In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit to having a certain affinity for the 1990s. Having been born just before The Bears Super Bowl, the 1990s were my first full decade of life, and by extension, a period that had significant impact on my cultural consciousness. While the “Generation X” cut off is typically listed around 1981, personal love affairs with 90s independent cinema (i.e. Soderbergh, Linklater, Smith), an ever expanding appreciation of certain ‘indie rock’ (i.e. Pavement), and a fairly lazy and angst-ridden existence have always led me to feel a kindred spirit, of sorts. Or maybe it’s my addiction to plaid.
It’s for these reasons, among others (masochism, perhaps?) that I stayed up way too late on a school night last week to revisit Cameron Crowe’s 1992 film Singles, which tells the interwoven tales of romance amongst the tenants of a singles-only apartment building in, well, where else but Seattle? From the outset, we’re introduced to Linda (Kyra Sedgwick), a loveless environmental activist whose idea of courtship is to give the man she likes her garage door opener*. Then there’s Steve (Campbell Scott), who apparently designs public transportation systems, and has got his sights on getting City Council to approve his brilliant idea, cough…cough, which is something along the lines of Modern-Trains-As-Coffee-Shops-With-Cool-Music (Good one, Steve!)**. Then there’s Janet (Bridget Fonda), the naïve and lovestruck barista, who’s entirely shallow existence is summed up by a blinding love of her kind-of boyfriend, the long-haired, clueless, and potentially talentless lead singer of Citizen Dick, Cliff (Matt Dillon). But he’s got ripped jeans, man! Man.
Through these four central characters the film sets out to explore Love In The Time of Grunge, and yet, could these people be any less representative of the Gen X/slacker subculture? Crowe, apparently disloyal to his upbringing as a journalist, writes his main characters in the broadest of strokes, and oddly, its not dissimilar to the high school archetypes of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but at least there he manages a certain amount of likability and unpredictable behavior. In Singles, the characters are neither satire nor genuine, which puts them in some sort of sad, line-towing corner of caricature and meaninglessness.
Steve and Linda, both getting over past relationships, eventually meet and fall in love, only to have their romance pushed to the wayside acting out sitcom conflicts like the ol’ “How Many Days Till I Call?” gag, or more drastically, the Fast Times recycled pregnancy scenario, which this time is resolved violently and cosmically. Janet, who seemingly has no hobbies other than worrying about how to impress her semi-boyfriend, is influenced by the busty, hot babes plastered on Cliff’s wall, driven to the point of getting breast implants. But do not fear, she’s eventually dissuaded by her doctor, a surprisingly charming (and equally lonely) Bill Pullman. As a result, what’s most irritating is the film’s (and perhaps Crowe’s) inability to realize the characters lack of compatibility with their environment and backdrop. The most obvious reference point here is Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco, a film which is constantly acknowledging the disconnect between it’s yuppie-centric protagonists and the Disco scene itself (Stillman is adept and smart enough to acknowledge this, as his characters are constantly berated as narcs and advertising scum).
In an effort to exercise Crowe’s music-prowess, perhaps, or to surround its characters with something authentic, or at the very least an attempt to sell CDs, Singles is bursting with music references, band t-shirts, live shows, and a Seattle-centric rock soundtrack (curiously not included: Nirvana, The Melvins, anything K-Records, etc.). But no amount of Eddie Vedder screen-time can save its superficial and desperate attempt at being cool with the kids, even with those excellent Westerberg tracks and the film’s one major laugh: the Citizen Dicks song, “Touch Me I’m Dick”. But the disconnect between character and environment is too strong, and cutting to Steve looking sullen at an Alice n’ Chains (or was it Soundgarden?) show only serves to remind the viewer how forced everything is. Matt Dillon reportedly wore the clothes of Mookie Blalock/Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament, which is a metaphor that speaks strongly for itself. Oh, and all those cameos***…
Almost twenty years later, maybe Singles wouldn’t look so bad if it wasn’t surrounded by similar yet much more thought-provoking films. Formally, it’s static and stagey, and split up into parts, each of which is supposed to be some sort of thematic lesson about modern love. These lessons of course, are served up as platitudes, and are particularly weak when put up against the sexual anxieties of Sex, Lies and Videotape, the painful paralysis of youth in Kicking and Screaming, the verbose and dull dead-end jobs of Clerks, or the sense of community and paranoid weirdness of Slacker. Campbell Scott dons Sub Pop and Mudhoney t-shirts on what seems like more than one occasion, and, like Dillon’s borrowed wardrobe, these are indicative of the film’s true place in the world: an expensive, Hollywood produced advertisement for an independent record label and a exploitative cash grab at the expense an emerging subculture. No wonder Kurt Cobain hated this film.
*It should be noted here that I’ve an extreme distaste for Sedgwick, on one hand because she seems to act with her mouth, which is constantly shifting and upsetting my equilibrium, and also the smarmy ads for The Closer which are plastered all over the CTA tunnels. Rumor is that Crowe wanted Jennifer Jason-Leigh for this part, which might have been a saving grace. Oh well.
**What’s up with Campbell Scott, like seriously? He wasn’t too bad in The Sheltering Sky, but having the blood of George C., it’s always been strange to me that he’s so, so, so…dull.
***Tim Burton’s cameo as a director of dating videos got a big laugh out of me, and the film’s full of other attempts at authenticity, not limited to pointless appearances by Gus Van Sant, TAD, Bruce Pavitt from Sub Pop, Supersonic Xavier McDaniel, Chris Cornell, Mark Arm from Mudhoney, etc. Eric Stoltz, Paul Giammati, Jeremy Piven, and The Wire’s Jim True-Frost all make semi-memorable appearances, it should be noted.