A confession. Lately I’ve been listening to Stay (I missed you), Lisa Loeb’s three perfectly formed minutes of indie pop from the soundtrack to the 1994 film Reality Bites (opening lines: “You say I only hear what I want to/You say I talk so all the time). The song’s video famously featured a one-take shot of Loeb pacing around an empty New York City apartment, singing about love lost in her knock-out girl/woman voice.
With her sexy-geek look (librarian glasses, little black dress and opaque black tights) Loeb wouldn’t look out of place on the set of Girls, Lena Dunham’s breakthrough hit on HBO last year – and the show which led me to rediscover (in a somewhat convoluted fashion that I’ll explain) Loeb’s addictive tune. Watching Girls and listening to this song has made me think about how some things that seem new are actually kind of old. And about how popular culture does middle age and nostalgia for youth.
When I finally caught up with Girls over the summer break I was expecting, as all the reviews had promised, Sex and the City only younger, poorer, and (in the case of Dunham’s lead character Hannah Horvath) plumper and more tattooed. The superficial comparisons are obvious. Both shows feature four female friends living in New York City. In each the main character is a writer whom we first meet in a seemingly hopeless relationship with an enigmatic, dark haired love interest who calls her ‘kid’. In both shows the friend characters include an uninhibited sexually adventuress one, a naive preppy one and a straight, uptight one.
But as I raced through Girls‘ excellent first season, something familiar about the story made me curious to take another look, almost two decades on, at Reality Bites. The film, starring Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke, was hailed as one of the first popular portraits of a cynical but still hopeful Generation X. Like Girls, Reality Bites follows a group of relatively privileged, recently graduated 20-somethings eager to set the world on fire with their abundant talents. And just like Girls, they find an economy that’s gone off the boil and barely able to offer them entry level jobs. Girls’ Hannah is writing her memoir. Reality Bites’ Lelaina is making a video documentary about her friends. Over a restaurant dinner Hannah’s parents tell her they are cutting off her allowance. She later pleads with them: “I think I might be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice of a generation.” Over dinner with her parents, Lelaina’s dad offers her a credit card. Later she plaintively pleads with her mother for a loan: “I was valedictorian of my university.”
Both characters sabotage their internships and argue with their best friend and flatmate (who has a stable but less glamorous job) about unpaid bills. Both girls take jobs they believe are beneath them – Hannah in a cafe and Lelaina in a burger joint. And both girls’ love interests are slacker artist types disdainful of anything with a whiff of commercialism (Hawke’s poet Troy in Reality Bites and Adam Sackler’s aspiring actor Adam in Girls).
Both stories include an STD clinic visit sub-plot, awkward job interview sequences, female characters watching their male friends performing in small clubs, and a gay male character in an otherwise heterosexual cast. Both also feature a love triangle between Hannah/Lelaina, their slacker love interest and a more conservative character – an MTV executive played by Ben Stiller in Reality Bites, and a black republican played by Donald Glover in season two of Girls. (I know, I’ve thought a lot about this.)
While Girls has been hailed as fresh, raw and cutting edge – and admittedly it does darker sex, more obviously flawed characters and more realistic bodies than Reality Bites – it isn’t quite as original as some critics might have us believe. You could say Girls is Reality Bites just with Facebook and more cellulite. But whether the similarities are deliberate (and the placement of Loeb’s tune in a recent Girls’ episode suggest they might be) they shouldn’t be surprising.
The period of life after the dependency of childhood, but before the full suite of adult responsibilities arrive, is ripe for dramatisation. Watching a character trying to figure out who they are going to be, and how they are going to be, for the rest of their life is a classic storyline.
Lelaina and Troy from Reality Bites would now be in their early 40s. If we caught up with them in a sequel we would probably find out they are married (most likely to other people) have one or two children each, and working in jobs that didn’t quite live up to their early hopes. But chances are we won’t see that sequel. Popular stories of the middle age of life, when the nappy changing, career compromising, bill-paying stage is at its peak, are few and far between.
Films and television shows about the mostly mundane world of the middle aged and middle class tend to rely on big dramatic events – a divorce, a dead or dying parent, a kidnapped child, natural disaster, or extreme dysfunction (or sometimes all of the above) – to keep the narrative ball rolling. For recent examples just see the TV series Weeds or Breaking Bad. Or George Clooney losing his wife in last year’s Oscar-winning movie The Descendants. This year Naomi Watts is trying to find her husband and two younger sons, who are swept up in a tsunami in The Impossible.
Australian stories about contemporary middle aged, middle class parenthood seem to have offered some of the better recent dramatisations of that world. The Slap began with a seemingly inconsequential barbecue incident and unravelled into a multi-faceted story of dramatic tension and multiple themes. The critically acclaimed Love My Way also rang true (although Claudia Karvan’s character, Frankie, seemed to require the death of her daughter before she could develop in interesting new ways).
In popular culture the divorce/death/dysfunction/disaster storyline is so ubiquitous it’s interesting to see a crop of films, either recently released or about to be released, that don’t use these predictable themes. Instead their narrative focus is nostalgia for that particular phase of life celebrated in Girls and Reality Bites.
In Liberal Arts Josh Radnor plays a college admissions advisor in his mid-30s and in a personal and professional funk. An invitation to return to his alma mater gives him a chance to relive his university years, rediscover a passion for art and indulge in a flirtation with a 19-year-old. In Judd Apatow’s This is 40 a mother and wife on the cusp of her fifth decade works out regularly with a trainer, parties with her Gen Y employee (Megan Fox) and flirts with men almost half her age. Meanwhile her husband chases a youthful dream of running a successful record label, all the while fantasising about his wife dying and leaving him a single man again.
In the soon-to-be-released Two Mothers 40-somethings Naomi Watts and Robin Wright will be seen rediscovering their younger selves by having affairs (somewhat incredulously) with each other’s sons. And later this year Hawke will return to our screens – not in Reality Bites 2, but in Before Midnight, a movie that meets up with Hawke and co-star Julie Delpy 18 years after they first met on an overnight train as young backpackers in the movie Before Sunset. According to reviews from Sundance, in Before Midnight the two are now parents after they reunited nine years ago in the second instalment of the story, After Sunrise.
You could argue such stories reflect an immature nostalgia for youth. Life at 40, in particular, has been criticised for its portrayal of characters chasing lost youth and refusing to accept the responsibilities of adulthood. But I think such criticisms are too harsh. If, crudely speaking, it is art’s job to reflect and critique reality and entertainment’s job to offer a temporary escape from reality, then such movies seem to be doing not too badly at the former, and a fairly good job of the latter.
When I first watched the Stay video in my twenties, I probably would have seen the empty apartment as a metaphor for the emptiness of the singer’s life without her lover. Now I can see it as a symbol not of what she doesn’t have, but what she could have. Like the characters from Girls, who are constantly moving their few possessions in and out of each other’s apartments, she has space to fill her life with whatever she fancies. And plenty of time to figure out what kind of woman she’ll be. Who wouldn’t be tempted to feel nostalgic about that?