Monthly Archives: February 2012

Review: Suburbia

According to Spheeris, this is the shot that really embodies the film.

That’s the 1984 film, not the 1996 film of the same name.  This Penelope Spheeris film is a true cult classic, shot in six weeks on a shoestring budget and immediately forgotten.  I would never have discovered it if it hadn’t been recommended to me while I was researching the Angeleno punk scene.  Yet it’s unique, or at least distinctive, among cult classics because it isn’t a B movie.  In fact, it’s quite good.  I’m reviewing it here–and including tons of screen caps–because it deserves more recognition.

Jack Didley and Skinner (kneeling in foreground), Evan Johnson and Joe Schmo (standing in background), and various T.R. House inhabitants.

Suburbia defies comparison with other films.  Its most distinctive trait is its all-amateur cast; Spheeris decided that turning punks into actors would be easier than turning actors into punks, so she populated the cast with teenagers she found at clubs, none of whom had prior acting experience (though Chris Pedersen, who plays Jack Didley, went on to have a brief acting career).  Only the adults are played by professional actors.  Is the result wooden?  Sometimes.  But it’s also incredibly authentic.  The kids don’t have good diction or animated delivery, but neither do real teenagers.  Lines mumbled with flat affect are perfectly appropriate for the setting.  They look like real teenagers too, with crooked teeth and acne, rather than like pretty Hollywood 20-somethings.

Jack is unfamiliar with orthodontics.

The limited budget also adds to the authenticity.  T.R. House, the squat where the punks live, was designed by giving them posters and spray cans and letting them go wild.  The actors do all their own stunts; Peg Leg was written in because Spheeris knew a punk with a prosthetic leg.  Many shots had to be done in one take, so moments like Razzle spilling the slushie are preserved when they would have been re-shot in a more polished production.  (Razzle is played by a very young Flea; watch The Other F Word to see how he’s changed in the past 25 years.)

Razzle almost gets the slushie in the jar.

But the other reason this film feels so different is that it’s slice of life.  Slice of life is a small genre in film, perhaps because film lacks the literary fiction/genre fiction distinction found in literature, and it stands apart from all other genres.  Romances, noir mysteries, action flicks, and every other genre use the scenes to advance the plot.  In slice of life, the reverse is true: The plot only exists as a vehicle to show the scenes.  Suburbia does contain conflict and a climax–albeit no resolution–but that isn’t the point of the movie.  The point is these teenagers hanging out and living their lives.  The cast is large and lacks a clear distinction between main characters and supporting characters, like real life, and the events are of roughly equal importance.

Sheila reads Ethan a story while Mattie and T'resa look on.

The intentionally directionless feel masks careful writing and direction.  Dialog is used judiciously, avoided when actions and expressions (and, in Skinner’s case, fists) speak for themselves, but incorporating the random natter always present in groups of teenagers.  There’s a lot of attention to details like what’s playing on the TV in the background.  The cinematography is clever, and often beautiful.

Skinner's primary form of expression.

And, of course, the characters.  Wooden or not, I’m not inclined to criticize the acting because it’s so effective.  The kids are what makes this movie.  You are quickly drawn into their lives, their harsh backstories, their losses and victories, and the familial bond that forms between them.

Joe and Sheila bond over their horrible parents.

The only noteworthy adult role is Officer Rennard, Jack’s stepfather, a police officer who finds himself caught up in the conflict between the T.R. kids and local vigilante group Citizens Against Crime.  Instead of taking the conventional police-as-killjoys route, Spheeris makes Rennard sympathetic to the punks’ plight and concerned about their reckless behavior primarily because it puts them in danger.  Conversely, the punks are not idealized nor their lifestyle glorified: They steal, vandalize, and even rip a girl’s clothes off at a concert.  The choice to make characters and situations less like Hollywood conventions and more like real life also makes them more interesting.

Rennard finds a way to communicate.

Suburbia is regarded by punks, ex-punks, and scholars of the movement as perhaps the only truly accurate cinematic depiction of punk subculture, but it’s completely unknown to the general public.  This is a shame.  Punks deserve to be depicted as people, not caricatures, and this movie deserves a watch.

More screen caps, including the one you’re probably looking for, after the cut.

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Oddity of the Week

Got $70,000 to burn?  I can think of no better way to spend it than to rent Liechtenstein for a day.  That’s right, an entire small country can be yours for the bargain rate of $2 per inhabitant.  Imagine the possibilities!

I think I’ve figured out what I want for my birthday this year…


Image found here.


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Ignorance and Pride

Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

Few attitudes are as grating as ignorance, proudly stated.  Given the sheer amount of information available in the world, one always has areas of ignorance and one needn’t be ashamed of them if they fall outside one’s areas of interest, but actively stating your lack of knowledge as though it were an asset is never a positive attitude.

This is most obvious when the area of ignorance is of generally recognized quality and importance.  I know a guy who knows nothing about the Beatles.  He doesn’t just know very little about them–he knows far less than a normal human being would pick up through cultural osmosis, an amount that could only be sustained by actively avoiding learning anything about them.  If you tell him “eight days a week,” he’ll question your counting skills.  I know this from experience.  Aside from mild annoyance to others, his attitude is only harming himself, simultaneously denying himself the enjoyment of a lot of great music and impairing his ability to connect with others through cultural understanding, while gaining nothing but a feeling of being “above it all.”

Yet the sentiment doesn’t become a positive one when the area of ignorance is less valuable.  However little merit I might ascribe to Sex and the City, boasting that I can’t name its main characters won’t make me look good.  The reasons here are more subtle.  First, there’s the simple matter of audience.  If I’m bragging to friends who also dislike Sex and the City, then it’s a pissing contest of “I know less about it than you!”.  If I’m bragging to fans about how little I know about something they like, then I’m being a jerk.

Another minor reason is that this can become an pretext to change the subject.  Fans of STFU, Parents will recognize the MommyJacking phenomenon: “Did you like Avatar?”  “Haven’t seen it!  I never get to see movies anymore because I have a baby!”  More power to you, but we were talking about Avatar.  This goes from obnoxious to completely dickish when, as often happens, it comes with an implication of the superiority of one’s life choices over others’: “Having a baby is the most rewarding job ever!  I don’t even miss seeing movies, because I know I’m helping raise the next generation!”  (Needless to say, this isn’t limited to parents.  Anyone who suggests that they missed the thing you’re talking about because they were doing something much more important should can it.)

There’s also the conundrum: If I don’t know anything about it, how do I know it’s so bad?  Maybe it’s better than it sounds.  I have every right to decide that something falls outside of my interests based on as much or little information as I like, but I can’t actually condemn it unless I know something about it.  Doing so is a great way to look like a grade-A ignoramus; the “Life is Beautiful makes light of the Holocaust” contingent are a case in point.  By refusing to learn about a topic, I’m forfeiting my right to evaluate it.

But these points are primarily conversational.  Simple courtesy states that you shouldn’t reflexively disparage something another person likes, however little you like it.  Yet the attitude isn’t limited to conversation.  Being proud of your ignorance is wrong, even if you don’t broadcast it.  Jordan figured out why.  To be proud of your ignorance about a topic (outside of conversation), you must be thinking about it.  A topic in which you were truly uninterested simply wouldn’t occur to you very often.  If you’re thinking about it, it doesn’t really fall outside your realm of interests, and you may as well expose yourself to it so that you can dislike it with justification.

To reiterate, there’s nothing wrong with disliking something and deciding you aren’t interested in learning about it.  Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions, and to base them on as much or little data as he or she likes.  However, while deciding that you don’t care about a topic may be reasonable, actively taking pride in your lack of knowledge about it is not.  Knowledge is a virtue and, regardless of the topic, ignorance should not be reveled in.

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Ten Bands to Beat the Blues

I, as you know, love music.  I love complex music, challenging music, hardcore music, moving music…but do you know what I like best of all?  Fun music.  Music has an unparalleled ability to stir up your emotions, and I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t be happy emotions.  Here, therefore, are my ten favorite bands to queue up when I’m feeling down.

10.  The Beatles

The very existence of the Beatles tends to stymie attempts to make lists like these because they would naturally always end up at the top, so I’m just getting them out of the way right off the bat.  The Beatles song that never ceases to perk me up is “Obladi Oblada.”  Here it is performed by the Muppets.

9.  The LazyTown Soundtrack

I don’t want this to be a list of novelty acts, but LazyTown was created to make you get up and move, and boy, does it ever.  Galaxy is just one of its dozens of catchy, upbeat tunes.  If you’re too old for Icelandic children’s TV shows, you’re too old, I say.

8. The Dropkick Murphys

Anyone who’s talked to me recently is probably aware of my newfound love of the Dropkick Murphys’ brand of bawdy Celtic punk.  For days when getting drunk and forgetting everything seems like the best solution…well, the Irish have been doing it for ages, and they’ve been enjoying it.

7.  The Hollies

Since both my speakers and my iPod drop channels, I have been sadly deprived of this stereo-loving band.  The Hollies have been scientifically proven to directly stimulate the nostalgia centers of your brain and make you long for a simpler time that probably never was.

6.  Weezer

Weezer is still a big act after 20 years, proof that the urge to chill runs deep in the human species, and if the video for Island in the Sun doesn’t give you the warm fuzzies, you don’t have a heart.

5.  India.Arie

On the soft end of the spectrum, there’s India.Arie, the perfect strain of acoustic soul to remind you that everything is going to be okay.  Go ahead–paint some flowers onto a guitar, stand in front of a mirror, and tell yourself “I look good.”

4.  Hot Chelle Rae

I’m going to get all the music snobs crawling out of the woodwork for this one, but when I’m feeling blah, this is the video I queue up.  This is a band that makes you feel like you could jump into the middle of the dance floor.  If 2:33 can’t cure your blues, nothing will.

3.  Fleetwood Mac


2.  Parry Gripp

Corny?  Yes.  Silly?  Yes.  Parry Gripp appeals to the simple side of our nature, the side that likes bunnies and turtles and hamsters on pianos eating popcorn.

1.  Cake

Ah, Cake.  Nobody does it like Cake, and I mean nobody.  Their infectious melodies and playful lyrics combine into a perfect formula for fun.  They are a band I absolutely can’t hear without singing along.  And sometimes their videos are complete non sequiturs.

There.  You should now feel at least 200% happier.

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