The ’90s Aesthetic

Ryan Marshall
Sep 23, 2018 · 13 min read

Finding the message of the decade through film

The revolution really started with a discussion about Madonna.

The opening scene of Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 film Reservoir Dogs, with a bunch of hoodlums gathered around a diner analyzing the lyrical subtext of “Like A Virgin” and the intricacies of tipping, was a harbinger of a decade that was all about the conversation.

People in the 1990s loved to talk. God, did people love to talk. It was the golden age of the talk show, whether in the daytime — from Donahue, Ricki Lake and Jerry Springer to Rosie O’Donnell and Oprah Winfrey, or the late night talk shows of Leno, Letterman, and a host of imitators — or on talk radio, or exclusive, tell-all interviews with Oprah and Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric where celebrities talked tearfully about their addictions and their troubles and their path toward redemption. The top sitcom of the decade was Seinfeld, a show built around talking. Bill Clinton was a president who talked all the time, often ringing friends and aides in the middle of the night to talk through an issue or analyze a book or article he had read. The ’90s were the golden age of the guru, with self-help experts selling boatloads of books telling people how to manage their finances or achieve their dream job or smooth the rough edges from their life. The culture in the ’90s never met a problem it couldn’t talk out.

Quentin Tarantino could talk with the best of them. The words spewed out in interviews, a machine gun delivery that mixed references to kung fu movies, ’70s game shows and the French New Wave. Some of his best scenes are built around talking. From the Royale with Cheese conversation in Pulp Fiction to the Pam Grier discussion in the car in Reservoir Dogs, along with the scene between Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper in the trailer in True Romance, Tarantino wrote some of the best back-and-forth dialogue of the decade.

By the time Reservoir Dogs came out, Tarantino was probably Hollywood’s hottest screenwriter for his work on films like True Romance and Natural Born Killers.[1] But while those films contained glimpses of the Tarantino style, Reservoir Dogs was the one that introduced the distinctive template of ultraviolence, chatty pop culture patter and fractured narrative that Tarantino would perfect two years later in the decade’s definitive film, Pulp Fiction. It was a style that went a long way toward defining the Nineties Aesthetic.

What was the Nineties Aesthetic?

The Nineties Aesthetic obviously doesn’t apply to every movie made between 1990 and 1999. There were plenty of movies, good and bad, that didn’t fit the mold. But there’s a cluster of movies — generally made between 1992 and 1996 — that have a common feel, a vibe. They captured a feeling of what the decade was about. Some were box office winners, while others became cult hits as people related to their messages. Films like Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects, Clerks, Reality Bites, Office Space, Natural Born Killers, Empire Records, Clueless, Dazed and Confused, Mallrats, and Chasing Amy are time capsule films that can be pulled off the shelf and used to illustrate what the 1990s looked and felt like. They all captured the Nineties Aesthetic in one way or another.

It’s impossible to categorically list a set of qualifications that makes a film fit. But there’s a set of films that share — in various quantities — a few basic qualities. They’re cynical. They’re drenched in popular culture and a hyperawareness of media. They heavily feature music as a key element. And while they’re tangibly and unalterably of their time, they feature heavy doses of nostalgia.

Tarantino and Kevin Smith — with his “Jersey Trilogy” of Clerks, Mallrats, and Chasing Amy — were the directors who captured the ’90s, who were to that decade what Scorsese and Spielberg were to the ’70s. Their movies captured the ambience of the era — the obsession with movies and comics, the snappy, discursive dialogue and nostalgia that emerged from Generation X’s longing for and disgust with their cultural heritage.

Both on film and in real life, the 1990s were society’s way of trying to work through the hang-ups of the 1960s. Clinton and his fellow baby boomers were starting to displace the World War II generation at the levers of power as Gen X started to replace them in the creative fields of movies and music. The Gen X actors, directors and writers behind many of the ’90s great films were the children of Vietnam and Watergate, when the ability of government to get things done or even tell the truth about what it was doing fell to all-time lows. Their formative years came during the era of Carter’s “crisis of confidence,” the credibility gap, feminism, affirmative action and the revelations of the Church Commission about the depths of U.S. perfidy in various foreign plots and intrigues. They had witnessed the Iranian hostage crisis and internalized the rising conservative movement’s argument that government was part of the problem rather than part of the solution. They had been pelted by advertisements from the time they were children, swimming in a culture flooded by consumerism.

The culture clash between the baby boomers and Generation X was a key element of the Nineties Aesthetic. Sometimes the culture clash was overt, as with Lelaina Pierce’s condemnation of the boomers’ choices in the graduation speech that opens Reality Bites. Other times it was more subtle, as with the existential ennui that envelops Dante Hicks in Clerks. Either way, the ’90s produced a collection of films that chronicled a generation trying to find its way. The generational break was as clear, if more amorphous, as the boomers’ rejection of the bourgeois post-war suburbia in The Graduate or Easy Rider.

Each generation has to figure out what it means to grow up, and they work that process out on film — whether it’s Benjamin Braddock rejecting a future in plastics or Leilana struggling to maintain the integrity of her artistic vision. The process can be messy and disjointed, but it creates a collection of films that come to define each successive generation of Hollywood actors and directors.

No film captured the uncertainty of the emerging Generation X’s philosophy better than Reality Bites. Released in 1994, as the ’80s finally seemed to be in the rearview mirror for good, Reality Bites was a self-consciously contemporary look at the plight of young people. Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Janeane Garofalo and Steve Zahn play four friends making the move from campus into the real world. They’re painfully full of the idealism, hedonism and earnestness of youth. Garofalo’s Vickie keeps a list of every guy she’s slept with, and considers an AIDS test “the rite of passage for our generation.” Ryder’s Lelaina is a valedictorian and aspiring filmmaker, working on a documentary about young people trying to find their identity without any role models or heroes. Hawke’s Troy proclaims life to be “a random lottery of meaningless tragedy and a series of near escapes.” They hold down dead-end jobs, drop references to “The Brady Bunch” and “Three’s Company” and dance to The Knack’s “My Sharona” in a 7-Eleven. Lelaina’s greatest fear is to “unintentionally commercialize” her film, and she agonizes when Ben Stiller’s big shot offers her a break.

Singles is another entry in the “What’s It All About” genre, a Cameron Crowe look at Seattle 20-somethings trying to figure out the secrets of life and love. It’s a loosely woven collection of romantic vignettes, set in a world of coffee, old rock records and alternative weekly newspapers. Like Reality Bites, it’s self-conscious about its medium, employing a quasi-documentary style. The actors occasionally break the fourth wall in a seeming nod to the influence of MTV’s “The Real World,” talking directly to the camera to serve as a sort of Greek chorus for the audience. They spout Gen X bromides about the nature of love in the ’90s, like, “Casual sex doesn’t even exist anymore. It’s lethal, it’s over,” or “Being alone: there’s a certain dignity to it.” They watch video singles ads and view garage door openers as totems of emotional intimacy. Trading openers is the exchange that symbolizes entry into a serious relationship, like ’50s high schoolers swapping class rings. The apartment complex where most of them live is a sort of Melrose Place of the Great Northwest, providing the arena for their youthful romantic adventures.

Singles’ most enduring legacy, not surprising given Crowe’s involvement, may be in its music. Along with a great soundtrack of alternative and early ’90s indie rock, the film captures the Seattle grunge scene just before it catapulted into an international phenomenon. Matt Dillon’s aimless musician Cliff plays in a band whose other members are the real-life band that would soon become Pearl Jam. In another scene, Bill Paxton’s Steve sports a shirt for famous alternative label Sub Pop and the band Mudhoney.

Movies had incorporated rock music for decades, from the Elvis Presley or Frankie Avalon movies of the 1950s and ’60s to Tom Cruise dancing in his underwear to “Old Time Rock and Roll” in Risky Business. But the ’90s were the first decade to have movies made by directors raised on music videos. Directors in the ’80s may have been influenced by MTV in the editing or pacing of a film. But they hadn’t grown up immersed in that culture. And just as the classic ’90s movies tended to incorporate music as an organic part of their structure, music videos themselves — from Aerosmith’s Alicia Silverstone trilogy of “Cryin’,” “Amazing,” and “Crazy,” to the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” — became more like movies.

From the “My Sharona” scene in Reality Bites to the one in Pulp Fiction with John Travolta and Uma Thurman twisting to “You Never Can Tell,” music played heavily into the Nineties Aesthetic. And the music was frequently of another era. Reality Bites featured UB40’s cover of Peter Frampton’s “Baby I Love Your Way,” while Pulp Fiction was a jukebox of hits from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, including “Miserlou,” “Jungle Boogie,” and “Son of a Preacher Man.” Dazed and Confused had two CDs worth of ’70s hits on its soundtrack. But it wasn’t all golden oldies. With a playlist that featured the Gin Blossoms, Cracker, Dishwalla, Better Than Ezra, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Evan Dando, The Cranberries, and Sponge, did any soundtrack better epitomize the rock sound of the mid-‘90s than Empire Records?

If Reality Bites and Singles evoked the quiet angst of Generation X preparing to move out into the world, Natural Born Killers captured the frenetic, media-soaked world they were moving into. The story of two drug-addled psychotics, Mickey and Mallory, and the equally deranged cop and tabloid TV reporter who are both obsessed with them, Killers captured a world where violence is magic as long as it happens in front of a camera. It’s the world of Hard Copy, A Current Affair, and Andrew Cunanan. The conceit of Killers is that you’re nobody unless you’re famous, a ’90s notion if there ever was one. Fame is the ultimate drug, and it’s hard to tell who’s having more fun as Mickey and Mallory’s murderous spree unfolds — them or the people chronicling and following their adventures. It’s meta entertainment, from the twisted, incestuous sit-com parody of Mallory’s home life to the bloody, anarchic jail break that unfolds live on camera. Mickey meditates on the meaning of fame in his post-Super Bowl interview with Robert Downey Jr.’s morally vacant TV man, waxing philosophical as he bides his time until he can get his hands on a shotgun to go and rescue his precious Mallory.

Mickey and Mallory’s traumatic childhoods make the broken homes of Reality Bites, Singles and other ’90s films look positively idyllic by comparison. But they’re the ones who ultimately end up with a version of domestic bliss, travelling the country in a motor home with a growing brood in tow. They don’t waste a lot of time with angst. They’re each absolutely certain that they’ve found their soulmate, with none of the moody second guessing of a film like Chasing Amy. They symbolize the simple satisfaction and blissful ignorance of the under-educated lower-middle class, as opposed to the educated yuppies of other movies.

If Killers is the celebrity-soaked fantasy of ’90s cinema, then Mike Judge’s Office Space is the everyday reality of most people’s lives.

Few movies were more of-its-time, more perfectly illustrative of the period it captured, than Office Space was when it was released in 1999. It summed up the sense of ennui that enveloped America in the late ’90s. The drab cubicles, the office politics, the bureaucratic drudgery of churning out TPS reports: all of them were very real to workers as the millennium approached. Even Peter’s job — updating software ahead of the Y2K changeover — had a uniquely millenarian feel to it.

Office Space feels dated today because, in the wake of the Great Recession — even a decade out — sabotaging a steady, well-paying job would probably strike many viewers as hedonistic rather than comical. Not so 20 years ago. Those types of jobs felt like they were a dime a dozen in the late ’90s, when it seemed like the economy was never going to stop and the Dow would only climb higher. Peter and his friends Michael and Samir are just cogs in that hyperactive economy, churning out the data the new markets thrived on. They’re the culmination of America’s transition from manufacturing to data processing. America in the ’90s had largely moved away from the tangible production of making things in factories and was steadily moving toward the ephemeral management of information, shuffling ones and zeros back and forth around the globe. By the middle of the decade, only 14 percent of American jobs were in manufacturing.[2]

Peter’s desperation to avoid Lumberg and the Saturday call-in he knows is coming is one of the classic scenes of the ’90s. He impatiently waits for his computer to shut down and ducks through the maze of cubicles, only to be foiled at the last minute by the stealthy manager. But that night, under the influence of a hypnotist’s spell, he begins to live out the American dream or, rather, the American fantasy: What if I just didn’t go in to work anymore?

Far from the dire consequences we might play out in our heads, Peter finds his life infinitely improved. He gets ditched by Alexandra Wentworth’s shrewish girlfriend, freeing him to meet up with Joanna, the unmotivated waitress played by Jennifer Aniston. And his work life also takes an upturn, as his new devil-may-care attitude is viewed by two external consultants as just the sort of straight-shooting forthrightness the company needs.

Office Space makes explicit what the other films show in glimpses. It’s corporatism run amok, the very thing that Leilana Pierce was afraid of. The Two Bobs are a caricature of corporate culture, spouting buzzwords and preparing a list of employees to be laid off in the name of efficiency. Office Space captures the age of corporate downsizing and the replacement of people by machines that would only increase in the decade that followed. Indeed, in another five years, Peter and his friends’ jobs at Inotech would probably be handled by someone in Mumbai.

As far as movie villains go, The Bobs are about as jovial as you’re going to find. And it’s because they’re not really the villains, just the henchmen sent to do the dirty work. The real enemy at the heart of Office Space is corporatism — the cold, unfeeling system that values profit over people. Corporatism was epidemic, as artificial as the pieces of “flair” that Joanna is forced to wear for her job at the TGI Friday’s knockoff Chotchkie’s. As people have become more savvy and cognizant of the effects of advertising over the past century, it has created a hunger for authenticity. And that hunger has caused a push and pull as people seek authenticity and Madison Avenue seeks ways to bottle authenticity and use it to make money.

That corporatism, and the cynicism it inspired, was one of the defining characteristics of the Nineties Aesthetic.

The Nineties Aesthetic owed a lot to the “New Hollywood” movies of the late 1960s and the ’70s, which really opened the variety of options for what could be done in a film. Nowhere was this more evident that in the area of narrative structure. The non-linear structure of films like Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and The Usual Suspects is vital to their respective plots. Reservoir Dogs and The Usual Suspects are the two greatest heist films of the decade, and we don’t see the heist in either one. Both open in medias res, and then walk the audience back to reveal how the characters got into the situation. Both films center around the gathering of their respective teams, and each focuses on a central question: who shot Keaton in Suspects, and who is the rat in Dogs. The essence of Pulp Fiction is the fractured storyline, the way the plot jumps around and leaves the viewer struggling to piece together how each section fits with the others. These films’ legacy can be seen in a string of later movies that also depend on a non-linear plot, including Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, Mulholland Drive, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

But experimenting with narrative form and structure wasn’t essential to the Nineties Aesthetic. Empire Records is as structured as any John Hughes movie. It’s a grunge rock Breakfast Club. And, like Pulp Fiction, Clerks is a series of vignettes, but its narrative is hyper-linear. It’s a day in the life, made up of set pieces: The Hockey Game, The Funeral, etc. The film’s storyline requires a very real sense of time passing in order to work.

The Nineties Aesthetic had room for all of these elements. The films were a reaction against the glossy, special effects-laden, high-concept movies of the ’80s. They were the anti-Top Gun.

But they didn’t represent a victory by the independents over the studio-driven mega-blockbuster. For every Reality Bites or Clerks, there was an Independence Day or Speed. And the superhero action movie would come back big in the 2000s, with the Bourne films, and the Fast and the Furious, Batman, and Spiderman franchises. But they represented a duality in the system. Along with the popcorn movies, there were also options for fans of more discerning work. In the ’90s multiplex, there was room for films as well as movies.

The movies that made up the Nineties Aesthetic stuck to their principles but ultimately found themselves overwhelmed by the flash and glitz of corporate productions. It was perhaps the most ’90s ending that could be imagined.

[1] Tarantino would end up taking a story credit rather than a screenwriting credit on Killers, unhappy with what Oliver Stone had done with the finished film.

[2] Stiglitz, Joseph. The Roaring Nineties: A New History of the World’s Most Prosperous Decade. W.W. Norton & Company: New York. 2003. p. 181.

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