Sometimes the lightest possible fluff can yield interesting thoughts.
Singles, Cameron Crowe’s romantic comedy set in grunge era Seattle, is the lightest possible fluff. Anybody who’s taken a first year acting class knows the plot. It’s Lovers and Other Strangers for the 1990s, a loosely connected series of vignettes about young men and women trying to hook up. Centered around a Capitol Hill apartment building, it features two couples. There’s clean-cut Steve Dunne and his fiancee Linda Powell. They both have white collar jobs at non-profits dedicated to protecting the environment. Then there’s Janet Livermore, a recent college dropout who works at a coffee shop. She’s in love with Cliff Poncier, an aspiring rock musician. He can take her or leave her. By the end of the film, Crowe has flipped the script. Cliff is now in love with Janet, and she can take him or leave him.
In other words, Singles has “scene study” written all over it. It’s a low budget romantic comedy, long on dialog, short on plot, broken down into 10 or 15 minute chunks, all staged in a series of kitchens, living rooms, diners, and automobiles. Just plunk a table and a couple of chairs on stage, and you’re ready to show off your ability as an actor.
Except for the young Bridget Fonda — who’s so charismatic I wanted to strangle Matt Dillon for ignoring her — the acting is competent. Dillon plays the kind of dumbass young hunk he used to play in his sleep. Campbell Scott is an earnest young idealist. Kyra Sedgwick gives every indication that she will become the successful TV actress she eventually became. Victor Garber, Bill Pullman, Tom Skerritt, and Bridget Fonda’s boyfriend Eric Stoltz all have small, supporting roles.
Nevertheless, as forgettable as Singles is, the way it was marketed is fascinating, and revealing. Singles was Cameron Crowe’s “Generation X” movie. Naturally, therefore, it’s set on Capitol Hill in Seattle. I suppose Crowe’s Millennial film will be set in hipster Brooklyn. There’s a cameo by Eddie Vedder. Even though he was already a big star at the time, he looks ridiculously young, young as in “gets carded then has his driver’s license cut in half by a bouncer who thinks it’s a fake ID” young. He doesn’t speak. I was embarrassed for him. Crowe knows nothing about early 1990s alternative rock. He has no interest in Eddie Vedder or Pearl Jam. Matt Dillon is perfectly believable as a drummer in a grunge band called “Citizen Dick,” but his role is woefully underwritten. He’s “in a band” because the script calls for his character to be popular with women. He’s a stud, but he’s basically a loser, something even more obvious now that hard rock has given way to hip hop, Pearl Jam to Nickelback. Crowe has little feel for Seattle. Except for one hilarious scene where a woman gets a flat tire riding a bike up a steep hill near Belltown, the whole film is basically stock footage. Oh look, there’s Pioneer Square. Oh look, there’s Gasworks Park. Oh look. There’s Mount Rainier. Seattle’s alternative rock scene, in other words, is simply a marketing hook, a place where Crowe can to hang the kind of very conventional romantic comedy hack writers have been churning out since the 1950s.
As a sociological document, however, Singles is fascinating.
“My generation,” late Boomers and Early Gen-Xers have always been the Rodney Dangerfield of demographics. We get no respect. Why should we? There aren’t very many of us. Unlike the Boomers or the Millenials, we had no significant events or political movements to mark our coming of age, no Vietnam War, no draft, no Occupy Wall Street, no Silicon Valley tech bubble. Not only were we constantly looking for an identity. We were hungry for validation, any validation in the corporate media. The bar was pretty low. All we had to do was recognize ourselves on TV or in the movies, and we were sold. The media had declared grunge — really just heavy metal with flannel shirts and a bit of political correctness — to be the “music of our generation” and we fell for it hook line and sinker. So all Cameron Crowe had to do was arrange for a few cameos from a few Seattle grunge bands, let Matt Dillon grow out his hair, buy the rights to a Soundgarden song or two, and suddenly he had a film that was socially relevant.
That Singles was so obviously not socially relevant in 1992 is what makes it so fascinating today. The 1980s had plenty of romantic comedies. Most of them, like the loathsome and racist Sixteen Candles, were deeply reactionary under the cover of not taking themselves too seriously. But the early 90s, that brief interregnum between the end of the Reagan years and the right-wing takeover of Congress in 1994, were the years of a very brief political thaw. Bill Clinton, just elected President, hadn’t yet revealed himself to be the evil, neoliberal genius he would eventually become. The Cold War was over. NAFTA and deindustralization hadn’t quite begun. The politically correct male feminist Kurt Cobain was the biggest rock star of his day. The problem for a talented hack like Cameron Crowe, therefore, was to appeal to the social liberalism of newly hatched young adultings without going too far and losing his viability in the commercial mainstream.
Crowe finessed the problem quite well. Steve Dunne and Linda Powell both work for environmental non-profits. Both are completely apolitical. Linda goes on a one month trip to Alaska to investigate “the Alaska spill.” I suppose legal considerations prevented Crowe from naming Exxon or The Exxon Valdez. But Linda is no fiery left wing activist. She seems mainly concerned with getting a husband. When she finds Steve, who’s perfect for her in every way, Crowe has to find a way of drawing out their courtship so the movie doesn’t end in the first 20 minutes. Linda’s trip to Alaska is a convenient plot device that allows Steve to have a brief flirtation with Janet before they both decide they’re not right for each other. Steve, in turn, young idealist though he may be, is also a careerist. His pet project, a “super train” that will lighten Seattle’s traffic at rush hour, is certainly a worthy goal. But does he organize a protest movement? Does he lobby the state legislature? No. He arranges an interview with the mayor of Seattle, Tom Skerritt, then gives up on his dream after he gets turned down. It’s political activism as a job interview.
Cameron Crowe’s young adults, in other words, have no politics. They have an affected liberal style they briefly indulge themselves in while they’re waiting to get married and start their lives in the middle-class. They have no idea that a traditional middle-class class life will soon be out of reach for all but the most privileged, that the rules have changed. Grunge rock, in turn, is the perfect way for apolitical young adults to feel like radicals. A successful, corporate move to co-opt the “alternative” culture of the 1980s, it had a brief flash of glory, it blew its brains out in 1994, gave way to hip hop, then became a laughing stock. Linda and Steve, I suppose, made it into the upper-middle-class and got a house out in Bellevue or Kirkland. I guess Janet managed to become an architect, but Cliff? Cliff continued fucking over women until he got fat and lost his hair. Then he shaved his head, grew a goatee, and found some sort of low level IT job. Citizen Dick is probably a regular at suburban music festivals, fat middle-aged grunge rockers playing to the nostalgia of middle-aged married couples with kids who, because of the political apathy of their parents back in the 1990s, don’t stand a chance.