This Used To Be My Playground, Part 14: Bitten By Reality

#115. “Streets Of Philadelphia” — Bruce Springsteen
The Holy Bee used to love going to movies. In the early nineties, a typical evening-show ticket was between five and six dollars. Matinees dipped as low as $3.5o. I probably watched two movies per week in a theater (and that total increased in late 1995, when I began working at a theater and could watch films to my heart’s content free of charge. More on that later.) Whatever the “big” movie was in any particular week, I was most likely in attendance. December/January was especially busy, what with all the Oscar-bait. (The weeks just before and just after the “summer blockbuster” season are probably the worst movie months. I was one of the maybe two dozen unfortunate souls who saw Folks! in the theater, just because I wanted to “go the movies” that night, and had already seen the other seven films playing at the Cinemark Movies 8.)

Tombstone was the movie I was excited about around this time, and I made a point of seeing it on Christmas Day, but Philadelphia was the big, prestigious Oscar-bait movie of the December ’93/January ’94 season. Like many “important” movies of that era, I let it wash over me without forming any strong opinions one way or another. I was a “movie-goer,” not yet a true film fanatic. That’s one of many evolutions the Holy Bee would undergo through 1994-95. These changes also included moving from a detached admiration for the work of Bruce Springsteen to full-blown fandom. Bruce was going through a rough patch at this time. The E Street Band was on hiatus, and the reviews for his ’92 double album release were middling. The muted, synth-heavy ballad “Streets of Philadelphia” won the Oscar for Best Original Song and put Bruce on the road to revival. (I still like Tombstone better than Philadelphia, and you know you do too.)

I don’t really go the movies anymore. Prices have gone way up, standards of human behavior in public places have gone way down. I don’t want to see some slack-jawed fifteen-year-old girl in Uggs with those inexplicably fashionable bug-eyed sunglasses perched on her idiot skull constantly texting out of the corner of my eye. Nor do I want to hear the 400-pound hillbilly loudly explaining the plot points to his partially deaf sister-wife in between bouts of phlegm-clearing. Luckily, the other thing that’s gone down in recent years is prices on home theater equipment. I have a better time watching movies at home, even if it’s six months or six years after the original release of the movie. I’m in no hurry, and my theater has a bar.

#116. “Stay (I Missed You)” — Lisa Loeb & Nine Stories

Speaking of movies, a big one in early ’94 was Reality Bites, which was a bald-faced attempt at creating a kind of cultural manifesto for “Generation X” — the post baby-boom kids born roughly between 1965 and 1980. Professional actress-turned-amateur thief Winona Ryder and decent actor-turned-hilariously bad author Ethan Hawke starred, with supporting turns by Ben Stiller (who also directed), Steve Zahn, and a star-making performance from Janeane Garofalo.


The attempt to make a Look Back In Anger or The Big Chill for my generation was alluring, but I didn’t recognize it at as such the time. I was pushing to see Ace Ventura: Pet Detective that night, but lost out to Emily’s choice for what we both took to be just another romantic comedy. As it turned out, Reality Bites mixed its romantic comedy framework with attempts to be au courant and timely in 1994 (cameos by Dave Pirner and cast members of season two of MTV’s The Real World!) This made it an instantly dated artifact by 1995, and both fascinating and frustrating to watch forever after its six-month window of relevance. Screenwriter Helen Childress wants the audience to think the characters are cool and identify with them, but also wants to satirize them at the same time. The result is a painting in in the broadest possible strokes with a pretty heavy hand. According to Reality Bites, Generation X has simply intensified the selfish, “me-me-me” attitude of the baby boomers and then smeared it with an impenetrable layer of smirking irony. The characters listen to “Disco Inferno” and 80’s rock ironically. They sing “Conjunction Junction” from Schoolhouse Rock ironically. Every action or statement from Ryder’s and Hawke’s characters is either ironic, whiny, or nakedly self-serving. (In a cool bit of meta-comedy, Ryder is at one point asked to define “irony.” She can’t.)

Ryder’s character is a 22-year-old recent college grad who happens to be an aspiring documentary filmmaker. Her friends often remark at how talented she is in this regard, but all the audience sees is her filming random shit with her camcorder, with no real artfulness or style. She naturally feels this “skill” entitles her to a life of getting everything she wants. But, romantically, she can’t decide if she wants the decent, hard-working, but sometimes a little clueless Stiller, a young executive at the “In Your Face” music video network, or the super-cool-grunge-slacker-coffeehouse-musician Hawke. It seems the filmmakers expect their audience to root for Hawke’s character solely because he’s a super-cool-grunge-slacker-coffeehouse-musician, despite the fact that everything he does in the movie pegs him as a childish, petulant asshole. (His punchable face in the picture above should tell you everything you need to know.)

On first viewing that night in the theater, I’ll admit I was engaged with the story, and the film seemed unconventional enough to raise the possibility that Ryder would end up with Stiller. But no, in a sock in the gut to decent, hard-working but sometimes clueless guys the world over, the movie bows to Hollywood formula and she ends up with the pretty-boy slacker. (The reason she dumped Stiller? His network re-edited some of the shitty raw footage they paid her handsomely for.) She does this even after an ego-drenched and jaw-droppingly hateful monologue Hawke yells at her in the final act where he guarantees he will treat her like crap and come and go as he pleases because he’s such an artistic free spirit. She then cheerfully, almost gratefully, hitches her wagon to this walking stain.

I left the movie upset. Not only was the whole thing suffused with irritating smugness, but it pointed out (clumsily at times) that my generation sucked, and it also pointed out that decent-but-sometimes-clueless guys have no chance competing with super-cool-grunge-slacker-coffeehouse-musicians. It hit home. (Obviously, by the length of this essay, I still have some residual anger.) I ranted about it all the way back to Emily’s house, so it should surprise no one that she was already mentally packing her bags at this point.

The movie is worth watching for some funny moments. Swoosie Kurtz and Harry O’Rilley have great small parts as Ryder’s parents, who tell her she can always get a job at Burger World because they “have a little retarded boy working the register.” Ryder does break down and apply at Weinerschnizel, only to be shot down by manager David Spade (who encourages customers to “have a ‘tude, weinerdude”). And Zahn and Garofalo are good as Ryder’s roommates. (Garofalo’s deadpan, midwestern-accented “Oh, Christ” when she role-played Zahn’s mom in a coming-out-of-the-closet rehearsal was copied by me for years.)

On the whole, I may have been better off seeing Ace Ventura.

Lisa Loeb, with her adorable cat’s-eye specs, became America’s Favorite Weird Little Hipster Chick for a few months when this song off the soundtrack became a hit based on the Ethan Hawke-directed video of her flouncing around her Weird Little Hipster Chick Greenwich Village Apartment (TM), in quite a dither over her lost love. I never bought the soundtrack, but when I got an apartment later that year, my roommates had it, and I was able to indulge in my shameful secret habit of listening to this song a little more than a straight male should. I didn’t flounce, though. (Full disclosure: When adding the YouTube link to the video above, I watched the damn thing three times.)

#117. “Canatloop (Flip Fantasia)” — Us3

A well-regarded mash-up of pop-rap and jazz, in another fruitless attempt to make jazz palatable.

#118. “Whatta Man” — Salt-N-Pepa featuring En Vogue
#119. “I Swear” — All-4-One
“Whatta Man” saved time for me in that I could ignore two sassy female R&B groups at the same time. (I’ve already dealt with my White Guilt over this mindset in the last entry.) The All-4-One song was impossible to ignore because it was everywhere. Malls. Restaurants. Mailboxes emitted it from every street corner. You could be walking down the street and cartoon birds would start following you and singing it “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah”-style. Jesus, I got sick of that song.

#120. “Lemon” — U2
U2 was becoming infatuated with disco-flavored Euro-trash at the expense of their big, earnest ballads. This second single off of 1993’s Zooropa was a peek at things to come for the boys from Dublin.

A shorter entry this time, I know. If you want to kill more time, just read some of the comments people have posted on the YouTube videos above. They’re so dumb they will make you feel dumb. It’s an odd sensation.

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Filed under Music -- 1990s, This Used To Be My Playground

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