A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1992: Let’s not even talk about the weird Xavier McDaniel joke

SINGLES (dir. Cameron Crowe)

I don’t know what it’s like to grow up as part of any generation other than X. Maybe the oldest Millennials, since I often find my cultural sympathies lining up with those a little bit younger than me. But that’s it. Like all of us, I’m a product of my time.

Which, in my case, means that I was starting to assemble the first draft of my adult self during the stretch when Singles had its weird little supernova interlude. I don’t know that it was a movie that meant much to, say, 40-year-old lawyers or even 17-year-olds who were thinking of joining the Air Force after they graduated; but among the nerdy, music-centered college-bound youth cohort that I was part of, this thing blew up like a firecracker. Out of nowhere, and for a little while, this movie exerted a bizarre cultural gravity. Not nearly as widespread as Batman, but very intense in its niche. The only album I’ve ever experienced peer pressure around “when are you gonna get it, you lameass?” was the Singles soundtrack, which went on to spend a few years as a member of the 90s De Rigeur Dorm CDs Starter Pack.

You have to hand it to them as a couple: at least they could always share each other’s clothes

And that soundtrack album is tightly tied into the whole thing. The interplay between music and movie was a knot you couldn’t cut. They were conjoined*. The movie was noteworthy because of the soundtrack, which was noteworthy because it was so Seattle-heavy, which of course it was because this was a movie about music-loving folks in Seattle, which hey did you hear that Seattle is where things are happening right now? Anyway, Pearl Jam and Chris Cornell figure somewhat prominently in both movie and album.

*Consider the fact that the title of the movie itself is a triple entendre: singles as in single people, singles as in one-bedroom apartments, and—of course—singles as in music.

(Since it keeps bubbling up in my mind, let me just take a minute now to acknowledge that my friend Chad and I talked at some length about the Singles soundtrack on We’ve Been Had a while ago, and if that conversation was more music-focused than movie-focused, one of my points here is that maybe that distinction doesn’t mean much. Anyway, it’s a fun episode).

Singles was part of the ascent phase of Cameron Crowe’s hot run.** I don’t think it was initially intended to be a capital-letter Seattle and Its Music Are the White Hot Center of America movie; I think Crowe set out to write a light comedy that happened to be set in his hometown and had a character who was a musician, partly because Crowe, as a rock journalist, knew that world well. And then (as I understand it) a bunch of things happened to create a cultural snowball as the movie gestated: Mother Love Bone’s singer Andrew Wood died, causing a sort of rally-together mentality among Seattle’s music community, prompting Crowe to lean harder into the Seattle sampler aspect of the soundtrack (which to me has always felt like it exists in an awkward tension with the soundtrack’s other identity as Paul Westerberg’s post-Replacements emergence as a solo artist). And then, as the movie was in post-production, Nirvana broke big and Seattle music became the biggest thing in town.***

**Cameron Crowe’s career is so weird in retrospect; from Say Anything through Almost Famous, everything was big and culturally relevant and generally pretty well-written (even if elements didn’t always age well). Vanilla Sky seems to have been some kind of Icarus-approaches-the-sun moment for him that he never recovered from. Maybe it was the strain of working with Tom Cruise; maybe that’s why Kubrick died after making Eyes Wide Shut.

***Nirvana were approached about contributing to the soundtrack and, being Nirvana, declined. I can’t remember my source on this, but I swear I remember reading somewhere that Crowe still received some studio pressure to retitle the movie Come as You Are, which, if true, he wisely ignored.

So by the time Singles came out, it was a load-bearing cultural artifact in a way that a slight little romantic comedy was never really capable of being. And if you look at it as a template for How To Be Cool, Gen-X Style, it’s a terrible failure (albeit still a lot better than its near-peer Reality Bites, which commits the mortal sin of being an extremely stupid movie that takes itself dead serious; Singles at least has enough of a sense of humor to drop absurd visual gags like the light fixtures in Dr. Bill Pullman’s breast augmentation clinic, which it absolutely kills me not to be able to find stills of online). But as a lightweight hangout movie that prizes vibe over plot, it’s fine.

It’s short on plot, but maybe that’s for the best. The biggest character growth comes from Bridget Fonda’s character recognizing how much she selling herself short by being with Matt Damon’s absolute dipshit of a rock singer (to the movie’s credit, it’s clear we’re supposed to see him as an absolute dipshit, albeit a coooool one). The ostensible main character, Steve, is played by Campbell Scott in a performance that weirdly echoes Keir Dullea in 2001: A Space Odyssey, where—it’s worth noting—Dullea was intentionally playing flat and affectless. I can never decide if the movie wants us to think that Steve’s plan for revitalizing transit in Seattle—lure people onto the “Supertrain” with great coffee and great music—is a good one, or if the inanity of it is a big joke. I kind of think it’s the former, but the movie’s a lot easier to like if you go with the latter. Either way, it’s a good use of Tom Skerritt to have him shoot it down.

Open pod bay doors, HAL.

And hell, maybe it did wind up doing some legwork as the Gen X Guide to Life, if indirectly. For good or ill, we were the generation that made Friends a megahit, and it’s hard not to notice that Singles is essentially Friends on the opposite coast, with a hipper soundtrack. On the other hand, the movie’s identification (both at the time and post hoc) with Gen X gets a little weird when you notice how much the movie exists in the shadow of the Boomers. At one point, Matt Damon’s rocker character even monologues about “where’s *our* Misty Mountain Hop, maaaan?” The soundtrack contains a Jimi Hendrix song and the members of Heart covering Led Zeppelin. Even in our accidental generational statements, Gen X gets overshadowed.

In 1992, Singles seemed like the biggest thing in the world to me, a chance to learn by example how to be a cool adult in the 90s. These days, I tend to forget it exists unless I’m looking at lists of movies by year.

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