How do the ’90s rank as a cinematic setting for our hangout fantasies?
“I think there’s a reason that certain trends come back into fashion when they do,” Liz Vastola told me shortly after the release of Landline, Gillian Robespierre’s sophomore effort. Vastola, like Robespierre, grew up in New York in the ’80s and ’90s, which made designing costumes for Robespierre’s period picture easy: Landline is a restless celebration of that era’s embrace of casual streetwear, a dressing down of cultural norms. Jeans become sexless and even the power suit gets toned down. Ditto the pleasant exchange of social norms: Landline finds Dana (Jenny Slate) running away from her engagement plans while her father Alan (John Turturro) carries on outside his marital borders. But none of these things feel terrifyingly urgent; borrowing from one of the decade’s most lasting contributions to the movie world, Landline is unapologetically a hangout movie, that genre of Sunday mornings you want to live in forever. In Landline, we lounge alongside Slate as she ambles away from the pressing burden of ostensible adult obligation, making the film a sort of thesis statement for the genre.
But despite the omnipresent onslaught of that decade’s signifiers – there’s Hillary Clinton winking knowingly from her pantsuits and there are the old rock stars you see on the walls, an obsessiveness that has encouraged equally obsessive nitpicking – the movie hardly feels quite like a period piece. “In many ways, [Dana and her sister Ali] aren’t dressed that differently from Millennials today,” observed Rain Jokinen at Gothamist. Which is a way of saying that the ‘90s have been in for some time, though it has taken some time for the film world to quite catch up.
The ‘90s, of course, had its own films: the ambling suburban terrain of Slacker or Clerks has an easily synecdochic relationship with the decade of their manufacture. But that’s just it: cinematic reevaluations of the decade of Nirvana have been rare, something that feels even more jarring given its ubiquity elsewhere in the larger culture: the obsession with fuzzy guitar riffs, the effervescent pillaging of the thrift shop. The pleasures of Landline are akin to this kind of afternoon pillaging: Vastola tells me that at least 90% of the show’s wardrobe comes from the period. Jeans, plaids, deliberately large. Her largest inspiration for Ali, played by Abby Quinn, was icon Drew Barrymore, whose image was recently repurposed by one this year’s trendiest singers.
Cinematically re-examining a space like New York also puts the work inside the larger narrative of transformed urban space, the age of gentrification infinitely associated with names like Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. Robespierre situates Landline’s emotional climax – when Dana confronts Ben (Jay Duplass) about an affair she had – in the middle of the Village Halloween Parade, an event that appears almost quaint compared to the overcrowded, overly collegiate event that is it today, a smart metaphor for the transformation of Manhattan’s lower half if there ever was one. Robespierre’s eye is not entirely balmy: within walking distance are drug dens and police raids that equally feel like relics of the gritty city that was. One of Vastola’s resources for sculpting the look of ’90s Manhattan was Ash Thayer’s brutally work of photographic realism, “Kill City”: a collection of a Lower East Side overrun with derelict buildings and stairwells laced with heroin needles. It’s all in Jersey now.
The viewer left wanting more has few places to turn: the ‘90s has yet to join its prior decades in offering a thoroughly retroactive version of itself, the ‘70s of That ’70s Show, the ‘60s of Mad Men. It’s a decade that’s only been populated by bombastic dramas, shot in lurid colors. The faux-Scorsese of Pain & Gain and the real thing of The Wolf of Wall Street come to mind. These are liminal dramas, deliberately situated in between nihilist consumerist excess and the dark seriousness of the post-9/11 era. Led by outcast anti-heroes who find themselves drawn to crime, a trope recycled from the prestige television of the late naughts, both languor in the perceived lawlessness of a generically bygone era: orgies in boardrooms, kidnapping in plain sight. The hangout session comes clipped, police around the corner, ready to announce the dream is over.
An alternative can, however, be found in Jonathan Levine’s coming-of-age dramedy, The Wackness. Like Landline, Levine’s movie takes place in a New York City teetering between the impressed respectability that was to come and the aura of Taxi Driver and punk cool; Levine, like Robespierre, grew up in the city during the era and had embossed the film with what feels like personal touches. Ditto, The Wackness is also something of a family drama: a drug dealer named Luke (Josh Peck) gets involved with an older man (Ben Kingsley) and his stepdaughter (Olivia Thirlby), befriending one and sleeping with the other. In between, Levine diligently paints the particulates of the cultural scene: a diegetic soundtrack blasting A Tribe Called Quest, Nas and the Wu-Tang, the creak of old apartments waiting to be renovated and, most omnipresently, the whistling sound of graffiti spray cans, emblematic of the city that would be erased, the ghostly echo that would easily remain, peeking in between newly built condos.
Something that Vastola mentioned did strike me, however. If the ‘90s had been largely forgotten about throughout much of the Bush and Obama years, they were certainly coming back now. In the fashion and style world, there’s the return of the rebellion against the magazine glossed celebrity image: the spirit of hangout cinema persists. Underneath that is a generation searching, pining desperately to for a voice for its discomfort. Maybe we’re still looking.