Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Reality Bites Back

I love Reality Bites.

For those of you have led deprived lives, Reality Bites is the ultimate Generation X movie. It defined the mid-90s the way The Breakfast Club defined the mid-80s.

In the film, a beautifully waifish recent college grad (and valedictorian) Lelaina Pierce, played by Winona Ryder without a bra, shares an apartment with her sarcastic, promiscuous roommate Vicky (Janeane Garofalo before she was so shrill and off-putting), a manager at the Gap whose super-short bangs, vintage polyester thrift-store dresses, and love for disco influenced my coming-of-age to a startling degree. I knew I could never be as wee or precious as Lelaina, but boy, did I ever master the Vicky look.

Lelaina and Vicky have allowed their friend Troy (Ethan Hawke) to live with them since he lost his job at a news stand for stealing a Snickers. With his longish, unwashed hair and ill-fitting, rumpled jeans and tees, his surly demeanor and snide, ironic pseudo-philosophical comments, Troy was basically the poster boy of grunge angst and -- believe it or not -- total grunge hotness.

Sammy (Steve Zahn) completes the ensemble as the quiet, sensitive gay friend who is scared to come out to his parents.

So, Lelaina is a wannabe filmmaker working as a production assistant for a cheesy morning talk show. She gets fired for humiliating her jerk of a boss on air, and conflict erupts when she spends hours running up a phone bill with a psychic friend and can't pay for it. Meanwhile, she is dating Michael (Ben Stiller, also the director) a well-meaning yuppie who works for the make-believe version of MTV. He loves Lelaina's documentary footage of her super-90s friends and all their marketable grungeness: Vicky waiting for the results of her AIDS test, Sammy rehearsing his "I'm gay" speech to his mom, Troy smoking a lot and acting like a jerk, etc. Lelaina, desperate for money but afraid of selling out, lets Michael take her footage to the head honchos at the station, who of course chop it up and turn it into something horrifyingly commercial. Lelaina runs off and, eventually, ends up living happily-ever-after with Troy and his acoustic guitar and paperback copies of Nietzsche or whatever.

So. Why do I bring this movie up on this blog?

First off, let me say: I love this movie. I have loved it since I was 14. It was everything I wanted to be when I was a teenager, and when I look back, it was kind of a lot of what I was in my teens and 20s. The era in which you come of age somewhat defines you forever. Most of us Gen-Xers will always be grunge on one level or another. There are hundreds of thousands of 30-somethings today who still turn it up when the Violent Femmes come on the radio (if they ever do anymore), will always swear by Doc Martens, can't quite kick the Marlboro habit, feel most comfortable in a dirty coffee shop, occasionally dye their hair a weird color, and if they could wear whatever they wanted, might very well opt for denim and flannel.

I've seen this movie at least two dozen times, probably more. I feel like I was with them when they danced to My Sharona in the gas station, when Troy told Lelaina that dress made her look like a doily (it sort of did), when Lelaina explained to Michael about the joys of a Big Gulp, and when Vicky was late for her jean-folding seminar at the Gap. And while there is a lot to avoid about the lifestyle embraced by Lelaina, et. al. (promiscuity, cigarettes, living in Houston) there is also a lot, looking back, that is of value. This film was made just before the explosion of the Internet. Twenty-four hour cable news was just taking off. 9/11 was unimaginable. Things really were simpler. And most important, there was an earnestness that is now unheard of. The music of the time captured this. While I don't condone the lifestyle (or death style) of Kurt Cobain, the depth of sincerity he embodied and reflected is all but completely missing today. Yeah, he was a sad, desperate, lost guy, but he meant it. Today, nobody means anything. Everything is ironic, sarcastic, or some kind of shortcut -- a Tweet, a status update, or a joke.

So when I saw that this film was on HBO the other night, I watched it. I walked down memory lane, and thought about the life I used to have: Red Hot Chili Peppers cassettes in the front seat of my minivan, thrift store jeans and Marlboro reds, burgundy lipstick and a boyfriend whose hair reached halfway down his back. It gave me a bittersweet feeling, and I felt as I watched it that I would probably never be able to make my future children understand how much I identified with Lelaina, Vicky, Troy, and Sammy.

As I was watching, I heard something I had never noticed before. I rewound it and played it again. And again. I sort of couldn't believe I was hearing it, but I was.

Near the beginning of the film, there is a scene in which Lelaina comes home to find her roommate and friends smoking pot in the living room. Sammy asks if Lelaina will loan them money for a pizza, and Troy mentions that Domino's takes a check. Lelaina says no, because "the owner of Domino's supports Operation Rescue." Then Vicky says something like, "Oh, who gives a shit, I'm starving!"

Operation Rescue is a pro-life organization. While I don't necessarily agree with all their tactics (they are very aggressive and a large part of their activism involves graphic images), they do considerable good for women and the unborn. They are largely responsible for the conversion of Norma McCorvey, formerly known as Jane Roe (this according to McCorvey herself).

I had to play this back again and again, and I felt sadder every time. I felt sort of... betrayed. Here is this film that I felt defined me and my generation and my youth, and with one comment they completely excluded me, forever.

Oh, well. It's just a movie, after all. When I watch it now, I see how silly it is. Ben Stiller's hair looks ridiculous and his advances toward Lelaina seem a little lecherous and desperate (she had to be like 10 years younger than him.) Troy comes across as a posturing, juvenile douchebag. Vicky is already showing signs of the strident harpy Janeane would become. And Lelaina, for all her adorable awkwardness, doesn't seem too far from the unstable 30-something caught on camera with a bag full of stolen Saks clothes and pain pills.

After the initial shock of Lelaina's comment, I got over it a bit, but I still feel saddened.

Then again, in the mid-90s, if I had known who Operation Rescue were, I would have said, "Right on!" to Lelaina.

I guess we've all grown up, in our own way.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Book of Eli (Warning: Here Be Spoilers!)

After reading a review in the Dallas Observer, I thought the premise seemed interesting: In a post-apocalyptic America, a man named Eli (Denzel Washington), in possession of the only remaining copy of the Bible, has to protect it, using bad-ass fighting skills and gratuitous violence, from those who would use it for corrupt ends. This brought up all sorts of questions: Why does this particular guy have the only Bible? Was he chosen by God or man? How on earth could every Bible but one be destroyed, and why? And just how awesome are these fight scenes? Will there be swords? (I love swords.)

My questions were answered. (Eli had a sword, and it was fantastic.) It was fun and interesting; I love a good post-apocalyptic story, and this one had some high points. But troubling issues were brought up.

I was totally with Eli right up until the end, when he delivered the Bible to the unknown place to which God had been leading him, and it turns out to be (wait for it) San Francisco. More specifically, Alcatraz. That's right, the protective fortress of the Word of God is a former notorious prison, on an island adjacent to a city so self-important, pretentious, proud, and morally relativistic it makes Gomorrah look like Grover's Corners.

I wasn't too surprised. Throughout the film, characters had mentioned that all Bibles had been destroyed because many blamed the apocalypse on the Book. I rolled my eyes a little, but only a little. I wanted to see where this was going. I shrugged it off, but remained wary.

Back to Alcatraz: the last bastion of learning, art, and culture is secreted away inside the actual prison. I was reminded of descriptions of medieval monastic life, where monk-scribes faithfully copied by hand the works of Greek and Roman masters, carrying out by candlelight the thankless task of preserving civilization. (To this day we accuse the Church of eschewing or proscribing learning, literature, art, and science, when She almost single-handedly preserved these things through the Dark Ages.)

I wondered if the allusion to monasticism was intentional, and if so, why make the "monastery" a prison? But no matter.

The ostensible leader of the cultural enclave inside Alcatraz is an aging fellow (Malcolm McDowell) with long white hair and the loose, monochromatic clothing of a guru. He looks and speaks like a Berkeley professor, expressing interest in Eli's claim that he has the last copy of the Bible, but no more than he would in, say, the last Complete Works of Shakespeare. There is no adoration, no religious awe. But I think the point is the world has "moved on" to the point where, for our own safety, we are "beyond that now." That's what I was getting.

I will fast forward to the last shot of the film, in order not to completely give away the ending. Now, keep in mind that the film has "proven" to us that Eli is a servant of God, that he had divine protection, abilities, and insight, and that God Himself led Eli to the last Bible and intervened so that he could carry it safely to (ahem) Alcatraz. Keep that in mind.

The last shot: the white-haired hippie Berkeley professor places the Bible on a shelf between the Torah and the Koran.

That's it.

It wasn't placed above them, or on a shelf by itself. It was placed between them. And the Torah and the Bible were not a little bit separate from the Koran. They were all pushed right together. Hmmm.

If the rest of the film had been about a regular guy using his own guts and brains and skills to get the Bible somewhere, this ending would have been appropriate. But instead we had a Messenger of God, divinely led, protected and propelled by miracles, all so that this Book could be saved. And this Book, once it is saved, is placed on a shelf between the Torah and the Koran, which is obviously meant to symbolize that these faiths are interrelated and none is greater than the other.

I still haven't figured out if this was an unintentional case of being ideologically inconsistent, or an intentional one, because either way it is inconsistent.

One might argue that the same God is the God of the people of all three of these books, but then why wasn't the film about all three of the books being shepherded through the valley of darkness, instead of just the One?

I was disappointed. For a while I was cautiously optimistic, believing that I was watching a film about God, and not as a concept synonymous with "luv" or "tolerance" or "being nice," but as a real Personality, a true Deity with an agenda, acting in history through a messenger. How refreshing, I thought. How, well, Biblical! Like in the Old Testament, God was present through affliction, torment, providence, grace, lust, women, bloodshed, and death. Like in the Old Testament, God did not require great genius of his hero, only great faith.

But that ending took all the bite out of the story. It contradicted everything that went before it, denying the holiness and divinity of the Book it just spent nearly two hours establishing, never mind that the Book itself claims holiness and divine inspiration.

Does it make you think of human history, of our own journey toward the end of things? Humans imagine an Apocalypse, but we are so proud we can only imagine that after the dust settles and the ash falls, everything goes on as usual, that God gets put back on a shelf and we continue working towards "true" enlightenment.

Two lines from the Book come to me now:

"Woe to you who cry 'Peace! Peace!' when there is no peace."

And, "I come not to bring peace but a sword." The Lord Himself said that.