What's Stranger Than Paradise?

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

In a sense, TV has mass-produced Rimbaud's "I is Another," given it a new meaning and applied it to the consumer. As a spectator form, the tube has a built-in displacement, exemplified in the sitcom innovation of the laugh track: TV is what everyone else watches (just as public opinion is what everyone thinks). That True Stories, Raising Arizona, and Heaven oscillate between smug put-on and enthusiastic condescension suggests precisely this ambivalence. One defense against tele-commodification is a bemused loathing for those other ordinary fucking people, constructed as they are by the absurd social codes, received languages, reified desires, and true stories of bourgeois America's "wild, wild life."

It's funny. You come to something new and everything looks the same.—Richard Edson Stranger Than Paradise

It's been said that artistic regionalism is the revolt of geography against history. What then is the particular ersatz regionalism of Blue Velvet and Peggy Sue, the Coen Brothers, Susan Seidelman, and David Byrne? Many of these filmmakers, and much of their audience, grew up in suburbia. AmeriKitsch, perhaps much of postmodernism itself, is the culture of suburban baby-boomers. Neither as cozy as smalltown America, nor as heterogeneous as the city, the suburbs (like television) are nowhere in particular and everywhere at once. Could the region AmeriKitsch evokes be less a place than a time?

Attempts to revive the Summer of Love notwithstanding, the '50s remain our favorite theme park. The consensus is that the Eisenhower era was the last age of consensus. (Whether this is true or not hardly matters. As American Graffiti makes explicit, the '58-'62 period is fetishized because it was the last thing glimpsed before the escalating traumas of the '60s.) It's been years since the futuristic utopianism of the '60s was superseded by nostalgia. Just as Populuxe might have served as the recipe for Making Mr. Right, so Jarmusch recreates The Americans as a nostalgic pastorale. Indeed, nothing is more characteristic of Americanarama than the superimposition of the '50s over the '80s. The decade blur is explicit in Peggy Sue, blatant in Blue Velvet, implicit in Something Wild (as well as in the British Absolute Beginners), and latent in True Stories—not to mention the major theme of Ronald Reagan's presidency, The Cosby Show, and the programming philosophy of Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcast Network.

Nostalgia for the '50s is also present in the work of Steven Spielberg. But Spielberg differs from the practitioners of Americanarama in that his films (up until The Color Purple) followed the Godardian paradigm of movie quotation and genre appropriation; and more to the point, his suburbia is as apocalyptic as the Revelations of Saint John. A photo-realist appreciation for the nuances of tract-house life barely conceals the hysteria that underlies Close Encounters and E.T. (let alone Poltergeist, Gremlins, or Back to the Future). Lynch, Byrne, Seidelman, et al. try to construct families; for Spielberg the Father's wish to flee the home is as absolute as Huck Finn's desire to light out for the territories—and a good deal more drastically regressive. Spielberg's is a desperate quest for rebirth.

Paradise, in Spielberg, is returning to the Mother Ship to be reunited with the radioactive embryos; paradise, in Byrne, is now. Still, something haunts True Stories et al., and Spielberg's paradoxical, inept attempt to portray absolute Otherness may furnish a clue to what it is. Gone is the ethnic chic of the '60s and '70s. The films I've been discussing are far whiter than the average television commercial—and the whites are strictly unhyphenated American. The burden of Otherness is shouldered by blacks, and it's illuminating to ponder their role. Whether cast as Blue Velvet's blind seer or True Stories's voodoo priest, disguised as Jarmusch's noveau White Negro or scattered over the landscape in Something Wild, this Other remains reproachful, unassimilated, establishing the margins of representation.

To me, what this suggests is the uneasy awareness that our suburban consensus is nothing but an idea. After all, Reaganism is a reaction against the '60s, but only in part. Much of what happened during that decade can be summed up in two phrases, which became common currency 20 years ago and have remained so ever since: the Media and the Third World. Not only did new actors tread upon the stage of history, but the nature of the stage was redefined. Americanarama, like Reaganism, embraces one and represses the other—setting the American subject in a media-amplified hall of mirrors. At best, the crypto Third World that populates Something Wild or Down By Law is a fugitive yearning for some other utopia—interracial, cross-cultural, class-effacing. The apparent impossibility of fully imagining this alternative is what accounts for the uncanny hermeticism, if not solipsism, of these films—and all Americanarama. True Stories idealizes the shopping malls in which it will presumably be shown.

We've come full circle: True Stories is as blandly positivist in its platitudes as Nashville was glibly negative. Here, the good life appears preserved, as it were, under glass—like one of the miniaturized, climate-controlled cities that Superman's nemesis Brainiac used to collect. Like our Great Communicator, the most pernicious Americanaramic films play let's pretend. They deny even the desperate denial that is the subject of Gates of Heaven or Melvin and Howard. Where America was the New Eden or the Golden Land, Americanarama is the game preserve of American hegemony, an island in a Third World sea-one nation, anesthetized, sealed in plastic, self-absorbed.

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