By LEE SIEGEL
"Revolutionary Road," based on Richard Yates's 1961 novel of the same name, is the latest entry in a long stream of art that portrays the American suburbs as the physical correlative to spiritual and mental death.
Suburbia in Art
The movie's opening scene could serve as a precis of over 50 years of antisuburban sentiment in American culture. Frank and April Wheeler (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet with misdirected intensity like two Titanics passing in the night) pull their car over to the side of the road. They've been fighting, and now they both jump out into the dark of the night. When April's needling escalates to downright cruelty, Frank pulls back his arm as if to hit his wife and then slams his fist into the car. She's been tormenting him, he cries, "ever since we came out here to the suburbs." In the naturalistic novels of Emile Zola, Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser, economic forces inexorably destroyed the protagonists. In "Revolutionary Road," the two principal characters are brought down by lawn sprinklers and station wagons.
But Sam Mendes, the film's director, is just getting started. Flashbacks emphasize the chilling role the tortured couple's environment has played in the disintegration of their lives: Against a background of sunlit, leafy yards, we see Kate Winslet taking out the garbage; Kate Winslet doing the laundry; Kate Winslet making small talk with a neighbor. The tree-lined streets are empty and eerily quiet. The beautiful house is tastefully furnished and eerily quiet. You are meant to think of the Wheelers' suburb as "a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad or commit a crime," to borrow Van Gogh's description of an equally alienating milieu (except that Van Gogh was talking about an urban café).
Still, the film's hostility toward the suburbs pales when compared with its source. Yates's novel, cherished by literary intellectuals and Paris Review interns to this day, expresses American suburban-phobia with crude explicitness. Describing the Wheelers' new neighborhood, Yates writes: "The Revolutionary Hill Estates had not been designed to accommodate a tragedy.... [The neighborhood] was invincibly cheerful, a toyland of white and pastel houses whose bright, uncurtained windows winked blandly through a dappling of green and yellow leaves.... A man running down these streets in desperate grief was indecently out of place."
No literary critic that I know of has ever challenged Yates's puerile social perceptions. The reflexive reverence for "Revolutionary Road" is a testament to the degree to which antisuburban sentiment is one of the most unexamined attitudes in American culture. For what might a neighborhood that had been designed to accommodate a tragedy possibly look like? For a man running down the street in desperate grief to fit right into the landscape, he would have to be hurtling through a place where vampiric towers blocked out the sun and corpses hung from the lampposts.
Yates's rage against the suburbs had all the subtlety of adolescent rage against authority (this indiscriminate anger might account for the novel's fatal deficiency: Frank and April's total lack of talent or substance makes their ultimately thwarted attempt to leave the suburbs for Paris less the stuff of tragedy than irritating farce). Yet "Revolutionary Road" -- the name fatuously meant to imply that America's revolutionary promise withers and dies in the suburbs -- caught the reflexive attitudes of many readers. Postwar writers and intellectuals overlooked the book's flagrant shortcomings, lit up from within by their shared opposition to a single place. X might be a Stalinist, and Y a fellow traveler and Z a closet Republican, but they could all agree on one thing -- they'd rather perish in a nuclear holocaust than move to Westchester!
American antisuburban sentiment is often comically absurd. In his 1955 poem "Howl," Allen Ginsberg elevated suburb-phobia to the level of myth. He excoriates the "invisible suburbs" -- i.e. they are so spiritually dead that they are hidden from a living eye -- as one of the pernicious manifestations of Moloch, the destructive god of soulless materialism. Sylvia Plath added some spine-tingling details. In her 1963 autobiographical novel, "The Bell Jar," Plath's heroine steps off a train and has this infernal experience: "The motherly breath of the suburbs enfolded me. It smelt of lawn sprinklers and station wagons and dogs and babies. A summer calm laid its soothing hand over everything, like death." The pleasures of a station wagon's aroma are open to question, but summer calm, the smell of wet grass, the scent of dogs (if they're clean) and babies (clean or dirty) -- are, it could be argued, some of the least horrifying experiences in life.
For Yates, Plath, Ginsberg and less gifted suburb-phobes like the novelists Sloan Wilson and John Keats, as well as hugely influential liberal sociologists and writers like David Riesman, William Whyte, Paul Goodman and Betty Friedan, it went without saying that the suburbs could transform the people who had committed the error of moving to them into the walking -- make that driving -- dead.
Yet the Wheelers live in a safe and protected middle-class town with intact, well-to-do families; efficient services; and happy children gamboling in sprinklers and running among the trees. How did such an environment come to acquire qualities previously associated with Dante's "Inferno," Dickens's Victorian workhouses and Solzhenitsyn's gulags?
In the '50s and early '60s, the postwar exodus from the cities to the suburbs was just beginning. Veterans of the Second World War and then the Korean War sought inexpensive homes of their own, far from the urban scrimmage that must have been, for some, a cramped extension of real combat. Enterprising builders eagerly obliged, throwing up houses in a matter of months, modest Cape Cods and ranches that returning veterans were able to safely buy with little or no down payment, thanks to the GI bill.
It's easy to see why artists and intellectuals felt that they had to alert the general public to the emergency of these sudden new places' peaceful, leafy streets. For one thing, the suburbs seemed not to offer the primary experiences of either country or city. The backyard is but the reminder of a meadow; the tree-lined intersection is but the faint echo of a busy urban intersection. The suburbs were the embodiment of that period's fashionable existential fear: "inauthenticity."
More important, suburban houses were often designed along unsightly cookie-cutter lines. The archetypal suburb, Levittown on New York's Long Island, was constructed between 1947 and 1951 using assembly-line methods; at one point, 30 houses were springing up a day. In 1950, when builder William Levitt, who created Levittown, appeared on the cover of Time magazine, the conversation in the cafés of Greenwich Village must have sizzled with frightening visions of totalitarian sameness. And no doubt the depiction of the suburbs as brainless utopias on the television sitcoms of the time -- shows like "Leave it to Beaver," "Bewitched," "Father Knows Best," "The Dick van Dyke Show" -- also incited intellectual revulsion, as much against the sinister new mass medium of TV as against the suburbs themselves.
There were two overarching reasons for condemning the suburbs, during the '50s and early '60s, as the most rotten locale in civilized life: class and money. Most of the people leaving the cities for the suburbs in the 1950s were tradespeople, modest businessmen, teachers and the like. They were, in other words, members of the middle-class, the impassioned rejection of which has been the chief rite de passage of the modern American artist and intellectual. With the growth of suburban towns, the liberal American intellectual now had a concrete geography to house his acute sense of outrage.
Yet if the suburbs were becoming the headquarters of the American middle-class, they were also becoming associated with the enviable characteristics of upward mobility: a decent salary, home ownership, access to superior public education and services. "We're going to have to move back to the city," the callous but suddenly redeemed advertising man grimly says to his wife after quitting his job in disgust in the popular 1959 film "The Last Angry Man" -- moving from suburban Connecticut to hardscrabble Manhattan being proof of his redemption. (What a socioeconomic difference 50 years makes!)
Art and intellect are solitary vocations, and their practitioners often require a common enemy to sustain the lonely effort. The suburbs continued to serve that purpose, but the type of antipathy toward them changed in the late '60s and '70s.
Just as during the '30s the Depression had polarized every issue along moral lines, in the Vietnam-era artists and intellectuals grew impatient with mere esthetic considerations. Now the suburbs were stigmatized not only by materialism, lack of imagination, and conformity. From that moment -- and up to our own -- the suburbs were portrayed in every type of art as non-communities that signified ugly moral choices.
The cultural chasm between liberals and conservatives that first appeared in the '60s was largely one between the city and the suburbs. The liberal "idealism" that had created the catastrophe in Vietnam now got blamed, unfairly or not, for failing economic and social policies. For marginalized conservatives, the suburbs were living refutation of the crumbling ethos that had guided the crime-ridden, decaying urban centers. For embattled liberals, people leaving the cities for safer and cleaner outlying towns were racists and cowards who had no respect for shared public space.
One of the most glaring ironies of American life is that, a quarter-century later, the cities have metamorphosed into the suburbs -- sans trees and grass. The cities' fabled diversity has devolved into global chain stores and the electrolyte-enhanced water bottle and the branded baseball cap have become the accessories of a universal comfort and conformity. In a social and cultural sea change, the cities' rented apartments, once the guarantor of diversity and fluid, exciting movement, have been converted into exclusive co-ops and condominiums. Yet as the cities have become a new type of suburb, suburb-phobia has become an ever more acceptable cultural attitude. The suburban person is considered too meek, too asphalt-challenged to inherit the earth. In the urban centers, on the other hand, desperate ambition makes bad manners respectable, and the chic of perverse taste covers up Philistine cluelessness. The decent, suburban person is regarded as contemptible because he has not learned to reach beyond his talents and pick life's pockets.
In the last couple of decades, the antisuburban film has become as much a staple of Hollywood as the Serious Crime Drama With an Incomprehensible Plot. A few prominent examples: Todd Haynes's "Safe" (which has suburban people inexplicably bleeding from every pore of their bodies); the 2004 remake of "The Stepford Wives" (where Viking range + Sub-Zero refrigerator = robotic wife, death of feminism and extinction of human rights); "The Ice Storm" (just in case you ignored the urgent alarm sounded by the antisuburban novel by Rick Moody on which the film is based and moved to Larchmont); the British Sam Mendes's very own "American Beauty" (of which "Revolutionary Road" is simply a reiteration -- take a sprinkler, add a dollop of anomie, and presto! you're an authentic American filmmaker). Television, once home to the idealistic vision of the suburbs, has gotten in on the act, too, with the antisuburban satires "Desperate Housewives" and "Weeds," not to mention the "Real Housewives" franchise, which opens a fake-appalled window onto a world of midday margaritas and $18,000 sleepover parties.
It could be that suburb-phobia has been a necessary attitude for ex-suburbanites living in urban centers. It may well help them to feel that the increasingly anodyne and homogenous cities are still adventurous and challenging places to live. In any case, suburb-phobia has even made its way into the visual arts' most rarefied sanctums: in the paintings of Eric Fischl and the photographs of Jeff Wall (one of his most famous works: rifle-holding men stalking an invisible prey in an anonymous suburb).
Of course there is a small but stubborn counter-tradition to suburb-phobia, most famously in the stories and novels of John Updike and John Cheever. For these two writers, the suburbs are not just a determining environment, but an unpredictable one of unfolding circumstances -- like every other place on earth. As Johnny Hake, the hero of Cheever's story "The Housebreaker of Shady Hill," puts it: "Shady Hill is, as I say, a banlieue and open to criticism by city planners, adventurers and lyric poets, but if you work in the city and have children to raise, I can't think of a better place."
Hake becomes a thief, has something like a nervous breakdown, and finally gets an inkling of his surprising destiny. Which only means that life's complexity and surprise follow you everywhere, even over the city-line, across the river and into the suburban trees. You wonder why the creators of the film "Revolutionary Road" are blind to such an obvious fact of human existence. But, then, Hollywood is the most illusion-soaked, soul-hardened and materialistic suburb in the world.
Lee Siegel's most recent book is "Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob."