Over break, I watched two movies that seem completely unrelated on the surface. Spanned by different decades, following different storylines and making different cultural references, the disparities seem to stand out at first. However, as I thought about the films (both of which I had never seen before) their similar relevance and meanings started to emerge. The two films are Reality Bites (1994), and one that will sound more familiar to current college students, The Social Network (2010).
Reality Bites tells the story of recent college grad Lelaina, played by Winona Ryder, as she struggles to navigate the real world. She tries to find a job, success and financial security while avoiding selling out to the mindless yuppies of the corporate world. The Social Network follows gifted Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg as he creates the social networking site Facebook and deals with fame, friendship and lawsuits along the way.
The storylines and settings differ dramatically. Reality Bites takes place in downtown Houston and features a plot in which Lelaina gets caught in a love triangle between the intelligent, poetic jerk with a soft spot, Troy (played by Ethan Hawke), and the typical corporate businessman who works for a network rip-off on MTV, Michael (played by Ben Stiller, who also directs). The Social Network jumps around from Harvard Yard, to New York to L.A. and shows how friendships are ripped apart, how intellectual property gets challenged and how Facebook begins to take over lives everywhere.
What ties the two films together is their focus on technology and communication. Video permeates Reality Bites. Lelaina is constantly armed with her video camera, whether capturing her friends on the roof of a skyscraper celebrating their graduation, her friend going to a clinic to get tested for HIV/AIDS or her friends’ candid takes on their future and contributions to the world. Scenes from the film show the view through her camera, showing us what she sees as she places her eye to the lens. The ‘90s, filled with the high points of MTV, the days of VHS and the wanderings of Generation X seem to find focus in the documentary frame of the video camera.
It was around the time that this movie was released that The Real World came to prominence. Featuring strangers from across America as they lived and fought with one another, it showed the beginning of reality television. The most interesting parts of the show were when cast mates sat in the “confessional” – a room in their apartment where they could talk candidly to the camera and the public. Cast mates would use these occasions to complain about annoying roommates, talk about their own issues and struggles and generally tell their stories to the world.
This is where The Social Network comes into play. Reality Bites was dominated by video, and it hinted at the idea of documentaries and storytelling. The Social Network shows the current generation of teens and young adults exploring these ideas but through the medium of the web and social media sites. One scene that resonated with me was when we see Mark Zuckerberg take to his blog after his girlfriend dumps him. Armed with a few beers and set on revenge, he angrily rants about the breakup and girls in general and narrates his every move as he creates a new program that goes viral across Harvard’s campus in a matter of hours.
Blogs, and now Facebook, allow us to narrate our lives. We can project who we want to be or who we think we are. With the web, we post our thoughts, actions and likes, hoping that someone is listening. Now, the video cameras of the ’90s are more easily found embedded in our laptops. Rather than popping a tape into our VCRs and pressing play, we log onto YouTube with a click of a mouse. The overarching messages are still true, however. We want someone to listen, we want to communicate with the world, we want to document our lives in some sort of material form.
However, many people have noted that, with communication through the web, a barrier starts to form. We may feel like our options for communicating with audiences is endless – we can reach anyone and everyone through Facebook, blogs, twitter and so on. However, the distance between face-to-face contact changes our behaviors and how we would normally act, possibly causing us to harm our real life relationships. In the scene mentioned before, where Mark rants and trashes his ex in a blog post, he reveals inner thoughts that he likely wouldn’t say to her face. Even with the video camera that Lelaina carries in Reality Bites, she is interacting with others through an indirect medium. Her eyes are always trained on her lens – she can see the faces of her friends, but only as projected through the screen. Communication is complicated and maybe technology tricks us into thinking it’s easy.