What's Stranger Than Paradise?

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

Morris's conceptual rigor, combined with his blandly outré subject matter and stark emphasis on his interviewee's iconic self-presentation, itself epitomizes the overall sense of alienation, displacement, and outlandish commodity fetishism that characterizes the Americanarama as a whole. That doesn't make his films easy to take: There's very little distance between Morris and his subjects and, even more than Demme, he's been a prophet without honor. Since Gates of Heaven, he has completed only one film—the hour-long Vernon, Florida (1980), a series of monologues featuring the more garrulous and eccentric citizens of the eponymous panhandle backwater.

Here Morris approaches documentary ground zero: A turkey-hunting hipster, a worm farmer, a couple who once took a vacation in White Sands, New Mexico, the crocks who hang out in front of Brock's Service Station, all become as entrancing as the kinkiest Warhol superstar—and far more mysterious. At one point, a local preacher delivers a sermon on the word "therefore" that has the effect of transforming language into a parade of empty, immanent signs—the words rattle in our brains like the refuse of a cargo cult.

Ordinary fucking people, I hate 'em.—Harry Dean Stanton Repo Man

AmeriKitsch has analogues in almost every field—the quizzical irony of performance artist Mike Smith's "everyman," the hermetic solemnity of William Eggleston's Graceland photos, the prurient, candy-colored surfaces of Frederick Barthelme's New Yorker stories, the adolescent hostility of California hard-core or neo-underground commix like Neat Stuff and Road Kill—not to mention a raft of book-length paeans:Amazing America, Roadside America, Thomas Hine's Populuxe, a lavish celebration of American vernacular design between the wars (Korea and Vietnam). But the most resonant manifestations have appeared in the art world: Eric Fischl's suburban grotesques, Laurie Simmons's staged photographs, the naked commodities of Group Material's "Americana" installation at the '85 Whitney Biennial, Jeff Koon's vacuum-sealed vacuum cleaners.

Koons, an artist who might have been invented by Frank Tashlin, anticipates the under-glass look of True Stories, just as Eric Fischl's sense of transgressive voyeurism parallels Blue Velvet's, and the African fetish objects he tucks into his haunted suburban interiors suggest Something Wild. ("America's not Disneyland and we can't deny it any longer. Things smell, things have edges, people get hurt," Fischl has remarked.) The Barbie-doll tourists of Laurie Simmon's miniaturized, make-believe world are first cousins to the carefully outfitted, disillusioned Kewpies who inhabit Susan Seidelman's similarly stylized dollhouses. (Making Mr. Right's pastel, Jetsonesque décor recalls Kenny Scharf's self-proclaimed Jetsonism—although baroque artists like Scharf and Pee-wee Herman are more attuned to the tumult of '60s kitsch than to the imperial detritus of the staid '50s.)

Postmodern as it is, Americanarama has its cliquish "ism" aspect. Demme and Jarmusch have worked with David Byrne. Byrne and Susan Seidelman both employed cameraman Ed Lachman and art director Barbara Ling. Robby M shot Repo Man and Down by Law. Tibor Kalman's M&Co did titles for Something Wildand True Stories. Seidelman, Jarmusch, and Joel Coen all attended film school at NYU. But that's not really the source of Kitschy Kool.

One could trace the attitude back to the CBGB of the mid '70s or the Club 57 of a few years later. Certainly, Talking Heads and the B-52s are avatars of Shopping Mall Chic, while Anne Magnuson's talent shows (Kenny Scharf dressing up as Bam-Bam Flintstone, John Sex lip-synching to "What's New Pussycat?") epitomize the vulgar postmodernism that underlies Americanarama. In each case, the performance is a costume drama, predicated on the recycling of mass cultural artifacts in new and inappropriate contexts—the elevation of television roulette to a form of automatic writing, a kind of free association raised to its most self-conscious level by SCTV.

The love of kitsch is itself camp. But, even more than camp, AmeriKitsch is governed by the regime of nostalgia—the sense that the present is secondhand, that nothing is new except the reshuffling of past styles—and a love for the ersatz (raised to a generic principle by Making Mr. Right and True Stories, which is not a documentary). Unlike, say, Marlene Dietrich, Fred Flintstone can't be a sacred monster. Nothing in the world of Americanarama has the authority of the sui generis. For while camp privileged the movies, AmeriKitsch is totally telecentric. The movies dazzled audiences with outsized archetypes, but TV is nature—only denatured. Television is our everyday environment at once bleached out and tinnily intensified. Movies are events; TV is a continuum that, like the Blob, oozes out in all directions. Reruns notwithstanding, the tube presents an eternal now in which history is the history of style. (There's a wonderful intimation of this in Something Wild's high school reunion, dubbed "76 Revisited:" Resplendent in their red, white, and blue party hats, the former students cavort to the Feelies's version of "I'm a Believer" in front of a colossal American flag.)

Defining its viewer as both consumer and product, TV presents a miniaturized, ideologically constructed world—a dematerialized theme park—in which we all live and you are what you consume. If nothing is precisely authentic, everything is falsely familiar—at least a commodity (or the shadow of one). The characters in these TV-inflected movies live in a round of karmic desire by which their identity is defined, colonized, dissolved, and reconstructed by some external mechanism of production. Brand names and advertising slogans are their mantras. The conventions of the most conventional wisdom (get married, have a kid, grow old) motivate the protagonists of True Stories, Peggy Sue Got Married, Raising Arizona, and Sherman's March. It's certainly funny—but are they having fun? Yet?

« Previous Page
Next Page »