Cinema Unkind To Suburbs

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Movies from the 1980s onward have cast the suburbs as breeding grounds for all sorts of ills, not just mosquitoes. John Leonard reviews the archives.
Not so many years ago, I returned to the scene of my Southern California childhood with a folksinger who let her fingers do most of the talking, on a guitar.

She took one glance out the window of our rented car at the housing tract, the shopping mall, the Little League game, the high school that looked like an airport and the color-coded garage doors - and burst immediately into song. The song was by Malvina Reynolds. Pete Seeger also sings it. It's called "Little Boxes."

I was surprised to be annoyed. This was the place I'd run away from as soon as I could, to the nearest big city where you could buy food and flowers and magazines all night long. But we all run away from home. How come, according to folksingers, novelists and Hollywood, the suburbs are so much more contemptible, so much less authentic, than a Minnesota farm, a Tennessee shack, a Soho studio or a barge in the Florida Keys?

What's wrong with back yards, basketball hoops and a room of one's own?

The Leonard File
Read past reviews by John Leonard.

Only television seems to think the suburban years were wonderful because TV and the suburbs grew up together in the '50s. In both places, the Virtual Republic and the bedroom community, Father knew best in a Leave-It-to-Beaver-theme park, the same theme park of nuclear families, shiny appliances, safe schools, accessory pets, paperboys on bicycles and, not a lot of weather - just like "The Wonder Years."

Yes, I know: There were two great internal migrations in 20th century America - of black people to big cities in search of jobs and opportunity, and of white people to the suburbs to escape the urban pathologies - of crime, overcrowding and people who aren't white. But hasn't all that changed? These days, aren't even the Hughleys commuting to work?

And yet the Hughleys worry all the time about whether they can live in the burbs and still be black, authentic. And, of course, crime, drugs, sex and suicide have followed white flight and status anxiety to the end of the line, causing substance abuse in the fiction of John Cheever and adultery in the novels of John Updikenot to mention gated communities, restrictive covenants, armed response and golf. American Beauty and The Truman Show are just two recent movies on this Dante's inferno with a lawn ornament. But many others came before.

Suburban Films Revisited
Scan's plot summaries of these movies:

For instance, Ordinary People in which Timothy Hutton feels so guilty about the death of his brother, and Mary Tyler Moore can't express any feeling at all, and so, of course, suburbs are empty of feeling. And The Ice Storm, with wife swapping parties, teenybopper sex, too much smoking and drinking, and an overlay of existential terror. And Blue Velvet, where the picket fence, the fire truck, the yellow roses and the school crossing inevitably lead to a severed human ear and Dean Stockwell lip-synching Roy Orbison while Dennis Hopper listens.

And finally, perhaps perfectly, Pleasantville, in which Tobey Maguire disappears from the dysfunctional and chaotic suburbia of today into the predictable and unchanging suburbia of the black-and-white rerun 1950s inside his TV set, almost as prehistoric as The Scarlet Letter, where no color is allowed, nor modern art, not sex or silliness.

So let me say this: The real world is everywhere and always gaining on us, like a systems-crashing hacker. No matter where we came from, we are only as authentic as what we do next. In the 'burbs, where I finally got a room of my own, a monastic cell, my junior year in high school, in those burbs, in that cell, I used to read all night and listen to Fats Domino and write poems against thhydrogen bomb. The children of ticky-tack end up in libraries and loony bins just like everybody else.