Let’s Talk about the Suburbs of the 1950s

First I’d like to thank the Producers for choosing three films that together created an important and coherent theme for our February discussion. Their incredible, to me, breadth and depth of knowledge of film enhances the fun and learning that I get by belonging to the Tacoma Film Club. We owe them a “thanks” that we sometimes don’t express often enough.

Having praised the Producers though, I have to say I was a bit disappointed with the Wednesday night discussion of these films. My critique of this discussion is reflected in the ratings of the films that Ron posted. The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit just edged out Far From Heaven for first, both averaging close to 4.1, while Revolutionary Road came in a poor third with a rating of 3.6. Remembering the discussion I believe these ratings are appropriately reflective of the TFC’s judgment of the overall quality of the films, including the acting, screenplays, cinematography, music, etc. all those things that go into making a good film and making a film good. So what’s wrong with that? Isn’t that how we as a film club should be rating films? Well, maybe and maybe not.

What I don’t think the ratings reflect, and what I think received short shrift in our discussions, is how faithfully each film reflected the realities of life in the suburbs in the 50s. A film with great acting, cinematography, etc. that mis-represents its subject should not get a high rating.

(I should point out those these films seem particularly hard to rate on a numerical scale. The reviewers for Rotten Tomatoes (accessed 3-16-2009) gave them these percentages of positive reviews: Far From Heaven 91%; Man in the Gray Flannel Suit 83%; and Revolutionary Road 71%. But the members of IMDB (accessed 3-16-2009) rated Revolutionary Road the highest at 7.8/10, Far From Heaven second with a 7.5, and Man in the Gray Flannel Suit third with a 7.2. I’ll give my own ratings, based on the criterion I define later.)

Before going on I need to state my qualifications, and my biases, that lead me to my own evaluations. My father was in the Navy during WWII, and after he came back my parents moved from Greenwich Village in New York City to the suburbs of New Jersey so that their children could enjoy the benefits of life in the newly forming suburbs and avoid the disadvantages of life in the big city. I have two older sisters who were born during the war, while I was born in New Jersey in 1946. I was raised in the Jersey suburbs, moving as my father became more successful in his job, to progressively richer and more prestigious suburban towns. The town, Tenafly, in which I lived from when I was 5 until I went to college, was very much like the suburbs in Connecticut depicted in the films. The physical distance between them is only about 30 miles (1 hour drive) but the cultural differences are less than that. When my parents moved to the suburbs my mother quit her job as a social worker to raise us children, my father took the train to work every day, and my mother and I picked him up each night at the little station in the small town center. Each of the films depicted, albeit in minor ways, a boy who was probably just my age. So I know something of the culture these films attempt to depict. Those are my qualifications to talk about the suburbs of the 50, but since they are based on my personal experience as a child and adolescent, I have to acknowledge that my experience is just my experience and therefore limited and probably biased in ways that I don’t understand.

Now it doesn’t make any sense to have a criterion for rating films that evaluates them based on how faithfully they depict life in the suburbs of the 50s, without giving at least some reasonably clear picture of what life in the suburbs of the 50s was like. One could say that life in that place at that time was one of happiness and security as was symbolized by the spacious houses and large and well landscaped grounds to which people had escaped from the dirt and overcrowding of the city. One could say, that that life was really all about providing and caring for children so that they would not have to suffer the impacts of economic depressions and wars that had so severely impacted their parents. There is certainly truth in both these statements; having lived there I can attest to that. I think these pictures characterize the outward intentions of the parents who settled in those suburbs. The popular television shows of the time: “Ozzie and Harriett” (I went to high school with the nephews of the Nelsons), “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best” can be regarded as pictures of these ideals, or statements of the myths that underlay the society of the suburban 50s. At the very least we need to give (most) of those who lived there the benefit of good intentions.

But, in hindsight, history has placed a harsher judgment on the quality of life in those towns in those times. I believe that harsher judgment is justified, and I will base my criterion for evaluating these films on that judgment.

On the surface conformity was the central issue of the 50s, and that has been the basis for the harsh judgments of that time. But I believe conformity was not the proximate cause of the human pain we saw in these movies. Beyond simple conformity there was pressure to actually believe that “life is good” and the necessary flip slide of that, to fully deny the existence of the real problems. Thus an internal conflict was established: problems did exist within individuals and within families, but the culture demanded that one must “believe” that those problems didn’t exist – that is to deny them. This fierce struggle between the reality of life and the internal feelings regarding that reality led to psychological distress. And here is the coup de grace of the times: there was an appalling lack (by our standards today) of support systems, in particular modern mental health care, to help individuals and families cope with this psychological stress.

Interestingly all three movies explicitly portray the situation regarding psychological stress and the lack of availability of systems to deal with it. The psychological “care” provided to Frank Whitaker (the husband in Far From Heaven) consists of regarding homosexuality as a disease that must be cured. In The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit, the husband, Tom Rath (played by Gregory Peck) is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) yet it goes unrecognized and untreated. This movie emphasizes this point by having Rath’s Madison Avenue boss attempting to start a campaign for the development of a system of mental health hospitals. Rath’s job is to write the key speech that will serve as the kick off for the campaign. In Revolutionary Road we see an example of the mental health care available in the character of John Givings, the crazed math professor. Further, the internal conflict between April Wheeler’s (played by Kate Winslet) vision for self-actualization and the reality of her life lead her to perform an abortion procedure on herself that she knew to be unsafe. She was alone with her severe internal conflicts and seeking care for them was not even raised as an option because at those times good options were virtually non-existent.

So the criterion I will use to evaluate these films is how well they portray the reality of this triple whammy of life in the 50s in the suburbs of New York City. I will state this succinctly as:

1) we must conform, 2) we must deny the problems that exist and further actually believe that they don’t exist, and 3) we can’t get any, or at least any proper, mental health care for the psychological stress that results.

With this background I will give my own ratings of the three films, based only on this criterion. To those who object to this criterion I’ll admit that these ratings are probably more relevant to a club that studies psychology or sociology than a film club, but this is the criterion I choose to use. My ratings: Revolutionary Road 4.1, The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit, 3.8, and Far From Heaven 2.9. (Thus we have four sets of ratings none of which agree – each film was ranked first at least once and last at least once. So much for evaluating films using numerical ratings.)

Let’s first discuss Far From Heaven (2002). This is certainly a movie lover’s movie. The consensus of the reviews I read is that it was thoroughly researched and beautifully filmed with especially striking and effective use of color. I gave it a low rating, because it stressed external sources of conflict (racial equality and gay rights) that were more highly topical to when it was made than to the period it portrayed.

I have to be careful here. There is no doubt that, based on a reading of history, or on my own personal experience, racism and homophobia were deep seated in the New York suburbs of the 50s. Further the film effectively shows how strongly the society of those suburbs denied the reality of those prejudices, and the harmful effect of that denial on the Whittaker family. However, the height of the civil rights campaigns and the struggle for gay rights came later in history; they existed in the 50s but they were not the central struggles of the 50s, certainly not in suburban New York. (If the film were about Arkansas or Mississippi I couldn’t make this last statement.)

I don’t think one could accurately say that Far From Heaven addressed the core internal psychological conflicts that existed in the 50s. Frank Whittaker finds a partner but stays in the closet, while Cathy Whittaker is separated from the one person who is capable of giving her understanding. We end up feeling fortunate that we live in the 21st century, which is a more enlightened society where gays have come out of the closet and where inter-racial couples and marriage are (largely) accepted.

Let’s turn to The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit. I give it a rating of 3.6. Certainly this film clearly portrays the effects of PTSD, how it causes stress in families, and especially how it was not recognized in the 50s. My complaint about the film, and the reason for my lower rating, is in how the issues that arise from the PTSD are resolved. Barbara Rath essentially says to her husband “buck up dear, toughen up, and work it out yourself” (this is the John Wayne approach to mental health.) And in fact Tom Rath does just that – successfully – whereas generally that approach is quite ineffective. In the end the movie tells us that if one behaves honestly in their job and in their families then everything will work out: they end up in the big house with a solid marriage and realize the dream of prosperity and security that were the promise of the suburbs in the 50s. To be fair, I should give The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit credit for depicting accurately that in the suburbs in the 50s people really believed in this solution. Given that it is a product of those times this is to be expected. It presents a true representation of the denial so prevalent at those times. We only see differently with 20-20 hindsight.

Finally let’s turn to Revolutionary Road to which I give a 4.1 rating for accurately depicting the personal struggles caused by the social expectations of the 50s. In spite of an Oscar-winning performance by Michael Shannon, and a Golden Globe best actress performance by Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road did not fare well in the ratings of the Tacoma Film Club, nor by the reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes (the aficionados on IMDB ranked it best of the three however.)

But with respect to the criterion I chose to use, Revolutionary Road fares quite well. Indeed (perhaps “in fact” would be a better choice of words) the two major award winning roles both depicted people who cracked under the pressures I have described. The character John Givings is a math professor who we see on a couple of short-term leaves from the local mental institution. His role in the film is to speak the truth to the Wheelers about their life and the life of the society in which they live. I don’t know how his message could be clearer or more consistent with the criterion I have chosen to use, or with my description of life in the suburban 50s. Through him the film is making the statement: “only someone crazy would dare speak the truth about life in that setting;” or “if one does not do what is expected by denying the realities of that life, it will drive them crazy.”

While John Givings provides the explicit statement of the effect of suburban life on mental health, April Wheeler’s life is the implicit embodiment of the same condition. From the first scene in the film we see that she lives as much in a dream world as in reality. She responds flirtatiously to the cute fellow who doesn’t know who he is or what he wants. She dreams of becoming a stage actress – how many young people in New York have the same dream? We next find out that she does not really have acting talent (although she would like to blame the failure of the play on her fellow performers.) And we see that the romantic dreamy fellow from the party has become a less than ideal husband.

But April won’t stop dreaming, and soon comes to believe that she and Frank will find fulfillment if they move to Paris where she will support him while he finally has the chance to find himself. Alas, reality intervenes again when she finds out she is pregnant – a reality that will keep her in Connecticut in a life that is driving her crazy. It seems that April has no control over her life and her attempt to regain control through a self-administered abortion is thwarted when her husband won’t go along. She spirals down in spirit and sanity, performing the abortion on herself after the 12-week period in which it can be done safely.

She dies; an unfortunate accident or a cloaked suicide?

When I was about the age of the children in Revolutionary Road one of my mother’s best friends, a neighbor in fact, died of cancer. We didn’t talk about it much then, I was young and it was the 50s. About 30 years later I learned that she had had definite early warning symptoms of the cancer but had put off seeing the doctor for years. She had waited too long and by then the cancer was untreatable.

She died; an unfortunate accident or a cloaked suicide?

I don’t know the answer in either April’s or my neighbor’s case, but the person who told me about my neighbor said that it was not uncommon for women, isolated in beautiful houses with beautiful children, and unable to get adequate treatment for their depression, to have “accidents” like this. Maybe they chose the “cure” that was most available and socially acceptable.

Recall the criterion that I stated earlier, that I would rank the movies by how faithfully they described the reality of the suburban 50s: “1) we must conform, 2) we must deny problems and actually believe they don’t exist, and 3) we can’t get any, or at least any proper, mental health care for the psychological stress that results.”

I think Revolutionary Road described this reality fully, not softening it as the other two films did. That reality was much harsher than pictured in The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit and Far From Heaven. To see this, think ahead 30 years and imagine the lives of the characters in these three films. Tom and Betsy Rath, from The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit, will undoubtedly be rewarded for being good people and totally honest with each other and at work. When the weather is warm, they will live in the tastefully remodeled mansion in Connecticut near their grandkids, and they will be happy snowbirds in the winter. Thirty years after the end of Far From Heaven, after the sensitive Raymond left on the train, he, and their “romance” will be a pleasant memory to Cathy Whittaker who will be married to another successful businessman; and by then, Frank Whittaker will have come out of the closet and be living openly with his partner on Christopher Street back in the city, in the Village. But in 30 years John Givings will be living in am under-funded halfway house. In 30 years April Wheeler will still be dead. She will be just a distant memory, ambiguous and painful, to her husband and her children, at those rare times when she is remembered at all. Revolutionary Road reminds us of the deepest cruelty that lay hidden in those Connecticut suburbs. We need this film so we won’t forget.


8 thoughts on “Let’s Talk about the Suburbs of the 1950s

  1. First of all, Peter, many thanks for those kind words regarding the work done by the Producer’s Committee. The first couple of years I belonged to the TFC, I often was unhappy with the films picked for the club members to see. There was both a sad sense of random choice and the bias of whomever was on the Committee at that time. One day I just decided to roll up my sleeves and join the group, and have some kind of input for the choosing. Now it becomes the highlight of my month to sit down with the other two members, and “discuss” the myriad of cinematic possibilities. The act of the three is both democratic and artistically satisfying, although sometimes personally dramatic. Accommodation and closure always come at a price; but in this case the price is worth it, or seems to be.

    Your incredibly intense and detailed treatise into the effect, depth, and symbolic ramifications of our three picks and the 50’s Connecticut dramas, one an actual film of the 50’s, one a paean to that genre with modernistic overtones, and one that was new and possibly more faithful to the criterion you seem to find meaningful–was welcome and intriguing. The annex has been strangely quiet and stagnant for like six months. In the past there have been 4-5 of we members who had contributed various diatribes, reviews, rants, and treatises, put forward with a great flurry, and rewarded with diverse comment responses. Hopefully you have reawakened some of that energy, verve, and spirit. As to your disappointment regarding the nature of the discussion on that TFC evening, I can only extend my sympathy and emotional support. You were, as your lengthy discourse clearly points out, somewhat more personally involved in issues, thoughts, and symbols directly relative to living in suburbs outside of NYC, and finding sweet and bitter similarity between the literary and cinematic depictions of your memories and your actual past. Your facilitation of REVOLUTIONARY ROAD was well thought out, and well received, I thought. But what has to be pointed out to me often is that too much preparation and sharing of this data bogs down the member time for responses. David has been an excellent mentor for me both in leading discussions at the Grand, and here at the TFC meetings.

    My own ratings of the films was FAR FROM HEAVEN @ 4.2, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD @ 3.8, and MAN IN THE GRAY FLANNEL SUIT @ 3.2. I put FAR FROM HEAVEN on the top of the list for the way it stuck me emotionally. This film was a very clever doppleganger, a superb clone of the 50’s soap opera women’s films directed by mostly Douglas Sirk. So much so that even Ebert felt, and pointed out that this film seemed to be a film made in the 50’s that we all just failed to see. I, too, am a child of the 50’s, although my gypsy blue collar upper/lower class working family life style never approached middle class–but certain themes resonate with me; color, art design, cinematography, vintage cars, styles of clothes, and music. You were bang on with your feeling that the Club provides members with a primer for judging and discussing films. My only difficulty with FAR was the writing. It was well written, but there was no actual novel it was taken from, or even patterned after, no voice of Sloan Wilson or Richard Yates to counsel, to guide, to set moral and time baselines. Director Todd Haynes, an openly gay artist, could not be objective enough when he created a pivotal plot device that forced us to consider homosexuality in the world of 1957. This was truly a shadow world that most of us did not understand back then, or have much experience with. We all heard and told the “queer” jokes, but the particulars of same sex coupling used to churn our stomachs, and make us clench our jaws and fists in defense of our more acceptable heterosexual preferences. As to the racism of the 50’s, it was top of the heap, in the face of all of us. I was thankful for my college days of he 60’s when civil rights and liberalized thinking finally took a toe hold in our cultural collective bias. So I loved FAR FROM HEAVEN as a film, rife with just the right choices cinematically. I used a completely different yardstick of criticism than you did obviously.

    As a film with incredible cinematography and art design, tremendously strong writing, strong directing, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD hit all the right notes. But I have another personal bias that held me back. I am not a great fan of Leonardo de Caprio, and his acting, though adequate, did not soar in the same stratosphere as Kate’s, or Kathy Bates, or Michael Shannon.

    MAN IN THE GRAY FLANNEL SUIT (1956) was the genuine article, an actual 50’s soap opera made at the time, based on a best seller novel, but…..it was too long, and it did subscribe to many of the edicts of the times, many of which you fleshed out and explicated above. But as I had mentioned at the meeting, I have never been much of a Jennifer Jones fan, and I think her dramatic beats and emotions were pushed, fake, and shallow. It is a shame that some other 50’s diva was not available at the time, like Deborah Kerr, or Jean Simmons. As much as I respected the acting of Fredric March [we have to screen BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, or DEATH OF A SALESMAN one day], his character of the big executive boss, Ralph Hopkins did not create empathy for me, not in 1956 when I was 12, nor today. The plight of the super rich has always outraged me, and I have never been keen on caring about them. The child actors they found to play the Rath children were wonderful. The Lee J. Cobb cameo was terrific. But I did not quite buy the ending, or Betsy Rath’s acceptance of the situation. The rough edges never worked out for me.

    But it will be rare to find three films, one of them a theatrical release that will create a theme of such magnitude and depth. Thanks for sharing and caring.


    1. No implied criticism of the Facilitators

      I regret that I used the sentence “I was a bit disappointed with the Wednesday night discussion of these films.” I’ve received several comments from people who took this to be implied criticism of the facilitators. Glenn did his usual professional job of facilitating the discussion of Far From Heaven and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, I certainly was not criticizing him. I was the facilitator of the discussion on Revolutionary Road and thought that discussion went well too. As I said in the blog the discussion and the ratings reflected the “TFC’s judgment of the overall quality of the films, including the acting, screenplays, cinematography, music, etc. all those things that go into making a good film and making a film good. … Isn’t that how we as a film club should be rating films?” In other words the facilitators encouraged discussion of just those aspects of film that are most important to the TFC. No complaint here on my part.

      My “disappointment” stemmed from my selfish desire to discuss two things: (1) the effects of the social structure of the New York Suburbs of the 50s on the psychological health of those who lived there in those times; and (2) the poor to miserable quality of psychological care that was available. All three films touched on mental health and its treatment, indicating I think that the issue was central to those places in that era.

      I do hope we can revitalize this discussion site to get more contributions on comments. A year ago it was a very lively site indeed. I’ve received one comment on the site from Glenn and two other emails. I will see if I can get the eamils published on the site so we can have a fuller discussion.

  2. Peter,
    Among my entertainments, nothing beats a discussion or conversation with a group of film aficionados about a movie recently viewed together. In this regard, membership in Tacoma Film Club has been a rewarding experience for several years now. Through the past five years or so I think the Producers have a good handle on qualitative film picks, and our abilities at facilitating the group or agitating (irking?) one another into commenting have become easier and more proficient. With 40 or so paid members, there’s a wide variety of tastes to satify, and it’s to be expected that some members will not be elated at the picks of the month.

    It is quite all right, Peter, to be critical of the Tacoma Film Club discussions, and even of the manner of facilitation. As amateurs, we’re all learning how to stimulate a group into asserting their views. The more one does it, the better one gets. As one who facilitates a few times a year at the club meetings and quite frequently at the Grand Cinema on Saturday afternoon, I have been pleasantly surprised at people’s lively interest to discuss all sorts of films and from many angles, even films of no fame or lasting value. On other occasions, a dull hour was spent hearing common discussion of celebrities and rather trivial subjects and no matter what I suggested or brought up for comments, there was no interest taken to change the conversation to a deeper level. Sometimes a very poor film–poor in terms of an abysmal production of an otherwise interesting idea or story–can make for dynamic, insightful discussion. This was the case a few months ago with “Synecdoche,” which had all kinds of virtuous actors, writing and other production experise behind it. Glenn did the facilitation and it was a passionate interaction among the dozen or so discussants. A more popular and successful film, such as “Milk,” thoroughly liked by the audience and thought highly of for its narrative, acting and production values, was a rather dull exercise in film discussion. One can’t always expect decent criticism of or even lively interest in a film, just viewed, from a spontaneous gathering of viewers.

    However, with the Film Club, it might be expected that TFC members would come to discuss the films that were carefully viewed, chewed over in coffee table gatherings, and quite thoroughly digested in advance of the TFC discussion evening. Why it doesn’t work well interactively on some Wednesdays is hard to figure out. As a facilitator over several years, I’ve realized the less I say in introduction may help the discussion to take up several points of interest, to good effect, which are completely outside of my expectations or reckoning. Although I love to have a say, to put in my two-bits’ worth of comment or criticism, I’m finding better success in agitating conversation by subtlely probing with a thought, with perhaps a brief question on someone’s assertion, or just switching to another side of the table which has been reticent. There are many ways to facilitate people’s speaking up and contibuting something–such as asking about rating of the film and a brief explanation. Sometimes the easiest way, “So, what do you think of that?” works wonders.

    We do have a set of suggestions for facilitators in the Tacoma Film Club Executive papers drawn up about a year ago when we worked on Mission Statements and By-Laws. What people choose to rate films on or what criticism determines a high rating or low among critics who review films is something that we might consider as a point of discussion. It seems to me there’s a good bit of “Blink” judgment, intuitive snap-judgment, in most people’s appraisal, especially those who have been moviegoers for decades. It’s pretty hard these days to find a reviewer who performs a layered criticism to explain the value of a film. Most newsblurbs seem to be reviewing, i.e. advertising, for a general public, but not truly critiquing, which assumes a discriminating, thoughtful reader.

    Whatever we do in the Tacoma Film Club, it’s important to continue to gather in good humor for Fun, Film and Facilitation (or is it Fellowship?). It’s sad that Kings Books will no longer be our Wednesday Discussion Evening haunt, but we’ll find another place and make it live with our high-spirited engagements.

  3. Peter,
    Interesting perspective, but I probably do not agree with your criteria for ratings. If you want to be REALLY REALLY bored, try the following experiment. Go into your local Blockbuster and randomly pick a half-dozen or more movies off the shelf that you have never heard of and take them home to watch. You are likely to find several that share the following attribute. As you watch them you will see “and then this happened”, “and then this happened”, “and then this happened”, etc., etc., ad infinitum. Many of these provide very detailed depictions of situations and events that would meet all of your criteria for “Realism”. But they are boring to the extreme, and most would warrant a rating of no better than 2 by my criteria.

    A topic that has always fascinated me is, What scenes does a good director choose to show in constructing a film? A mediocre director will provide you with every detail of information to reflect realistically what is happening in the story. A master director will provide you with the same information content by judicious use of one, two, or three fragments edited together, perhaps in sequence or perhaps not. The master director has no concern with a “realistic depiction”; instead a master director has mastered how to tell a story “economically” using the “language of film”, similar to the way a poet constructs a poem economically using the “language of words”.

    A good example to illustrate my point is films about courtroom dramas. I have seen several of this genre that play out basically as a set of actors reading from the transcript of an actual trial. By your criteria, some of these would have to get ratings of 5, because they are EXTREMELY realistic. A master director depicting a courtroom drama, using the economy of film language, could tell the same story in a small number of fragment scenes, carefully edited together in a manner that has almost no “realism” with respect to what happens in a real courtroom. Thus, generating a rating of 1 from you based on your criteria?

    But, being honest about it, which film would you rather watch?

    1. Ron;

      Interestingly I agree with almost everything you say in your comment. But I completely disagree with how you interpret what you say are “my criteria.” Simply put they are not my criteria at all.

      Here is what I said in my original Blog that my criterion was:

      “So the criterion I will use to evaluate these films is how well they portray the reality of this triple whammy of life in the 50s in the suburbs of New York City. I will state this (reality) succinctly as:

      1) we must conform, 2) we must deny the problems that exist and further actually believe that they don’t exist, and 3) we can’t get any, or at least any proper, mental health care for the psychological stress that results.”
      (Parenthetical word added)

      Craftily, you have completely revised this criterion and then argued against your revision. Using the vernacular you set up a straw man and then argued against it.

      You did this by taking my words “portray the reality of” and equating them to the word “realism.” This may seem like an insignificant change on the surface, but it is not, it is a very significant change. In fact I never used the word “realism” in my posting and you never used the word “reality” in your comment.

      According to the Oxford English Dictionary here are the respective definitions:

      Reality: “the state of things as the actually exist.”

      Realism: “(In art or literature) the presentation of things in a way that is accurate and true to life.”

      In other words “realism” is an artistic style. Reality is something that actually exists. “Realism” in a painting produces an end result that appears almost like a photograph. Depending on what the reality being depicted is, a movie that uses the style of “realism” may or may not do a good job of portraying it.

      But the difference between the “realism” you argue against, and the “portrayal of reality” that I am using in my criterion goes deeper than that. For me, the “reality” being portrayed is an underlying psychological reality that is part of the human condition. From your description I gather that to you a movie using a “realistic” style can only portray a surface reality, something a Brownie camera can see. In my Blog on Revolutionary Road I said that the underlying reality involved a sociological conformity that leads to a psychological denial of problems that really exist, which leads to mental illness for which in the 50s there was no adequate treatment. This is an underlying reality that a Brownie could never see and a movie using a style of “realism” could never portray.

      In the rest of this response to your comment I will show that your explanation of “realism” and my criterion for the three movies on life in suburban Connecticut are not the same, in fact for many movies they are diametrically opposite.

      Let me show this by considering three movies that I am sure you know well, and two of which we have seen in the TFC.

      Memento: The underlying reality being described has to do with the inadequacies of memory to accurately recall facts as they actually occurred. In other words the movie depicts how poor memory is in portraying “the state of things that actually exist(ed).” Nolan gives us countless examples of this that you and I both know well. Leonard says memory can change “the color of a car”, or “the shape of a room”, and in fact in the movie they do (along with changing the letters on a license plate and many other aspects of reality.) I think we would agree that Memento does an excellent job portraying the reality of the inadequacy of memory, and I am equally confident that we would agree that this is not a movie filmed in a “realistic” style. By the criteria I really used, I would rate Memento a 5. Using a criterion that favors the “realism” style of filmmaking I’d give it a 1. This highlights just how much you distorted my criteria.

      Lives of Others: I believe the underlying reality the director is trying to portray here is the psychological process of transformation that the SS officer undergoes when exposed to the lives of the playwright and his companions. When I watched the movie it seemed to me that the director and screenwriter did not give us sufficient insight into the reasons for the psychological transformation. Thus to me the movie seemed to move on and on giving snapshots that in effect said “ ’and then this happened”, ‘and then this happened’, ‘and then this happened’, etc., etc., ad infinitum” (quotes from your comment.) You are right in what you say in your comment, that a movie that employed this style of “realism” is about as interesting as reading the transcript of a trial. By the criteria I used in my Blog I would give it a “1”, by the criteria you have substituted for mine it would have to be given it a “5”. In fact, as you know, I gave it a “1”. Ergo, you substituted some other criterion for the one I developed.

      Mulholland Dr. I hope you have seen this excellent movie directed by David Lynch. I choose it as the last of my examples because the underlying reality it portrays is quite similar to the underlying reality portrayed in Revolutionary Road. Lynch portrays the descent into mental illness and the eventual suicide of a young woman who has come to Hollywood to become an actress (in Revolutionary Road April Wheeler also wanted to become an actress.) By the criterion I used for Revolutionary Road, adapted appropriately to the underlying reality of Mulholland Dr., it would certainly get a 5 rating from me. Yet, as you well know, no one ever could accuse Lynch of making a movie using a “realism” style. Mulholland Dr. consists almost entirely of depictions of fantasies dreams, and paranoid fears. It is realistic only for a minute at the start and a couple of minutes at the end, and these realistic scenes serve to enhance the effect of the core style of the movie. Anyone whose criterion favored a style of realism, who wanted a movie that proceeded in a series of snapshots “then this happened”, “then this happened” etc. would certainly rate Mulholland Dr. a 1. Probably if they could they would give it a zero or negative rating. By my criterion of how faithfully it portrayed the underlying reality of the psychological decline of a would-be Hollywood star, I’d give it a 5.

      What we learn from this exercise is that Mulholland Dr. and Memento rate very highly by my criterion of accurately portraying the psychological reality that each director wanted to explore. Neither of these movies employs the artistic style of “realism.” By contrast the Lives of Others uses a style similar to “realism” but it rates very low by my criterion. Therefore we have to conclude that the realism you discuss is not at all the same as the criterion I used.

      Now let’s turn to Revolutionary Road and see if it can be described as a movie using a style of “realism”, which you quite colorfully compare actors reading the transcript of a trial. But first an aside: on my recent return flight from backpacking in the Philippines I had a ticket in coach. But coach was full so United upgraded me to business class. To my pleasant surprise their entertainment system enabled me to watch movies as if I was watching them on a DVD at home. I could stop, rewind and play a scene again, skip ahead and skip back, watch in slow motion, in other words I had the chance to really study the movie offerings. By sheer good luck Revolutionary Road was one of the movies they offered, and on the 12-hour fight I watched it very carefully not once but twice. So I think I can talk about it with more confidence now than when I first wrote my Blog.

      In your comments you say:

      “What scenes does a good director choose to show in constructing a film? (While a) mediocre director will provide you with every detail of information to reflect realistically what is happening in the story. A master director will provide you with the same information content by judicious use of one, two, or three fragments edited together, perhaps in sequence or perhaps not.”

      Now consider the first four scenes of Revolutionary Road. The first scene is at a party in New York City and we learn through the “judicious” use of visual fragments, that April Wheeler wants to be an actress while her husband doesn’t know what he wants to be at all, except charming and seductive. Suddenly the scene changes and we see April in a play, a bad play in which her acting is not good at all. The scene changes again – a jump we now realize has taken us years into the future. She and her husband are fighting alongside a busy highway. Her dream of becoming an actress been smashed, they have two children, their marriage has problems, and that they have moved to the suburbs. We don’t know how all these things have happened; we just see that the happy, dreamy young woman from the city has become an unhappy wife and mother in the suburbs. Then the scene changes again, this time backwards in time. She and her husband are driving with a realtor looking at houses in a suburb, and the smile on her face tells us that she moved to the suburbs with her dreams intact. With this sequence of scenes, perhaps only the first 10 minutes of the movie, we learn that April had a vision of what she wanted her life to be, that she carried that dream with her to a new house in Connecticut, but that after a several years there the dream, and her relationship with her husband, had gone sour. She had found a perfect house in a perfect suburb, but in the middle of that perfection she had lost her dream and in fact, herself.

      The rest of the movie follows the path of the decline of April’s mental health ending in what was either a tragic mistake or a suicide. The logic of the order of the scenes is driven by the underlying reality of April’s life, something that could never be captured either with Brownie camera taking sequential snapshots, or in a transcript of her conversations.

      I think it is fair to say that the Director, Sam Mendes is

      “a master director, (who) provides (us) with … information content by judicious use of one, two, or three fragments edited together, perhaps in sequence or perhaps not. (As a) master director (he) has no concern with a “realistic depiction”; instead … (he) has mastered how to tell a story “economically” using the “language of film”, similar to the way a poet constructs a poem economically using the “language of words”.
      (Quote from Ron’s comments, parenthetical changes just fit the verb tenses to be consistent with the rest of this response.)

      What I don’t understand Ron is how you can reconcile your reading of my criterion with my (high) rating of Revolutionary Road. Since you equate my criterion to the use of the “realism” style, the most logical explanation is that you think that I think Revolutionary Road is a movie that uses that style. I hope it is clear from what I have written that I think Mendes is a “master director” who certainly did not make Revolutionary Road, using the artistic style of realism.

      On the other hand, I certainly agree with you that movies made using the artistic style of “realism” are often boring and it’s hard for me to think of one that I actually liked (Saving Private Ryan may be an exception.)

      Finally, Ron thank-you for your comment, I found it very stimulating and you articulated many points with which I agree.

      And just so I don’t start an endless back and forth on this web site, I hereby now confess that my choosing to use Lives of Others as an example, and in particular my description of it in this comment, was just to, as they say in Australia, “have a go at you.” I’ve mellowed considerably in my view of that fine movie.


  4. Response posted by Peter for Burk

    Hi Peter:

    David called me from Idaho today and somehow we got onto the subject of
    your comments about suburbia and the three films discussed by the TFC. I
    asked him to send me a copy as going on the web is a slow process on my
    antiquated computer.

    I did not go to any of the TFC showings of the films. But many years ago
    I read “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” and saw the movie. Like you, I
    grew up in the North Jersey suburbs of NYC – Montclair. Montclair and
    Tenafly were similar in many respects as affluent communities. But
    Montclair was unique in that over 20 per cent of the population was
    black. I think my high school class of 1943 had an even higher
    percentage of blacks as many Montclair kids were sent off to private prep
    schools – possibly because of the blacks who were concentrated in the 4th
    Ward and most students only got to rub noses with them when they went to
    high school

    Since I am about 19 years your senior my experience extends back into the
    depression and the war and post war years. Like your parents, mine had
    moved from Brooklyn to Montclair for reasons that never were articulated
    to me. My assumption is that Brooklyn was changing and the suburbs were
    perceived as a better place to live. The current wave of foreclosures is
    not new to me. Sometime around my 12th year in 1937 our home was
    repossessed by the bank and we ended up in a succession of rental units
    during my junior and senior high school years. I do not look back on
    that time of my life with any joy. It was not “Leave it to Beaver.”

    Like your dad, after being commissioned a naval officer in 1945 and
    spending a year at sea, I returned to Montclair and then went back to
    finish up my last two years of college and graduated in 1948. In 1951 I
    married a Montclair girl. Our first apartment was in Clifton and then we
    had two more in Montclair before saving up enough money to buy a house in
    Madison (near Morristown). After three years in Madison (we now had two
    sons) we purchased a home in Montclair. Three years later found us in
    Marin County, CA for another three years and we finally settled down in
    Cohasset, MA for 25 years while my wife was alive and I stayed there for
    another eight years before moving to Tacoma 12 years ago.

    My first three jobs out of college were in NYC – Wall Street, Broadway
    and 42nd Street. So when I started to work at 120 Wall Street in 1948 I
    was truly the guy in the gray flannel suit. I commuted via the Erie or
    Lackawanna Railroads to the ferry terminals in Hoboken and Jersey City
    and wore one of those felt hats which were part of the commuters uniform.

    I would agree with your comments about the lack of social services in
    much of suburbia – then and now. The one I do remember is a free clinic
    at Mountianside Hospital where there was a long line to see a doctor and
    most of those waiting were black. My mother took me because our finances
    at the time were as bleak as the poor blacks. I can relate to your
    comment about the woman who delayed seeing a doctor about cancer.
    Without any insurance you only went when it was really serious. As a kid
    I broke a little finger playing baseball but I splinted it myself (with
    help from the Boy Scout manual) as I knew that there would be great
    parental anxiety about the medical cost to get it fixed. It still is
    crooked. I think my mother often bartered with our GP. She helped make
    ends meet by doing sewing work. Debt was something to be avoided at all
    costs. No debit/credit cards then! You paid in cash or bartered.

    In my view psychological problems were just something you had to work out
    on your own. In the 50’s you did not have an acronym or name for every
    mental ailment. I suspect that the one source of help, such as it was,
    was the clergy. Religious organizations were an important cog in
    suburbia in the days following WW II.

    I learned much later in life from my sister, who was about 10 years my
    senior, that the stress of the depression almost led to my parents
    breaking up the marriage.

    I think for most suburbanites on the gray flannel generation it was out
    of sight and out of mind. My graduate education as a planning consultant
    at Columbia and subsequent consulting experience in places such as
    Hoboken, Asbury Park, East St. Louis, Brockton, Schnectady, Milwaukee, to
    name a few, opened my eyes as to how the other half lived. But I did not
    opt to live in those places. The four homes I owned were in suburbia
    where I thought my sons would get a better education. In a sense, because
    I was a reasonably affluent professional, they grew up more isolated from
    society’s ills than I did during my depression and early post war years
    in Montclair.

    Well Peter, I have rambled on and this does not add much to the movie
    discussion. I only have a vague memory of the book and movie mentioned

    I am sure that many of the agonies of the 30’s depression period are
    being played out again in suburban Ohio and similar places hard hit by
    job loss. A clever director could produce an interesting movie.

    Ciao, Burk

    (From a later email)

    Did you get any sense that my suburban piece is anti black? That certainly was not my intention. Having grown up in Montclair in association with a lot of blacks and having had a very close black friend when I worked in Los Angeles, I learned that there a good ones and bad ones just like all the rest of us.

    Several years ago the “New York Times Sunday Magazine” had a long article about Montclair and cited it as an example of where the blacks are quite well integrated into the community. There is a large population of professional blacks there and they now live throughout the community. I will take their word for it as I have not lived in Montclair for over 50 years.

    1. Burk

      Thanks for your very interesting description of life in Montclair, New Jersey when you lived there in the 30s and 40s. I really appreciate hearing about your experiences because my point in writing the Blog was to talk about the suburbs. The other comments, while useful, were really on other topics. But I guess that is natural because only a few of us had the actual experience of living in suburbs of New York City.

      What I think is most interesting is that in your description we can see that the seeds of the suburban culture of the 50s had already been planted.

      It’s clear that moving to the suburbs to get away from the stresses of the city and to obtain a better environment for the children was just not a 50s phenomena, evidently your parents had the same motivation for moving. Around New York this was the era when Robert Moses was building highways through the city and to the suburbs, providing access that had not existed before. The George Washington Bridge opened in 1931 and the Lincoln Tunnel in 1937. These structures connected New York City to New Jersey just as the Merritt Parkway connected the city to Connecticut. It was completed in sections in the years between 1934 to 40. (Incidentally Moses purposefully built low overpasses on his parkways so that busses could not use them. This assured that only the wealthy people, who owned their own cars, could have full access to the suburbs. See The Power Broker, 1974 by Robert Caro.) Clearly the war slowed this “migration” down but as we know it accelerated rapidly in the late 40s.

      In the suburbs in the 30s, as you point out so clearly, the atmosphere was very different from the 50s. In the 30s the Great Depression dominated people’s lives and many suffered from the financial impacts. While the suburbs offered some relief from the trials of living in the city, they did not provide an escape from the economic hardships, which were often the cause of personal stresses. Your statement that the 30s were not a time of “Leave it to Beaver” sums this up nicely.

      You talked about the lack of social services in the 30s and the belief that “psychological problems were just something you had to work out on your own.” By the 50s the roads and the suburban houses had been built but we saw in all three movies these services were still not available, or when available were not of high quality in the 50s. And certainly in the 50s the “just get over it” attitude toward mental health was still prevalent. And if you couldn’t get over it, there was always electroshock therapy to help you.

      So your contribution showed that the experience of the suburbs in the 30s led directly to the experience of the suburbs in the 50s. As your story shows, quite literally many of the suburban parents of the 50s were the suburban children of the 30s. Those parents carried their childhood experiences with them and wanted a better life for their own children. And they had good reason to believe that this better life was right at hand. The Depression had ended and the long and horrible war was over. Whereas there was little reason for optimism and very little grounds to feel secure in the 30s there seemed to be lots of reason to feel optimistic, content, and secure in the 50s. And of course the suburbs seemed to be the ideal place for this contentment and feeling of security to thrive. Indeed these feelings of contentment, security, and optimism must have been one of the foundation stones of the Baby Boom that started right after the war.

      Our three movies showed that beneath these feeling of hope, contentment and security were another set of problems, both personal and social. But we have worked that ground over sufficiently on this web site.

      I must say, Burk, that one reason why I enjoyed your contribution so much was that it connected to me personally. Montclair is only 5 miles from East Orange, where I was born, and only 20 miles from Tenafly where I went to high school. In my Blog I mentioned that my mother and I met my father at the train station each night when he returned from his job in New York. The train he took was the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad (I guess they had merged since you took them.) It has been at least 40 years since I had heard those words, and it brought me a pleasant memory to read them.

      Finally you mention that because you were a reasonably affluent professional, your children grew up more isolated from society’s ills than you had. That was just the feeling that I had when I graduated from high school in 1964 (21 years after you) and the year the Voting Rights Act was passed. At that time, in my immaturity, I felt resentment toward my parents for isolating me, rather then appreciation for the environment that they had created for me. By then it seemed that the country had changed again, and as the 30s planted the seeds for the 50s, so the 50s had in turn planted the seeds for the tumult of the 60s.


  5. Peter,
    Wow, what a thoughtful response! I agree with everything you state in your comment to my comment (with the exception of your overall assessment of Lives of Others of course :-))

    Your distinction between Reality and Realism was particularly thought provoking. One of those interesting cases where it seems we pretty much agree on all of the substantive issues, even though we initially appeared to disagree based on a semantic confusion (on my part).

    Your comment made me think more deeply about these issues. I may post more later after I have had more time to ponder. It is discussions like these that have kept me coming to the Tacoma Film Club for the past several years!

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