What's Stranger Than Paradise?

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

The '60s brought the wholesale aestheticization of America. The more phenomenological wing of Pop and the more socially conscious branch of Minimalism saw interstate highways as something like cathedrals. Proto-Conceptualists Robert Smithson and Dan Graham wrote deadpan treatises on the monuments of Passaic or the aesthetics of suburban tract houses. (The '70s brought the even more neutral "new topographers," who photographed suburban backyards and, rather than the postcard or snapshot, privileged the real estate photograph as their preferred nonaesthetic form).

"I like to think about and look at those suburbs and those fringes, but at the same time, I'm not interested in living there . . . It is the future—the Martian landscape," Smithson told Allan Kaprow in 1966, anticipating the gist of More Songs About Buildings and Food (and the validation of Close Encounters of the Third Kind) by about 10 years.

When it came to addressing this new American landscape, however, Hollywood was largely impervious. It's not just that the industry preferred such metaphoric substitutes as the Old West or Imperial Rome—it lacked the necessary distance. After all, the movies were the landscape. Still, in the halcyon days of the '50s, Frank Tashlin and Douglas Sirk, each in his own alienated way, were proto Pop artists if not proto-Conceptualists (making films as interesting to think about as they are to watch). Both directors embraced American vulgarity in all its lurid, wide-screen splendor, pushing what would some day be called "lifestyle" well past the point of sci-fi madness. Tashlin deployed such two-dimensional performers as Jayne Mansfield or Jerry Lewis as if to cast Sirk's most celebrated title, Imitation of Life. That one director made comedies and the other melodramas hardly mattered—both trafficked in Technicolor fleshtones and laminated sheen, the flat, flaming, larger-than-life, all-American inauthenticity that European theorists Umberto Eco and Jean Baudrillard would call "hyperreality."

Other Hollywood examples were few and far between. There was George Axelrod's 1966 Tuesday Weld vehicle Lord Love a Duck. But just about everything else came from beyond the margins (Vernon Zimmerman's 1972 The Unholy Rollers, a drive-in paean to fast food, fast women, and fast skates), overseas (the Wisconsin sequences of Werner Herzog's 1977 Stroszek), or the regionalist fringe (George Kuchar's Bronx, John Waters's Baltimore, Les Blank's Cajun country, James Benning's Midwest). There was also Robert Altman. But Altman's films reflected more a spasm of national self-hatred than an effusion of populist love. Mosholu Holiday, Pink Flamingos, and 11 x 14 were the exact opposite of Nashville. They treated industrial folk art with a sense of wonder and bemused affection—if not necessarily as the skeleton key to the American national character.

The true godfathers of Shopping Mall Chic are Errol Morris and Jonathan Demme, both of who came out of left field in the mid-Carter years to meet heartland mishegas heads-on—in part by dramatizing "true stories" of bizarre success and pathetic failure. The delicate sense of CB radio as a form of corn-fed astral projection made Demme's Handle With Care (1978) a critical favorite. But from his earliest days at American-International, the hallmark of Demme's career has been an appreciation for lower-class kitsch and the mass-produced, reified fantasy it embodies: theme restaurants and motels, while-u-wait wedding chapels and the accoutrements of an L.A.-style Christmas.

Based on the case of Melvin Dumar, mystery beneficiary of Howard Hughes's contested will, Melvin and Howard (1980) treats the contemporary West—Vegas, SoCal, Utah (with utopian intimations of Hawaii)—as a land of failed schemes and sweet disorder. The film is the real Rocky, Americans as feckless, media-blitzed dreamers and natural performers who think nothing of marrying each other twice, then spending their honeymoon playing nickel slots. Demme gives Frank's Desolation Row a benign shot of post-hippie oh wowism. (Who needs Nepal, check out the K-Mart). A TV giveaway program—half Gong Show, half Let's Make a Deal—where Mary Steenburgen carries off the jackpot with her green sateen bellhop outfit and a slow tap to "Satisfaction" or the Christmas luau at the dingy bottling plant where Melvin hopes to become Milkman of the Month (and win a color TV) would have been nightmares of condescension in the hands of a lesser director.

While Demme is an affable fabulist, celebrating sponge-like losers who soak up and exude an ambience that's as vivid and pungent as a Samarakand bazaar, Errol Morris observes the American dream with the unblinking cool of a NASA spaceprobe. Blue Velvet notwithstanding, Morris's 1978 Gates of Heaven is arguably the masterpiece of Americanarama, made nearly a decade before the trend coalesced. Certainly, for bottomline defamiliarizing weirdness, no film has ever surpassed this documentary account of two California pet cemeteries.

Mainly a succession of talking heads, Gates of Heaven constructs each frame as a sarcophagus all its own—the interviewees surrounded by totems ranging from The Wall Street Journal to a pair of bronzed baby shoes or a can of Coors, spilling their guts in a mélange of advertising clichés, talk show bromides, business school koans, and motivational slogans. Once the film moves to the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park (the proprietor assures bereaved clients that they will be reunited with their pets in the afterlife, while his own sons are buried alive in the family business), sentiment becomes even more awesomely reified: there are headstones carved with such devastating confessions as "I Knew Love—I Had This Dog."

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