When I visited my best friend's house, on the other side of the highway, I'd learn to speak another language entirely: sod, subdivision, cul-de-sac, rec room, microwave. I learned about dishwashers, orange shag, built-in vacuum cleaners, and foosball. At home, our own picture windows looked out at night into a lonely mix of empty fields and far-away lights, the voice of a far-off drive-through drifting mechanically. The suburbs, with interlinked lawns and the clink of ice makers, seemed a cozier, safer homestead.
I'm curious what Sofia Coppola means when she says, in interviews, that she was drawn to the book The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides, because she identifies with the material. It's a story of suburban Michigan -- five barely differentiated teenage sisters trying to manage their way through adolescence under the watch of oppressive parents in the mid-1970s. The book is about the neighborhood as a whole, seen through the eyes of a collective mass of boys who mythologize the five girls, grappling with questions of sex and death in a housing development too new to have ever had a funeral. The Lisbon sisters come to signify everything terrifying and mysterious about sex and death, intertwining the two as inevitable.
At 28, Sofia Coppola is too young to have experienced much of the 1970s that she's representing -- she probably never owned an ELO album -- and as the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, it's doubtful that her childhood had anything to do with the unspoken dress code, yard maintenance regime, and oppressive striving of middle-class, Midwestern suburbia. But even the daughter of a major director has to get through adolescence, and the worst sort of adolescence is the direct equivalent of a Midwestern suburb of the mind -- a place of perpetual isolation within a crowd, awkwardness, checking oneself against the neighbors -- always sensing there's only one right way to live, and your family's not it.
The 1970s have also come to stand for a collective adolescence -- naiveté and idealism bumping up against carnal knowledge. The film The Ice Storm, again about sex, death, and family ties, offers the perfect combination: As the parents move further into sexual disillusionment -- the allure of a "key party" turned sour -- their simplest child is killed while taking in the beauty of the natural world, pure electrical current on ice. Youth is sacrificed in exchange for knowledge, and the family is emotionally arrested on the brink of dawning awareness. Supposedly the goal of society is to make inhabitants feel safe. This is according to people like Hobbes and Locke and Rousseau, anyway -- long-dead theorists, who never made it to see the '70s, and who used words like "social contract" to describe mutually beneficial affiliations. Does anybody talk about the social contract anymore? Do we even think in terms of mutually beneficial affiliations? The suburbs, of course, are meant to be a safe place. Urban planners refer to the mass exodus from cities to suburbs as "white flight" because it was exactly that -- white people rushing toward safety, clustering on streets named categorically after birds, Native Americans, and trees. Rumors of bomb shelters in suburban backyards epitomize the lust for an ultimate, eternally safe, and private clubhouse.
I have a friend who insists that all questions come down to the same essential position of love versus fear. If that's true, the suburbs, populated by "white flight," clearly fall on the fear side of the equation. The problem, of course, is that what suburbanites wanted to get away from, as much as anything, was each other. You can plan a utopia, but once you put the people in, you've got a neighborhood, complete with neuroses, covetousness, infidelity, and too many trash cans on the curb. And this is the point that writers and filmmakers, from John Cheever to David Lynch, Todd Solondz, and more recently, Jeffrey Eugenides and Sofia Coppola, seem to be making repeatedly over the past 30 years: There's no safety in suburban numbers. There's only increased social pressure, and room to err on the side of uncovering deviancy behind the illusion of conformity.
When I was a kid, I thought the uniformity of suburban living conferred some element of truth: If so many people choose to live in approximately the same way, wouldn't that make it the normal way to live? Now I realize there's a bigger question: If the house next door looks normal, but Tim Burton, with Edward Scissorhands, shows us it's a little freaky; and the house just past that looks normal, but American Beauty reminds us the couple inside is falling apart; and the house next to that is well managed but suffering some human sacrifice -- The Virgin Suicides, or The Ice Storm -- maybe the trick to growing past this figurative societal adolescence is to let go of the idea that there's a normative existence at all.
These films remind us that we're not safe; that we're always taking necessary risks, physically or emotionally, as long as we're tangled up with each other, and with society. The Lifestyle is a documentary described by Salon as being about the "weirdest and kinkiest group of barbecuing boat-owners in America: suburban swingers." The frightening thing isn't the partner swapping, but the combination of suburbs and partner swapping. It disrupts certain expectations to learn that people who might dress in pastel sweatshirts and have beer bellies, who have bourgeois concerns and don't look commercially "sexy," engage in deviant sex. In this sub-culture, partner swapping becomes what Hobbes might consider part of the social contract, a mutually beneficial affiliation. David Schisgall says he was drawn to make the movie because he grew up in the suburbs and "the idea that there were people who were like my parents who were doing this really struck a chord with me." If the suburbs are adolescence and are the '70s, which is the equivalent of dawning sexual awareness, on some level we must still harbor a hope of innocence -- or we wouldn't, as a whole, be disturbed by the knowledge that people like our parents have sex.
And this is what I like to imagine Sofia Coppola means when she says she identifies with the material of The Virgin Suicides -- she too feels the tension between what we know and what some sheltered child version of ourselves might not want to understand. It's the conflicted desire to lay bare an unspoken truth. Coppola is saying that if she had grown up in suburban Michigan, she too would be one of the kids who couldn't quit looking at the beagle in the culvert, life and death, truth apparent in the long stretch of fly-covered intestines.