by Michelle Said
Janet Livermore works in a coffee shop in Seattle. Not a “diner-coffee shop” like you’d see in a Quentin Tarantino movie, but a coffeehouse-coffee shop. You know, a shop that sells coffee: a creation so novel in the early-90s that they called it a *movement*. (“They,” whoever they are, also called them espresso bars and bean grinders.) Anyway, back to Janet. She’s just a girl who works in a coffee shop. She’s 23 and she wants to go to school for architecture one day. And she loves grunge music and the guys who make it.
Janet is one of the many characters in Cameron Crowe’s Singles (1992), an ode to mid-twenties malaise, centered around the strain and drain of modern dating. It’s basically like Friends before Friends was Friends. Kind of like Threesome orReality Bites before they existed. These characters went to Starbucks before Starbucks was Starbucks. So in a way,Singles kind of started it all.
[SIDE NOTE: The soundtrack is the only thing 95% of the general population remembers about this movie. Take a poll of your friends and see if anybody could tell you that it actually featured Kyra Sedgwick in one of her very first roles. See if they remember that it also had Paul Giamatti, Jeremy Piven, Bill Pullman, and the guy that played Prezbo on The Wire in bit parts. I pretty much guarantee you they will not, since this movie also happens to feature cameos byan almost boyish Eddie Vedder and a fledgling Chris Cornell, live performances by Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, and a soundtrack that included all of these bands, as well as Mudhoney, The Screaming Trees, and the Smashing Pumpkins. /SIDE NOTE]
The film is full of the developing Seattle music scene that was bursting, popping, oozing into the nationwide consciousness at the time. It was dirty, it was raw, it was underground. It was grunge. And Cameron Crowe, the man behind Say Anything and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the man once credited with finding the pulse of Young America in the 1980s, gave us Singles - which merged a fringe music scene with a big Hollywood movie.
And what was that movie about?
More specifically, relationship feelings. Disgusting, annoying, whiny single-people feelings. Nobody-will-ever-love-meeeee feelings. The feelings of a generation (specifically, Generation X) trying to find love.
Singles is all about people on that edge between youth and adulthood. Fifty years ago, this would have happened in the period between high school and college, but by the early 90s, Generation X (followed by the Millenials, and then whatever kids these days are called) decided, Hey! Adolescence is too short! Let’s keep this party rolling! So, the movie tells the tale of what it’s like to have a job—and be ostensibly independent—but still searching for a greater purpose. About going out to bars and gigs, bopping your head to the music while acting like you don’t care, gazing across the room at the guy with the eyes (and oh, what dreamy eyes!) and hoping that he looks back. And in that split second as you’re looking at him, you, trained by all of those years of watching all of those horrible Hollywood movies with their pat resolutions and the triumph and the struggle and the lightning sent from heaven above, wonder, “Is this it? Is that him?” And then you avert your eyes because, “What if it is?” And then, a moment later, “What if I’m not ready?”
It’s a movie about what it’s like to not know what you want, or even what you’re supposed to want.
When you’re single in your twenties, and have a relative grasp on self-sufficiency, you are basically free to do whatever you like. Would you like to live in another country for a year? Sure, why not? Would you like to bounce from city to city? No reason not to. Sleep with whomever you want! Who cares? This is the time of your life to enjoy all the freedom the world has to offer! But then, when you’re up in the air, you’re so free that you don’t even know if there’s any place to land. You’re searching. You want to find a place of your own. You want to find a person to come home to.
And the thing is, for most people, this is not easy. In fact, it’s ridiculously hard and painful. You will fail. You will get your heart broken. You will break somebody’s heart. But then there’s that ever-present whisper in your ear telling you that you have to keep working and keep putting yourself out there. That anything that’s really worth anything in life doesn’t come easy. But that whisper also reminds you that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. So maybe that’s it. Maybe that period between 20 and 30 is really just a period of constant insanity. You keep moving forward as best you can, you keep trying to shove square pegs in round holes, and you keep dating the same unsuitable suitors that have always failed you. Your twenties may very well be the most dangerous and (literally!) crazy decade of your life.
This truth—this feeling of failure and trial and struggling—takes up the first two-thirds of Singles. And I was actually quite stunned by the clarity and realism that Crowe distilled here. I mean, aside from the convenient plot device of four young people living in one apartment complex who all happen to date each other, a la Melrose Place. (Although, to Crowe’s credit,Singles preceded Melrose Place. Don’t you feel like you’re discovering the Adam Kadmon of popular culture from 1991 to 1999? I do.)
I love the scene where Janet (Bridget Fonda) bounds up to her rocker paramour Cliff (Matt Dillon) at the end of his band practice, oblivious to the fact that he has about as much enthusiasm for her as a pair of khakis. Remember: this is a pre-He’s Just Not That Into You world. She asks him when he’ll be free. He deflects and then says, “You know I’m seeing other people, right?” This admission doesn’t faze Janet. “You don’t fool me,” she says. “We made the connection, and when you make the connection, the chemistry takes care of itself. I mean, it makes its own decisions, you know?”
She debates with herself as to whether or not she should call him, she excuses his behavior when he stands her up, and she subsists on a diet of cucumbers and lettuce in order to be attractively thin...for him! For a guy named Cliff with stringy hair in a local rock band called Citizen Dick, a guy who won’t commit to her! It’s so ridiculous. It’s also depressingly real. I’ve known this girl. I’ve seen her in action. Maybe I’ve even been her in my younger days. And it’s not really all his fault, either; she’s putting herself through this mental tailspin of desperation when walking away early on would have saved her a whole lot of trouble.
At the height of this pursuit, she notices that he has pictures of big-bosomed women plastered all over the walls of his apartment, because that’s just the kind of guy he is. “Are my breasts too small for you?” she asks. “Sometimes,” he says. She then goes out and books herself an appointment with a plastic surgeon for a breast augmentation. Here Crowe seems to be telling us that liking a person has no bearing on whether or not that person is actually any good for us. It becomes more of a pursuit of self; a quest for approval, instead of a healthy relationship. Eventually, Janet tames these urges and comes to her senses, but not without the help of her plastic surgeon (Bill Pullman) who, inexplicably, happens to have a crush on her. (Really.)
But Janet isn’t actually the main focus of Singles. That distinction belongs to Steve Dunne (Campbell Scott) and Linda Powell (Kyra Sedgwick). Linda’s been hurt before. It may be because of the emotional wall she has erected to protect herself against being hurt again that Steve finds himself inextricably attracted to her. I mean, who among us have not been there? You meet a person and this person is so damaged and tortured by his or her past that we feel (we hope!) that we can save them. We will save this attractive individual with whom we also want to have sex! The internal monologue does smack a bit of a hero complex. Steve pursues Linda gingerly, each of them tiptoeing around the idea of commitment, until they eventually fumble their way into something like a relationship. But then life happens. (She gets pregnant.) They find themselves closer than ever before. (They talk about marriage.) And then, in an instant, they are torn apart. (She has a miscarriage.)
All of this is so beautiful and so staggering that I just wanted to cry because I felt like I knew these people and their stories so well.
That is, until we get to the end.
There’s comes a point, in the final third of the film, where it starts to become pretty obvious that some Hollywood honcho has placed a clunky chokehold on the story. You can almost picture them sitting in a conference room, muttering, “Yes, yes, but isn’t it all a bit, I don’t know... Depressing?”
As a result, we are left to believe that every single person living in the same apartment building ends up happy and joyous and in a committed relationship. Somehow, Janet switches the flip in her brain and becomes a completely different person, one who doesn’t care about the waste of a man that is Cliff. Once this about-face happens, he begins to aggressively pursue her, leaving rose petals on her bed and calling her constantly. And then he unknowingly happens to do the one thing she mentioned earlier in the film that she was looking for (a guy who says “Bless you” after she sneezes) and she starts making out with him.
And then there’s Linda and Steve. After becoming close to engagement due to an unintentional pregnancy that is lost after a car crash, Linda leaves Steve in a lurch and retreats back to her ex-boyfriend. He winds up lying on his kitchen floor in a pile of filth. He stops going to work. He stops taking calls. He calls her and leaves a message on her machine begging for her to come back but the voicemail machine eats the tape. Of course, as often happens in Hollywood, she comes to the epiphany that she should really be with him and dashes over to his house in the middle of the night. “Look, I don’t want to be your girlfriend or anything...I just want to know you again,” she says. “What took you so long?” he asks. “I was stuck in traffic,” she says. And then Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant, taking on the form of enormous man-eating pterodactyls with gigantic teeth, swoop in and eat the entire apartment complex.
When I saw Singles for the first time, I was a single lady in my twenties and I had been having bad luck with love for most of that decade. I hated that every single character in this movie found a happy ending, all at the same time. I was alone in the world, and my time spent trying to find companionship left me bitter and disillusioned. I would find men who would constantly disappoint me and leave me in a lurch. Or else I would be constantly disappointing men and not calling them back for a variety of reasons, all of them kind of bullshit. (You should always call someone back, even if just to say that you will not be calling again.) I was disappointing and I was disappointed and I was scared that I would never find love.
I think what angered me so much about this film was that it was tied up so neatly. Every person finds a person in 90 minutes. For a movie that dealt with such universal, powerful themes like (unintended pregnancy, depression, finding your own self-worth) it felt like a huge cop out. The last third of the movie traffics almost entirely in romantic comedy clichés, like running over to your lover's house in the middle of the night to ask for forgiveness—which, as far as I can tell, has never worked, unless you want your lover to call the cops.
A few years after that first viewing, though, I can see truth in the power of forgiveness and for standing up for yourself and your beliefs. That emotional honesty is a necessary tool in the arsenal of a real and honest relationship. And that, sometimes, the difficult moments in life can throw you for a loop from which only the strongest relationships can recover.
But the thing that we all need to know is that you can’t force any of it to happen. And that’s what Singles gets wrong: as much as we might want to be, none of us are ever really on the same timeline. The random messiness of life prohibits a tidy ending where all of our friends find someone at the same time. Sometimes you are the single friend, and sometimes you are the one happily coupled. Even in Friends, that touchstone of television romantic comedy, Phoebe and Joey are left single at the end of the series. A dating life is a cycle of events: meet-cute, date, establish relationships, break up. It goes on and on until we find someone that likes us as much as we like them. And even then, it doesn’t quite stop.
Despite my frustration with the last third of the movie, watching these twenty-something characters tripping and falling through the world of romantic relationships—lost and searching, just like I was when I first watched it in my twenties—stuck a few lessons into my heart: don’t put up with anyone who treats you badly, trust in love, and, if something is really, truly worth it, it will all work out. And I suppose those kernels of truth are all worth knowing in the end.
Michelle Said was one of the original founding editors of Bright Wall/Dark Room, and later served as media director and podcast host. She currently freelances and works on her novel in New York