It's ART+LIFE(?) month!
I have, in my life, lived in a variety of places. I lived in an apartment as a young kid. I lived in the suburbs as an older kid. I lived in a horrible, serial-killer infested part of a city as a college student, in a dormitory in Washington, D.C., in a family's apartment in Morocco, on the bad side of a college town, and, now, again, in the suburbs.
So if anyone's qualified to talk about what's great, or not great, about the suburbs, it's me. Not some hack writer, not some old lady that might have witchlike powers, not people who imagine there is a dark side to the suburbs. There's not. There's no terrible awesome soul-crushing despair emanating from quiet, tree-lined streets, mowing down dreams and aspirations and artistic talent like some kind of monstrous Katamari. And, frankly, I'm tired of hearing that there is something wrong with the suburbs. I'm especially tired of hearing that there's something wrong with the suburbs from people who have no clue about what it's like to live in the suburbs. Like Richard Yates.
I know I'm supposed to apparently pay homage to Richard Yates for his book Revolutionary Road, but I'm skeptical. I'm skeptical because Yates' book, and now the movie, portrays the suburbs as some sort of deadening influence that leeches the life out of people and draws them down into sadness, madness, despair, and death. But as far as I can tell, Yates never lived in the suburbs.
Lots of writers, though, imagine what it would be like to live somewhere or do something or be someone and then write about it. It's not as though a male can't write a story from a female perspective. Stories have been set on Mars, or in the past, or in other fictional places, like Canada and France -- all without complaint by me. I don't complain, because first, I have no frame of reference to say whether those writers are right, or wrong: I've never been to Mars, and nobody's ever been to Canada, so who can say if those locales are portrayed accurately? And I don't complain, second, because not every single last depiction of those locations is negative. There have been stories set in virtually every realm, real or imaginary, that highlight both the good, and the bad, part of living there.
Except the suburbs.
I can't for the life of me as I sit here think of a single story ever, a single movie, ever, a single TV show, ever, which portrayed life in the suburbs as anything short of a living hell.
Why is that? Why do creative types imagine that the suburbs must destroy people, must slowly drag them into the muck with a slimy tentacle while the grimy walls of the compactor remorselessly grind forward, with no C-3PO to hear our pleas as we frantically try to brace something, anything, to slow down certain death?
I don't know. But there you have it: artists and writers and filmmakers and actors have, for as long as suburbs have existed, depicted the suburbs as monotonous drudgery at best, and the equivalent of carbon monoxide poisoning at worst. I know that for a fact, because I have actually read an early, long-forgotten postscript to The Odyssey, in which Homer detailed Odysseus' return after his adventures, finishing with this haunting quatrain:
He gazed off e'er long far into empty space
His old eyes glazed and glowing with remorse
This man who'd marched with the gods
Now craving lemonade and a patio chair.
Excuse me while I wipe away a tear.
Even J.R.R. Tolkien couldn't avoid cursing the suburbs. Look at how badly Bilbo Baggins and Frodo Baggins wanted to get out of Hobbiton and The Shire. Was there ever a more suburban fantasy landscape than The Shire, where pudgy people sit around gardening and drinking beer? But the hobbits couldn't get out of it fast enough, and even when the Hobbits [SPOILER ALERT FROM THAT PART OF THE MOVIES OR BOOKS WHERE YOU REALLY KIND OF THOUGHT "COME ON, TOLKIEN, THIS STORY HAS GONE ON FOR SOMETHING LIKE 23,000 PAGES AND YOU SHOULD JUST END IT ALREADY" BUT IT DIDN'T END, DID IT? IT JUST WENT ON AND ON AND ON] come home after destroying The Ring, after they find that Saruman has destroyed The Shire and they put it back together again, even then, they can't stay there entirely happy but instead must sail off with the Elves again.
Well, I've had enough. I'm going to set the record straight, and I'm going to do it with the help of the one person America trusts more than anyone. No, not Morgan Freeman. I mean, we do trust him, but he's busy making weather happen and ensuring that teams win big games. I'm talking about Tom Hanks.
Tom Hanks made "The 'Burbs," and thought, in doing so, that he was supporting his fellow creative types by making fun of the suburbs. He didn't realize, though, that The 'Burbs was more than just a parody of life in the suburbs, that behind the all-too-facile humor were deeper truths about just how good life is in the suburbs -- or did he? Was Tom Hanks actually breaking ranks with the rest of the artistic world to make a long-misunderstood manifesto proclaiming the superiority of life in the suburbs?
Let's see, as we look at
The Five Best Things About The Suburbs, As Proven By "The 'Burbs," And Which Are Not As Bad As Movies And Books Claim...
1. The suburbs actually spur creativity. Books and movies claim that the suburbs are too quiet and monotonous -- that nothing ever happens and life in a city is what spurs creativity.
That's simply not true, as "The 'Burbs" proves. Could Tom Hanks' character have ever come up with the theory that his new, weird neighbors had kidnapped an old man if he'd been living in a major city? Hardly; he'd have been too tired from being woken up by garbage trucks at 3 a.m., or too frustrated from having to wait in line for everything. When you cram 10,000,000 people into a small area, nobody can just walk into a coffee shop and get coffee without queueing up. And who can come up with crazy conspiracy theories when they're too busy wondering what that smell is? I'll tell you what that smell is. It's 10,000,000 people living too closely together.
What's the most creative thing a city-dwelling character has ever dreamed up in a book or movie? You can't think of anything, can you? That's because cities suck creativity out of you. Carrie Bradshaw couldn't write creatively; all she could do was talk about herself and shoes. If she'd gone off to the suburbs, she might've found a novel or two in her.
2. People can express their individuality without having to poke holes in their face or body. Madeleine L'Engle is one of the foremost writers to get the suburbs wrong -- in A Wrinkle In Time she posited an alien culture of identical houses and people and kids, all coming out to bounce their balls in the driveway in unison. It was a horrifying vision of conformity -- but a horrifying vision written by a woman who'd spent little, if any, time in the suburbs at all. (She lived in what might loosely be called a suburb for about 7 years, total.) And it was a horrifying vision that in fact gets the suburbs exactly wrong.
Drive through a modern suburb these days at any time of year and what do you see? Even assuming that all the houses look vaguely similar -- a common complaint by nonsuburbanites-- the yards and decorations are not at all similar. I know this, because I frequently take rides through the suburbs. I see people doing different things with landscaping, painting, Christmas decorations. I see houses with basketball hoops and houses with pools and houses with flower gardens and houses with rock gardens, and houses shaped like octagons and one house that has a suit of armor on the front porch.
You know why writers and other artistic types think that suburbs are all the same? Because their surroundings are all the same. Look at an apartment building in New York City. Or Chicago. Or Los Angeles. Or San Francisco. Or Paris. Can you stand in the hallway of any apartment building anywhere in the world and tell anything about the people living in that building? No. It's row after row of anonymous doors. And on the street level of any city, the buildings look mostly the same, too -- it's not until (and unless) you look up that you see the differences in the buildings. Until you look up... or until you get outside the city and see the skyline.
That sameness is what leads city folk to pierce their noses, eyebrows, bellybuttons, or other parts, or to wear outrageous fashions, or get weird hairstyles, and to change their fashions over and over and over again: because they need to somehow proclaim to the world I am unique. Suburbanites can wear our cutoff shorts and t-shirts year in and year out -- because our yards and houses help show who we are.
Tom Hanks knew that, too -- The 'Burbs has neighbors with old houses, new houses, flagpoles... each neighbor being instantly identifiable by his yard and house.
3. The trees and animals aren't in jail. When you look at the set of The 'Burbs, one of the things you realize immediately is that there's a lot of grass and trees on it. Living things. Growing things. And when you wander through a real suburb, that's what you see, too: Flowers. Trees. Birds. Squirrels. Raccoons. We had a fox walk through our yard. Once, a deer came right up to our patio window. There's a fantastic nature preserve about 1/4 mile away -- and when I walk through it, I can't hear anything but nature.
Go to a city, and it's just the opposite: concrete, metal, walls, spikes. Trees in sidewalks in a city are surrounded by iron grates and culverts intended to keep them from growing too big and upsetting the sidewalk. That's right: city dwellers want to make sure their concrete remains uniform and flat.
Gardens in London are fenced in, requiring a boost from Hugh Grant to get into them. And animals? The only animals living in cities, typically, are the stuff of legend: alligators in the sewers, the Beast. When real animals move into a city, or appear in a city, they're either gross, dingy-colored rats or pigeons, or so rare that they become the subject of websites:
You don't see suburbanites so overwhelmed by the presence of something living in their midst that they just have to post it on the Internet. Well, okay, sometimes you do. But the point remains: City dwellers are so starved for signs of actual living things that they travel around the world just to experience them, and then fall in love with the first person they see standing near an animal.
Which brings up point 4:
4. You don't have to go somewhere else to have an epiphany. In "Crocodile Dundee," whats-her-name leaves New York City to go off to the Outback to get almost eaten and not shower and eat bugs or whatever, all to learn an important life lesson. That's something that's always happening, or almost-happening, to characters in cities in movies and books. The same thing happens in Romancing The Stone. And Into the Wild -- I assume; I haven't seen that movie and don't want to, in part because if your dream is to go off into the wild and survive on your own, why would you pick someplace cold, someplace where you will freeze to death if you're outside for more than an hour? What's wrong with the rain forest, where you can at least not die simply because your house building skills might be lacking? Correct me if I'm wrong, since I've never been to the Arctic or the Equator, but isn't there way more food and wood and warmth and readily-drinkable water in the tropics than at the poles?
The point is, city dwellers are always leaving cities to learn valuable life lessons. Even Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet left the city -- because of their children, they said -- before they learned something. Then, they were going to leave the suburbs, too, to learn some more. City people think you have to go somewhere to figure things out.
Tom Hanks knew better. What was he going to do on his vacation? Sit around his house. Watch some TV. Maybe do a little work around the house. He didn't have to go anywhere to "figure out who he is," or have a life-changing experience. He's comfortable in his own skin.
It's not that suburbanites won't go anywhere. It's that they don't have to. They don't have to flee the suburbs. Which brings up point five, and the most important one:
5. Almost nobody is brutally murdered, ever. In The 'Burbs, Tom Hanks suspected his neighbors were murdering people, demonstrating the net of suspicion that city-dwellers and artistic types cast over those who for some reason find it dissatisfying to live in an anonymous world of cement and metal and noise and opt for something different. But [SPOILER ALERT... AND SIMPLY BY TELLING YOU THAT, YOU THINK THAT I'VE SPOILED IT, DON'T YOU? BECAUSE YOU THINK I'M GOING TO SAY HE WAS WRONG. BUT I'M NOT. SO, SPOILER ALERT!] the new neighbors didn't kill one of the old neighbors. They killed the former occupants of the house.
Throughout the movie, everyone continues to insist that Tom Hanks is wrong, that he's misreading the clues, that there's an innocent explanation for what he's seen... and why do they do that? Because it's so incredibly unlikely that someone will be brutally murdered in the suburbs.
In the suburbs, people insist on knowing each other. People insist on saying hi to you when you're just trying to take your Babies! to the park. They come up and talk to you when you're out raking your yard. They say hi at 6 a.m. when you and your neighbor are both in your pajamas getting your newspapers. They have yard sales and come check out each other's junk. They open windows in the spring and summer and get told by their parents that the neighbors will hear. All of which means that one cannot live long in the suburbs if one is a psychopathic freak... as Tom Hanks pointed out in The 'burbs. Your neighbors will be onto you instantly.
That's why, in Poltergeist, the haunted house had to be in a new area of the subdivision, a new, sparsely-populated area. The neighbors in a suburb would never have tolerated trees grabbing people, midget psychics, skeletons in the swimming pool, and all the lights and noise of the poltergeists. In the suburbs, the cops are called when someone's using a leafblower too early on a Sunday. (Sorry, neighbor. But I wanted to sleep in.) In a real suburb, a court order evicting the poltergeists would've been issued by the end of the first week.
You know where serial killers, ghosts, and monsters live? Cities. "Cloverfield" didn't tramp around New Canaan, Connecticut. He went for Manhattan. Just like Godzilla did. And King Kong.
I'm just saying.