May 29, 2008 | Comments ()

By Dustin Rowles | Pajiba Blockbusters | May 29, 2008 |


I cannot imagine — on a site where the Coen brothers, Wes Anderson, geek culture, “Arrested Development,” and Joss Whedon reign supreme — that this admission could possibly go over well, but my two favorite directors of all time, unabashedly, unashamedly, and unapologetically, are Billy Wilder and Cameron Crowe. And while Wilder still carries a certain amount of historical cachet thanks, in part, to his role in popularizing noir, Crowe — who refused to embrace what passes for cool these days, namely sardonic wit, post-irony irony, and the effervescent whimsy ushered in by Garden State, hipsteria Hollywood and a Comic-Con driven box-office — has more or less slowly faded into obscurity, either in an effort to regroup after the (massive) failure of Elizabethtown or because he’s realized that his brand of cynicism-free filmmaking has no more place in today’s pop-culture landscape than Lloyd Dobbler has in a restraining-order happy dating world.

Nevertheless, today I submit as the latest entry into our Pajiba Blockbusters series, not the best Crowe film (Say Anything), the most influential (Fast Times at Ridgemont High), the biggest box-office and awards recipient (Jerry Maguire), or even my favorite (Almost Famous), but perhaps the least appreciated, and the least talked about of all his films: Singles, a charming ode to dating in your 20s and an incredible love letter to Seattle. And the reason I chose Singles is simple: It is the antithesis to the modern, mainstream romantic comedy, where every Ashton, McConaughey, Heigl, and Dempsey tries to win over the love of his or her life by beating him or her over the head with a flailing, chicken-headed epic romantic gesture. Singles, and Crowe’s other films to a lesser extent (see, e.g., Lloyd Dobler walking Diane Court around broken glass), are about the small gestures that blossom into a relationship. Any jackass can chase down a woman in an airport or unload two (or is it three?) months’ salary on a diamond ring and bend down on one knee in a crowded public place. But relationships are made when she pulls open the lock on your car door or he simply wishes you good health when you sneeze. You want to know if you’re meant to be? Don’t wait for a marriage proposal, just ask yourself this: Is her leg still pressed up against you in the morning? Does he walk on the side of you closest to traffic? Or, after all these years, do you still hold hands when the lights go down in a theater? If so, you’ve found true love — Cameron Crowe love.

For what it’s worth, Singles was also one of the, if not the first real Gen X film — predating (it’s production, at least) Slacker, and eventually giving rise to other, lesser and greater imitations like Reality Bites, High Fidelity and — for better or worse — the television sitcom, “Friends.” (Fun Fact: “Friends” was a second iteration of a planned television show based on “Singles” that Cameron Crowe vetoed). It’s also worth noting that Crowe — the all-time youngest contributor to Rolling Stone — was well ahead of the pop-culture curve here; production of “Singles” was actually completed before “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was even released. Singles, initially, was a small film that revolved around the Seattle music scene (e.g., Mudhoney), and featured cameos from Chris Cornell, Alice in Chains, and all four members of Pearl Jam (all of whom, during filming, were obscure outside of Seattle — I’m not even sure the term “grunge” had been coined yet). Prescient as hell, by the time Singles was released two years later (the studio had no idea how to market it), grunge was in full-bloom, which is why the movie was largely overshadowed by its soundtrack (if you were over the age of 12 in 1992, you almost certainly owned it and you’ve probably had the relentlessly catchy “Dyslexic Heart” stuck in your head the second you saw what film was being reviewed here); it’s also why the style of the film’s characters was so oddly mixed between 80s fashion (see, e.g., the bangs on both Bridget Fonda and Sheila Kelley) and grunge (to wit: the attire of Matt Dillon or the soul patch on Jim True-Frost, or Mr. Pryzbylewski to fans of “The Wire.”) And, like Dazed and Confused, released a year later, Singles had a lot of faces in it that wouldn’t have meant anything to you at the time, but who are jarringly recognizable if you watch it today (in addition to Jim True-Frost, there is also a very young Christopher Masterson, Victor Garber, Paul Giamatti, and Jeremy Piven (pre-hairpiece)). Even Tim Burton made a small, but memorable cameo as the next Martin Score-sees.

The film deals, mostly anecdotally, with five characters — Janet Livermore (Bridget Fonda) is an insecure 23-year-old infatuated with one of her neighbors, Cliff Poncier (Matt Dillon), the self-absorbed, talent-deprived lead singer of Citizen Dick, a role that Kevin Dillon’s character in “Entourage” must have pulled a lot from. Janet’s insecurities led her briefly to consider a boob job to satisfy Cliff’s hourglass syndrome. Debbie Hunt (Sheila Kelly) is looking for the perfect man via a video dating service (“Come to where the flavor is, come to Debbie country”). And then there is Campbell Scott, the twenty-something, less idiosyncratic version of Lloyd Dobbler, a traffic engineer trying to build a Supertrain in Seattle (“you give the people coffee and great music, they will park and ride”). He falls for Linda (Kyra Sedwick), an environmentalist with trust issues, and the two spend most of the film completely sabotaging their relationship. It’s beautiful.

There’s not really much of an overarching narrative in Singles; mostly, Crowe uses his characters to explore how small, isolated moments can affect a relationship. There’s a certain sitcomy feel to the movie, but in the best kind of way — it’s lightweight, but deceptively substantive, a thousand different pop songs distilled into an hour and a half. (It’s also the perfect Hangover Theater flick if you fell in love with someone the night before.) But what I appreciate most about Singles is that the big, dramatic speech never works, nor does the name written out in rose petals — and in real life these gestures never do (desperation, after all, is the “world’s worst cologne.”) Instead, it’s the small things — a single broken plate or a sneeze — that brings couples together.

Everything else is just an act.

Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.

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Singles / Dustin Rowles

Pajiba Blockbusters | May 29, 2008 | Comments ()




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