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Reviews

The ‘burbs

The ‘burbs

Joe Dante

USA, 1989

Credits

Review by Jason Woloski

Posted on 10 October 2005

Source Universal DVD

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Features: 31 Days of Horror

The ‘burbs opens as it closes, with a shot comparing the isolation of the universe to that of one American neighborhood. After the Universal Pictures logo disappears behind the Earth to open the film, the camera begins zooming in. The darkness of space is forced out the edge of the screen, followed by the spherical edge of Earth, followed by the oceans and land surrounding the continental United States, until the entire country has been reduced to a single street in a city that’s never identified, a suburban cul-de-sac representing American suburbia in its entirety.

On this street lives Ray Peterson, who’s taken the week off work to tool around the house, “listen to the ball game, drink a couple a couple hundred beers, and smoke the occasional cigar… outside.” Ray’s wife is concerned that if he doesn’t use the week to travel to the lake and relax with their son, he will go back to work in worse shape than he already is, indicating that Ray is yet another anonymous and weary member of the corporate rat race, a white-collar burnout whose hard work has paid for a nice house full of nice purchases in a nice neighborhood, but has also left him a shell of a human being, forced to use his one week of freedom each summer to try and regain some semblance of who he is and what still excites him. Of course, specifics about Ray’s work life beyond the ‘burbs can never be confirmed, because Dana Olsen’s script literally never leaves the block (except for the aforementioned opening shot, and the closing shot which mirrors it).

Ray spends the first morning of his vacation staring out the kitchen window, amused that Walter, an elderly neighbor, has taught his dog to shit on other neighbors’ lawns in order to keep his own lawn green and immaculate. The owner of a soiled lawn on this morning is Mark Rumsfield, a Korean war veteran who seems a little burnt out himself, blindingly obsessed with patriotism, flying the American flag on a pole in his front yard, keeping the teenagers in the neighborhood in check, and making sure his trophy wife is admired but never touched. At this point in the film nothing seems to be happening, but the subtleties in Olsen’s script have already been churned into motion, setting the stage for a very funny exploration of U.S. foreign policy as it relates to political isolationism, the dangers of becoming too insular in one’s world view, and the (ironically presented) belief that racism is essential for keeping classes divided and one’s immediate world clean.

The heated battle between Walter and Rumsfield over a single piece of dog shit reveals hints of director Joe Dante’s and Olsen’s overall agenda for the film, while harkening the viewer to reconsider the film’s opening shot as more than just a clever excuse for fitting impressive (for the day) computer-generated graphics into an otherwise street-level narrative. Contrasted with the neighborhood and its occupants we are beginning to know, the opening shot from outer space highlights the importance of relativity in maintaining a rational and accurate view of the universe around us. Once the shot begins moving, and especially once the frame is filled by only land, absolutes break down. Everything begins blurring into one another. There are no country or state borders on the actual Earth, nor are individual cities, neighborhoods, or even houses as contained or distinct as we’d like to think them to be. Everything blends into everything else, and so it becomes impossible to separate this from that, mine from yours, me from you. The shot reveals that at some level, all is one and everything is the same. Unless, that is, one demands a piece of territory of their own, in turn forcing others to lay claim to their own space, until artificial divisions seem real and the world becomes a place of absolutes.

On this particular block, Walter has decided that it’s better to have his dog shit on someone else’s lawn — a simplistic but generally accurate portrayal of most developed nations’ foreign policy — which in turn keeps the enemy defined, distant, and manageably agitated. The necessity for keeping the conflicts in one’s world present but unthreatening is also revealed by the skirmish early in the film. Ray is amused by Rumsfield ranting and raving, dog shit on his combat boot, as he stomps down the middle of the street, his wife trying to stop him as he threatens to staple Walter’s dog’s ass shut. Skirmishes like this are about as much conflict as this neighborhood wants. A minor conflict appeals to safety, allowing those who live on the street to forget that the world beyond the end of the block might actually be chaotic and frightening, while at the same time believing that their world is not so sterile that two grown men can’t duke it out over where small animals should relieve themselves. The ‘burbs is peppered with insignificant altercations, be it with garbage men, paper boys, or with neighbors yelling at one another. These conflicts take place within the generally shared, unspoken suburban belief that menaces are welcome — so long as opposing them amounts to little more than sport — because menaces keep goodness and badness clearly defined. In the absence of badness within the neighborhood, the restless, emasculated males of the story might actually have to leave the block in order to find terror and fulfill their vision of absolutes, or at least realize the universe as an inherently disordered place and something to be feared.

That people from the “outside,” such as garbage men and the paper boy, put the neighbors in an especially truculent mood is interesting, as a dichotomy exists in the very presence of these service providers. In order for a neighborhood to remain isolated but maintain a superficial connection to the world, garbage must be picked up, newspapers must be delivered, and maintenance and repairmen must be allowed to come and go in order to keep the block functional. But as one of the garbage men points out, there’s only one way in and one way out of a cul-de-sac. The men who live on this block truly are isolated. They talk of going for a bite to eat at the local sandwich shop or picking up an electric garage door opener at the store, but they never actually leave. They watch their wives and children come and go, but they only want to stay and play with one another. The three male protagonists are man-children. These men are asexual in their demeanor and interests, or should I say lack of interest, leaving teenager Ricky to notice and comment upon their wives’ sexuality; these men move around the neighborhood as if it were a playground, hiding behind garbage cans and spying on their creepy, haunted house neighbors, and in the case of Ray, these men embarrass their own children by acting more childish and less composed than their offspring.

The more ridiculous the characters’ behavior becomes, and let me tell you, it becomes pretty ridiculous, the more the opening zoom of the film seems to mimic a microscope being focused, looking down on tiny creatures that can’t realize or take into account how insignificant their world is in relation to the universe around them. To the characters in the film, their neighborhood is the entire universe, and so, when they exhaust their interest in what’s going on around them, they have to look for other amusements within an extremely restrained context. Quickly bored by petty arguments and general goings on around the neighborhood, Ray becomes intrigued by the dirtiness of his next-door neighbors’ yard, and the apparently sudden disappearance of elderly Walter. The Petersons have yet to meet their new neighbors, so when Ray’s agitation is supported by Rumsfield, as well as Art, it is decided amongst the three men that they are going to approach the new tenants on the block.

The new tenants are the Klopeks, and before ever having introduced them on screen, both Ray and Rumsfield have already asked, “What is that, Slavik?” The question has racist overtones. What Ray and Rumsfield are really asking is, “Have foreigners moved onto our block?” As the plot unfolds and Ray, Rumsfield, and Art become more paranoid about their neighbors’ behavior, they arrive at the conclusion that the Klopeks are cannibals and that Walter was kidnapped and sacrificed in an elaborate, satanic ritual. The three men overlook the fact that one of the Klopeks is a respected medical doctor, a direct allusion to a great number of North Americans’ discomfort with immigrants “taking away” high paying jobs, regardless of the fact that these jobs have been earned through education and the recognition of basic human rights. Ray, Rumsfield, and Art could care less that Dr. Klopek is a physician. They only care that the Klopeks are not following the suburban rules of keeping their lawn and house tidy, being nice and accommodating — even if it’s insincere — to everyone else on the block, and generally going out of their way to fit in.

Having placed most of the narrative burden onto Ray, Rumsfield, and Art’s irrational behavior and embarrassing actions, the most incredible twist in Olsen’s screenplay comes in the third act, when after breaking and entering into the Klopeks home, busting the gas main in their basement, and exploding their house, it turns out that Ray, Rumsfield, and Art were right all along. The Klopeks are found out as murdering cannibals, leading to their arrest and a media frenzy celebrating the heroics of the three confused, suburban simpletons. The decision to confirm these men’s paranoia is brilliant, not a cop out. By colluding in their fantasy, Olsen draws the dangerous but accurate conclusion that when dealing with neighborhood, and by extension national, safety, ends always justify means, regardless of whether or not the mean make sense in the first place. The non-fiction and recent equivalent of this would be if the current executive administration in the United States, in crossing their fingers and hoping to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, had of actually happened upon WMDs, despite having no plausible or justified rationale for looking in the first place. In a way, political spinning takes the conclusions of Olsen’s screenplay a step further, in that the characters in The ‘burbs are ready to stop their hunt when they seem to have been proven wrong beyond doubt. In politics, when a story doesn’t go one’s way, you just keep bobbing and weaving until it does.

The suburbs have frequently been touted as the equivalent of safe, neighborhood-wide playgrounds for children. Erected in an attempt to sanitize family life, men have often been considered the equation that never fit into typical visions of suburbia. Children play, women make homes, and men go off to work in the city, only to feel confused and isolated while spending their evenings at home. Thankfully, that dated, sexist, and inaccurate view only partially survives in recent American film, making way for visions of family in which every member is equally miserable (American Beauty and The Ice Storm). In The ‘burbs, men are the children, while wives and actual children want to have little to do with them. Having said this, I return to the closing shot of the film, in which the camera zooms out of the cul-de-sac, out of the Great Lake region, out of North America, past Earth, and back into the stars. The zooming in and mirrored zooming out that bookend The ‘burbs reflects the choice that Ray is left with as the film concludes. While Art and Rumsfield are preoccupied with the media and events in their neighborhood, having apparently learned nothing, Ray only wants to get out. Ray doesn’t care that technically, he turned out to be right in feeling paranoid. Uninterested in the exploitative media coverage to come, he will go to the lake with his wife and son, leaving his blown up and no longer idyllic neighborhood behind him. The film’s conclusion is open-ended, tipping its hand neither to optimism nor pessimism in regards to the theme of isolationism that has been laid out and explored. Global isolationism, like the cul-de-sac containing The ‘burbs, can either be viewed as a subtle expansion project, in which the entire world and perhaps even the universe is something to be conquered and made familiar—expansive isolation, I suppose, in which countries battle to plant their flags on distant moons. Or, it can viewed as fear based: our borders are drawn, stay out and we’ll get along just fine. Either way, this is no longer Ray’s problem. Burned and broken, Ray is ready to encounter the world on its own terms, however surprising or uncomfortable that may be.

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