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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Houston Post-Graduate BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN REALITY BITES Directed by Ben Stiller Re elease of The Graduate in 1967 made a star out of Dustin Hoffman and a atchword out of “plastics.” Director Mike Nichols captured an entire generation by offering it images in a funhouse mirror. John Simon, who was born 50 and scowling, indicted the film for “oversimplification, overelaboration, inconsistency, eclecticism, obviousness, pretentiousness, and, especially in the penultimate section, sketchiness.” But, more than any other film of the age, The Graduate seemed inscribed by the Zeitgeist, a testament to how the American Dream had made young adults into sleepwalkers. Universal Pictures is marketing Reality Bites as “A Comedy About Love in the ’90s,” and it is possible to imagine 23-year-old Helen Childress pitching her first screenplay to them as the group portrait of her generation, post-Baby Boomers who no longer ask: “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” on account of the fact that they never saw the man swing. The Graduate was set amid the affluent anomie of Southern California. But Los Angeles has since become a national metaphor for social and seismic cataclysm, and Childress, who graduated from Houston’s High School of Performing and Visual Arts, places her postGraduate thesis in the Texas city that defines urban sprawl. In 1994, when college scholars are obliged to hustle to find menial work, lolling in the family pool would cease to be an option for Hoffman’ s graduate Benjamin Braddock. The credits to Reality Bites crawl across commencement exercises at an institution that might be the University of Houston. In her valedictory speech, Lelaina Pierce when she was 14, inveighs against American materialism, but the harsh world beyond school dampens ideals. Lelaina’ s roommate land a job selling jeans at The Gap, while Lelaina fails to find work anywhere, from the Houston Chronicle to the fastfood Wienerdude. Until she crosses its smarmy Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative liter ature at the University of Texas in San Antonio. as an assistant on Good Morning, Grant!, a local TV show designed to dispense daily rations of cheer. Reality Bites – whose punning title conflates the cruelness of life after school with segments of video documentary is not exactly a movie made for television. However, it is shaped by and for a camcorder imagination. Lelaina keeps a running video record of herself and her friends, in roughcut footage that is interspersed throughout the larger picture. To serve her ambition to make a nonfiction film “about people trying to find their identity,” she is forever aiming her camera at the experiences .we also witness. Grant Gubler refuses to allow Lelaina to use his studio editing equipment or to air her footage on his show. A merchant of bogus mirth, he dismisses her work as “depressing junk.” It is, alas, a fair assessment. And, despite the contribution of Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who framed and lighted Like Water for Chocolate with meticulous care, Reality Bites offers the raffish rawness of a home movie from a broken home. An auto collision brings Lelaina the an ambitious young executive with an MTVlike network. “I guess I’m a non-practicing Jew,” says Michael, and Lelaina replies: “I guess I’m a non-practicing virgin,” in an early conversation that typifies the movie’s wit. Enamored of Lelaina, Grates promises to get her video documentary broadcast on his In Your Face TV, but the studio re-edits the footage to sap it of its veracity and shape it into an ad for Pizza Hut. “I’m in the real world here, and I have ideals also,” explains Michael, unconvincingly. stand why his college friend Lelaina has fallen for this “Yuppie-head cheeseball,” when she should be in love with him. Troy, who signals his purity by quoting poetry, playing guitar, and flubbing 12 jobs, is intended as a counter-cultural antithesis to Michael’s commercial success. Though offered no evidence, we are asked to believe that Troy is brilliant. Though he is too cool to commit himself to the rituals of romance, Troy is ardently in love with Lelaina. Reality Bites is a contemporary morality play in which two urban angels compete for the soul and body of a non-practicing virgin. The first feature that Stiller has directed, the film offers a few inspired sequences, like the way Lelaina wreaks revenge on Grant Gubler by slipping obscenities onto his cue cards. Later, she earns some needed money by posing as a pump attendant at a self-service gas station. But a subplot in which Vickie tests for HIV is a gratuitous nod at social relevance. Too much of the movie nods, though it tries to camouflage its clumsiness with the premise that reality bites roughly. The Graduate managed to transcend the affectlessness of its protagonist with the lan of its director. Lelaina and her comrades lead grungy lives not redeemed by cinematic verve. They scarf down junk food, inhale billows of tobacco smoke, and waste their tender days in front of a TV screen. “I was really gonna be something by the age of 23,” laments Lelaina, but the expectation seems ill-founded. It is even hard to credit her as college valedictorian. Did she earn all her A’s with the aid of the TV psychic whose 900 number costs her hundreds of dollars in telephone bills? “You’re on the fast inside track to Loserville, USA,” Lelaina warns Troy, but they all seem there already, on the streets of Harris County. Reality Bites is more engaging as ensemble performance than group portrait. It is hard to believe that 30 years from now it will stand as the defining image of what it was like to be young and adrift in 1994. “Everyone dies all by himself,” proclaims Troy. But even that attempt at profundity misfires. Cinema is a collaborative art, and filmmakers flop together. ANDERSON & COMPANY COFFEE TEA SPICES TWO JEFFERSON SQUARE AUSTIN, TEXAS 78731 512 453-1533 Send me your list. Name Street City Zip 30 FEBRUARY 25, 1994