American suburbia as we know it was originally a product of the economic boom after World-War II. FHA loans became more accessible thus sparking a housing boom. Everyone bought houses. Large masses of land surrounding cities were prepped for large numbers of houses to be quickly constructed side by side. Roads and railways began evolving further facilitating movement between the new neighborhoods and the city. Country clubs, public pools and those brick mailboxes that so perfectly matched the house behind it were all material manifestations of a certain obsession with being neutral and presenting oneself a master of one’s own domain.
It was a way for many to find some intermediate between the hectic city life and a more controlled existence in the outskirts of said city. The word ‘controlled’ is a key word to understanding the psychological damage on individuals provoked by suburbia. Along with concrete gender roles for men and women, suburbia’s false placidity proved to profoundly affect the inhabitants.
Extreme societal pressures arose. Expectations in regards to how one must talk, walk, eat, drink began to tear away at individuality and freedom causing a certain psychosis. People, then and today had to deny themselves certain pleasures. Decisions were made according to societal expectations as opposed to one’s inner desires. This separation between one’s inner self and the ‘rules of the game’ proved to evoke a certain superficiality and false complacency that so epitomizes suburbia.
Seeming to be happy gets confused with happiness itself. Many believe that the key to reaching happiness and stability it by imitating it. Private tragedies then occur as many people desperately try to maintain an image of happiness. There is a general consensus that expressing these feelings or emotions is out of line or unnecessary thus making individuals suffer alone. Suburbia can actually be rather dangerous in this way.
These films seem to deftly peel back the surface of plastic societies in a manner that is exploitative and critical, comedic or satirical, done in sketches and impressions or in analysis and dissections. Many were controversial due to their vivid depictions. Aristotle was the first to call purification through art ‘katharsis.’ We see ourselves in what is projected up on the screen and it has the power to help us come to terms with our own woes and flaws. Or we can further reject said flaws and reject the film with it.
A reoccurring event in many of these films is a disregard with one’s meticulously constructed existence thus resulting in some kind of explosive rebellion, hospitalization, suicide, divorce, meltdown or murder. Secrets bubble to the surface and eventually pop. Several characters suffer mentally because of their respective environments. Another common thread is many of the directors happen to be from outside the United States, giving a certain third-party perspective on something that many Americans have known their entire lives.
13. All That Heaven Allows (1955)
German-born Douglas Sirk decided to tackle very American subjects throughout his career. His films usually dealt with the weaknesses of American society. This film is no exception. It hones in on an American expectation held in very high importance: marriage; who you want to love versus who you should love. Cary Scott played by Jane Wyman is a suburban widow. She finds herself intriguingly attracted to Ron Kirby played by Rock Hudson. He is her younger gardener. He possesses a certain freedom that many in her social circles have suppressed.
Naturally, she is attracted to a man that is not bound by societal constructs. Instead, he follows his intuition. He has his own plant shop and, with Cary’s inspiration, plans on renovating an old farmhouse owned by his father. His circle of friends are varied, multicultural and non-materialistic. They seem to have avoided superficiality all together; and this attracts her. Suddenly, she doesn’t feel the need to play a role.
Of course, happiness in suburbia comes with a cost. Her family and friends begin to turn on her when they learn of her engagement to Ron. To them it is obscene and improper. No, Wyman did not choose the man that was more appropriate age-wise nor a more financially stable bachelor. She follows her heart for maybe the first time in her life and is reprimanded for it. She broke the deal with society.
12. [Safe] (1995)
Carol White and her story is almost a direct metaphor for the dangers of a dry, materialistic society. Her name suggests normalcy. In fact, it embodies it. She is a white, American homemaker. She does not stand out in any way. Her type comes by the dozens. Her relationships with neighbors and friends are static and frigid. Almost in total rejection, she becomes allergic to about every facet of this society.
She reacts with a bloody nose to hair products, has an asthma attack at a normal get together with friends, a truck’s fumes that seep into her car and cause her to suffocate and even begins to convulse due to chemicals being sprayed at the dry cleaners. Her body physically rejects this mundane existence comprised of choosing furniture, going on fruit diets, going to the gym and dry cleaners. It seems almost comical in description but Todd Haynes finds a severe, paranoiac tone to depict the deconstruction of this women in a unsuitable environment.
11. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Postwar marriages as depicted in films seemed to follow a specific form throughout the 50’s and 60’s; complicated, but then again, that’s marriage! But this film rejected that notion all together. Another German-born director, the recently deceased Mike Nichols, takes a go at an Edward Albee play and comes out with an extremely incisive look into not just any troubled marriage, but the troubled marriage. One that very well could have existed in fact.
George and Martha are a New England couple that come home from what seems to be a regular outing with the faculty of a local university; probably a dreary, superficial event. George, who is, as Martha notes, “IN” the history department but not “THE” history department as he should have been. Now you mix an extremely volatile couple with another couple who seem to be making a conscious effort to live the conventional, suburban life and you get a film that exposes the core problem with suburbia: it’s bottled up secrets.
Honey, played by the wonderful Sandy Dennis, tries her best for the first quarter of the film to say everything adequately. Everything she says is restricted and contained as if a very specific formula is in play. She seems to find a neutral and polite way to respond to every question and topic. That is, until the alcohol kicks in. Then we find that she, like many others has instated a façade in which she hides behind. Her past is as twisted as the rest of them but she stuffs it deep down into her depths of her being.
Nichols’ film gives us a fishbowl view of the other side of marriage; the one that was not commonly filmed. It was extremely controversial not only because of it’s unfiltered language, but possibly because of it’s unhindered and candid portrayal of reality. It can prove shocking for many when they go to the cinema and see facets of themselves exploited then and there on the screen in front of God and everybody.
10. Bigger Than Life (1956)
A metaphor for the hidden tensions beneath seemingly stable surface, Nicholas Ray’s taut melodrama serves as a key film in 50’s cinema. Jean Luc-Godard writing for Cahiers du Cinema named the film one of the best American films of it’s era.
It was bold, audacious and critical. We are introduced to a traditional suburban family with it’s patriarch: Ed Avery played by James Mason. Naturally, the established gender roles of that time (and in some ways, today) made him the axis in which the family rotated around. He was the reference for everyone’s stability. He is a schoolteacher, has a lovely wife who does her ‘duty’ as a supportive wife and mother, and a young son. After a fall, Ed is prescribed cortisone which should ‘even out’ his instability. You can have a field-day with the amount of meaning hidden in this statement. Naturally he begins to abuse it and lashes out on his family. The axis fails, and the family with it.
As a post-war effect joined with paranoia induced by the Cold War and the looming Soviet threats, pharmaceuticals were prescribed to those suffering from, well, anything that would disrupt the peace. Everyone was scared, but tried desperately to keep it in check. Substance abuse began to occur. Alcoholism skyrocketed. Nicholas Ray was one of the few to talk about it and was heavily criticized for various reasons.
The New York Times felt that watching someone’s descent into madness from intoxication was an added “tax of tedium” (Crowther 1956). Yes, indeed the film makes one confront the truth in some way or another and that is taxing. But according to Aristotle, a cathartic experience through art was necessary to one heal and purify one’s troubles. You have to be open to recognizing it though.
9. The Virgin Suicides (1999)
The late nineties provided a wealth of films about the horrors of suburbia. Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel is an impressionistic, daydream-like portrayal of a group of group of young boys’ obsession with the mysterious, sheltered sisters that lived next door in a Detroit suburb. The youngest of the five sisters kills herself which forces the parents to become increasingly more strict with those who remain. This decreases their accessibility in turn increasing the mystery.
Very common to the 1970’s, there is a disregard for what is traditionally thought of as right and wrong. A certain need for sexual experimentation occurs due to it’s mystique. Their parents overtly wanted their children to become upstanding citizens and their methods for going about that were sometimes extreme. The extremity of the end of the film seems almost fitting. The girls seem to be victims of their parents’ restrictive requirements. They were suffocating in boredom. The girls are almost martyrs for all the suffocating children of suburbia.
8. Happiness (1998)
Rejected by many for it’s candid exploitation of some of those perverse stories you shake your head at while watching the local news, Todd Solondz’s dangerous dramedy is controversial possibly because of his rather neutral, matter-of-fact treatment of his characters.
We are introduced to several characters all ‘hyperlinked’ in a New Jersey suburb. They all have certain desires that are on different extremes of the abhorrent scale. One is a pedophile that sodomizes two young boys and dreams about gunning down strangers in a park, one has the desire to be raped by a stranger, another has sex with her student who seduces her only to rob her and another hides frozen body parts of the doorman she killed after being raped by him.
Assuredly, this kind of behavior happens all the time. Whether or not we know about it, well that’s the suburban way. You hear what you want to hear. It’s hard to say if these twisted characters are twisted because of such an alienating society or that’s just the way they are. They all seem lonely and in need of excitement and danger. The mundane no longer serves any good at all. So total chaos breaks out. Solondz went on to make a kind of sequel to this film called Life During Wartime with the same characters but different actors.