Tag Archives: Matt Dillon

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.

Over the Edge (1979)

Can a movie affect a person’s behavior? This one did.

Even though Jonathan Kaplan’s story about an uprising of teenagers in a planned California suburb was quickly pulled from the theaters after a limited release, it was in heavy rotation on HBO in the early 1980s. One Sunday night, my brother and I watched it with our parents. After Richie White, Matt Dillon is his debut performance, was killed by a police officer, my brother was visibly upset. My father tried to justify the actions of the police. Richie White did have a gun. But my brother was having none of it. They got into a shouting match that almost came to blows.

It’s easy to see why Over the Edge was Kurt Cobain’s favorite movie. It liberated a rebellious urge in my brother I never knew he had. I used to hate it. I’ve never been a fan of Matt Dillon. From Animal House to The Warriors to a long procession of movies in the 1980s depicting sex, drugs, and rock and roll as liberation from suburban conformism, the 1970s and 1980s were also the golden age of movies about teenage rebellion. But they never did much for me. Hedonism and conformism in suburban New Jersey in the 1980s were not mutually exclusive.

Watching Over the Edge again after all these years, however, I have to admit my brother was onto something I wasn’t. There’s plenty of hedonism in Over the Edge, plenty of drinking, drug taking, and teenage sex, but it’s never the point. In fact, for Richie White, Carl Willat and their fellow teenagers, hedonism wasn’t rebellion. It was a reflection of the despair they felt at living in a sterile, planned suburb, over being bullied by policemen who had too much extra time on their hands, and at adults who cared for nothing but money and social status.

What made Over the Edge so explosive was not hedonism but solidarity and community. The teenagers in New Grenada aren’t defending their right to take drugs, drink, or have sex, but to gather together at a place called the “rec,” a community center run by the film’s only sympathetic adult, a young woman named Julia. Julia asks one of the kids to get rid of a can of beer, but she doesn’t punish him. She’s the symbol of intelligent authority. She talks to the kids but doesn’t lecture them. For the rest of New Grenada’s adults the point of exercising their authority over their kids isn’t to help them grow into self-disciplined adults, but merely to exercise authority for its own sake.

Modeled on Foster City, California, a planned “community” built on a landfill, New Grenada is looks a lot more like the ethnic banlieu in Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine than it does like a posh suburb in a John Hughes film. New Grenada’s adults almost seem to see their own children as a foreign race, as a menace to be dealt with rather than the future. The kids, in turn, have a correspondingly nihilistic attitude towards the city government. Over the Edge opens with two kids on a freeway overpass. One of them, Mark Perry, Vincent Spano, has a BB gun. After they shoot out the window of a police car, they take off on their bikes. They meet Richie and Carl Willat, Michael Erick Kramer, and tell them to hide. Mark and his friend escape, but the policeman who had been driving the car, a Sgt. Doberman, a bland but effective Harry Northup, arrest Carl and Richie instead. Doberman knows he has the wrong kids, but it doesn’t matter. Any kid will do. So he trumps up some charges against Richie and take them both down to the station.

Carl, who’s from a higher social class than Richie, gets off more easily. Richie is the son of a single mother, but Carl’s father is a member of the local elite. He owns the local Cadillac dealer. When Richie returns home, his father is meeting with Jerry Cole, the president of the Homeowner’s Association. A rich Texas oilman is planning to visit New Grenada. Cole wants to close down the “rec” center on the day of the visit and Carl’s father agrees. They don’t want New Grenada’s youth “problems” to scare off potential investors. They put money over their own children. The next day, Sgt. Doberman comes to the rec center. Julia protests that he can’t come inside without a warrant. She defends the teenagers’ “safe space” but Doberman bullies his way in anyway. He arrests one kid over drugs and tells the rest he could arrest them too any time he wants. It’s not about the drugs, in other words. It’s about the exercise of arbitrary power. Carl, outraged over the way his father’s mercenary nature has led to the violation of their community, booby traps the Texans’ car with firecrackers. They decide not to invest. Carl and Richie meet two girls. One of them has robbed a house, taking nothing but a 38 caliber revolver.

The next day,  Richie brandishes the gun in front of Sgt. Doberman. Doberman shoots him dead.

The adults don’t care. Richie wasn’t important. Do they ever care in real life? Ask Ramarley Graham’s parents. But they do care about their property values. So they call a meeting at the high school. How do you deal with the youth “problem?” As they blather on about vandalism, about property values, about supporting the police, the kids outside are planning a rebellion. Whatever their differences, all of the kids in New Grenada get organized. They chain the doors shut. They set police cars on fire. Only Julia, who’s able to win the trust of one of the children she knows from the rec center to talk him into giving her a telephone, saves the adults of New Grenada from ending up like all the teenagers in Brian DePalma’s Carrie. The rebellion is broken up. Carl is sent to jail. But it ends on a happy note. Carl and his friends go to jail knowing that, for a brief time, they had organized a real community. They had overthrown their parents rotten, greed based social order. They’ll be out of juvenile detention in a few years, and, like my brother, they’ll all be better off for having stood up for themselves.

If Over the Edge lacks some of the poetic beauty, understanding of imperialism and racism, and uncompromising nihilism of La Haine, Over the Edge is still the American La Haine. Perhaps it would be better to call La Haine the French version of Over the Edge. In any event, it’s still worth seeing, if only to get a look at the kind of film that crap like Porky’s, Sixteen Candles and American Pie were made in order to co opt. Could Over the Edge be made today? Maybe a better question is why, in the age of stop and frisk, films like Over the Edge aren’t being made today. Now more than ever, we need another American La Haine.