What's Stranger Than Paradise?

Or, How We Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the 'Burbs

 June 30, 1987

For years we have been taught not to like things. Finally somebody said it was OK to like things. This was a great relief. It was getting hard to go around not liking everything.—David Byrne, True Stories (the book)

Who taught us not to like things? And who finally told us it was okay? Was it David Byrne? Andy Warhol? Ronald Reagan? (Was it . . . Satan?) Capping a trend that's been percolating for most of the decade, a new obsession with the strangeness—even the Otherness—of the American heartland characterizes a remarkable number of recent movies.

Call it Kitschy Kool or Americanarama, Jetsonism or the Hayseed Renaissance, the New Patriotism or Neo-Regional Backlash, Middle American Grotesque or Shopping Mall Chic, such disparate films as Blue Velvet and Raising Arizona, Something Wild and True Stories, Making Mr. Right and Crimes of the Heart, Peggy Sue Got Married and Down By Law, Heaven, The Stepfather, and Sherman's March are all transfixed—if not stupefied—by the American Way of Life. Coming in the wake of cult items as diverse as Stranger Than Paradise, Blood Simple, Repo Man, UFOria, Static, The Atomic Cafe, Pee-wee's Big Adventure, and even E.T., this trend has the force of a cultural upheaval.

The themes of these movies are as obsessive as their souvenir-stand iconography: the pathos of received ideas, the triumph of the ersatz, the wonder of bad taste, the dreamlike superimposition of the '50s over the '80s, the sense of Middle America as a kitsch theme park. That national "new morning" proclaimed by Ronald Reagan three years ago must be getting on toward high noon: True Stories celebrates small town American life with an exaggerated, shadowless clarity. Or maybe it's really later than we think. Blue Velvet defamiliarizes a similar landscape with the most sinister of twilights.

Are these films condescending or accepting? Do they reek of alienation or burble with self-love? Is there a new confidence in being American? Or a panicky realization that "America" is all we've got? Just what is it that makes the norms of American life seem so wonderfully exotic, if not downright bizarre? In retrospect, the key scene in recent American films occurs 20 minutes into Stranger Than Paradise when, interrogated by his greenhorn cousin, John Lurie launches into an impassioned defense of the TV dinner—a gag leaving the viewer to wonder if the Swanson's in question was not simply defrosted from the freezer but exhumed intact from a pharaoh's tomb.

Heineken?! Fuck that shit!! Pabst . . . Blue . . . Ribbon!!!—Dennis Hopper Blue Velvet

Natural paradise or urban DMZ, the American landscape is the arena of moral forces. Whatever it may have become, this was once Europe's new Eden, its fabulous Second Chance, its verdant Blank Slate. The land itself signified "promise," and, in the absence of a classical tradition, a universal church, or a royal court, it was, for American artists, the source of transcendent value. Landscape painting is very much a 19th century phenomenon but, in the provincial first half of the 20th century, before New York wrested modern art away from Paris, virtually very indigenous movement was some sort of landscape art—the Ashcan group, Precisionism, Social Realism, Regionalism—while the strongest individuals, Edward Hopper and Georgia O'Keeffe, say, or Walker Evans, have all but left their names on specific vistas, Walt Disney-style.

It was Evans's protégé Robert Frank who burst like a bombshell on the photography world with the definitive vision of postwar America. First published in 1959 (complete with Jack Kerouac intro), The Americans plumbed the underside of the Eisenhower era: reveling in the seedy, the alienated, and the soulful, churning up image after image of hitherto invisible stuff and insisting on its intrinsic American-ness. It was Frank who invented Desolation Row—a new American landscape of two-lane blacktops and all-night diners with incandescent jukeboxes, bus depots and empty casinos, inhabited by a restless tribe of blurry drifters. Familiar enough now, Frank's elliptical, snapshot iconography was so radical in the late '50s he couldn't even get a New York gallery until his work was published in France.

Frank's debut preceded by two seasons the single most convulsive moment in American painting, the sudden rise and smashing victory of Pop Art. Static, anti-anecdotal, and monumental, Pop took over consumer products and media icons—the very stuff that makes us American—and celebrated them as the demi-urges of the new, triumphantly ersatz, non-European civilization. From Jasper Johns's bronze beer cans and Claes Oldenburg's fake fur Popsicles to Tom Wesselman's blatantly eroticized consumer-scapes and Ed Ruscha's deadpan panorama of every building on the Sunset Strip, Pop created a new plastic pantheon. Pop's ideological avant-garde was the camp taste for the dated, extravagant detritus of American mass culture—the relics of our recent collective past. Cold War America had been doggedly earnest; by the mid '60s, Pop and Camp institutionalized irony, making any sort of ephemera reclaimable (and collectible). From there it was a simple step to the post-modern architects who advocated Learning from Las Vegas or the American Studies grad students who wrote dissertations on Johnny Carson.

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