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Reality Bites

Reality Bites

By Patrick Samuel • August 30th, 2013
Universal Pictures

Original release: February 18th, 1994
Running time: 99 minutes

Director: Ben Stiller
Writer: Helen Childress

Cast: Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, Steve Zahn

The answer is…I don’t know: 00:00:00 to 00:01:17

Deconstructing Cinema: One Scene At A Time, the complete series so far

Reality Bites

In the early 9Os, when my biggest worries revolved around how to get out of gym class on Fridays and who to hang out with at lunch times, the life that lay ahead of me seemed fairly simple. I’d go on to college and university where I’d study art and literature, work as a writer and eventually settle down with a really cool guy somewhere and we’d be happy together.

What I never planned on were all the things that would happen in between those dreams. Things like failing exams, having to come out to my folks, leaving home and not having enough money to cover rent. That’s what “they” never tell you about and that’s what the movies that always inspired me always left out. Or did they?

Reality Bites, released in early 1994 when I was in my final year at high school, was a film I remember being eager to see. Starring Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke and newcomer Ben Stiller (who also directed), its story focused on Lelaina who’s shooting a documentary about her friends. It would touch on some of the challenges they faced with finding jobs, relationships and with each other. Lelaina herself summarized it well with:

“I’m making this documentary…about my friends, but it’s really about people who are trying to find their own identity without having any real role models or heroes or anything.”

Reality Bites

I guess that was all I needed to hear to be able to relate to it at the time. After all, I sure as hell didn’t have any role models of my own to look up to, unless of course you count dead rock idols and movie stars who died too young. The film opens with Lelaina’s graduation speech, which in itself as another great piece of writing from Helen Childress and immediately it tells us something about what it was like to finishing school in the early 90s and about to enter the “real world”.

“And they wonder why those of us in our twenties refuse to work an 80-hour week just so we can afford to buy their BMWs, why we aren’t interested in the counterculture that they invented as if we did not see them disembowel their revolution for a pair of running shoes. But the question remains what are we going to do now? How can we repair all the damage we inherited? Fellow graduates, the answer is simple. The answer is…The answer is…I don’t know.”

Using Lelaina’s documentary footage, we’re then introduced to her friends. There’s underachiever and musician Troy Dyer (Ethan Hawke), promiscuous and eventual GAP employee Vickie Miner (Janeane Garofalo) and closeted and celibate Sammy Gray (Steve Zahn). While Lelaina takes a job as production assistant to a rude and obnoxious TV host so she work her way up towards being a documentarian, Troy goes from one underpaid job to the next and has to deal with his father suffering from cancer. Meanwhile Vickie’s numerous sexual encounters now leave her worrying if she’s contracted HIV from one of her partners who recently tested positive and Sammy avoids having a relationship so he won’t have to come out to his conservative parents.

There’s also sexual tension between Lelaina and Troy as they remain reluctant to face their feelings for each other, but these feelings rush to the surface when Michael Grates (Ben Stiller) enters the picture. He’s the epitome of yuppie and seems to be at a place in his life that these recent graduates can’t really relate to, yet he’s interested in Lelaina and her documentary, especially as he’s an executive for an MTV-like cable channel called In Your Face and could possibly get it aired on his network.

Reality Bites

What I never realized at the time was the way in which subtle themes are woven into the story. For example, there’s the way in which the then-emerging reality TV genre is depicted (and even parodied) in the film. Back then what we knew about reality television was what we drew from COPS and MTV’s The Real World that introduced us to the camcorder look and cinéma vérité feel that we’re now so familiar with.

There’s also the way in which things keep popping up in their lives and in between the plans they’ve made for themselves. This is something I started to experience once I’d finished school, left home and was out in the real world. It wasn’t until then I truly understood what Helen Childress and Douglas Coupland were trying to address to with Reality Bites and Generation X: Tales For An Accelerated Culture. It wasn’t until then I saw for myself that I, who was never part of anything before, was actually part of something all along. Generation X.

This is the generation born after the Western Post–World War II baby boom, typically those from the early 1960s to the early 1980s, which I fell neatly into. Often referred to as the MTV generation, we were the ones who experienced the emergence of music videos, new wave music, electronic music, synthpop, glam rock, heavy metal, glam metal, punk rock, alternative rock, grunge, rap and hip hop. We embraced social diversity in all its forms, regardless of race, class, religion, ethnicity, culture, language, gender identity, and sexual orientation. And unlike our parents, we had no faith in leaders like Thatcher, Bush or Clinton and instead tried to bring about change through economic, media and consumer means. We saw the fall of the Berlin Wall with hope for a new future for Germany. We were also the ones who experienced the outbreak of the AIDS virus but turned the emergence of this epidemic into an opportunity to inform and educate about safer sex and promote a greater understanding of sexual diversity in our rapidly changing society.

“When someone tells you they’ve just bought a house, they might as well tell you they no longer have a personality. You can immediately assume so many things: that they’re locked into jobs they hate; that they’re broke; that they spend every night watching videos; that they’re fifteen pounds overweight; that they no longer listen to new ideas. It’s profoundly depressing. ” ¹

  • [1] Douglas Coupland, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (1991)

As I look at it now, Generation X was the last leap forward in every possible way. In terms of music, literature, fashion and film, it was the time before what I now call Generation Y R They So Stupid, soon to be followed by Generation Zzzz. A film like Reality Bites, together with Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1991), Cameron Crowe’s Singles (1992) and Kevin Smith’s Clerks (1994), addresses a point that was so true then, and is still true now; that each succeeding generation continues to be baffled by its predecessor, as they are by it.

In light of that, I wonder, how can Generation Y and Z be saved from what I see as a return to homogeneity and a conditioning of the mind through the mutations of reality television and distorted perceptions of social media and security? Almost 20 years after Reality Bites I guess Lelaina never found the answer to what she first asked in the film, and neither have we, the slackers of the 80s and 90s… “How can we repair all the damage we inherited?”

Reality Bites

Patrick Samuel

Patrick Samuel

The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is an emerging artist with a philosophy degree, working primarily with pastels and graphite pencils, but he also enjoys experimenting with water colours, acrylics, glass and oil paints.

Being on the autistic spectrum with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is stimulated by bold, contrasting colours, intricate details, multiple textures, and varying shades of light and dark. Patrick's work extends to sound and video, and when not drawing or painting, he can be found working on projects he shares online with his followers.

Patrick returned to drawing and painting after a prolonged break in December 2016 as part of his daily art therapy, and is now making the transition to being a full-time artist. As a spokesperson for autism awareness, he also gives talks and presentations on the benefits of creative therapy.

Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and science fiction, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.

Patrick Samuel ¦ Asperger Artist

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