What’s Stranger Than Paradise?


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.

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.”

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?

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.