7. In the Bedroom (2001)
In this paced chamber drama adapted from a short story by Andre Dubus, an older New England couple introduces a new member via their college-aged son who is applying to study architecture. Natalie, played by Marisa Tomei is middle-aged, still married but separated from her abusive husband and has two younger children.
The couple, played by Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson have a barbecue and she tries to integrate into the family. But there is something ominous in the air. Her husband out of jealousy kills their young son within the fist section of the film. The pace then slows down immensely. It’s not about the killing, but the grieving process and the truth about this couple rising to the surface.
Nothing ever had to be said between the couple. All problems were suppressed and no confrontation ensued. It was simpler that way. This is a very suburban concept: bottle it up so one can resume with the peace. Yes, it may be quieter that way, but it is false. After much pent up tension, Sissy Spacek’s character, Ruth forcefully confronts her husband Matt for always letting their son get away with little things which may or may not have had a part in the son’s death.
Matt reveals that Ruth is has always been overbearing and is “so unforgiving.” Unfortunately, it took the death of their son for this couple’s least attractive qualities to emerge. Not only that, but for them to actually start looking at each other with a lens that is far from neutral.
6. Ordinary People (1980)
Not that one should rank tragedy, but a private tragedy seems to cut the deepest. It is defined by a character whose suffering is either disregarded or not understood by those around him/her. That or it’s not politically correct to speak out about one’s feelings. The tragedy experienced by Conrad Jarrett played by Timothy Hutton is indeed a private one.
Feeling not only remorse but guilt for his older brother’s death and healing from a recent attempt at suicide, Conrad is pushed away by his mother, played by Mary Tyler Moore, who refuses to recognize his pain. She, as it is customary, puts on a face of placidity at neighborhood get togethers and goes through the correct motions as she’s always done. There is a scene where her husband Calvin watches her from a distance as she talks about all the right subjects with her neighbors, smiling and nodding her head. What she says is hardly audible, but one can infer that it’s a lie.
But in the suburban setting, it’s all about appearances. Conrad seems to be one of it’s victims. He too, tries to act as stable as possible with his friends and family to try and avoid any feeling sorry for him. And his mother who tries desperately to put on a good face is only reminded repeatedly about the incident by her son. Moore’s demeanor proved shocking as American audiences knew her as the endearing Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Contrary to the norm, this film’s antagonist is the mother. She is not a conventionally kind and caring woman but cold and distant holding almost a grudge against her son. Naturally, all of this tension culminates in extreme anxiety on Conrad’s part and painful outbursts and rants ensue for his lack of understanding. Again, not much has been said, but one can only keep it all in for short period of time.
5. A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
John Cassavetes once said to a friend of Kent Jones, “my films are truth.” That bold statement is reaffirmed by his hypperrealistic film starring his wife and muse, Gena Rowlands as Mabel Longhetti. Mabel is a woman who has seemingly spent many years trying to be something that she is not. She tries to be the wife and mother that everyone else is in this Californian suburbia. In one of the many heart-wrenching scenes in the film, she tells her husband, Nick “Tell me who you want me to be… I can be that. I can be anything.”
What she suffers from has been theorized to be alcohol dependency. Others have commented that she is schizophrenic. This is not so. She is a woman that more likely suffers from a sort of identity crisis. One could imagine, due to the time period, that she had been prepping herself to be a perfect wife and mother for years. She had been training herself to erase what she wanted and become what was expected of her. This causes her erratic breakouts. Compared to everybody else in the neighborhood, she is quite different. Everyone treats her as such while they are all victims of the same lie. The only difference is that she seems to be one of the few that relapses from it.
During a luncheon with some of her husbands friends from work, things get out of hand as she tries more and more to conform to the role of a housewife. She changes the way she speaks and gestures. But this upsets her husband who then reproaches her for putting on an act causing extreme discomfort between the guests.
Another harrowing scene is later in the film when she, at the dinner table with family, recounts her hospitalization and the electroshock therapy she had to endure. Deep down the viewer knows that this feels unjust. Deep down one gets the sensation that it is not she who is backwards but the contrast between her and the society she lives in is so sharp that in comparison that yes, she does indeed seem crazy. Mabel trying to conform causes pain and an eventual deterioration of self.
4. Blue Velvet (1986)
David Lynch has an ingenious way of seeing not only what’s behind the surface, but it’s devilish counterpart. Always playing with archetypes, he surrealistically depicts two contrasting types of societies and the people that inhabit them. From the first moments of the film, one can surmise the direction in which the film is going: a venture into the dark underbelly of every suburb.
The opening sequence seems almost a mockery. We see this picture perfect vignette of a common American suburb with it’s roses, white picket fences and friendly faces with Bobby Vinton gayly pattering about; all until it goes awry and the darkness is uncovered as the camera delves down into the earth showing thousands of little beetles and ants crackling away at work. And one may notice, there are many more insects than there are friendly faces.
If suburbia is an escape from the wild and hectic city life, then there must be another side to it. Things can’t be that perfect. Lynch, growing up in the midwest, knows quite a bit about false complacency. There is what seems to be and then what there is. He sees both and explores both sides of people, both sides of reality and in this case, both sides of suburbia. The contrast between suburbia and beyond Lincoln street is verging on sickening. When one looks back to the beginning versus the bizarre finale, it nauseating.
3. The Ice Storm (1997)
Taiwanese director Ang Lee proves one of the most versatile directors of the past 20 years taking on various controversial social topics; most of which happen to be American. In this film, adapted from Rick Moody’s novel, Lee takes a bleak look at the suburbs of Connecticut during the sexual revolution of the 1970’s in all of it’s youthful rites-of-passage without glistening sentimentality. No, this film digs deep into the upheaval of a slowly cracking society constructed on deceit and pent up tension.
The children like their parents begin to experiment sexually. In one scene, Christina Ricci’s character Wendy exposes herself in the bathroom to her friend’s younger brother only to be found out and admonished by Sigourney Weaver’s character, who is in fact sleeping with the girl’s father. Both are committing ‘heresy’ in one way or another and Weaver realizes this as she confronts the girl. She’s no better than she is. Many of the father figures in the film play a very small role in their respective children’s lives. They are absent, obsessed with their jobs and the children, may it be subconsciously, react in extremities.
In Wendy’s case it’s sexually while in her neighbor Sandy’s case it’s violently. Everyone, man, wife and child seem to be so terribly bored with existence and isolated. The ice storm that traps many of the characters and that proves fatal for one, further emphasizes how stuck these people are in monotony and materialism. By the end, many realize that they need to reprioritize.
2. American Beauty (1999)
This film could be the sole source of information for a doctoral dissertation about deteriorating suburbia. It tackles several themes that prove threats to the status quo such as drug abuse, gender roles, homosexuality and pedophilia. Although these themes are, from a distance, overbearing and some perverse, the film has a way of presenting them humanistically as opposed to Happiness which seems more exploitative.
British director Sam Mendes and American screenwriter Alan Ball take a quasi-satirical look at the mid-life crisis of advertising executive Lester Burnham played by Kevin Spacey. He is dog-tired of his bland, beige existence and wants to find meaning again. Does this include falling in love with and having dirty visions about his teenage daughter’s friend? Yes, but you’d be daft not to admit it doesn’t happen.
The point is that a corporate job with a nice house can be a jail cell in which men and women rot away in. Those that don’t want to take it anymore (like Lester) will begin acting on impulse trying to reinvigorate a feeling of youth and liberty. Those who’d rather continue using a formula to achieve happiness might never see that liberty.
Buddy Kane, the real-estate rival to Carolyn Burnham, (Lester’s wife) says infamously: “In order to be successful, one must project an image of success at all times.” Then Carolyn’s eyes latch on to his obvious micro-gestures of superficiality as he prims his lips and wiggles his tie. Buddy insinuates that assuming a role or putting on a mask is necessary to achieve happiness.
It even seems enticing as Carolyn is verging on turned on by such a statement. She realizes that within the boundaries of her society, playing a role and constructing an image gets you one step closer to being successful as you’ve fooled everyone else around you, making you higher up on the food chain. This is an illusion Lester sees past and takes a hold of his life, in all it’s pain and glory. He’s kept quiet for too long now as that’s what’s required of him by his environment.
1. Far From Heaven (2002)
Todd Haynes’ film may encapsulate the whole problematic suburban experience in an astonishing 107 minutes. Inspired by Douglas Sirk’s aesthetic and themes, it is a film about illusions of perfection; a perfection decided by society. It’s characters at the beginning of the film seem to have complete control of their lives and it’s been smooth-sailing for some time now.
Everything seems to be in check. Julianne Moore plays Cathy Whitaker, the protagonist. She is a homemaker and lives in a modest house with mid-century modern decor. She has a successful husband and two children; one boy and one girl. The girl does ballet and the boy watches cowboy pictures. Everything seems warm and inviting. Though all of those bold, saturate colors seem to make up for the lack of spontaneity in their lives.
Cathy plans many neighborhood functions that are all tailored meticulously, yet there is something graceful and effortless about her work. In the beginning of the film, she is being photographed and written about in the local newspaper; a plot device to highlight her status in this society. She pronounces every word adequately and is never too firm nor too submissive in her speech. We are introduced to a woman that has hit the final tier of the ladder of suburban success. But there is something in the air. Something missing. True passions and desires begin to emerge and what was, will be no more.
The most tragic dimension of the film is how desperate some are to find something they’ve never had: true happiness. Everyone has carefully calculated how to achieve happiness yet following one’s heart never seemed to enter in the equation. Raymond, Cathy’s black gardener proves to be a kind of paradox in that he forms a part of a minority yet seems to be very content with his existence. Cathy, out of desperation for happiness, longs to get closer to Raymond as he very well could be the key.
Because of the societal circumstances, this relationship can not be. Her yearning for happiness and a true connection with someone is then shattered in the heart-wrenching finale. She’s lost about everything. Now she has no portrait of success to hide behind. During the middle of the film where things are obviously headed south, Cathy conceals her woes and continues to put on a good face. She will continue her parties trying to diffuse gossip throughout the community. There is a scene where she breaks down crying feeling the brunt of the circumstances but dares not enter her house. She ducks behind the bushes. Inside her house, her terrain, she will not get beside herself.
This film is also an example of a private tragedy as it is not proper to share one’s emotions and problems with others. Although she is offered help from her closest friend, she denies. She knows that her relationships with friends are superficial. She does not feel safe sharing her thoughts and troubles with any of them. She knows that they won’t understand and things will get distorted as they normally do in this society.
But she can confide in a man that runs in different circles and has no connection with this materialistic society. He offers a fresh perspective as an outsider and says so eloquently “sometimes it’s the people outside our world we confide in best.” She is ripped apart by the societal constructs that so hinder any possibility of her true desires being satisfied.
Author Bio: Gabriel Virgilio Luciani lives in Barcelona, Catalunya and studies Humanities at the Universitat Internacional de Catalunya. He studied Visual Arts at the North Carolina School of the Arts for his last 2 years of high school. A lover of European cinema from a very young age, American cinema has been a growing interest.