CINEMA / Talking about their uncertain generation

THE BITES in Reality Bites (12) cut two ways. The title puns on the film's subject matter, which is both a close- up critique of the MTV culture, where all experience is reduced to a series of soundbites, and a snapshot of the end of adolescence, that time when childhood illusions fade and the real world begins to gnaw at our fantasies. The film's heroine (Winona Ryder) is the valedictorian of her college year, and the film opens on her commencement day, with strains of 'Land of Hope and Glory' on the soundtrack. Ryder loses her place in her speech ('The answer is . . . I don't know . . .'), and the rest of the film is a light-hearted examination of the uncertainty of her whole generation, how blasted its hope is, how inglorious its future.

After college Ryder rents a house with a group of friends and starts an unrewarding job as a researcher for a cynical daytime television host. At the same time she shoots her own video documentary - Reality Bites, seen by us occasionally, in grainy footage - about her friends: 'It's really about people who are trying to find their own identities without any role models.' These are the hordes of disaffected young people, dubbed 'Generation X' after the Canadian Douglas Coupland's best-selling novel. But whereas Coupland presented an opaque world of (to many) unencountered brand names and television programmes, 23-year- old Helen Childress's script catches their predicament without getting bogged down in esoteric detail.

Childress is asking what constitutes reality in her young characters' lives. And she seems to answer the question in negatives. It's not in the adolescence they're leaving behind, with its flipness and sardonic detachment (wittily caught in Childress's dialogue). It's hardly in the culture around them, in which everything is trivialised and curtailed (Ryder's own documentary ends up getting the MTV treatment). Nor even is it in the mortal menace which hangs over the lives of this generation as of none before, that of Aids (or 'The Big A', as they call it). That just breeds another unreality, in the form of paranoia, as displayed by Ryder's house-mate, who spends half the film flapping over an imminent test result.

If all this sounds heavy-going, relax. The film is more fun than thesis, and it soon develops into a fairly conventional romantic triangle. Ryder is torn between Ethan Hawke, an old college friend and flame that never quite got lit, and Ben Stiller (who also directs), a yuppie television executive for a youth station called (with a crudeness uncharacteristic of the film) In Your Face TV. It's a comic clash of opposites. Hawke's aimless charisma (he's one of those characters celebrated for brilliance by their friends but too self-satisfiedly pure to muck it in the outside world) versus Stiller's thrusting dullness ('a yuppified cheeseball', in Hawke's words, who never quite completes a sentence).

Ryder is caught between these two worlds: the purity of the drop-out and the pragmatism of the career man. Her performance is best in the early stages of the film, when her warmth and receptiveness towards her house-mates contains an edge of restraint, a hint that she's headed for higher things. When Ryder tackles the big dramatic moments later on, she misses the right note of hysteria. It's the film's failing too: like the characters, it's at its best being hip and throwaway. Childress has a wonderful ear for the callow wit of student conversation, its short attention- span as it channel-surfs between subjects, its cautious fencing at emotions.

The movie has made Ben Stiller the hottest young director in Hollywood. It was announced this week that he will direct the film of the Rolling Stones' '94 US tour. After that he tackles Scott Smith's novel, A Simple Plan, which was to be directed by Mike Nichols. He may, in fact, be the new Nichols (not that we were exactly holding our breath for such a thing), with a similar background in comedy sketches, and eye for the flashy, epochal movie that's ever-so- slightly hollow. Reality Bites' detractors see it as a cynical studio ploy (from Universal) to woo the Slacker generation, and it's true that its radicalism is clothed in convention. But then some conventions - plot, for instance - are not always a bad thing, especially when allied to the wit and style of talents like Stiller and Childress.

I am in two minds about Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (U). Admittedly, that is two or three fewer than Gould was capable of in his piano-playing pomp, when he used to control up to five different musical voices. But it still leaves me thinking that this inventive documentary is a disappointing piece of film-making. Francois Girard has decided to honour Gould's polyphonic perversity in a biopic of fragments - Glenn Gould Bites. So we get dramatic vignettes such as '45 Seconds and a Chair', which simply contains Gould (Colm Feore) seated, intense, while the camera closes in on his slightly nutty gaze; fragments of reminiscence from people whose paths Gould crossed, such as piano-tuners and hotel maids; and quirkier items - an excavation of the interior of a Steinway; dots splitting, multiplying and dividing, in patterned perfection, from the great Canadian animator, Norman MacLaren. And all to the strains, often almost drowning the dialogue, of Gould's piano-playing.

But there's a gulf in virtuosity between the subject and his portraitist. Though Girard's scheme is an original one, these films are uninspiringly made, the camerawork predictable and the acting feeble. More crucially, the scheme doesn't feel so Gouldian after all, since Gould's gift was to juggle several balls in the air, whereas Girard bowls a series of deliveries. For documentary-making of true brilliance turn to Gould's own radio work, with its overlapping yet complementary voices.

The clearest insights we get are when the film plays it straightest: in an analysis by Yehudi Menuhin, who points to the self-deception in Gould's intellectual stances, and in reminiscences from Gould's cousin, Jessie Grieg, which, even through their hagiographic haze, are more illuminating than Feore's mannered performance. Best of all is the piano- tuner who recalls Gould's courtesy in giving him three-months' notice of his retuning requirements. After the portrait of fearsome self-indulgence that precedes it, it's a telling indication of the thoroughness and sincerity of Gould's obsession.

Geena Davis's new film, Angie (15), has a reckless abandon, ploughing through sensitive areas like a juggernaut careering through a nursery. Davis plays Bensonhurst-bred Angie, coarse, sparky and, being Davis, gorgeous - but attached since girlhood to a crass, Italian plumber. She becomes pregnant, but can't face marrying him. Then she meets Stephen Rea in an art gallery, and begins to move up in the cultural world. Meanwhile she's involved in a relationship of deepest loathing with her stepmother, while still pining for her real mother, mythologised in her mind for her free-spiritedness. Promisingly thorny plot-lines - but whatever the script touches it turns into crude melodrama or squeamish comedy. There's a spark of screwball in Davis's romance with Rea, but the relationship is soon scrapped for her pregnancy. The film gets handed over to the prosthetics department and, later, the preposterous-ending people. Mainly, though, it fizzles without catching fire.

Angie's director, Martha Coolidge, also gives us Lost in Yonkers (PG), another ethnic-family comedy (and one which has taken yonkers to get here). It's scripted by Neil Simon, so you'll know that the family is Jewish, fractious and wise-cracking. Two boys go to stay with their fierce grandmother during the war, and get involved in romance (batty Aunt Bella and the cinema usher) and intrigue (Richard Dreyfus as a gangster uncle). Mercedes Ruehl is winningly distraite as the aunt. But the boys are losingly cute. And though the gags are good, they're not always in character. When the 13-year-old cracks that home-life is 'like living a James Cagney movie in your own house', it's not his voice but Neil Simon's.

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