What’s behind the one-dimensional abusive suburbia of the last decade of US independent movies?
As a casual consumer of American independent film, I’ve obviously taken to the cozy home cinema experience that the booming home mail DVD industry offers. Recently though, nights on the sofa have begun to feel decidedly more unsettling than this snug, modern setting would suggest. The fictional company stalking my small screen, appear, in the main, to be squalid, abusive predators. You might think I’ve just been picking too many formulaic horror flicks.
No, it’s simply that after a decade, and counting, of perusing hot new and established US directors, of indie dramas a serious quota of miserable, misanthropic, yet critically acclaimed independent films began to add up. Sordid, sexually predatory or preyed-upon teens and paedophiles were the baddie profiles of every other movie emerging from America’s art house circuit. So why are these cinematic ogres holding such a vice-like, sweaty grip on the contemporary indie director’s mind?
Paedophiles as sinister outsiders are obviously powerful, mythical figures for the cinematic imagination. The fairytale ogre of Fritz Laing’s M (1931) is the first notable version. The making of M, according to Anton Kaes, coincided with ‘the rapid disintegration of the political and social structures of the Weimar Republic.’ M , the original title of which was Morder unter uns (meaning either Murderers or Murderer among Us), captures the ominous atmosphere of Germany two years before Hitler’s rise to power, where ‘Lynch mobs and hit commandos engaged in open manhunts, intimidating political enemies and spreading terror among the population.’ (1)
So the symbolism of M; showing Berlin in the grip of terror, as an unknown psychopathic child molester and murderer is attacking little girls, functions as a powerful motif for deeper, broader social fears for directors like Lang. In M, the police produce no clues and neighbours begin to turn against, and inform on, each other. Significantly, it’s the serial killer who is the tragic victim because, according to Kim Newman, he ‘accuses all strata of society of a corruption deeper than his psychosis’ Lang achieves this by intercutting ‘the pathetic life of the murderer with the frenzy of the police investigation into the outrageous crimes, and pays attention to such side issues as press coverage of the killings’ (2)
Modern renditions of the paedophile morality tale, however, lack this ethical and metaphorical complexity. There is an amplified amoralism, where the only fearful questions American indies seem to pose are: who screwed you up? Or, why bother getting close to or trusting anyone? Where are the artistic voices (apart from Chris Morris in that Brass Eye special) that accuse society of this deeper corruption of moral values, beyond the individual psychosis of the child molester?
Alienation and atomization make for poetic cinema; wistful glances into hostile urban streetscapes fill works like Lost in Translation or British films like Wonderland. But the visual elegies to contemporary city living are few and far between in recent American cinema; instead US directors are lured back, again and again, to a formulaic suburban morality tale, with flat, evil archetypes lurking in every scene. The story runs as follows: a lonely, hostile and sterile small town has its cosy and safe veneer shattered by casual and random acts of brutality, preferably in the form of a paedophile. Or: suburban life is exposed as a breeding ground for a teenager’s depraved, pointless, brutal acts of sexuality, violence and hedonism.
A chronology of twenty, often critically acclaimed works of amoral art house (and some mainstream US films) over the past decade, demonstrates an appetite for variations within the genre, albeit with the same grim conclusions:
Kids (1995): Gang engages in meaningless sex, with whatever drugs or booze are available and the odd bit of mindless violence. Critics lament, ‘The tone is relentlessly sordid, the view of these pubescent hedonists so hermetic, that the film-makers ‘honesty’ seems exploitative and sensational. Sub-genre: amoral pre-teens.
Gummo (1997): Critics praise Harmony Korine’s ability to: ‘Grant physical form to childish ideas and emotions while simultaneously providing ironic distance.’ The child protagonists ‘lack moral compasses (the direct result of their poverty and a lack of parental supervision), and their definition of “interesting” is often lurid, sad and self-defeating.’ Levels of depravity in the ‘underclass’ household verge on the absurd, culminating in a director cameo as a drunk gay teenager, seducing an encephalitic black dwarf! Other highlights include ‘Idiotic and shockingly brutal incidents of teenaged criminality, pumped-up teenaged skinheads beat each other senseless. Retarded people’s difference is lingered on at great length.’ (3) Sub-genre: surreal suburbia/deeply amoral teens.
Happiness (1998): Humourous tone evaporates into one of despairing human sympathy, most noticeably for the paedophile father whose heart-to-hearts with his son come to form the film’s emotional backbone. Sub-genre: amoral teens/suburban family’s heart of darkness.
Bully (2001): Attempts to lay bare the emptiness of the character’s lives in a fashionably nihilistic, stern fashion. Director Larry Clark is fascinated by the bodies of his protagonists. Described by some as simultaneously ‘more than an old man’s wet dream’ yet a ‘relentlessly voyeuristic affair.’ Sub-genre: amoral teens.
The Pledge (2001): Nicholson is a cop who is dragged out of retirement by the news of the horrendous killing of an eight-year old girl. Sub-genre:Retired cop/serial killer/paedophile victim’s revenge. Demonstrates the subject can translate to the big screen, when blended with the long-running serial killer or mid-life crisis genre (see also The Woodsmen and The Weatherman).
Roger Dodger (2003): Roger, a man who believes he’s God’s gift to women, finds his nephew on his doorstep looking for lessons in how to lose his virginity. Roger resorts to prostitution and misogynistic rants after too many failed drunken seductions. Sub-genre: sexual corruption of ‘pure’ teen.
Mystic River (2003):Years after one of them was abducted and abused, three former friends (Tim Robbins, Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon), from the predominantly working-class Irish neighbourhood of South Boston, find themselves caught up in an arena of distrust, hatred and betrayal after the murder of Penn’s teenage daughter. Sub-genre: past paedophile victim’s revenge on the next generation of paedophiles.
The Woodsmen (2004): After being imprisoned for twelve years, Walter takes a job at a local lumberyard, but is determined to keep his criminal past behind him. Walter is put to the test when he encounters a young girl in a park. Sub-genre: paedophile on parole thriller.
Palindromes (2004): A metamorphasising pre-teen’s desperation to have a child. She randomly meets a paedophile truck driver, has a sexual encounter with him and falls desperately in love. The predator turns out to be involved in a network of sinister, evangelical Christian children’s homes. Sub-genre: surreal suburbia/surrogate family’s heart of darkness.
Capturing the Friedmans (2004): One of the few to provide some ambiguity and raise interesting questions about the role of media hysteria in paedophile panics, like M in this respect. A seemingly typical, upper-middle-class Jewish family whose world is instantly transformed when the father and his youngest son are charged with shocking crimes. Sub-genre: documentary/suburban family’s heart of darkness.
Mysterious Skin (2005): Brian believes his blackouts are the result of alien abductions. As his memories become increasingly vivid, he’s convinced that Neil, the star player on his childhood Little League team, knows the truth. The boys were sexually abused by their League coach and Neil fills his emotional void with ‘servicing’ seedy older men. Sub-genre: amoral teens/suburbia’s heart of darkness.
Tarnation (2005): Raised by a schizophrenic mother and abusive foster parents in and around Houston, Texas, Jonathan Caouette escaped from his bleak surroundings by obsessively documenting himself in a stockpile of videotapes that appeared to have no certain purpose. Sub-genre: ‘reality’ documentary/confessional autobiography of amoral teen.
Transamerica (2005): ‘An emotional portrait of a highly dysfunctional family’. (3) A male-to-female transsexual is readying herself for the final snip. Bree’s life takes a sudden turn when she receives a phone call from her son, a gay hustler and aspiring porn star who has been jailed. The son is confronted with his stepdad and reveals that this man sexually abused him.
The Weatherman (2005): Nicolas Cage plays a wealthy bachelor in a post mid-life, suburban crisis. He feels he has failed as a husband and father. His 12-year-old daughter, Shelly is more glum than him and wears clothes too small for her age and size. His 15-year-old son, Mike is in drug rehab and about to be seduced by one of his male counselors.
Me And You And Everyone We Know (2006): Contains ‘contentious’ scenes where Robby, a six-year old in an internet chatroom, describes his fantasy of ‘pooping back and forth’, he is having a risqué Internet romance with a middle-aged stranger. Sub-genre: surreal suburbia/amoral pre-teens.
Hard Candy (2006): A lecherous photographer hooks up with a willing teenager he’s befriended online. A gory ‘feminist’ update of Little Red Riding Hood, where the big bad wolf gets his comeuppance. Sub-genre: sinister suburbia.
Thumbsucker (2006): Oregon family try to wean their troubled teen Justin off his thumb. A tough, emotionally stunted father and distant rehab nurse mother are of little use. Romantic teen betrayal comes in the form of marijuana addicted Rebecca who uses and disposes of Justin as her blindfolded sex toy. Sub-genre: surreal suburbia/amoral teens.
Little Miss Sunshine (2006): A mum and breadwinner of a dysfunctional family has just inherited her suicidal, gay brother on top of already having her sex mad, coke snorting father-in-law to contend with. Her teenage son has been inspired to take a vow of silence by Nietzsche and her youngest, geeky Olive, is the precocious young beauty queen of the title. She performs squeamishly adult routines for grotesque, Lolita-esque pageants. Sub-genre: surreal, charmingly dysfunctional suburbia.
Little Children (2005): Two suburban 30-somethings have early midlife crises brought on by breakdowns and infidelity. The situation worsens when a child molester moves into the neighborhood.
SherryBaby (2006): Sherry Swanson, ex con alcoholic and drug addict tries to keep custody of her young daughter. She succumbs to her addictions again in her battle with life on the outside and we discover an incestuous abusive relationship with her father lays behind her torment.
So how has the timeless predator archetype lost his social narrative scope? Looking at the richer legacy of suburban portrayals in British film/theatre and American fiction is instructive. According to the sociologist M.P. Baumgartner “Some people might find in the moral order of the suburbs a highly civilized pattern of life, while others might react to it as cold, repressed, or even cowardly.” (p13) Many have defended the British film director and playwright Mike Leigh against accusations of banality and a myopic focus on minor domestic incident in his suburban dramas. They have suggested that the supposedly ‘narrow’ band of working-class and lower middle-class society that he portrays actually includes “most people in this country” (Clements 59). Leigh’s characters tend to live modestly in suburban areas on new estates and endure a largely unspectacular existence. In this sense American ‘Dirty Realist’8 writers, such as Raymond Carver, or British playwrights and film-makers like Leigh, can heroically claim to represent the small disturbances that secretly shape the fabric of ‘regular’ peoples’ existence. You could add; the thwarted ambitions of characters like Lawrence and Tony from Abigail’s Party are by no means small disturbances or themes.
Suburbia, as presented in 1990’s American fiction in particular, offers no retreat from the tragic dejection of modern office life. Works such as Stephen Amidon’s Subdivision (1991) portray a self-contained, suffocating small town America, bubbling under with the boredom and contempt of middle-ranking executives and their families.
Such portrayals have a longer history too. A.N. Home’s novel Music for Torching (1999), alongside John Cheever’s Bullet Park (1969), Joseph Heller’s Something Happened (1974) and Michael Haneke’s (1989) film The Seventh Continent, all constitute what I would describe as ‘suburban year zero’ stories. This is a macabre brand of almost exclusively American suburban fiction, where characters attempt to nihilistically eradicate all the trappingsof their bourgeois existence, either literally in a house fire in Music for Torching, an orgy of destruction and suicide in films like The Seventh Continent (1989) or The Edukators (2004), or with releasing their lethal ids in Something Happened and Bullet Park. Douglas Coupland’s Hey Nostradamus! (2004) uses this style of nihilism in ‘faction’ set in suburban Vancouver, that draws from the Columbine High School shootings of 1999 for its bleak inspiration.
Music for Torching is the ‘suburban year zero’ novel for the 1990’s. At the time of its release it was lauded by critics for challenging “the facades of mundane and contemporary existence” and the mania of its protaganists was described as a “surreal study of suburban malaise.” (New Orleans Times, Picayunre). Some even felt Homes, in the darkness of her portrayal, broke from a “genteel tradition of suburban fiction – Cheever, Updike.” (Newsweek) But these novels represent a powerful, acutely observed portrayal of the implosion of a nuclear family unit.
In new American films however, under the guise of avant-garde aims like ‘impressionist sociological collage’ or serious journeys into a ‘modern purgatory’ (4), modern directors perceive their suburban predator oeuvre as gritty realism, or part of a brave project to expose social taboos. Miranda July claims for Me and You, for example, she ‘wanted to make it clear that this sexuality is his and he’s six’ (5). Gus Van Sant on Gummo is equally emboldened: ‘There are anti-influences like MTV, movie censorship, blockbuster movies, middle-class life.’ (6)
Yet is this emerging field the radical or liberated one its practitioners suggest, when it reinforces a consciousness of vulnerability and powerlessness so prevalent and restraining today? This cinema uses a casually sadistic and conformist artistic shorthand, a lazy stab at gritty ‘authenticity.’ It is an artistic sensibility that feeds off the rotten carcass of a deep distrust of others and little else.
If the philosophy of successful underground film-makers like Stephen Dwoskin is anything to go by, we should be concerned, ‘Cinema became the agent through which I explored a way to establish my own sense of humanity, and, of course, to find a voice to speak to others…my kind of film…has to look so far to be able to see not only the beautiful, but the terrible and apparently repulsive things, because those things that exist and are in common with all other beings, have value.’ (7) The darker aspects of the human psyche and society are absolutely part and parcel of strong, rounded storytelling. But US cinema’s obsessive recreations of abusive relationships, in particular has a uniquely contemporary, empty bleakness.
Ugly aesthetics are often presented as a valiant attempt to show life warts and all. Yet this doesn’t explain modern films contented wallow in the casual imagery of depravity, or its directional seep into general drama, from the horror tradition. For an answer we have to look to broader historical and political trends. In many ways this is a cinematic realization of a trend sociologist Frank Furedi articulated in Politics of Fear: ‘a morose fascination with human evil – the paedophile, the serial killer, the terrorist- threatens to overwhelm our capacity to imagine an individual’s potential for altruism, heroism or simply doing good.’ (8)
It is also the nature of contemporary America itself that provides such fertile territory for the cinema of suburban beasts. Recent reports of an American ‘predator panic’ depict ‘lawmakers and near-daily news reports, [suggesting that] sexual predators lurk everywhere: in parks, at schools, in the malls—even in children’s bedrooms, through the Internet. A few rare (but high-profile) incidents have spawned an unprecedented deluge of new laws enacted in response to the public’s fear.’(9) So these films symbolise a very real, perceived sense of risk.
Partly through the dictates of geography, the USA has also always been more individuated than Britain, particularly in the rural areas and the Midwest. Politically America’s economy has been successful in integrating different layers of people, whilst still being far more atomized society. The end of the Cold War robbed America of its certainty and confidence. In their ‘Culture Wars’ not only have institutions such as the family and religion come under scathing criticism, but ‘American’s traditional sense of robust individualism has been replaced with a mood of profound pessimism and despair.’ (10) So desperate and irrational characters stalk their small screens, casting their spells of futility and panic.
In unique ways America leads the way in Western self-loathing. As the leading hegemonic power, it projects these ideas faster and with greater impact than other countries like Britain or France. Despite a top layer of defiant, engaging and uplifting works of American fiction and drama above ground, the rot in the film underground does seem to be spreading. The reels of the big, and particularly little screen, are stuck on a disturbing loop, endlessly projecting misanthropic fantasies, framing a revolting shot of our closest human interactions as perverse, futile and incomprehensible. After this decade of sordid cinema, American directors need to recognize and move away from these seedy narrative clichés. A start might be to revisit their life-enhancing and embracing new-wave forefathers for some sorely required imagination and inspiration.
(1) M. Anton Kaes, 2000. BFI Books
(2) 1001 Movies you must see before you die. Edit: Steven Jay Schneider, 2003. Quintet Publishing
(4) Review – Gummo, Matt Seitz. Originally publ: New York Press
(5) Hotter than July. Sanjiv Bhattacharya, The Observer, August 7, 2005
(6) Forward. Gus Van Sant. http://www.finelinefeatures.com/gummo/about.html
(7) Reflections: The Self, the World and Others, and How All These Things Melt Together in Film. Stephen Dwoskin, 2004, Rouge
(8) The Politics of Fear – Beyond Left and Right. Frank Furedi, 2005, Continuum.
(9) Predator Panic: A Closer Look. Benjamin Radford. Skeptical Inquirer Magazine. Sept 2006
(10) Postmodernism: a conservative and nihilistic fashion? Neil Davenport, 2005
8 Term created by Bill Bulford, editor of Granta Magazine to describe a gritty aesthetic of mundane, blue-collar life in small-town, mainly mid- western America.