulp Fiction is set at a place called Jack Rabbit Slim's, a diner where the seats are 1950s convertibles and the wait staff is Jane Mansfield and Buddy Holly. While dining, Mia and Vincent don't talk about much other than their food. But with Tarantino putting the words in their mouths, we could listen to them all night. The same can be said of the completely insane plan we hear a couple of convenience-store robbers (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer) concoct as they decide to shift their operation to diners. My favorite moments in Pulp Fiction, though, arrive via the theological ramblings of Jules Winnfield. After a narrow escape in a shootout, Jules decides that his deliverance is an act of God that obligates him henceforth to examine the true meaning of scripture he has heretofore quoted to torment victims shortly before killing them. At the end he decides he's been called to walk the earth—like David Carradine's Caine in the 1970s TV series Kung Fu.

Linklater's pictures are jam-packed with comedy, practically one hundred percent of which proceeds from things people say. The mal-educated characters in Slacker are forever holding forth with another instance of illogic. Dazed and Confused offers an impassioned discussion in a girls' restroom about the sexism of Gilligan's Island. Seems that boys can fantasize about both Ginger and Mary Ann. But what girl could possibly be interested in Gilligan, the Skipper, Mr. Howell or even the Professor, in the girls' estimation a nerd, an old man, a fatty and a moron? Pop psychology rears its ugly head as well, as a nerdy senior details his concerns about a recent sex dream in which he finds himself making love to a girl with a beautiful body but the head of Abraham Lincoln.

In Clerks Dante and Randal sus­tain a debate over the sociological and thematic differences attending the destruction of the death planets in Star Wars and Return of the Jedi. Randal is comfortable with the violence in the first movie, concluding that justice was served and all who died deserved their fates. He's concerned, however, that the filmmakers responsible for the latter film were cruelly indifferent to the fates of innocent construction workers who were presumably (though never seen) still at their labors when the climactic violence breaks out.

III

In contrast to dialogue and char­acter development, plot is a secondary concern for these filmmakers and a particular weakness for Tarantino. The very premise of Reservoir Dogs is artificial. The crooks may all know each other only by code names. But they all know Joe and through him the anonymity of the operation is instantly compromised. Moreover, Joe's decision to hire the undercover cop emerges as baldly contrived. And the fact that Mr. Blonde turns out to be a monstrous psycho seems to arrive from outer space. Most important, how exactly has Mr. White formed such a bond of affection for Mr. Orange? This last constitutes the heart of the film's conflict, that between personal loyalty and professional detachment. It is abidingly annoying, then, that Tarantino leaves the connection between these two men to form off­screen.

Though more ambitiously structured, Pulp Fiction doesn't really hold together either. The separate parts overlap, but they never connect. And when the end comes, we find ourselves aching for rather more closure than we're provided, particularly about the characters of Mia and Butch. Moreover, two longish passages here don't rise to the imaginative level of the sections surrounding them. Butch's story is brought to a complete halt about half way through for a flashback about his family's heirloom watch, a passage that's really just an adolescent dirty joke. And the even longer section involving The Wolf keeps making narrative promises which it fails to keep.

The problem with Linklater's Slacker is its one-idea premise. You get the point about its characters' aimlessness pretty quickly, and its repetitive style soon grows wearisome. Dazed and Confused is stronger in this regard. It shares with Slacker a concern with characters adrift. Everybody the cam­era happens upon in the first film is somebody in between, somebody who used to be a student or used to have a job, somebody who hasn't quite figured out what he's going to do with his life. In the second picture, the characters are all seemingly spinning about without a proper sense of direction. Randy has a dim sense that the best things in life might not be found on a football field. But about the only thing he can identify to replace the thrill of athletic stardom is the hedonism of routine drug use. Like the other eighth-graders, Mitch just wants to sur­vive high school hell night, but one senses his own moral seduction as he drinks beer and smokes dope for the first time and eases into a relationship with the seniors who stand atop the school's social pecking order. The plot in Dazed and Confused doesn't really take you anywhere, but it doesn't screw up while it's marching in place.

Narrative developments in Clerks range from absolutely nonsensical to only unlikely. At one point Dante and Randal play full-contact roller hockey on the Quick Stop roof. The gum salesman manages to orchestrate a small-scale anti-smoking riot among a group of customers who come to the Quick Stop to buy cigarettes. Veronica heatedly contends that performing an act of oral copulation is not an example of "having sex." And one of Dante's former girlfriends has intercourse with a corpse. "Real" such things are not. But, of course, the exaggeration in each of these scenes is part of what enables them to succeed comedically.

IV

Tarantino, Linklater and Smith are all gifted enough storytellers to attend to issues of plot whenever it becomes in their interest to do so. I have less confidence about their ability to address the thematic murkiness that proceeds from each of the five works I've discussed here. Tarantino creates brilliant surfaces. His characters are continually surprising. Smith's and Linklater's characters, too, say the darnedest things. But enormously entertaining as they are, what exactly are these five films about? What do they have to say about the human condition? Tarantino seems almost pathologically fearful of anything approaching sentiment or suggestive of meaning. And I don't think he can reach his full potential as an artist until he conquers such fears. Smith's Clerks is as funny a movie as I've seen in a very long while. And for that I stand ready to forgive it just about anything. But I certainly don't find in Clerks a statement about Generation X that runs any deeper than the notion that the world sure is a mess.

Tarantino has won the biggest audience among the three so far, but in Dazed and Confused Linklater has made the most searching movie. Linklater sketches his characters with bold, telling strokes. He's not yet in Robert Altman's league, but his ability to breathe life into so many is a signal accomplishment, particularly given his range of exploration from nerd to stud, dropout to brain, good-time girl to wallflower. Still, as with the others here, something significant is missing: a point of view. For the kids in George Lucas's American Graffiti, to which Dazed and Confused has frequently been compared, something terribly important lay in the balance. On a long night of cruising Lucas's charac­ters decide who it is they are going to become. Not nearly so much is at stake in Dazed and Confused. Mitch's seduction is rendered as inevitable. In four years he'll be like Randy. And Randy is at sea. When my Generation X production assistant Rhonda tells me that her proudest recent achievement is having her navel pierced, I acknowledge that Linklater knows his audience. But like Tarantino and Smith, gifted and entertaining as they are, Linklater's not yet attempting to tell that audience anything they don't already know.

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