What a long, strange road Penelope Spheeris’ career has taken – from a tumultuous early life and proud grounding in Los Angeles’ punk culture through to Wayne’s World (1992) and other manifestations of mildly or wildly disreputable comedy. With all kinds of curious and crazy pit stops along the way, from the fanciful punk fantasy Dudes (1987) to the angry telemovie The Crooked E: The Unshredded Truth About Enron (2003) and a Janis Joplin biopic long in the wings (alas, never made).
Spheeris (who turns 74 in 2018) has never – in this path bifurcated between independent and mainstream projects – made an uninteresting movie. But she had, before her departure from the film scene for a less stressful life in real estate, already been nudged to the outer rim of contemporary cinema histories. It’s time to go back and revisit Suburbia, a work that really deserves a cult tag.
Suburbia’s nominal market orientation as a B genre film is announced in its pre-credit trauma: in a dark, lonely strip of outer L.A. suburbia, at a phone booth, a wild dog runs at and kills a small child, while a mother chats obliviously on the phone and a teenage runaway, Sheila (Jennifer Clay), stands by uselessly. This, is no doubt, part of the B formula: start with a shock, and keep the violent action coming every ten minutes or so (“If not, your film’s not moving anywhere”, as Spheeris cheerfully explains on the terrific DVD audio commentary – during which she seems consistently amazed, in retrospect, at the quality of her own movie!).
But the scene is not a gratuitous teaser: the rhyming of this pack of abandoned dogs gone wild (based, like much of the script, on an actual incident) with the kids in the punk squat who call themselves T.R. (for The Rejected), is consistent for the entire film. Spheeris twists the association further in the many embedded (sometimes comically paranoiac) sci fi/post apocalypse references to toxic waste, radioactivity and hideous bodily mutation (the spectre of Mad Max 2  is never far away).
Which is to say that Suburbia is among the first great films of the ‘80s to mine the topic of dystopia, later so reflexly fashionable – a theme explicated in the scene where Evan (Bill Coyne) reads the 1960s diary of his now bitter and alcoholic mother, and discovers her optimistic rumination, when moving into this area as a new wife, on the union, in the very word, of ‘suburb’ and ‘utopia’. The wise response of Jack (Jack Diddley), who has literally picked Evan out of the gutter the previous night at a punk gig, is to hurl the pages of this deluded diary out the car window.
Suburbia derives much of its power and fascination from its real setting: what appears like an entire abandoned mini-suburb on the outer limits of the city – and, indeed, much of the story (which has basically a single, escalating motor: the growing determination of some vigilante citizens to come and do some harm to these rejected) is devoted to the political geography of this place, its laws and limits. (In a curious and very functional plot touch, Spheeris gives Jack a stepfather who is black and a cop!)
Spheeris had already made the first instalment of her legendary documentary series on punk, The Decline and Fall of Western Civilisation (1981 – the other parts followed in ’88 and ‘98), but Suburbia – co-financed by Roger Corman and a furniture mogul, Bert Dragin – was, as the director admits, her way of learning the craft of narrative filmmaking on the job. It is a remarkably accomplished piece on this level, full of felicitous touches in framing, camera movement and cutting.
It is not imbued with any particular cinephiliac penchant for quoting other films, but it has ended up being mightily influential over two subsequent decades of punk cinema: it is hard to imagine the Australian film Dogs in Space (1987), for instance, or even parts of the often great UK television series Skins (2007-2013), without the example Spheeris set here.
The film offers a modest panorama of some punk bands of the time (such as The Vandals) and includes, without making a big deal of it, the rituals of punk spectatorship (a key scene twists the club’s makeshift techniques of crowd control into gruesome voyeurism, as an unfortunate Neo-Romantic girl is unfussily stripped and held mercilessly in the spotlight beam for all to gawk at).
It is an intriguing mirror of the duality of Spheeris’ later development that Suburbia is not exactly a politically radical vision of the punk lifestyle. Spheeris was then, and remains now, righteously fired up by the evidence of social injustice, misery and violence – but she tends to sum it up as unnecessary conflict, avoidable bad vibes that evolve to the status of community wars. The kids in Suburbia have little political consciousness; there is no trace of Situationism here, although one could easily have imagined it. Spheeris indulges a familiar lament over broken homes – where the inventory of adult problems includes not only alcoholism and abuse, but also gayness!
Accordingly, her teens are surrounded with a pathos of longing for the domestic, nuclear-family utopia they never had: two frilly, girly punks like to listen to Sheila and recite fairy tales; Evan looks on, through a window, at a happy family in a restaurant; as in a key Skins episode, all these wild kids demand the right to mourn at the funeral of their comrade (with disastrous consequences, of course).
And Evan’s little brother, Ethan (Andrew Pece), once rescued from his bad home and decked out with a Mohawk, just keeps riding his little tricycle around and pining for what he misses – until final-scene tragedy intervenes, and Suburbia abruptly suspends its fragile evocation of a makeshift world apart.
MORE Spheeris: Black Sheep
© Adrian Martin March 2009 / September 2018