Having reached a certain age, and having produced a certain number of children, boomer pundits have decreed that the suburbs aren’t so bad after all. In a lazy piece posted on Slate last month, Nicholas Lemann proclaimed that “the suburbs have won,” principally because he now he lives in one. Witold Rybczynski makes much the same point in his meretricious book, City Life, and for much the same reason. Of course, both these commentators live in late-19th or early-20th-century East Coast railroad suburbs, so they have no more day-to-day experience of the typical American suburb than do residents of the East Village or Logan Circle.
Lemann and Rybczynski should try to make their case from Burnfield, a place so exemplary of the soul-numbing suburb that it could be in Massachusetts (where playwright Eric Bogosian initially set it) or Texas (where director Richard Linklater has relocated it). Linklater’s film is set principally in the neon oasis of a convenience-store parking lot, but what little is shown of Burnfield is enough to place it as everywhere and nowhere: subUrbia, a “Town Without Pity,” as Gene Pitney proclaims over the opening credits. (That tune is followed by the usual array of barely audible or badly fragmented alt-rock remakes.)
The geographical anonymity is the first of the film’s many problems. subUrbia was shot in Austin, Houston-born Linklater’s adopted hometown, as were such previous efforts as Slackers and Dazed and Confused. It also shares those movies’ Aristotelian unity of time, transpiring in less than a day, as did Linklater’s one non-Texas film, Before Sunrise. (Visiting D.C. late last year to publicize this effort, Linklater professed not to know about the classical precedent for thisand I believe him.) The director’s previous films had a powerful sense of place (for Before Sunrise, that was Vienna), but subUrbia would rather be archetypal than actual.
The characters, all in their early 20s, suffer from a similar malady. A cross-section of slacker types who seem unlikely pals, they’ve been assembled as arbitrarily as the characters who populated Get on the Bus, another film that placed one-dimensional people in three-dimensional locations. The gang includes three serious substance abusers: blithely moronic motormouth Buff (Steve Zahn, recently seen in That Thing You Do!), depressive Bee-Bee (Dina Spybey), fresh from a detox center, and disillusioned military vet Tim (Dazed veteran Nicky Katt), who the script clumsily flirts with depicting as ominous. Then there’s a curious couple: Sooze (Amie Carey), a cheerfully outraged grrrl with designs on becoming a performance artist in New York, and her boyfriend Jeff (Giovanni Ribisi), a disablingly angry cynic who both Bogosian and Linklater have described as a kindred spirit.
They’re all waiting for Pony (Jayce Bartok), a slightly dim fledgling rock star who just wants to reminisce about the good old days they spent together at the local high school; he arrives in a limo with his publicist Erica (the ubiquitous Parker Posey, another Dazed player), a Bel Air princess in black leather who’s implausibly charmed by Pony’s old buddies. To provide some unneeded commentary on the self-indulgent discontent of affluent Americans, the kids are contrasted with the convenience store’s Pakistani owners (Samia Shoaib and Ajay Naidu), who dispense world-weary advice with the Slurpees.
Performance artist? Fledgling rock star? Bel Air princess? Clearly, this isn’t the slice-of-teen-life drama of Dazed and Confused, or even The Breakfast Club. In fact, the film’s thematic crux is not the living death of post-teens trapped in suburbia; it’s the difficult homecoming of the ex-suburbanite who has made it in the big city. (That means Jeff is only one-third of the film’s Bogosian self-portrait: He’s got the caustic intelligence, but Sooze has the ambition and Pony the success.) subUrbia is a catchy title, but You Can’t Go Home Again would be more apt.
Linklater says he admires Bogosian’s play, but he took on the project mostly because his own scripts were marooned in development limbo. Whether because of that disinterest, or just out of his respect for the writer, Linklater fails to claim the material. Though set in the director’s familiar milieu, the script remains stubbornly on the Lincoln Center stage where Linklater first saw it (and where Zahn and Shoaib were in the cast). In the theater, subUrbia may have seemed cinematic; seen on the screen, however, there’s no question that it’s a play.
Hiphop may be all the epochal things its supporters claim it to be, but it’s nonetheless a problematic subject for a documentary. Director Peter Spirer, a rap-video veteran making his feature debut, had to choose between constructing a film that would celebrate the music for its fans, and one that would analyze it for its skeptics. Rhyme & Reason has the spirit of the former, but the structure of the latter. It’s an unsatisfying combination.
Spirer covers a lot of ground, but none of it definitively. A glancing history with glimmers of commentary, this has more rhymes than reason. In fact, it’s mostly a series of cameos: The credits list more than 80 “participating artists,” and since the film runs less than 90 minutes, it’s obvious that most of them won’t have time to say much. Hiphop elder statesmen Chuck D, KRS-One, and Ice-T make repeated appearances, while other notables (L.L. Cool J, Kurtis Blow) just walk in front of the camera for a moment.
Rhyme & Reason proclaims the South Bronx as hiphop’s ground zero, and announces that (in the words of Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA) “everything you do is hiphop” (assuming, of course, that you are not, say, Jackson Browne, or Madeleine Albright). That includes break dancing and graffiti, which Poor Righteous Teachers’ Wise Intelligent announces is “one of the most beautiful art forms in the world” (glad that’s settled). Scratching is important, as is free-styling. Viewers who don’t know the meaning of these terms will be lost; those who do will probably be a little bored.
After this historical prologue, the film turns to loosely thematic chapters on such subjects as the biz, violence, drugs, the East Coast/West Coast rivalry, and the treatment of women. The insights on offer are quick and superficial. KRS-One contends amiably enough that “corporate Americamassamade rap the center of hiphop culture,” while Dr. Dre laments that most hiphoppers don’t understand record-industry finance. (They, of course, are not the first musicians to have this problem.) Violence is bad, it’s generally agreed, but residents of America’s ghettos are right to distrust the police. As for women, three are given a few moments to make their case: Fugee Lauryn Hill and Salt-N-Pepa (interviewed together). The camera spends more time, however, recording various unnamed “females” gyrating or displaying themselves in various revealing outfits.
If the film has a star, it’s Ice-T, who calmly makes the case for his wealth, detachment, and cynicism. “There is no black community,” he contends. “There’s a poor community”which he’s happy to have left for a mod mansion in the Hollywood Hills, where he’s filmed with a medium-size shark swimming emblematically behind him in a floor-to-ceiling fish tank. But Ice-T’s suggestion that class is more important than race goes unexplored, as do most of the rest of the interviewees’ comments, whether provocative or commonplace.
Surely Spirer could have crafted a more penetrating inquiry just by using less fragmented versions of the interviews he conducted. Still, it would have helped to add some critics and academics to the mix, and to intercut their comments in a way that suggests argument as well as agreement. Instead, he relies on such hip tics as handheld camera, variable film stocks, and quick cuts. The result is too flashy to engender serious discussion but too interview-oriented to convey the pleasures of the music. (There’s very little performance footage.) KRS-One gets the last word, asserting that he will fight for hiphop “until the day I die.” The scene blandly documented by Rhyme & Reason, however, hardly seems worth fighting foror about.CP