We all grow up wondering what our futures will be, but the cast of 1994’s Reality Bites had the market cornered on wandering thoughts about the subject. Some of the characters were more committed to the idea that they should be something while others languished in the feeling that it was all a bullshit system anyway and trying is for losers.
Recently, it dawned on me that my perception of the movie might be evolving.
You see, as a younger man, I identified with Ethan Hawke’s character, Troy Dyer. He was a brooding, unconvinced manboy who sought art at all costs and distance from the person everyone thought he should be. He was the post-modern misunderstood poet, the meaning-seeker even if that meaning was found in contradicting false premises like commercialism or systematized relationships. He hated Ben Stiller’s character, Michael and all he represented. Troy was witty and sarcastic and pretty much douche, if you look at him now with grownup eyes.
Which brings me to my realization: I can’t figure out whether I’m Ben Stiller or Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites anymore.
At first, it made me kind of sick to my stomach. Had I transformed from an unkempt artist into an upwardly mobile smarm-bucket like Michael Grates? Had I abandoned my creative spirit for career goals and being the provider? Or maybe I’d misunderstood Michael?
I used to looked at Michael as an annoying gnat in Lelaina’s storyline, a speed bump on her way to the promised land of free expression. Michael sold out. He was so focused on his goals that he lost pieces of his personality along the way. But what’s wrong with wanting to achieve success? The rambling examination of Generation X’s obsession with fulfillment and expression made a lot of sense to me twenty years prior but it’s been replaced by the idea that there are more important things to care for.
In fact, Troy is so self-obsessed that his only responses to Michael, or anyone else for that matter including the people he cares about, are takedown tactics and trite, parroted expressions. He’s an obstructionist. Michael wants to create stability and a name for himself. Stiller, who directed the film, plays him brilliantly with the exposed wiring of a man who cares about doing a good job, making something of himself and thinking of his future. Meanwhile, Lelaina is floundering around listening to, and speaking childish nonsense.
I feel like I need to mourn the loss of a childish, albeit creative side of myself. It’s bittersweet. As a cusp Millennial and child of the Grunge era, at a certain point the soul-searching became a pointless exercise, and I’ve learned to harness my creativity, the energy of my angst into other areas of my life– few of them deal with myself, exclusively. My kids, my marriage, my career, my future. These zones of activity have me squarely nestled within them, but they have less to do with my narcissism as each day passes. Life isn’t a marathon. It’s a relay race. And I have runners counting on me.