Suburbia was never the American Dream we wanted, but it’s the American Dream we got.
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“On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide—it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese—the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.”
-Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides
Sometime in our collective 1956, some of us moved to the suburbs. It was a move away from the perceived messiness of city life — interchangeably the nuclear war that would eventually level America’s urban centers, or the actual social movements that level existing social orders. But like all acts of cowardice, the move was routinely criticized, fiercely, by all. “The end product is an encapsulated life,” threatened Lewis Mumford, The New Yorker’s finger-wagging architecture critic. And a few decades later, in the ’90s, after nuclear war was no longer something people pleasantly awaited hearing about on the news, James Howard Kunstler sketched the scene in “The Geography of Nowhere“:
“All the surrounding territory was composed of similar one-dimensional housing developments punctuated at intervals by equally boring shopping plazas. Since they had no public gathering places, teens congregated in furtive little holes — bedrooms and basements — to smoke pot and imitate the rock and roll bands who played on the radio.”
Damn, that blows.
In the movies, those “furtive little holes” were rigorously guarded establishments. Giving them the dignity of World War I foxholes, cinema would center on the strange shared spaces in between, the proverbial Genevas where détentes could be held. There was the diner as an informal city hall (American Graffiti), there was afterschool detention as the wayward jail cell (The Breakfast Club). Hughes’s model, in particular, applied itself to the subsumed Cold War imagery inside cinematic suburbia, arranging its symbols to create an American fantasia: wealthy or happy-go-lucky alpha men snatching the poor (Pretty in Pink) or downtrodden (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) away from unspecified and undiscussed foes like the 82nd Division swinging into Grenada in ’83.
But like our union, it had to be imperfect, and suburbia had no qualms about lending itself as a subject as satire — think the invading yuppies of Beetlejuice or the scholastic politics of Heathers. Its existence reflected an established order that could be pleasantly lived against, in the style of a punkish figure like The Breakfast Club’s Bender or the gothy children so celebrated by Tim Burton, existing to prove that suburbia was contained inside a larger and more benevolent system that tolerated descent. But dad still had a job. Babies were still being made.
Yet, if the political and cultural subtext of suburban cinema was playing out one-sided versions of Cold War battles, than victory in the war itself should have found its likeminded analog, a corollary to, say, the euphoric cinema of the late ’40s (It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street). Instead, the figurehead behind that very victory, George H.W. Bush, lost both his office and the suburban culture war that he symbolized. His squarely-jowled figure, evoking some vague-but-unspoken military background, and unattractive glasses would become the next decade’s symbol of the suburbs as failed, impotent. His face would haunt us, from Joel Schumacher’s rampaging nerd in Falling Down to the failed father figure of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, driven to madness by his own inability to understand what was going on around him.
Michael Douglas’s nerdcore warrior, alternately characterized by Roger Ebert as “a crew-cut white man, wearing a shirt and a tie” and by Nathan Rabin as “a Dilbert cosplayer,” was created to fit right in with the caring and struggling fathers or grandfathers safely in the sidelines of Hughes’s confederated pieces of high school candy. But instead he — characterized by the credits only by the name of novelty license plate, “D-Fens” — approaches us in center stage, out of both job and family: fired from his employment in the defense industry, a nod to the end of the Cold War, and on the receiving end of a restraining order from his ex-wife (Barbara Hershey). We only learn these things slowly: Schumacher opens his contemplation of suburbia’s failings by deriding the ultimate unit of social measurement, the automobile that D-Fens abandons on a freeway in the movie’s first gesture of impotent rage. The movie would follow Douglas making his violent rampage through the meaner of LA’s streets largely by foot.
Needless to say, Falling Down wasn’t the first movie to depict suburban America as a total and unredeemable wasteland, depositing its pain and misery on those long excluded from it. Certain nerds will recall the work of Alex Cox, whose Repo Man and Walker presented an America equally distorted and unrepentantly despicable, capable of looking on what it created with unveiled disgust. What made Falling Down both different and a predecessor for the suburban film of the decade that followed was Schumacher’s angle: D-Fens was an inside man, reeking of the privilege and the kind of misinformation that passes for fact in a cloistered world. When he attacks a Korean-American shopkeeper over the amount of money that “his country” takes from the US, D-Fens is understandably asked what he is even going on about and is unable to answer meaningfully.
That figure, read contemporarily as a sort of catalyst for the Trump voter, would reappear throughout the displaced suburbia of the ’90s — from the actually impotent army veteran (Nicky Katt) in Richard Linklater’s SubUrbia, who, like D-Fens, demands a convenience store employee return to his country of origin, to Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham in American Beauty, who shares D-Fens’s penchant for expressing his feeling about the failed promise of the American Dream by smashing things. The symbolic language of American Beauty would go on to be better remembered than either of these, informing totems of the next decade’s middlebrow culture, from the first bars of a Katy Perry hit to part of the title of Fall Out Boy’s second comeback record, the one with the actual hits. It was obscenely popular, netting no fewer than five Academy Awards, and was the most conservative of its genre, interested in prescribing suburbia’s ills in the manner of a doctor determined to cure a patient who has been sick for a very long time.
The cure of American Beauty was amputation: the straight-jowled generation had to die in order for their children to live uncorrupted in the dream imagined for them. The obsession with death, particularly the capacities that guns provide, had been Falling Down‘s motif, but American Beauty presents the militaristic obsession as less abnormal, just a strange passing fad of the generation on the out. Even a fadish appreciation for Nazism, that most militaristic of 20th century faiths, which Falling Down uses in order to demonstrate the ordinariness of D-Fens (when he runs into a Nazi, he kills him) is, itself, ordinary in American Beauty: the neighbor’s “official state china of the Third Reich” isn’t smashed, but gawked at in awe like a very old postage stamp.
If the message of American Beauty is disarmingly straightforward (marry the kid next door and head to New York for the next generation’s version of suburbia growing in Brooklyn), then The Virgin Suicides provides its missed complications. It takes place in both a retrofitted past — though the movie and its source material, Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel, were very much ’90s creations — and a briefly glimpsed-at dismal present, populated by erstwhile studs and anonymous businessmen who congregate to occasionally talk about the women they stalked in their youth.
“Everyone dated the demise of our neighborhood from the suicide of the Lisbon girls,” narrates Giovanni Ribisi’s voice, apropos of nothing, like much of the movie. Similar to Alan Ball, who wrote American Beauty, Coppola writes from a conviction that the contemporary world is one defined by its illnesses. But Coppola provides far less in the way of prescription. Instead, her interest is in investigating suburbia like the site of an erstwhile calamity, a museum that doubles as a war memorial. The anonymous voice of the film, speaking in a strange nosistic syntax, dissects ceaselessly and without remorse. The film, which should feel small and self-contained, instead feels like it is taking place in two worlds at once, satisfying us with only the smallest breadcrumbs of what our present looks like. The subtlety is, of course, in doing what both Falling Down and American Beauty did without saying so: the dream, so to speak, has been betrayed, and the present is a street littered with obstacles that will prove intractable.
But in taking place in an artificial version of the past, The Virgin Suicides equally assures us that a greater past never exactly existed. There are no moments of awakening from Coppola’s square-jawed James Woods. Instead, he slowly goes mad at his inability to meaningfully effect his situation — this is what happens to Lester Burnham, also, but since the movie is mostly told from his perspective, it feels less evident.
In the cinema that would follow, the unexplained strangeness of Coppola’s suburbia would be excised ruthlessly, from Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko to Kevin Phillips’s retread of the same waters in this year’s Super Dark Times. But those films would be fighting their own battles, against propped-up metaphors for growing up and the traumatic world of personal loss. The demon in Coppola’s Detroit suburb, however, would always be suburbia itself, a representation of the American Dream that was diseased from its very insides. She knew we would never survive.