Like MTV, But With an Edge
I own a poster advertising the film The Graduate. It hangs in the basement amusing us with various critical responses to the movie. There, over a drawing of Mrs. Robinson's leg arching above the mortar board-clad Benjamin Braddock we read, "The freshest, funniest, and most touching film of the year," followed by, "One of the year's 10 best," and "Wilder and more rippingly funny than any film we've had this year," and finally, "A milestone in American film history." One would think that a film of such quality would at least generate a more creative response by people who wrote about film for their living, but then, the marketing department of the Embassy Pictures Corporation cut up the reviews and fed them to the public in small bite-size doses to sell their movie. Regardless of whatever else the critics might have said about The Graduate that year, the poster lives as a relic of the late sixties, testifying to the notion that the more things change, the more things stay the same.
The newspaper advertisement of Reality Bites resembles the artwork that hangs on my wall. It promises a "witty romantic comedy with wonderfully tasty characters" and offers a comparison, calling Reality Bites "The Graduate for the 90's."
And it is in many ways. While Benjamin drifts endlessly in his parents' swimming pool and is initiated into the strange world of middle-class adulthood by Mrs. Robinson, Reality Bites protagonist Lelaina Pierce commences to face dwindling job opportunities and begin a relationship with a television executive and his company. But where Benjamin is told that success in the future can be summed up in the word "plastics," Lelaina Pierce elicits the advice "Buy a Ford," from her stepfather. Though by the ends of their respective films Benjamin's future is no less tidy than Lelaina's it has the hope of being malleable, like plastic. A Ford promises Lelaina the lack of quality and the mediocrity in her life that she fears.
We take Lelaina seriously as representative of her generation because she doesn't sound whiny. I'm used to the part of Generation X that gets the most press casting dramatic looks around the United States before declaring "Look at all the horrible legacies previous generations have left for us, the responsible, long-suffering-in-silence children, to sort out." One of the characters in the film Singles, an environmental activist, sums up the feeling by stating, "This whole generation is about cleaning up." As part of this generation, I hesitate to think that we can blame the previous generations for social failures like homelessness or the spread of AIDS. Blame in itself is a heavy burden, especially when the ideology that contributes to such things crosses generational lines. But Lelaina's problems seemed to be more of the soul-threatening, personal sort, like Benjamin Braddock's but with a uniqueness that belongs to the post-Reagan era. In her life and through her art (she documents her life and the lives of her friends on videotape) she asks the questions of identity: "What exactly am I graduating to? How am I, without any role models or heroes to show me direction, to navigate my life?"
Lelaina and her friends bear the marks of a society at a loss for idealism, in which Great People exist only to be debunked, and virtue is derided as being naive. In the film's opening sequence, Lelaina proclaims her life's hope to be "to make a difference," immediately dashing it with an "I know it sounds cornball. . . " They internalize a reality without direction and hope precisely because they have learned that even those things are corrupt or unreachable. In her valedictory speech to her university's graduating class, Lelaina explains that her generation refuses to be idealistic because they have watched the previous generation sell out their "revolution for a tennis shoe."
That tension between the desire for ideals and the reflex to be cynical sets the tone for the rest of the film. As it progresses we watch Lelaina debate between the forces of idealism and material survival, presented in the form of a love triangle. She finds herself torn between Troy, a jobless former philosophy student, cynic, and singer in a band, and Michael, an executive with In Your Face TV ("Like MTV, but with an edge"), who promises Lelaina a forum for her documentary at the price of her vision.
Lelaina has no choice but to chose, and when she does we discover that beneath the facade of "reality" that cynicism creates and the protection against false hope that it offers, there is something sacred after all. Where she hopes to find a place to express herself, she finds her work trivialized. In Your Face TV shreds her documentary into bites of something that resembles nothing of the reality Lelaina originally intends. The finished product resembles MTV's "Real World," or "Melrose Place," or Singles, in which self-described "realist/dreamers" look happy and carefree even though they don't know where their lives are headed. Such productions are notorious for portraying real fear as little more than "twenty-something angst."
At In Your Face TV, Lelaina comes face to face with Generation X's unique version of "lite and perky." Life isn't quite a sit-com, but it may as well be.
In Your Face TV names their version of Lelaina's documentary "Reality Bites," giving the film which encapsulates it a bizarre thematic twist. The film questions its own understanding of reality, communicating an uneasy self-consciousness. Director Ben Stiller labors under the understanding that his own creation may be just another set of reality bites. He adds visual jokes with punchlines directed back at his film. When Michael and Lelaina discuss "In Your Face's" potential acquisition of her videotapes, she wavers, explaining her reluctance to commercialize her work. Then she takes a formidable drink of her Big Gulp about which she has recently given an unshakeable testimonial, the name of the drink facing the camera unabashedly.
Stiller's choice to cast himself as Michael reinforces the film's sense of irony, and underscores the tensions between idealism and commercialism, virtue and exploitation. Michael generates inarticulate pseudo-realities from media cliches. When a man and a woman on the show he creates for In Your Face break off their relationship the woman calls after the man, imploring him not to drive drunk. Stiller's film makes fun of situations like this, but questions the effect they have on the lives of people who spend much of their time interacting with a media that creates their identities for them.
Stiller's reality bites resemble Michael's. The lives of Stiller's characters have that media-influenced "real life drama" quality to them. The ailments and tensions from which these people suffer are so trendy that they seem preposterous at first. When Troy announces to silence the bickering voices of Lelaina's parents that his father is dying of prostate cancer, it isn't clear he's telling the truth. For a moment it seems as if he's manipulating the sentiments of popular culture to amuse himself.
Like Troy, the film's subplots manipulate the sentiments of popular culture so completely that you wonder why they don't seem more absurd. Lelaina's roomate Vickie thinks she might have the HIV virus, and their friend Sammy reveals to his family that he's gay. Their stories seem "ripped from the pages of today's headlines," the emotions they describe taken from segments of daytime talk shows. Watching them, you get the feeling that they have no idea which reality belongs to them.
In their search for direction, they look to visual media to lead the way. "The Brady Bunch" and "Three's Company" become the framework within which they model their lives. They constantly quote sit-com truisms, spicing their vocal inflections with sarcasm as if attempting to avoid self-parody. Appropriately, Lelaina commits her documentary to videotape, not celluloid. She and her friends watch themselves on television, as if their voices and images might offer some revolutionary insight their lives have not.
Reality Bites presents Generation X with tools for some heavy self-examination. As a member of that generation, I have watched our identities be manufactured by media. Indeed, I had never heard the label Generation X (one I despise, by the way, and use only for lack of a better term), or had any idea that my generation was unique at all until I read about it in a magazine a few years ago. The film's assessment of Generation X shows us cemented deeply into a virtual reality where abstraction and life intermingle but never quite mesh, a world of constant irony, where the literal meaning and the actual meaning are never the same.
My feelings about Reality Bites remind me of a story I have about my father. One day recently after studying that poster on my wall as if he'd never seen it before, he asked, without a trace of irony, "The Graduate was supposed to be a comedy?"