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American Dream - Suburbia on celluloid

by Raman
American Dream - Suburbia on celluloid by Raman
A list based on an article I had written in a college magazine 10 years ago (excerpt below). Since then, this theme has evolved into a genre with films such as Revolutionary Road… American Beauty’ is not the first film that exposes the dysfunctional American suburban community living. The James Dean classic ‘Rebel without a Cause’ says a lot about the suburbs, the narrow role that children and teenagers play in them and a lot about the ‘50’s myth of “proper families”’ – the myth about suburbia being an ideal community for raising families. However, the film is not a real representation of 50’s suburbia and teen angst, as it is very much a… Read more

A list based on an article I had written in a college magazine 10 years ago (excerpt below). Since then, this theme has evolved into a genre with films such as Revolutionary Road…

American Beauty’ is not the first film that exposes the dysfunctional American suburban community living. The James Dean classic ‘Rebel without a Cause’ says a lot about the suburbs, the narrow role that children and teenagers play in them and a lot about the ‘50’s myth of “proper families”’ – the myth about suburbia being an ideal community for raising families. However, the film is not a real representation of 50’s suburbia and teen angst, as it is very much a Hollywood pop psychology view. Indeed, the cinema and television of 50s was dominated by the theme of celebration of the ‘perfect life’ of suburbs. Films like the Cary Grant comedy ‘Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House’ relied on contrasting urban/suburban imagery with cities representing industrial despair and suburbs an idyllic haven. Singlefamily suburban homes with a
nice backyard also played a key role in films like ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ and ‘A Raisin in the Sun’. Television too created an image of perfect American suburban families with shows like ‘Leave it to Beaver’ and ‘Ozzie and Harriet’.

The last two decades, however, have seen more films that reflect the seemier side of suburbia; encountering problems once thought of as urban: crime, vandalism, loneliness, ennui, and moral and physical blight. One of the first films on such lines is ‘The Swimmer’ (1968, with Burt Lancaster in the lead role). Based on John Cheever’s novel of the same name, the film traces the midlife crisis of a lonely suburbanite who swims ‘existentially’, through the backyard pools of his neighborhood.

The Oscar-winning ‘Ordinary People’ is the tragic story of an American suburban family. The depression running throughout the film is accentuated by the suburban setting. Mary Tyler Moore ,who plays the mother, is unable to express any feeling at all after the death of her elder son. She is so similar to their neighborhood – staid and numb.

One of the most thematically rich movies is ‘Edward Scissorhands’. Director Tim Burton’s haunting fable is immediately recognizable for its immaculate set designs, which move us effortlessly from a spooky but elegant neo-Gothic mansion on a hill to monochromatic pastel suburban houses in the valley. In an interesting contrast, the spooky Halloween house, which hovers menacingly over the bland stretch of suburbia, boasts the only truly decent and loving relationship in the story, that of Edward and his inventor. Hence, once his inventor dies, it is entirely logical in Burton’s upside-down world that Edward evolves into the most human character in the tale. Completing the paradoxical circle is the sad truth – Edward feels things much more deeply than the suburbanites around him but due to his razor-sharp appendages he is unable to physically touch anyone.

While ‘Edward Scissorhands’ is a touching fairy tale, films like ‘Blue Velvet’ and ‘The Ice Storm’ exposed the dark side of small town America with existential angst and moral ambivalnce. On the other hand, malicious black comedies like ‘Heathers’ and ‘Serial Mom’ satire bourgeois American values, again in suburban settings.

‘The Truman Show’ is a wonderful satire on consumerism and media. Seahaven (Truman’s hometown) is director Weir’s shot at the burgeoning growth of ‘safe ’walled cities, the artificial ’biosphere’ where embittered, paranoid Americans are fleeing in search of security. Seahaven is probably a take-off on Celebration, Florida- Disney Worlds’ Main Street U.S.A, only on a suburban sized scale. In Seahaven, there is no crime, no bad weather, everyone has money, and the homes all look the same, cut from the same cookie cutter mold. However, the film captures a perfect level of underlying tension that not all is right in Truman’s world and the world of those around them.

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