Ron Rosenbaum

In Defense of the Suburbs (from Revolutionary Road)

Poor Kate Winslet she’s had to appear in two films this year which portray her as living in a concentration camp. In one it was literal–in The Reader she was a concentration camp guard, although we don’t see her locking women and children into a burning church so as to “keep order”; we only see her after the war in prison, learning that reading is fun! (see my further thoughts about “The Worst Holocaust Movie Ever Made” here.

But in Revolutionary Road her husband Sam Mendes, the British director, portrays her as the prisoner of what Mendes clearly views as another, metaphorical kind of concentration camp: the American suburbs of the 50s.

It’s of a piece, though more vicious, than his portrayal of the American suburbs in American Beauty. Just missing that torn plastic bag of beauty that distinguished that disdainful attack on American suburbia.

If it weren’t such a waste of such great actors this latest simpleminded, simplistic attack on the suburbs (They’re boring! People are conformist! They have no souls! When they’re not merely stupid they’re grotesque looking!) wouldn’t be worth paying attention to. What a daring, bold statement to attack the suburbs at this late date. Maybe back in its antiquated day Richard Yates’ novel Revolutionary Road was revolutionary. But the movie Mendes made of it seems not merely past its sell-by date in its vinegary sourness, but utterly lacking in originality–as dull, conformist, and soulless as its supposed subject.


But such a dreary hack attack is not merely antiquated and superficial, it’s just wrong. As it turned out those boring suburbs, in their very sameness, gave birth to a remarkable number of brilliantly diverse artists, ranging from punk rockers to post-Pynchon lit, to Bill Griffith’s “Zippie the Pinhead” comix. Not to mention Cheever and Updike. Mendes’ tunnel vision sneer is deeply pathetic. Inexplicable because he’s a brilliant  Shakespearean director. But someone who just doesn’t get America, blinded perhaps by a knee jerk anti-Americanism that is a kind of anti-philistine philistinism.

I know this because I grew up in the suburbs, I’ve written about their hidden weirdnesses and secret psychologies. About the way iconic objects of ridicule like Levittown became fountainheads of unexpected strangenesses.

i hate to say it but being a Brit may make Shakespeare second nature to Mendes, but to read, to stage, Shakespeare and not to see the wonders of human nature seething in the diners of Long Island for instance is simply sad. Not to see Joey Buttafuco as a suburban Falstaff? Come on! The Royal Courts of the Hamptons? The motels like Mermaid taverns.

But maybe it’s not Mendes’ fault. It’s that overrated novel which every Iowa Writers’ School wannabe and Bennington Bread Loaf clone worships, with its disdain for humanity. For people who weren’t “interesting” enough for an esthete like Yates and his acolytes. A disdain that reeks off the pages with its thematic obviousness. Oh Revolutionary Road! What irony! Ain’t nothin’ revolutionary about it, right? Right? Get it: A betrayal of our revolutionary roots! You know what’s revoltionary, I mean in the sense of revolting? Yates simpleminded vision. And Mendes misplaced reverence for it.