Tag Archives: cameron crowe

Say Anything (1989)

Say anything is a beloved romantic comedy starring Ione Skye and the young John Cusack. I’m almost exactly the same age as John Cusack, so I was part of its targeted demographic back in the 1980s, but I missed it the first time around. Looking at it from the perspective of a middle-aged man writing in 2015, what fascinates me about Say Anything is not the romance. It’s the superficially leftist, but ultimately tricky, and perhaps even reactionary political agenda.

Say Anything was released in 1989. That means it was written and filmed in 1987 and 1988, exactly at the same time the now largely forgotten Savings and Loan scandal was playing itself out in the media. Unlike the Obama administration, which blocked prosecutions and sold the country on a massive bailout for Wall Street, the Reagan administration actually did send a token number of the S&L crooks to jail. This has very little to do with any philosophical or personal differences between Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan. Obama, like Reagan, is a charming corporate shill, little more, little less. But the United States was a different, more liberal country back in 1986. The American people simply wouldn’t have tolerated the same kind of corporate coup that it embraced in 2008 and 2009.

Jim Court, the father of the heroine Diane Court, isn’t a savings and loan banker, but he is a crook. The proprietor of an independent nursing home, he comes under investigation by the IRS just as his gifted daughter graduates from high-school and falls in love with Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler. Jim Court doesn’t consider himself a bad person. Why does he steal? Like Michael Corleone and Walter White, he does it for the children. He wants to set Diane up with a trust fund that will let her live through her 20s without worrying about money. John Court truly loves his daughter. He’s a likeable crook. But if he loves his daughter, he also sees her as a possession. The more he steals, the more perfect she has to be to justify his crime.

“It’s like a pyramid. It starts out with everybody, and it narrows through your life and through everything, and all the hoopla and the competition narrows it down to one brilliant person who is so special that they celebrate you on two continents. And it’s you. So tell me something, where’s the flaw in that? There is no flaw.”

If that doesn’t sum up the ideology of the American upper-middle-class in a few sentences, I don’t know what does.

John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler by contrast, is a slacker and an anti-corporate rebel. He has no real career plans, not because he’s lazy, but because unlike Diane, the ambitious high-school valedictorian he falls in love with, he can see the kind of societal rot people like her father embody. The son of an army officer stationed in Germany, Dobler sees the upper-middle-class world as phony and exploitive.

“I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don’t want to do that.”

On the surface, Say Anything could be the official movie of Occupy Wall Street. The young rebel — who’s also a genuinely decent human being who respects women — liberates the sheltered young overachiever from the smothering, almost incestuous control of her father. Diane Court, who we’re told is brilliant, but also comes off as passive and conformist, learns how to think for herself, ultimately pushing herself to face the horrible reality, her father steals from senior citizens in order to bulk up her trust fund. Diane Court, the pampered young “show pony” — as one of Dobler’s friends puts it so eloquently — rejects a life of privilege based on lies in favor of true love.

What’s not to like? Probably nothing. I’m a bitter old fart who hates the sight of true love when he sees it on screen because he never found it when he was young. But I can’t help but notice how Cameron Crowe, the film’s writer and director, soft-pedals Jim Court’s crimes. The nursing home he runs is a really nice place. He may be stealing from 90-year-olds, but, unlike in a real life shady nursing home, they’re not living in their own filth or going hungry. They even have the young John Cusack to host “movie night.” What’s more, Jim Court doesn’t face any real consequences for his crimes. He gets 9 months in a country club federal prison and a fine. That may in fact be realistic. How many bankers or corporate criminals serve even 9 months in prison? But the film doesn’t seem to see anything amiss. In fact, Cameron Crowe sees Jim Court’s arrest as more of a convenient way to get him out of the way of his daughter’s burgeoning love affair with Lloyd Dobler than as any kind of genuine reckoning.

Then there’s Diane Court. We’re told that she’s a genius. But she gives no evidence of being the kind of person who’s going to win a Nobel Prize. She’s a nice girl with a good heart. But that’s part of the problem. She’s almost too good to be true, and her goodness, far from being a challenge to her father’s criminality, actually justifies it. Diane is not virginal — she’s the sexual aggressor not Lloyd — but she’s pure. She lives in the upper-class bubble that was created by her tax-cheat father by ripping off senior citizens, but it never touches her. She’s nice to the old ladies at her father’s nursing home. Somehow that makes it all OK.

That leads to the inevitable question. Say Anything ends on a happy note. But is Lloyd Dobler doomed to become just another Jim Court? Is he more like the second chance at a good father than a lover? Tellingly the last scene in the film has Lloyd coaxing the nervous Diane through a transatlantic flight — she’s won a fellowship to study in England but she’s afraid of flying — in a way her father never could. While Lloyd is almost an ideal sensitive, considerate man, he’s not as different from Jim Court as he might imagine himself. For Jim Court, Diane is the prize that justifies his theft. For Lloyd Dobler, Diane is the prize that justifies his inability to choose a career. Lloyd can coast through the rest of his life because, at 18, he’s already scored a perfect woman far above his own social status. Diane, not hard work, is Lloyd’s gateway to the upper-middle-class. Lloyd may be a rebel, but he’s no revolutionary, merely a young man who’s retreated from the economy into the bubble of domesticity.

Lloyd Dobler in other words, is an ideal for a generation that had to lower its economic expectations, to clean up the mess that corporate criminals like Jim Court left them, but not, necessarily, to have it as good as their parents did.

Singles (1992)

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.