Better Send Some People Down:
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.
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”.
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
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
if this kind of imagery has lately become the dominant, international standard
for imagining suburbia, then we are really in deep trouble.
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
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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,
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.
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