Monday, July 25, 2016

The White Picket Fence and its Discontents

A couple of days ago I watched Donnie Darko, a film I'd meant to see for some time. It held my interest, and it was visually appealing, but I felt a little disappointed. I wasn't really sure what the film was about, in terms of its ultimate theme.


Most of all, I felt frustrated that it was (amongst other things) yet another swipe at small town America-- the therapist who keeps anxiously asking Donnie (the troubled boy at the centre of the movie) about his relationship with God; the teacher who complains, at a parent-teacher meeting, about an unsuitable story being taught in English class; the motivational speaker (played by Patrick Swayze) who sees all human behaviour as occupying a place on a graph between Love and Fear; the troupe of tweeny schoolchildren who have rehearsed their rather trashy dance into the ground, egged on by their parents and teachers; the hot young English teacher (Drew Barrymore) whose unconventional teaching methods are frowned upon by school management; and so on.

Of course, small town America has been satirised in an endless amount of movies; practically the entire output of David Lynch, for a start, but also movies such as Edward Scissorhands, American Beauty, Footloose, Gremlins, Field of Dreams, Cedar Rapids, and any number of others. And, of course, literature has been even more condemnatory. 

Cedar Rapids is a film you may not have heard of, although it was a mainstream release. I mention it because I walked out of the cinema during this particular movie, irritated at its clumsy and tiresome lampooning of small town American values.

I'm using the term 'small town America' loosely. The term 'middle America'  could also be used, along with Main Street, 'Flyover country', Peoria, and so on.

First of all, we should ask why this is a distinctively American subject. You don't really get films satirising narrow-minded, pious, clannish towns or suburbs in the UK or in present-day Ireland. This is surely because we don't have communities on this side of the Atlantic. We have social atomisation instead.

It has often occured to me that claustrophobia is an easier subject to treat artistically than agoraphobia. It is easy to write a story which satirizes a clannish, curtain-twitching, insular small town. But how do you write a story to satirize a sprawling conurbation that has no character of its own, where- instead of everybody knowing everybody-- nobody knows anybody? Or a commuter suburb with no sense of community other than a sprinkling of community groups, which tend to be peopled by the same few characters?

This is the same reason it's easy to attack the Catholic Church; it's a highly visible target. It has a doctrine, a discipline, a hierarchy, ceremonial, and so forth. There's something to hit.

Personally, I'm always more in favour of something that is there, rather than something which is not there-- whether that is because it's pure absence, or whether it's a mere aspiration. Very often I have noticed that the things which are satirised, and subsequently demolished, are not replaced by anything at all.

A highly visible target
Take Catholic, nationalist Ireland for example. This way of life, historically recent though it may have been, has been pelted unmercifully by liberals, socialists, multiculturalists and every other brand of radical for almost a century now. It has, in fact, been abolished. But what has replaced it? Nothing. Ireland is now like every other country in the West. Whatever differences remain are rooted in our Catholic, nationalist past.

Now, such a vacuum might be something you celebrate. I saw an interview with the late David Bowie, which was broadcast in the days after his death. He was rhapsodising about the fact that society, since the time of his own emergence as a celebrity, had become more fragmented and pluralistic. To be fair, he seemed to be thinking of pop culture primarily, and it does seem to be the case that pop culture injected a certain homogenization into society in the fifties, sixties and seventies, and perhaps it is no bad thing for this particular homogenization to break down. But I think he meant it in a wider sense, and his whole aesthetic seems to have been in favour of 'deconstruction'-- of genre, gender and every other sort of convention.

The argument could be made that 'small town America' is a facade, anyway-- and this very often seems to be the theme of these satires.  And yet, the critics of the white picket fences seem to want it both ways. They attack Middle America for being suffocating, philistine, banal etc.-- but they nearly always paint its inhabitants as being hypocrites, as well. Why is the charge of hypocrisy necessary? Why can't these film-makers and authors confine themselves to an attack on this environment for what it is?

This is to be seen in Donnie Darko. (Spoiler alert.) Patrick Swayze plays a local motivational teacher who is something of an idol in the town, and who appeals especially to the teacher mentioned earlier, the one who complains about unsuitable reading material in Drew Barrymore's English class. This character paints life as a battle between 'love', and 'fear', and in one particular scene Donne Darko complains about that this duality is too simplistic.

Now, I'm not a fan of self-help gurus or motivational speakers. But I recognized what the film was satirising with this character-- not only self-help gurus and pop psychologists, but any received moral or ethical system whatsoever.

It is later discovered that Patrick Swaye's character is a child pornographer. The teacher who idolizes him refuses to accept his guilt and launches a campaign for his exoneration. It seemed terribly cheap to me.

The same double-edged satire is displayed in Cedar Rapids. The 'pillar of the community' (or rather, the industry) in this case is a senior insurance salesman who has won a particular prestigious award three years in a row-- and who is a fervent Christian. Later on, the film's protagonist learns that this supposedly model Christian was a sexual deviant who won his awards through bribery.

Not that the film shows any tenderness towards non-hypocritical Christianity. It is set during an insurance conference, and everybody at the conference seems to be a professing Christian-- I can't remember whether they actually say prayers at the conference, or whether it's only the protagonists' own company who say prayers at their meeting, but there are certainly prayers involved. Well, maybe they are all hypocrites-- but even if they weren't, the film seems to be comparing them unfavourably to the hedonistic, anarchic, and sexually promiscuous characters that the proganist falls in with, and who guide him on the road to 'liberation'.

Although I have spent some time in America, my knowledge of it is confined to a very small area, and I mostly mingled with American Catholics, who have their own culture. So I can't comment on whether the world satirised in movies like Cedar Rapids and Donnie Darko really exists-- and, if it exists, whether it's all a fraud or not. (Having said that, I certainly did witness some aspects of it-- such as whole families going to Mass together, inspirational Christian literature in supermarkets, and the stars and stripes on every second porch).

All I know is that the satires themselves portray a world that (to me) seems very desirable-- just as my admiration for Catholic, nationalist Ireland came mostly through depictions of it that were supposed to be unflattering.

I like the idea of families sitting together around the dinner table, and saying grace beforehand. I like the idea of parents seeking to protect childhood innocence. I like the idea of prayers before board meetings (if such a thing ever exists). I like 'sir' and 'ma'am'. I like cheerleaders and school songs and honour codes. I like Bibles in hotel rooms. I like the idea of a special respect being shown to community leaders, such a police sherrifs and headmasters and church leaders. All of this seems to me more admirable than the kind of bohemianism and moral ambiguity that is usually posited as its antidote.

Norman Rockwell
 Most of all, it seems admirable to me because it's something as opposed to nothing.

This post isn't really about small town America or white picket fences. It's an argument in favour of institutions, traditions and environments which actually exist, as opposed to the forces which seek to dissolve and 'deconstruct' them. Obviously, some institutions (street gangs, red light districts, and so forth) are unquestionably evil. But where an institution, a way of life or a tradition is under attack, not for being evil per se, but for being 'claustrophobic', 'insular', 'narrow-minded', 'elitist', 'stultifying', etc. etc. I suggest that we should all ride to its defence. Because the alternative is always either an ethereal ideal which is impossible to bring about, or nothing at all. They create a desert, and they call it pluralism.

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