I am the Bizarro Sam Mendes

Sam Mendes has a new movie out. And guess what? It's not about how family life in the suburbs sucks your soul out of you like most of his other movies. It's about two young people worrying about whether family life in the suburbs will suck their soul out of them. A radical departure, eh?

Mendes directed the ballyhooed film "American Beauty" years ago about how life in the suburbs was soul sucking, anti-gay, annoying, boring, conformist, desperate and even murderous. I remember thinking while I was watching it that Mendes captured exactly what I thought of the suburbs...when I was 16.

But I'm not 16 anymore. I'm not sure how old Mendes is but his phobia of the suburbs is still strong.

He also wrote and directed the much ballyhooed film Revolutionary Road which had the same elitist and urbane view of the suburbs.

Now it's "Away We Go" where two young-ish unmarrieds search for couple who've found happiness. Essentially there's very little to be found out in America. Only alcoholics, depressives and suicide risks.

Essentially, Mendes seems to adopt the view of literary urbanista types that the suburbs are a death filled wasteland.

I find this attitude weird firstly as a business decision because it seems to me that mocking where most people live isn't the way to make a lot of money.

But more importantly, I don't know what the big look-down-your-nose issue is that people have with the suburbs.

I live in the suburbs because it's near the city where my wife and I work. But we like having a lawn and a little space. I'm just not getting the soul sucki-ness of it all.

I think I'm the bizarro Sam Mendes. I've embraced everything he fears.

The question sometimes comes up in conversation with old friends. What was the best time of your life? And I'm sometimes embarrassed to admit it but right now is the best time of my life. Truly. And I'm a short chubby bearded dad living in the suburbs. I mow my lawn. I pay bills. I talk to my wife about what she did that day. I change diapers. Lots of them. Sometimes we go get ice cream. I do all those things that angsty pubescents jeer at.

I've lived in the suburbs coming up on ten years. And I've yet to feel my soul sucked. I don't really do angst. I think I used to. But I think I've forgotten where I put my existential angst. I'm happy. And even more importantly, I'm content. I'm focused.

So often his characters are running around and saying they're looking to "feel" something. I think I'm content because I don't consider my feelings all that important. And because of that I feel things more intensely than I did ever before in my life. A child's utterances can have me laughing all day. I feel the pain of a parent who sees his child hurt. I feel tired just about all the time but it's the tired that comes from doing something you love. It's not the weary kind of tired that Mendes' characters seem to feel.

And finally, there's one thing I don't ever remember hearing from Mendes' characters: God.

God, thankfully, is at the center of my life. And that puts me in proper perspective.
Now if, like Mendes' character seem to often do, I found myself at the center of my own universe I'd be pretty depressed too.


  1. I've met many people who put God at the center of their lives. Neither you or your brother ever struck me as one of those individuals.

  2. While I can't say that Mendes' approach appeals to me, there are certainly things about the suburbs that warrant critique.

    For one, suburbia generally requires a car. While middle class people like you or me have no problem with this, disadvantaged groups like the poor, young people and the elderly often find themselves stranded from employment and social services.

    This, in conjunction with the fact that developers tend to avoid building low income housing unless they have to, means that suburbs become the exclusive domains of a particular type of people, while others are pushed to the margins. In large cities, this leads to the growth of ghettos... in small ones, the disadvantaged live in banal, disconnected landscapes, often spending disproportionately large amounts of money on transportation they can barely afford.

    I hate the suburbs because they ruin social cohesiveness and, insofar as they push people apart into personal enclaves, they militate against the living of a Christian lifestyle of relationality and community.

  3. Wow, anon (#1 and 2) you're a real breath of fresh air.

    Let me guess. You're a fan of Obama and think there might be something to this whole redistribution of wealth thing, right?

    I've always been somewhat amused by Sam Mendes and his strange obsession with telling everyone how terrible it is to live in the suburbs (on some level it must give Kate Winslet second thoughts). Even when I was a single 20-something who thoroughly enjoyed my life in a large urban east coast city, it always seemed to me to be a perfectly natural and rational impulse to work hard in order to buy a home in a safe, pleasant, green area (especially if you eventually marry and have children).

    This is not rocket science, anon. Some of us suburbanites would even argue that we haven't sacrificed "social cohesiveness" or a Christian lifestyle of relationality. We're not living in pods out here, you know.

    You really should get a grip before attending the next backyard bar-b-que.

  4. Actually, the critique of the suburbs has a "been there, done that" quality to it. Mendes and others aren't tilling new ground, unlike, say, Joel Kotkin, an historian of cities, respected urban theorist, and resident of L.A. (a suburb of L.A., to be exact). No conservative, Kotkin is very critical of the mainline urban theorists who trot out the same, tired arguments as Anon #2 above. Clearly there is *something* appealing about the suburbs, if immigration patterns mean anything. People leave the crowded cities of Asia in droves to settle in single-family homes in the suburbs of L.A. Why would they do that if the suburbs are such a soul-sucking place?

    The mainstream argument is that people will really *enjoy* living in highrise apartments with no greenery, *enjoy* taking public transit or walking everywhere, *enjoy* the "flavor" that higher crime rates in city centers offer... To which all demographic trends say "bullsh*t." People don't want that -- they want to get away from the noise, the congestion, the crime. If cities are to attract people, they need to appeal to families. Right now, they don't do a very good job of it. And as Kotkin points out, that glorious sense of "community" and social cohesion that cities supposedly have in spades is being supplanted by new patterns of community in outlying areas. Suburbs and smaller cities are no longer cultural wastelands always and everywhere. Immigrants are seeking the opportunities in suburbs that they couldn't find adequately in city centers, and so there is much more diversity than the stereotypes would have it.

    That people want a little bit of green space away from the hyperactive stimuli of dense urban areas is no evil. Urban planners need to get off their elitist high horse and realize how deep a human need such a thing is -- especially for people with children. Right now, many city centers barely survive on a highly transient workforce of mostly childless people. Their "vitality" is illusory -- just look at the enrollment trends in San Francisco schools, for example. When one layers on top of the demographics the politics of large, American cities -- basically a system catering to a corps of self-serving bureaucrats and public employees' unions -- there is not much hope for the renewal of urban life.

  5. Anon #2-
    seventy-something percent of poor families own a car, and about 2/3s own more than one.

    I think part of what the eternal-teens don't like about the suburbs is that it doesn't have a night life.
    When I was in the Navy, my first station was by a nice little town called China Lake. Almost everyone HATED it, because-- although there was room to breath, stores and places to eat, a multi-screen movie theator... the only stuff to "do" around there was the bars.

    They wanted clubs, that could be reached by walking, and were near "cool" places to shop and eat.

    I don't get it, but I'm just some dumb hick. I like plants and animals, I like being able to turn up the radio without worrying about my neighbor, no matter the hour.

    The suberbs aren't cool, so they must suck, so they must be bad for your soul. Gee, the folks chasing after a "feeling" can't find it... wouldn't have guessed. (looks at the divorce rate)

  6. Wow. Matt, why'd you hit the "poke the troll" button on this one?

    Actually, I agree with you. I'm looking forward to getting out of my city apartment and into a small town suburb. Of course, I've got two babies, so that has something to do with wanting safety and a bit of green for the kids to play one.

    Can someone rationalize for me why exactly that's wrong?

  7. I think the suburbs, in many ways, represent the American dream - the house, the yard, the white picket fence, children, etc.

    Unfortunately, there are many in this country that reject the American dream,or are so jaded that they don't believe in it anymore; thus the viciousness in the attacks against it.

  8. Matt, your change in feelings about suburbia completely reflect my own transition in feeling, although I've had two changes of heart. When I was 16 I absolutely wanted to live in suburbia, but changed my mind and soon became the kind of person who was the target audience for Mendes.

    And now with a family and rental house outside the DC Beltway - I love it. You grow up at some point and recognize that the pinnacle of life is not hanging out in a pub until 2 in the morning. There are inconveniences, like taking an hour to get to the Mall (the one with the grass and the monuments, not the stores), but you learn to live with it. Besides, I get to do a lot of reading on the bus and subway. Of course, things are a bit different in DC than other cities. I think my section of suburbia is probably more diverse and urban than most parts of the actual city. Nowhere in the District can I get good dim sum, Italian food, Ehtopian food, and all the papusas you can shake a stick at all within walking distance. Also, contrary to what Anony number 2 said, it's actually cheaper to live where I am than in any part of the city that is not the worst part of the ghetto.

    That said, I'm not a big fan of the suburban developments where the houses all kind of look the same and the only sort of "ethnic" cuisine is the Taco Bell at the strip mall. But that's a personal preference.

  9. When you're young, single, and looking for a spouse, suburbia and small towns ARE soul-crushing... we live in a smaller city, and the young people can't wait to get out and move to the city and meet NEW people and stay out after 9 and yadda yadda yadda.

    And you know, they're right. This town WOULD be a tough place to be young and single. But as soon as their married with kids, they come back, because it's the PERFECT place to raise a family and grow old.

    I think these anti-surburbia movies are just a reverse Peter pan--instead of avoiding adulthood by running off to fight pirates, they visit the worst bits of adulthood so the artists can reaffirm theuir OWN decisions to avoid adulthood and responsibility.

    Besides, people like us don't go to the movies a few times a week-- young single urban types do.... and they wouldn't WANT a movie about happy-suburbia.... that wouldn't be an escape... that would be like going home for Sunday dinner with your PARENTS...who'd pay to see THAT?

    (BTW--is it super obvious I'm procrastinating today?)

  10. I take no issue with Suburban lifestyle. My problem is with the perpetual spral of suburbia. There are suburban neighborhoods in my city that were built in the 1930's and 40's. People who fix up these houses have a suburban lifestyle much closer to town, and can reduce sprall. But so many people and developers would rather build new 40 minutes down the freeway then renovate closer to town, so so many houses lie empty and then druggies and other bozos move into the neighborhood. The main sprall in my town is to the north and the east, the further north or east the sprall goes the more the crappy neighborhoods expand even though not that many more people are living in those areas, less are in reality. People want new, and different. If these old neighborhoods were repopulated they would begin to regrow and the need for new sprall would be less. That also is happening in some neighborhoods in my town. Also in suburbs I think it is important for each incorperated suburban city to develop a new urban center so as to keep the town from merely being a servant city to the neighboring Urban center.

    Suburban life is fine, sprall is awful. Renovate and rebuild. Thats my two cents.

  11. The reduction of suburbanites into caricatures leaves them flat but allows simple minds to get into their generalizations and fallacious conclusions just like the pro-aborts who cast pro-lifers as politically motivated. It is reminiscent of how a certain school of thought categorizes people into classes and their interactions as a class struggle.

    The presence of God changes everything and breaks all molds. But one who is not a believer cannot grasp such a reality. Nemo dat quod non habet.

  12. What always drives me crazy about Sam Mendes is that he's not American. To the best of my knowledge, he's never lived the "american suburban lifestyle".

    I feel perfectly equipped to make fun of American Suburbs. It's because I know them. I don't think I'd make a movie about growing up outside of London. ..

    It's funny, because his movies have always seemed so emotionally distant to me. Maybe it's because he's more interested in making a point than in communicating a story.

  13. I just moved to HI courtesy of the US Navy. It's hard to live in a two bedroom/2bath fully furnished condo 29 floors in the air . . . and it not be mine. With three kids. Three bored kids. It's expensive and it's not ours. We will eventually get housing (and have our own stuff again, which is currently in storage somewhere) . . . yes, there's the pool and gym and a great mall nearby . . . but it's so boring to shop every day . . . whether you can afford it or not. Let me tell you, I did not enjoy schlepping twenty bags of groceries from the garage to the 29th floor (two elevators etc.).

    I can't wait to have a yard and have to mow it! There's nothing like suburbia!

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  15. Suburban land use generates some negative externalities whose costs are not borne by those who enjoy the benefits.

    60 years of postwar land use patterns and national transportation policy have led us down a path in which resources were misdirected automobiles and oil. With the current demographics, mass transit cannot reasonably work outside of a handful of metropolitan cities, and the idea of countryside is dead.

  16. Anonymous @ June 22, 2009 2:51 PM:
    Perfection is a process. So, we are not yet there but that does not mean that we're not trying. As St. Theresa of Avila wrote, "He who makes no mistakes, makes nothing."

    So, to condemn anyone to be a bad tree because of some bad fruit might be to misappropriate what the Lord said IMHO.

  17. Rick, I never condemned anyone. I made an observation. Only God can condemn, not you nor I. And I stand by my observations.

  18. Allow me to make an observation...
    Observations have a lot more impact when someone has a constant handle. Handy to know who is making what claims.

    Let me further observe:
    as your statement is phrased as an unsupported assertion of perspective, folks should probably treat it as such, since it seems to have been stated for the purpose of derailing constructive conversation on the actual topic of the post.

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  21. Oooh!

    Personal attacks! AND you can read well enough to figure out I'm female-- though not well enough to realize I'm pregnant, and thus cannot be PMSing.

    Clearly, you are a holy man of great mental powers, with firm reasoning like that!

    We should all bow to your claim that 1) you have known people who put God at the center of their lives, and 2) our host and his brother don't strike you as being like them.
    Golly, with such rock-hard facts and sound argument, how can we not?

    Never mind that it ignores the meat of the post! It is a divergence that grabs on one slight point to wiggle an insult in, so it must be heeded!

    I am so pleased that you decided to click through to my site to try to make attacks, though-- how's Comcast treating you? I know when I had them in Cali they were kind of lacking, maybe management has improved.
    Hope its better than you treat your blog-hosts. At least we have proof in you that "it takes one to know one" is not actually true-- or you'd be an expert on generally disagreeable folks.

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  23. *laughs*
    Oh, troll, you are so far off on the right buttons to push that you couldn't find them with a LASER guided missile and a targeting computer.

    Since you're trashing CMR's comment box, I guess you found that I disabled annony comments. (hint, hint, Mr. Archbold)

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  25. I live on .1 acre in a city neighborhood can walk to the multiple stores, even the library if need be and of course we walk to Church. I have four bedrooms and even a backyard for a playground set.

  26. foxfier,
    I apologize for not catching those offensive comments earlier. I'll try to be more on top of it.

  27. Bah! Don't worry about it-- you can't control the guy, and it's mildly amusing to watch someone flail wildly to try to insult someone. ^.^ He may as well have been accusing me of being an axe murderer in my spare time.

    I do notice that using the "open comment" system-- where it interfaces with a bunch of other systems-- cuts way down on such folks, though. I think it makes them more aware that they're not untraceable.


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