SubUrbia: The Kitsch Underbelly of America
The kitsch suburban family life we know, at its inception, was earnest. A dream of perfect living for the perfect family. White picket fences and lawn furniture. Ironed collars and boxed planters, stitched along the seams of the garden. A 50's American idealism, pulling a polka dot skater dress over a post-war malaise. Stay-at-home mums making dinner, dads in suits working in offices, and the kids and the dog play out back. A facade of perfect, idyllic comfort, but at its heart is a deeply blinkered white American conservatism. A refusal to look inward at what horrors lay in the American socio-sphere.
The 60’s Sexual Revolution made light work of this tableau; rending it limb from limb with sexual promiscuity, left-leaning politics, desolation of the "nuclear family," and the rise of the civil rights movement. But something remained in its wake – a slew of children unknowingly born into that darkness, their porcelain masks smashed as the door locked. Baby boomers conceived under false notions and overly polished pretenses. So it's only natural that, in time, some of those kids would make films about it. The late '80s and early '90s featured a handful of dark suburban films that not only reflected the filmmakers personal and technical propensities, but also critiqued the failure of that post-war prosperity and morality they were dreadfully doomed to inherit.
Let's start with John Waters’ incredible, and his personal favorite, Serial Mom (1994). A film where Kathleen Turner’s idyllic fantasies of clean-living and the perfect life are undercut by a darkness and a lust for murder. The film is framed in a grunge-pastel-picnic table aesthetic where the cereal boxes have kept their atom-age packaging. The kitchen is a beautifully designed homage to the '50s and its false sensibilities are are thin as tracing paper. In the quest for suburban perfection, Turner’s Beverly, or Bev for short, is a gatekeeper. The rules of existence inside a packaged dream are to be obeyed, and if not? You die. She kills you. She didn’t make the rules but she sure enforces them. Like when a neighbor litters, Bev and her garbage men are disgusted and they suggest someone kills her. So she does, for the good of the image.
It’s a completely superficial crusade and it's also fucking hilarious. Waters’ critique of conservatism here is about outward vs. inward. The curtain tweaks and scowled looks peer through. When Bev’s son is accused of being weird and awful she reacts violently, but when we see her allowing him to watch all these weird and awful things that let him be this way, she shrugs them off. There is no inward reflection, only outward. You can tell its something that Waters isn’t angry about, as much as he pokes and ridicules it. Leaving Serial Mom to be not only fucking hilarious, but tonally unique and extremely odd. Plus, it features L7 playing their best song. God bless you John.
Michael Lehmann’s criminally underwatched Meet The Applegates (1990) deals with, not the preservation of this bought and sold falsehood, but its effects on the home, community, and the world. Hinting at post-nuclear pollution, colonialism and corporate landscaping Meet The Applegates is surprisingly less dark and more a slanted cartoonish absurdity surrounding a family of giant praying mantises who disguise themselves as human to fit in to a typical kitsch american suburb. The reason for their extrapolation into the neighborhood of tree-lined everywheresville and nosy neighbors, is one of the preservation of their species. They want to infiltrate the nuclear power plant, and blow it up – meaning all humans will die and bugs can rein free.
Humans beings eradicated by its modern dependency, alongside the '50s dream: atomic energy. What we find though is that American domesticity and its imposed flavours are actually a poison to the Burton-esque Applegates. All darkness has a membrane that swells and bursts in varying degrees of black; the father is seduced by his secretary and is distracted in his plans, the mother falls prey to habitual consumerism as if it were a drug, the son directly turns to drugs, and the daughter is impregnated by the school jock. Each member of the “nuclear” family’s caste is twisted. They get their revenge in a mixture of amazing video-shop goo FX and chintzy type humour that really edges Meet the Applegates into the definition of “buried oddity”. Ripe for discovery if only its rights would allow for a modern home video release.
Bob Balaban’s Parents (1989) is an easy choice for this but its leanings are murkier, with head on almost-too-obvious references to cannibalism and consumption. Its secret lies in its presentation: Jetsons-esque tables, round bottomed BBQs and “Kiss The Cook” aprons, practicing golf swings by the washing line. The Laemle’s house looks like a wet-ink pressing of all the kitchens and living rooms from old party cookbooks; Christmas records smashed over wooden clocks, thrust by too much whiskey. That over-saturated aesthetic that grunge outer rim bands like Gas Huffer used as drapes for their videos and album cover sensibilities.
Randy Quaid as the dad Nick is the linchpin: he looks like the archetypal '50s dad with his goofy slick hair and thick rimmed glasses, but under his old-time fatherly rulekeeping is a dark-hearted authoritarian. A murderer, sure, but that's not so scary when the means can be scarier than the end. A sinister nightmare that lives under your roof. He’s the breadwinner, and the hand of perceived stability. Parents is the darkest of all these films with the most sinister and jarringly scary tone. Its nightmare is never relieved by the candy-coating of its dwellings, only heightened. The BBQ and the dinnertable, benign and regular, now with the inclusion of human meat, are horrific and tense. The family feeding itself back the routine that's been sold. Lips taped to the exhaust of the american dream. Balaban’s hellview of suburban living as told from the view of the son speaks a lot about how the wet-peel of family life in this time affected him, and how that dream being broken affected his, and all, parents.
If war was hell, then the post-war dreamhaze the latter part of the 20th century inherited was a bottomless climb into the void, where hell, nor heaven was granted. A bottom or a top denied. Suspended living, smiling and waving. Baking cookies while the nuclear aftershock stripped the flesh from bone and the waving hand of civility and happiness was attached to no body. And it made for some fucking great cult films.