From February 2019

american dream and nightmare: suburbia in film

 

‘Little boxes on the hillside,

Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,

Little boxes on the hillside,  

Little boxes all the same.

There’s a green one and a pink one

And a blue one and a yellow one,

And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky,

And they all look just the same.’

                                                                             – Malvina Reynolds, 1962

As pro-suburban policies were launched in conjunction with a national construction program of 1945, suburbs sprouted all over America and increased the attainability of the American Dream. Surviving from frontier to front-line, this ethos saw nuclear families in pastel neighbourhoods supplanting the horrors of war with their picket fences, Tupperware parties, and flowerbeds.

William Levitt, hailed as the ‘father of suburbia’, developed a scheme with his firm Levitt & Sons that allowed them to build mass-producible and inexpensive housing for the flood of returning veterans in America. In the three separate developments of New York (1947-51), Pennsylvania (1952-58) and New Jersey (1958), the firm offered small houses that could be built in just one day. Despite the modern approach to assembly, the homes themselves strayed little from the conventions of house design upheld by Americans at the time. The structures were revolutionary in their construction, but nostalgia was manifest in their appearance. Within the settings of the ‘Colonial’ or ‘Ranch’ type, the lives of nuclear families were aided and improved by efficient, hygienic and top-of-the-range appliances. Returning from the horrors of war, the veterans were awarded with domesticity.

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A neighbourhood of Jubilee models, Levittown, Pennsylvania, c. 1953

However, due to the standardisation of the Levittown houses, the homogeneity of the streets became a popular criticism. As Levitt sorted his residents by income, each house-type was grouped by neighbourhood, rendering swathes of streets indistinguishable. The long history of racial segregation further upturns this narrative of a suburban utopia. The development in New York was founded on the basis that it was only available to white people alone. Indeed, this stipulation was written into the house contracts by Levitt stating, ‘no dwelling shall be used or occupied except by members of the caucasian race’. Sales agents were advised to turn away black families and automatically register their applications as unsuccessful. Even after the states enforced a non-discrimination law, sales agents located the black applicants away from their white neighbours. The homogeneity of the residents is thus facilitated by this aim to constitute a community with a specific racial identity.

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The suburban landscape of Levittown, New York, c. 1952

The little boxes of American suburbia are some of film’s most frequented locations, its homogeneity frequently rendering the protagonist or narrative as extraordinary in comparison. In films that centre around a singular character, think Carrie, Donnie Darko and The Truman Show, the protagonists display their deviation within a stifling suburban setting.

In Carrie (1976) (dir: Brian de Palma), the title character faces unanticipated menstruation, peer-bullying, and abuse from her Christian fundamentalist mother. Carrie Whites’s telekinetic powers are the ultimate deviation from the claustrophobic household and school her mother and peers respectively enforce. Following Carrie’s murderous revenge and the burning down of her house, the final scene begins with an opening shot of suburbia. Birds sing and the sun casts shadows on a manicured lawn. The scorched plot where the White house once stood is set up as its inverse. This contrast serves as a reminder of suburbia’s nightmarish potentiality, one that is shown in the final scene, to still haunt the sole survivor of Carrie’s rage.

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Carrie (1976) (dir: Brian de Palma)
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Carrie (1976) (dir: Brian de Palma)

In Donnie Darko (2001) (dir: Richard Kelly), suburbia is first introduced as a landscape of mundane yet tranquil normality. In the opening scene, Darko cycles through the streets, the camera panning to the morning joggers. Darko’s father is shown blowing leaves off his lawn, and his sister plays on a trampoline. Immediately Darko is set up as the anomaly – an adolescent who frequents a psychotherapist, disturbs classes, and treats his family with hostility. Again the underside of suburbia is unleashed. The tranquility first introduced is done away with by the end of the film and instead suburbia is set as the home of supernatural powers, multiple universes and sexual deviants.

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Donnie Darko (2001) (dir: Richard Kelly)
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Donnie Darko (2001) (dir: Richard Kelly)

In The Truman Show (1998) (dir: Peter Weir), suburbia is a simulation. As a product of a corporation, the life of Truman Burbank is broadcasted live around the world as reality entertainment. Here suburbia is not intended to be residential. Instead, cameras are hidden within each wall and suburbia is presented as the ultimate facilitator of voyeurism. When Burbank realises the reality of his situation, this realisation marks his deviation from the suburbia. He becomes transgressive, determined and defiant, assets the suburban simulation attempted to suppress.

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The Truman Show (1998) (dir: Peter Weir)
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The Truman Show (1998) (dir: Peter Weir)

The placidity regularly assigned to suburbia is exploited in the genre of horror. Films like Halloween (1978) (dir: John Carpenter) set the horrific actions of Michael Myers within the sleepy streets of Haddonfield. Get Out (2017) (dir: Jordan Peele) subverts this in the setting of the Armitage country-estate. However, despite its isolation, the systematic racism and manicured appearance of the estate seem Levittownian in their presentation.

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Halloween (1978) (dir: John Carpenter)
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Get Out (2017) (dir: Jordan Peele)

American Beauty (1999) (dir: Sam Mendes) has been described by critics as a satire of middle-class notions of beauty, sexuality, materialism and personal satisfaction. In the opening monologue, Lester Burnham introduces his suburban place of residence with contempt:

‘This is my neighbourhood. This is my street. This is my life. I’m 42 years old. In less than a year, I’ll be dead … And in a way I’m dead already’.

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American Beauty (1999) (dir: Sam Mendes)

Films like Edward Scissorhands (1990) (dir: Tim Burton) and The Virgin Suicides (1999) (dir: Sofia Coppola) use suburbia to emphasise the abnormality of their central storyline. In the former, Edward’s behaviour, appearance and physicality are stark contrasts to the pastel utopia of the suburb. As the film progresses, his disruption to the homogeneity of the community ultimately results in his eviction by mob force. In the 1999 film, it is the suicide of the youngest daughter that disrupts – the setting of suburbia heightening the atypicality of her action.

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Edward Scissorhands (1990) (dir: Tim Burton)
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The Virgin Suicides (1999) (dir: Sofia Coppola)

For Levitt, suburbia offered security. In film, that veneer is firmly pulled back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

a handpicked selection of the 2019 Academy Award nominees

 

Roma (2018) dir. Alfonso Cuarón

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Yalitza Aparacio in Roma

nominated for:

Best Picture

Best Director (Alfonso Cuarón)

Best Actress (Yalitza Aparicio)

Best Supporting Actress (Marina de Tavira)

Best Original Screenplay (Alfonso Cuarón)

Best Cinematography (Alfonso Cuarón)

Best Foreign-Language Film (Mexico)

Best Sound Mixing (Skip Lievsay, Craig Henighan and Jose Antonio Garcia)

Best Sound Editing (Sergio Diaz and Skip Lievsay)

Best Production Design (Eugenio Caballero and Barbara Enriquez)

 

Cuarón’s vision of 1970s Mexico speaks to moments of the human condition with such devastation and simplicity that one is left rendered speechless by the time the credits roll. In the Roma district of Mexico, we watch Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and her occupation as a maid to a middle-class family (Marina de Tavira as matriarch) gradually and forcefully evolve into an endoscopic narrative of human interaction, loss, and displacement.

Historicized within the Corpus Christi Massacre (El Halconazo) of 1971, Roma expands an existing cultural image of a historical moment that, in turn, grants focus to the individual, placing identity and isolated moments of experience to the forefront of trauma and devastation: a perspective that rings with vitality in the faceless presentations of mass trauma serialised in the media. Its spaces are flooded with white heat and nostalgia for Mexican summer and unmediated expression, synchronising to voice Cleo’s experience and her personal orientation of trauma and devastation before we as audience become conscious of it ourselves.

Cuarón writes “When setting up Roma, I wasn’t concerned about narrative, I was concerned about memory…I was concerned about spaces, textures, and trusting that all of that together would interweave a narrative by itself…a cinematic narrative.” Collective, historical memory is redefined. Cleo becomes the vehicle by which Cuarón unravels ideas of the human condition, and we feel so deeply every second we are beside him.

metacritic score: 96

wasteland rating: 5/5

prediction:

  • winner of Best Picture

  • winner of Best Director (Alfonso Cuarón)

  • winner of Best Actress (Yalitza Aparicio)

  • winner of Best Foreign Language Film (Mexico)

  • winner of Best Cinematography (Alfonso Cuarón)

 

 

 

BlackKklansman (2018) dir. Spike Lee

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Laura Harrier and John David Washington in BlackKklansman
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(left) Adam Driver, (right) John David Washington in BlackKklansman

nominated for:

Best Picture

Best Director (Spike Lee)

Best Supporting Actor (Adam Driver)

Best Adapted Screenplay (Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee)

Best Original Score (Terence Blanchard)

Best Film Editing (Barry Alexander Brown)

 

The entertaining, partially biographical universe of BlackKklansman is formulaically comparable to the tale of a superhero. John David Washington plays protagonist/cop Ron Stallworth and the narrative revolves around his performative white identity and infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan, in which he imitates a white national socialist with the help of fellow officer Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver (nominated for Best Supporting Actor).

A lot of the BlackKklansman’s cultural gravitas does not rely on the violent crime-comedy aesthetic, of which the film presents in excess, but on the withstanding radicalism of being a black police officer in a time of police brutality. Watching in the context of movements such as Black Lives Matter, BlackKklansman expands the parameters of what we understand as the ‘historical film’, for its thematisation of race self-consciously and deliberately addresses the present with more vivacity than a comparison between two different epochs. We don’t draw a line between the history of then and now, we see moments as continued, repeated, speaking the same cultural language.

Spike Lee succeeds in transforming what feels like a graphic novel to the screen, and we are thoroughly entertained as we begin to unpack what is often presented to us as distant history in its memorialised representations, of the civil rights movement, the KKK, police brutality and systemic racism, reconsidered as contemporary realism.

metacritic score: 83

wasteland rating: 3.5/5

prediction:

  • winner of Best Adapted Screenplay

 

 

 

Cold War (2018) dir. Pawel Pawlikowski

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Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig in Cold War
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Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig in Cold War

nominated for:

Best Director (Pawel Pawlikowski )

Best Cinematography (Lukasz Zal)

Best Foreign-Language Film (Poland)

 

Pawel Pawlikowski fits a surplus of entertainment in the timeline of Cold War. Its rapidity is so sophisticated and endearing that we only notice how nuanced each frame is when it’s too late and we’re already absorbed in the next faultless moment.

There is a simultaneous amount of intensity and softness within its mastery, and this spreads into the romance narrative and its comedy. The dialogue feels stripped back, with every word bound exclusively to absolute truth and expression. We skip the trivialities with a wariness that we are missing them. Each moment feels meticulously planned yet also spontaneously, wildly authentic in equal measure.

metacritic rating: 90

wasteland rating: 4.5/5

 

 

 

The Favourite (2018) dir. Yorgos Lanthimos

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Rachel Weisz (left) and Olivia Colman (right) in The Favourite
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Emma Stone in The Favourite

nominated for:

Best Picture

Best Director (Yorgos Lanthimos)

Best Actress (Olivia Colman)

Best Supporting Actress (Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz)

Best Original Screenplay (Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara)

Best Costume Design (Sandy Powell)

Best Cinematography (Robbie Ryan)

Best Film Editing (Yorgos Mavropsaridis)

 

Guided by his (potentially too literal) playfulness with camera work, we view Yorgos Lanthimos’ construction of The Favourite, and everything it contains, with a clinical distance. Sobered of conventional character-audience empathy and intimacy, we find ourselves equipped to embrace the surrealism and demanded to reconfigure our relation as spectator with character and content. What is otherwise a narrative of sexual and power competitiveness between Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, winning the affections of the superb Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, becomes exponentially chaotic and disorderly at a pace that is both acclaimed and expected from Lanthimos’ films.

Lanthimos boasts his obscured, theatrical universe, our vision distorted by a fish-eye lens and very stylised mise en scène, and construes how we expect aristocracy and monarchy to be captured. We experience a disconnect between our expectations of a period film and Lanthimos’ reality, between convention and action and between camera and audience. We are, in watching, given the role of observer, to a comic exhibition of the eccentricity of people, or at least how Lanthimos imagines them.

metacritic score: 90

wasteland rating: 3.5/5

prediction:

  • winner of Best Original Screenplay

  • winner of Best Costume Design

 

 

 

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) dir. Barry Jenkins

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Kiki Layne and Stephan James in If Beale Street Could Talk
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Kiki Layne and Stephan James in If Beale Street Could Talk
Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk (nominee for Best Supporting Actress)
Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk (nominee for Best Supporting Actress)

nominated for:

Best Supporting Actress (Regina King)

Best Adapted Screenplay (Barry Jenkins)

Best Original Score (Nicholas Britell)

 

The fiction of essayist and novelist James Baldwin translated into cinema would never be anything short of exceptional. Whilst so much of If Beale Street Could Talk’s excellence is indebted to its actors (Best Supporting Actress nominee Regina King as one notable exemplar), what succeeds in the novel-turned-film is its inexorable power in amplification. Barry Jenkins holds a camera and a microphone to one of the loudest voices of twentieth-century literature, and Baldwin’s vision is only strengthened as it harmonises with Jenkins’ ingenuity.

metacritic score: 87

wasteland rating: 4.5/5

prediction:

  • winner of Best Supporting Actress (Regina King)

 

 

 

A Star is Born (2018) dir. Bradley Cooper

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Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born

nominated for:

Best Picture

Best Actress (Lady Gaga)

Best Actor (Bradley Cooper)

Best Supporting Actor (Sam Elliott)

Best Adapted Screenplay (Eric Roth, Will Fetters & Bradley Cooper)

Best Cinematography (Matty Libatique)

Best Original Song (“Shallow” Music and Lyric by Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando and Andrew Wyatt)

Best Sound Mixing (Tom Ozanich, Dean Zupancic, Jason Ruder and Steve Morrow)

 

Bradley Cooper’s modern addition to the remake-trilogy of A Star Is Born attempts to reimagine the same pop-culture, Hollywood infected version of what is essentially a rags-to-riches narrative, and a love story between artists Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) and Ally Campana (Lady Gaga). Although its aesthetic is often glorious with its de-chained exploration of nightlife in early scenes and of the expansive Arizona desert, A Star Is Born does somehow fall short.

It has been criticised for its undeniable tone of music elitism, a tone so all-consuming that we are supposed to identify career differences as a major cause of the issues between country rocker Jackson Maine and popstar-in-the-making Ally. It seems that popstar Ally cannot succeed without her personal life falling into disarray, and that she can only spiritually connect with her more alternative partner Jackson once her career comes to a halt. It’s unclear whether or not we are supposed to believe that Ally is fated to a downward spiral the more she conquers the mainstream music industry, but it seems implied.

Maybe there are some problematic ideas of gendered success to unpack here, directorial perspectives as well as protagonistic. But because A Star Is Born is ultimately devoted to showcasing the powerhouse of talent that is Lady Gaga, it can be pardoned, and if not pardoned then overlooked, even if only to allow more time spent celebrating the unrelenting musical and acting talent of Gaga. This film should be viewed as a celebration of Gaga, her extremely successful film debut through which she effectively manoeuvres a rather uninspired plot and carries much, if not all, the excellence of the film.

metacritic rating: 88

wasteland rating: 4/5

prediction:

  • winner of Best Original Song for “Shallow”