Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The End of the Road- Cinema of the suburbs

“I don't want to live in a world without love or grief or beauty, I'd rather die.” - Becky in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956)

As World War II gave way to the Baby Boom and the housing experiment of Levittown gave birth to the suburbs, a whole new way of American life was created. The picturesque world of the perfect family in tidy homes was of course an ideal not quite the reality and post-war literature by authors like John Cheever were quick to point that out. Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” showed us that well-mannered mass murderers lurked among us in small town, Norman Rockwell America even before the war had finished and the suburbs were created.

Ah the burbs! Mass produced homes with conformity hanging in the air like the smell of fresh cut grass. Cautionary suburban stories continue to sprout like home gardens usually featuring the repressed individual trying to break out of the rigid norms of their family or community. If films are the dreams of a society, the suburban angst film certainly show how the American Dream can sometimes mask a nightmare. The stereotypes are obvious: strong: driven, domineering wives, obsessed with homemaking, absent or drunken husbands usually unhappy in their work, raising spoiled, superficial children against a backdrop of mid-brow culture, marital friction, adultery, divorce, drug abuse, and occasional mental illness. This has been great fodder for inspired scripts warning of the blandness of an increasingly homogenized American culture. The metaphoric suburbs are an ideal setting for tales that warn that the lives of those in those nicely manicured homes are somehow less authentic than their urban and rural counterparts. The dysfunction, boredom and banality of life in these communities are an easy target and almost a clichéd genre. Yet when done correctly they can continue to make us fear the disengagement that becomes more prevalent with each passing year and new technology.

The brilliant original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” had average small town folks transforming into unfeeling zombies right there in fifties perfect ‘Santa Mira’. “The Graduate” perfectly anticipated the youth movement of the sixties that rejected the homogenous suburban ‘successes’ of the postwar generation. (“I Love you, Alice B Tolklas!” then took it to the stoned extreme) By the seventies films like “The Stepford Wives”,“Over the Edge” (Matt Dillon’s film debut) and “Halloween” continued to warn that safety was just an illusion at the heart of the suburban myth. The conservative eighties delivered their punches with gently rebellious films such as “Ordinary People”, "A Nightmare on Elm Street", "Blue Velvet", “Desperately Seeking Susan”, "Fast Times at Ridgemont High", "The Burbs, "Heathers" and even “The Breakfast Club”. The nineties exploded with further examinations including: "Clerks", “Safe”, “Dazed and Confused”,” Welcome to the Dollhouse”, “Suburbia”, “Pleasantville” and Mendes' own “American Beauty”. The past decade has continued the trend with: “Donnie Darko”, “Ghost World”, "Little Children", ‘Little Miss Sunshine” and "Towelhead" among others.

So flashback to the postwar fifties and first-time novelist Richard Yates who cast his nervous eye on the emerging lifestyle as he saw it unfolding when he wrote “Revolutionary Road” first published in 1961. The title itself spoke as a warning since there was nothing revolutionary about suburban life; in fact it seemed to be the very death of the adventurous life and individualism that America was famous for. So although we’ve all seen many of the films I’ve noted, not to mention a slew of Lifetime movies set in these quiet neighborhoods, “Revolutionary Road” still feels as fresh and pertinent as when it was first written since it was still original and of its’ time.In fact the conformity of the fifties looks even more stifling as we look back on it a half century later.

As I’ve said so many films do present this setting as a cliché, so I was half expecting not to like this film which I thought might be a bunch of overwrought Oscar- bait. Happily I was wrong. Being a real work of literature rather than a 50’s soap opera script, “Revolutionary Road” was a novel aspiring to deeper truths. Sam Mendes and his whole creative team have taken this to heart by delivering a film not really about the suburbs but about relationships and the compromises they create. We first meet the Wheelers as they meet at a party in Greenwich Village where fifties hipsters are seen toking weed. Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) seems to be buying into the Bohemian vibe by stating that he could care less about his job. April (Kate Winslet) is an aspiring actress and they immediately are attracted to each other. When we see them next she is in a shoddy community theater production of “Petrified Forest” and their argument in the car on the way home has her dreams dying before we have reached the opening credits. By the time they move to their suburban home on Revolutionary Road, in a Connecticut suburb of New York City, they have two children and Frank is working in the marketing department of a business machine company in the city, the same firm his father worked at. Their ideal dreams of their youth have not yet been packed away but they truly are both becoming just another suburban couple and they are neither happy nor communicating well.

As is obvious by now, I really identify with this genre being a suburban boy myself. My first job had me commuting into New York City (via Port Authority rather than Grand Central station as Frank does) and seeing those fifties businessmen in their matching suits and fedoras walking the walk stirred a feeling in me much like when we nod our head in recognition of George Romero’s zombies. No one wants to be predictable or conformist, but family life does mean making this sacrifice. Or does it? That is the main point of this film and it is wonderfully played.

Leo and Kate act their asses off and her Oscar for this was well earned. The supporting cast is also great; David Harbour and Kathryn Hahn are sympathetic and not caricatures as their less than supportive, bland suburban friends; Kathy Bates brings life to the role of Mrs. Givings, (how great is that name?) the annoying nosey neighbor, plus a great turn by Michael Shannon as her disturbed son who has had the strong impulse control of the place fried out of him by shock therapy treatment and therefore acts as the chorus of the Wheeler’s conscience. Sam Mendes nicely captures the claustrophobia and emotion of the piece and seeing April framed behind a picture window like a caged bird is tragic. I feel this should have beaten out ‘Slumdog’ for best film but perhaps we are still not ready to look inside our nice houses (or our souls) just quite yet. Turning a deaf ear is easier, much like how Mrs. Givings husband quietly turns off his hearing aid during her conformist rants.

No comments: