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When Utopia Crumbles

It’s no wonder Revolutionary Road was shut out of the Oscars. As stated in this article from the New York Times, this year the Academy is looking to stories of the “indomitability of human will” to grace with its little gold statues. All of the nominees for best picture are “films built on individual successes” that provide “a nice, big chunk of uplift.” From Slumdog Millionaire to Milk to Frost/Nixon, these are stories where the little guy can beat the big powers that try to keep him down and where human will has the ability to allow us to conquer all, rise up, forge change, and take control of our own lives and destiny. Given that that many of the films deal with battling political and/or economic systems (presidential abuse of power, the Catholic church, economic class stratification), these films are classic Depression era narratives.

In fact, when writing about Slumdog Millionaire, I described it as Frank Capra goes to Mumbai in the 21st Century. Indeed, there is no hiding the fact that we are in a Depression. As the economy sinks lower and lower, people lose their homes and their jobs, and businesses collapse, there is no denying that the Depression is now. So maybe uplift and triumph is what people need. Apparently the Academy thinks they don’t need a movie like Revolutionary Road which provides a relentlessly brutal critique of the shallow illusion of the American Dream and the inherent fallacy of the institution of marriage. Revolutionary Road basically says that everything America pretends to be through its policies of blind acquisition, status through material gain, and a self-deluded vision of Norman Rockwellesque family life is a toxic lie. Well, isn’t it? Of course it is, but now that most Americans have had to look the lie in the face as the veneer of their American Utopia has crumbled under their feet, I guess they don’t want to see it in the movies too.

I liked seeing it in the movies. Revolutionary Road is incredibly tight filmmaking. Set in the 1950s, it shows how a young couple, the Wheelers, falls into the trap of the American Dream (the suburban home and the family) only to find themselves strangled by their circumstances. Love becomes toxic hatred. The home becomes a lifeless tomb. Dreams become bitter ashes. Certainly the critique of the American Dream is nothing new in art, whether cinema, painting or photography, and indeed this film functions best as art. The power of the film is not in the narrative which we’ve seen and read a million times before. It is in how the narrative is delivered. While the movie is full of toxic moments, the most resonating scenes are ones of quietude where the entire environment resonates with a silent toxic death and an impossible longing. In one scene, we get an ominous view of the back of Shep, the Wheelers’ neighbor, as he stares down at the Wheeler’s home. The scene is silent. The silhouette of the man looms large over the sprawling lawn, and the Wheelers’ home and with its glowing windows echoes to him like some kind of unattainable alien world. This looming figure is simultaneously creepy and desperate. There is such loneliness in this shot, but it is loneliness that verges on the potential of violence. Likewise, in a scene where Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) sits alone on the side of the bed and turns his gaze to us, he looks out at us like a trapped animal. The desperation behind his eyes is so immense that it cuts right through us. The furniture, the lawns, the garbage cans, it is the silence of things that delivers the real horror of the film. Like in the photographs of Gregory Crewdson or the paintings of Edward Hopper, the characters in this film occupy an American Dream that is empty, alienating, and desperate with longing, but that also seems to lurk on the edge of some vast otherworldly presence. For example, in the scene when April Wheeler (Kate Winslet) flees the house and runs through the woods, the woods are both desperately empty and claustrophobic but also opening up to some great natural world that she has shut out from inside the comforts of her suburban life.

One of the most powerful scenes in the film is a quiet scene of Kate Winslet staring out of the picture window in her living room. As the camera pulls back, we see a tiny spot of blood on the back of her skirt. The spot spreads, blood drips quietly onto the rug, and the camera pulls from the scene. Certainly both sides of the story suffer in this narrative – the man who kills his dreams to bring home the bacon and the woman who forfeits her freedom to take care of home and family– , but the image of April bleeding silently in her living room reveals the core of the film’s aesthetic and ideological sensibility as it points to the film’s Sirkian portrayal of women trapped in the domestic. In fact, many of the shots of April in her home could have come straight from Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, a film where the image of a television set in a perfectly decorated living room becomes the ultimate symbol of how women were imprisoned by their domestic roles. While ideologically I agree with the movie’s critique, its anchoring in the 1950s setting makes it resist our identification with the characters. The 1950s setting is preposterously irrelevant to most women’s lives here in the 21st century where the large majority of women are working mothers managing jobs, home and family. Long gone are the days when the husband goes to work, and the woman stays home suffering her isolation amongst her washing machine and television set. So while I watched the movie with relish, enjoying the venomous dialogue, the exquisite compositions, and the brutal dissection of the American Dream, I watched it with a cool distance. I kept thinking to myself, “What the fuck is SHE complaining about? I mean, why doesn’t she just make art all day and stop her bitching?” I personally, and ironically, had more emotional access to the men in the movie.

Speaking of men in the movie, I should mention that Michael Shannon (Bug) is utterly brilliant as the emotionally unstable son of the realtor (Kathy Bates) who sells the Wheelers their home. Shannon pulls out all the stops as his “mental illness” allows him to occupy a place below the artificial facade of American happiness and to unearth the ugly interior. He inserts himself into the claustrophobic narrative of the film with perfect timing, breaking through the surface with volcanic force. He explodes with venom, unflinchingly calling out the Wheelers’ flaws, exposing the lie that they are, and laying all the cards on the table. We laugh at his outbursts because they contain so much truth, and laughter, even when it is inspired by ugliness, provides relief from the tension and claustrophobia of the Wheelers’ suburban existence. Watching Shannon is well worth the price of admission.

I should mention that the Wheelers also represent that breed of American liberals who had high hopes of living a fringe life fueled by all things exciting and non-material (philosophy, theater, poetry, travel) only to find themselves trapped in a life of domestic servitude. Their real dreams become replaced by the American Dream, and they become the Living Dead. “Revolutionary” is simply the name of the road where they live in the sequestered insulation of suburbia. Sure the film’s critique of the shallowness of the American Dream rings true; however, I imagine it is a bit hard to swallow for the vast majority of the audience. Today, when losing one’s home is much more of a threat than being culturally strangled by a life in the suburbs, the movie’s vicious core echoes a bit hollow. Still, we have to remember that it was the driving force behind 1950s American conservatism and its emphasis on “family values” and material acquisition that encouraged people to place the value of their lives on consumer goods and to spend beyond their means which largely paved the way to our present state of economic crisis. It is the 1950’s ideology carried through to a global capitalist economy of the 21st century that largely contributed to bringing the system down. Maybe we need to be reminded of that. If so, Revolutionary Road is one ugly and brutal reminder, and a good one at that.

KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her partner, daughter, and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Bullhorn and Berkeley Review. She can be reached at: knicolini@gmail.com.

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Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently completed a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will was featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA. She is also completing a book of herDirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.

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