Monday, May 25, 2009

From Broadacres to...Lymelife

Originally Posted at IMP Awards
Poster design by Crew Creative Advertising

Lymelife, the newest installment of the "Suburban Dystopia" film genre has hit the art houses. This film mode seems to be a perennial indy fall back (esp. in the advent of Summer blockbuster season). It's strange that Hollywood would invent a genre that effectively exists to parody the suburbs; Hollywood here would seem to bite the hand that feeds it. But for some reason, these kind of films offer plenty of fodder for actors, writers and directors to plumb. It seems to me that these films have come to the fore at a time when Boomers/GenX'rs have found latent creative outlets in psychoanalysis of their childhoods. It's interesting to me that a kind of self-critical nostalgia would spring from the psychosis of cul-de-sac existence. "Urbanism" of course, is not what these films advocate as an antidote to Suburban Dystopia...but perhaps we urbanists need to be savvy about what they represent.

Behind all the lawn-mowed tedium and hardiboard of suburbia, we often imagine a dystopian world populated with disengaged, doe-eyed Christina Riccis and, worse, sneering and black-caped Dylan Klebolds and Eric Harrises. What is the source of this view? The film director and producer Tim Burton, offered this to an interview in Premiere magazine:

I grew up in suburbia and I still don’t understand certain aspects of it. There’s a certain kind of vagueness, a blankness…Growing up in suburbia was like growing up in a place where there’s no sense of history, no sense of culture, no sense of passion for anything. You never felt people liked music. There was no showing of emotion. It was very strange. ‘Why is that there? What am I sitting on?’ You never felt that there was any attachment to things. So you were either forced to conform and cut out a large portion of your personality, or to develop a very strong interior life which made you feel separate.

When asked whether the source of appeal for his surrealist, “American Gothic” films was a reaction to cleanse of ourselves from the decentralizing afflictions imposed by the Opie-land of our youth, Burton responded:

When people are deprived of a sense, their other senses get heightened…If you're culturally devoid of something - of weather, of artistry, of interesting architecture, all the way down the line to culture itself - you're either forced to give in and get that car dealership, or you manufacture those things for yourself. The pain you go through, I also recognize, is the thing that makes you.

…And more perversion and subversion goes on in suburbia than anywhere else. There are worlds within worlds. You look at these weird televangelists and you see they're filling theatres with thousands and thousands of people, and they're kind of entertaining, but it's like - Whoah! These are intense worlds. Whenever I'm in a hotel, I like to go into a ballroom where there is a group of people that for one reason or another has gathered. And it's always weird, isn't it? This convention or that convention. The energy of the room is always amazing.

…Globalisation, mobilisation, too much information - these are supposed to be good things, but I wonder if it's undermining our sense of where are we going and who we are. It's so fragmented, it's hard to tell. So in my Planet of the Apes, I wanted to represent that fragmentation. The first movie had that simple metaphor of the apes acting just like humans and the humans acting just like animals. Here we're coming into their culture at a different time, and it's more like now. Factions are moving off in all directions. You've got some apes that are turning more human; then you've got your ape purists. And the self-esteem has not all been beaten out of the humans. It's all a little greyer. The people who said you shouldn't remake that first movie are right: you can't recreate the same issues for this time. You can't recreate Charlton Heston! (From an interview in The Guardian Unlimited website, August 3, 2001, now found here.)

The critical attitudes towards mass-culture and suburbia, which are reflected in Tim Burton’s films, are reflected by many other works of pop culture today. Tim Burton himself probably started the phenomenon of the “Suburban Dystopia” film-genre in 1990 with his film Edward Scissorhands, a tradition his film Big Fish proudly continued with a subtle critique of the New Urbanism to boot (the late and contorted phase of Levittown). Films such as Happiness, The Ice Storm, American Beauty, Far From Heaven, and too many others to list (along with what we are daily exposed to in our newspapers and Dateline NBC) seem to suggest that our media-culture is obsessed with the surrealist waste-land of contemporary suburbia.

The value for these films to me is instructive...The psychosis of the suburban life springs from a paradoxical need to conform, to behave with a facade, all the while claiming one's under-handed autonomy and superior independence in the ruthless pursuit of the American Dream. In the vigorously diverse city (such as I recently found walking on the streets of South Philly) such a need retreats in the stew (or salad bowl) of urban tribehoods that comprise the diverse, highly variegated and extremely porous and inter-connected neighborhoods of the city. Whereas one could imagine a middle-aged woman sun-tanning on the roof of her townhome in the Bronx as normal existance, such behavior enacted on a hipped roof Long Island dwelling makes suddenly visible to everyone the bezerko conditions of a derailed marriage.

However, the suburb, in spite of its psychotic family life, is a useful instruction of "American Gothic" - all that piety and social armature that sustains us as Americans. As a Messy Urbanist, I don't ignore or pooh-pooh American Gothic...Actually I love all its campy affects. But even if you dislike my aesthetic, one thing that architects and urbanists tend to ignore or underplay at their peril is the need for Americans to create havens, retreats from the world, while dwelling in proximity (but not too close) to one's neighbors. Sometimes hip designers (like David Adjaye) and trend-setters (like the mag Dwell) do reference this need and intuitively nurture an implicit pursuit of balanced - even spiritual - interior lives, but hardly do I ever see it pursued in the "faux-warehousy" apartment developments of the past decade. We need to understand better as designers the social need of most Americans to seek rich interior lives in the communal contexts of their "urban tribes", what drove them to make artist lofts out of abandoned warehouses, independent of prying eyes and hands, in the first place.

On the other side of the coin, we must also externalize much of what has been suppressed behind all the hardiboard. We need to realize that a stimulating street life must countermand that life displaced to the Vegases and Star Trek convetion worlds. We are in competition! Somehow we need to comprehend these surreal master worlds and find ways to externalize them, to bring them back to the streets and squares. That is a charge for Messy Urbanism. Welcome to my world.

UPDATE: The Suburban Dystopia film genre has now become "cliche", and Michael Joshua Rowin is ticked off about it. Anything packaged for consumption is suburbirific, and it is an irony of ironies that Suburban Dystopia would become itself packaged, huh?

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