SINGLES: I Was Just Nowhere Near Your Neighborhood

Singles (1992) – Directed by Cameron Crowe – Starring Matt Dillon, Bridget Fonda, Kyra Sedgwick, Campbell Scott, Sheila Kelley, Jim True-Frost, Bill Pullman, James LeGros, Ally Walker, Tom Skerritt, Peter Horton, Jeremy Piven, Eric Stoltz, Victor Garber, Paul Giamatti, and Tim Burton.

I kinda love that the message of SINGLES is not just that to find romantic happiness you have to stop being full of sh*t, but that you have to find a partner who’s also willing to stop being full of sh*t.

I was a sophomore at Syracuse when SINGLES was released in the fall of 1992, but as much as I loved Cameron Crowe’s SAY ANYTHING it was the music that initially attracted me to this movie of folks that were dealing with issues that would be coming my way in a few years. Before arriving at SU in August ’91, I was a huge fan of Mother Love Bone’s Apple album, and crushed (as much as high schoolers can be crushed about the death of a musician who had passed before the band’s one album was even released) that the band I had just discovered was already finished. I knew some of the members of Love Bone were forming a new group, but I didn’t know what that group was called. (Remember, kids, this in the pre-internet days.)

I hit the campus record store in the Schine Student Center constantly. We had already heard rumblings (which meant from Rolling Stone or Spin, really) about this new group, Nirvana, that was releasing an album that was going to blow everyone away, but I was more interested in following along with the guys from Mother Love Bone.

I just wish I knew what their new name was.

Flipping through both the CDs and cassettes and looking closely at any group I had never heard of, I found a group called Temple of the Dog. Recognizing that assemblage of words as a lyric from a Love Bone song, I bought the cassette and discovered it was a tribute album, and not the new group. A few days later, I found a cassette from a group called Pearl Jam, which had a sticker on it announcing, “Featuring former members of Mother Love Bone.”

Bought it. Listened to it. Hated it.

So I listened to it, again. Gah. I paid for this?

I distinctly remember I was writing a letter (a letter!) to my pal Chad back home on yellow legal paper, and the need for a soundtrack to my background scribbling is maybe the only reason I listened to it a third time. And this time … this time when the opening guitar chords of “Alive” cranked out of my crummy boom box, it was like looking into the sky, seeing the clouds part, and the hand of Zeus hurl a thunderbolt at you. That riff was transcendent, and opened up the entire album. I listened to Ten over and over and over again. I listened to Ten, Temple of the Dog, and Nevermind so much that year, that my only brush with popularity on the first floor of Marion Hall that year was when people started recognizing me as the guy who was listening to the cool music before it became cool music.

A year later, SINGLES was released and it was the music, not the romance, that drove me to see it.

By the fall of 1992, though, our world had dramatically shifted. It was a weird feeling for those of us that hadn’t been huge fans of the popular music of the day to now find “our” music taking over. When I walked down any of the various Frat/Sorority Rows and heard “my” music pumping out of the buildings that blissfully pumped out whatever music was cool that week, I didn’t know whether to feel happy, sad, or bemused.

A year earlier, when I was the only person at Syracuse I knew that had the album, I’d gone to a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert at the Landmark Theater in downtown Syracuse, where Pearl Jam was the opening act for the opening act (Smashing Pumpkins). Hardly anyone was in their seats when Pearl Jam took the stage, but me and Nate (who’d bussed over from Utica) had made damn sure we were there because we’d come to see Pearl Jam. As their 30-minute set unfolded, you could see people getting excited about this group most of them had never heard of before that night. (Pearl Jam’s name isn’t even on the ticket.) It was one of the few times I can ever remember being in a place where buzz was being born.

When SINGLES was released, however, words like “grunge” and “flannel” were becoming part of the cool crowd’s vernacular, and those of us who were there before the buzz were confronted with a new question of what to do: stay true to the music we had been championing, or admit that, on some level, our dislike for the popular music of our high school days was linked with our being not part of the cool crowd.

Without being overtly about this particular question of self-identity, SINGLES is full of people navigating their private vs. public selves, with the public self always some altered version of the private, true self. Crowe revolves these questions of self identity around relationships, specifically the relationship between young professionals Steve and Linda (Campbell Scott and Kyra Sedgwick) and struggling dreamers Janet and Cliff (Bridget Fonda and Matt Dillon). There are friends of these four characters to help round out the various approaches to love, but these are the relationships at the center of the film.

Crowe sends these two relationships on opposing arcs. As the film opens, Janet and Cliff are ostensibly seeing each other, though Janet believes them to be in a committed relationship, and Cliff believes Janet to be one of the multiple women he sees. Janet is in love with Cliff and Cliff is in love with his dream of being a rock star, casting their relationship as one part tragedy and one part comedy. Full of bubbly positivity, Janet is that achingly cute friend we all had in college going out with the total doucebag. If SINGLES were remade today, she would undoubtedly be recast as a hipster, so let’s all take a moment to thank our deity of choice (as an agnostic, I will thank the sun, Cherry Coke Zero, and Kate Beckinsale in a catsuit) that SINGLES was made pre-hipster.

There’s a tragic aspect to Janet, too, of course. Stuck in that liminal state between girlish fantasy and grown-up realism, Janet has to realize that Cliff sees other women, but refuses to acknowledge it during the first half of the movie. Confronted by Cliff’s statement about seeing other women, she just smiles warmly and awkwardly, and keeps pushing forward with her fantasy that they’re a couple. When Janet has a rare moment of confrontation with Cliff, it leads to one of the more honest and perfect moments in the film.

“Are my breasts too small?” she asks Cliff.

“Sometimes,” he admits.

This admission spurs Janet to seek breast enlargement surgery, where she meets plastic surgeon Jeffrey Jamison (Bill Pullman). On the day of her surgery, Dr. Jamison breaks down and admits that he doesn’t want to perform the surgery because Janet is perfect just as she is. As the stand-in for nice guys, Jamison is awkward around women despite operating on them every day. “I’m thirty-three years old,” he laments, “and I don’t know how to have fun.” If SINGLES were a two hour movie instead of 90 minutes, Jamison and Janet would probably go on a date before things inevitably work out with Cliff, but Crowe thankfully saves us this subplot. Instead, Janet eschews the surgery and breaks up with Cliff, gaining a bit of independence, and taking a step towards adulthood and away from her fantasies.

The other relationship involves Steve and Linda. Steve is looking for a new relationship, but Linda is hesitant, having just been worked over by a guy pretending to a university student whose visa is about to run out. They spend a week or so together before consummating their relationship the night before he has to return home to Spain, but then on her next night out, Linda sees him hitting on someone else. She’s crushed and in no mood to jump into a new relationship, but after rejecting Steve’s advances, they run into each other at a newsstand and away they go, struggling with the idea of being in a relationship with one another. When Steve and Linda are simply together, they’re fine, but when they start thinking about themselves not only as a couple, but as the (hopefully) eternal couple, they over-think their situation.

SINGLES does a really nice job of keeping everything moving and the film works as an American antecedent to the Richard Curtis-styled British romantic comedies. Crowe does a good job keeping things light, and the storytelling technique of having characters speak to the camera on occasion works really nicely. Steve talks to the camera near the beginning of the film, Janet gets her turn a bit later, and then Cliff becomes the mature voice of reason late in the film. All of them are smarter than their in-world cinematic versions, which suggests the entire artifice of the faces we put on to impress other people.

While neither deep nor moving, SINGLES manages to be a tasty snack of a romantic comedy. There’s a bunch of “Hey, is that ____?!?” cameos from Paul Giamatti, Victor Garber, Eric Stoltz, and Tim Burton that are always nice to see, but the success of the film is really thanks to the four leads and Crowe’s breezy, quotable script. The message of the film makes a good answer to all that angst me and my fellow Gen-Xers were feeling back in the early ’90s – just stop being so full of sh*t and go after the things that you want, not the things you think you’re supposed to want.