Better Send Some People Down:
“Everybody’s Out of Town” was a pop hit that haunted my childhood. B.J. Thomas’ whimsical, lilting croon of this composition by Burt Bacharach & Hal David in 1970 belied the spookiness of the song’s premise: a guy wakes up one day and finds he is the only person left in a big city.
The tantalizing, tender images conjured by these lyrics fused, in my young mind, with all those B movies on TV (such as Five , The World, the Flesh and the Devil  and Roger Corman’s Last Woman on Earth ) imagining what it would be like to survive a nuclear apocalypse: suddenly, all those streets, bowling alleys, supermarkets and cinemas would be all mine. Naturally, the fun doesn’t last long. Thomas’ song ends with a plaintive cry addressed to no one (no god) in particular: “Better send some people down”.
There are many disquietingly beautiful images of suburbia in Australian art, like Keith Looby's paintings of “sacred suburbs” or Bill Henson’s darkly sublime photographs of rooftops, power lines and TV aerials. On ABC’s The Arts Show in February 2000, a documentary tribute to the late Howard Arkley showcased his immaculately airbrushed visions of the patterns he found in suburban interiors, on gates, and in the distant, looming lines of flyover highways.
Arkley didn't insert people into his paintings. There was an empty, timeless, abstract quality to his work – as if suburbia were ultimately just a bundle of decorative and architectural motifs, not a living space bursting with everyday drama and comedy. Nonetheless, the artist insisted that what he painted was “quite simply my life” – and the results expressed his abiding ambivalence towards an environment that was one day magical, and the next day “soulless, tragic and sad”. It’s so reminiscent of The Go-Betweens’ plaintive 1988 song “Streets of Your Town”, with its terse mixture of daily sunshine and “battered wives”.
In Australian movies focusing on suburbia, a similar ambivalence reigns. Clara Law’s Floating Life (1996) frames the streets of a New South Wales suburb as Michelangelo Antonioni might: cool, still, angular, alienating. Geoffrey Wright’s Metal Skin (1995) takes a heightened, histrionic approach: the suburb as industrial wasteland, as hell hole, with the characters dwarfed by abandoned factories, cold pylons and massed packing creates.
And then there are the sunny, optimistic, resolutely old-fashioned images: young lovers on a rooftop surveying the charmed circle of their homes and workplaces in Spotswood (1992); merry folk out singing, mowing, hanging their washing on the iconic Hills Hoist in Gillian Armstrong’s Starstruck (1982); and a priceless bunch of TV commercials circa 2000 (for home loans, air conditioning, etc.) that show newly married couples ecstatically frolicking on couches, carpets and beds, happy and hyped every single second.
Perhaps the most popular and pervasive way of depicting Australian suburbia has been encapsulated by Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke (1999). Since her early shorts, Campion has always pictured the suburbs as a kitsch overload: low front gates and eyesore ornaments occupying every inch of the interior.
For Campion, the behaviour of those raised within such an environment is equally shallow and despicable. Pathetic, unfaithful husbands, thinking themselves “classy”, chuck around a few foreign words (“C’est moi!”); a gaggle of family members blunders about, kids underfoot, oblivious to the real, deep issues. In Holy Smoke, it is only when Ruth (Kate Winslet) escapes home and family that she at last becomes the star of a serious art film set within a brooding, expressive landscape.
Whether comic or dramatic, Quirky or Gothic, this is the image of suburbia that has guided such local hits as Muriel’s Wedding (1994). Suburbia is the place where not-too-bright people stay stuck in their mundane ways – and those whom the filmmakers hold up as heroes are those brave, eccentric, individualistic souls who escape the communal rut and make their destiny elsewhere, in the bush, the desert, out at sea, or in some glamorous, metropolitan centre.
Do any of these standard representations of suburbia really satisfy us? It can all seem like so much lame fantasising, or pathetic shadow boxing. Suburban experience is always reflected back to us via clichés and extreme, distorting perspectives; it always comes freighted with a cultural agenda.
Of course, all art, high or low, necessarily distorts and enhances its subjects; that’s why we need and enjoy it. But when it comes to thinking through the lived experience of suburbia, our options appear rather limited, and our tools extremely crude. The suburbs are either fluffily romanticised or torn down in anger, pictured as the site of either social redemption or eternal damnation. It’s as if we’re forever caught, in Aussie pop-song terms, between the wrenching melancholia of Margaret Roadknight’s “Girls in Our Town” (written by Bob Hudson, humorist of “The Newcastle Song” fame) and the brittle irony of Dave Warner’s “Suburban Boy”, “Suburban Rock”, “Meanwhile in the Suburbs”… and his band From the Suburbs!
Between the quirky and the Gothic views of suburbia – and the ambivalent seesaw between these stark alternatives – there seems not much room to move.
Cultural theorising about cinema and suburbia also adopts extreme positions, and hones its own ambivalence. In the Oxford Companion to Australian Film, Rose Lucas proposes that Australian movies, like Australian society, are caught between the hyper-urban and the sub-urban.
The hyper-urban is like a heady Wong Kar-Wai film from Hong Kong: it is the ever-mysterious, technologically wired metropolis in which there is “immersion in the play of possibilities”, “change, movement, difference, and inter- and intra- nationalisms” (Lucas). It is the place where a stroll or a ride can bring new, life-transforming encounters, every day.
The sub-urban is, on the other hand, characterised by hopeless nostalgia, pale, Anglo-Celtic mono-culture, and the reactionary values of the straight, nuclear, patriarchal family model. This world, where “old patterns and despairs reassert themselves”, is “crushingly constrictive to the individual”. It is not hard to tell, from her descriptions, which of these urban scenarios Lucas herself prefers.
Of course, there are many suburbias, many key images of the suburban lifestyle or environment that figure in art, fiction and cinema: inner-city and outer suburbs; industrial and residential; working-class and middle-class.
American cinema, especially since the 1960s, has casually reveled in this diversity of suburban settings – from small towns by the sea (as in The Love Letter, 1999) to the comfortable, leafy cul-de-sacs of the leisured and affluent (Terms of Endearment, 1983), via the desolate, broken down suburbs in Hal Hartley's films (such as Trust, 1900), summarised by a garage door, depopulated diner or abandoned petrol pump.
Intriguingly, it was an Australian filmmaker who achieved the apotheosis of a certain kind of suburban imagery in American pop culture. In The Truman Show (1998), Peter Weir built an extravagant conceit upon the brittle imagery of suburbia consolidated by David Lynch in Blue Velvet (1986): that ominously bright, shiny cluster of white-picket fences, rose gardens, and squeaky clean homes whose proud owners walk and talk like automatons.
But if this kind of imagery has lately become the dominant, international standard for imagining suburbia, then we are really in deep trouble.
Suburbia is a word that can trigger facile thinking – and equally facile art. The biggest problem with the massively overrated American Beauty (1999) is that – exactly like The Truman Show – it flatters easy, instant preconceptions about the Suburban Experience (not to mention the American Dream). The film is calculated to make its target audience feel smart, superior and not a little smug. To this end, director Sam Mendes is happy to regurgitate the familiar imagery of white picket-fences, geometric flower beds and rigidly ordered conformity.
We are therefore plunged into the “soulless, tragic and sad” cliché of suburbia from the first frame. Many commentators seem keen to believe this cliché, embracing it as some profound truth hidden behind the suburban facade. American Beauty as a searing statement about the “world of middle-class suburban conformity” with its “sparkling, self-satisfied and sanctimonious smile”: how easily these words came to TV arts host Stephen Feneley in his defense of the film in The Age.
But what do these sentiments really mean, what truth do they truly express or capture? Often, such passionately anti-suburban fictions speak in code: what they ooze is not lucidity but blind, resentful rage, and what they target is not some blanket condition of bourgeois banality or vacuity, but quite simply “the family” – once again abstracted, generalised and writ large as a hideous, social evil.
From The Graduate (1967) to American Beauty via Ana Kokkinos’ Head On (1998), some of the most acclaimed and supposedly intelligent movies about surburbia are animated by what is, at heart, a quite woolly, adolescent fix on rebellion and escape. Family, work, local communities, everyday life: all these are grimly presented as traps, prisons.
It would be wrong to go to the other extreme and call for humble, respectful portrayals of suburbia. Australian cinema already has plenty, and they are not always so inspiring or reassuring as they intend to be. Often they are, if not entirely conservative, at least cosily backward looking and insular: films like Brian McKenzie’s otherwise excellent Stan and George's New Life (1992), or the prolific writings of Barry Dickens, often remind me of the family members in The Castle (1997), who dreamily comment on the noisy airport right next door: “It’s very convenient if we ever have to fly one day”.
But it is instructive today to revisit an earlier period in Australian cinema, before suburbia was pictured as either wholly daydream or nightmare. Mike Thornhill’s The FJ Holden (1977) is, at one level, as grimly depressing and hyperreal a depiction of suburbia as the cinema has ever served up: every diagram of people in kitchens, cars, pubs and on street corners is tense, a little bleak and dehumanising.
Yet, as in the films of Ken Loach (Riff-Raff, 1991) or Maurice Pialat (Get Your Diploma First, 1977), every situation that underscores a system of daily, social oppression and cruel power games in FJ Holden is also an opportunity for “change, movement, difference” – and human connection. Things do happen in the suburbs, after all.
And The Castle itself, whatever its minor flaws, owes it immense popularity to the wry, affectionate way it mirrors suburban life. It’s certainly an optimistic, feel-good movie, but its image of suburbia is neither overly romanticised nor nostalgic. The community around the Kerrigan family is just a few neighbours, and the suburb itself is no picture postcard.
Wisely taking leave from the prevalent, national obsession with the look of suburbia, the makers of The Castle at least heeded the advice implicit in B.J. Thomas’ song: if you’re going try to express the soul of the suburbs, you better put some people in them first.
© Adrian Martin February 2000