Blind Man with a Pistol

Cold Pastoral

Plenty of people are on to the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.
— John Givings, Revolutionary Road

I saw Sam Mendes’s Revolutionary Road (2008) last night, which earned Kate Winslet her first Golden Globe for her performance as a postwar housewife in suburban America, who is not only caught in the suffocating tediousness of the bourgeoisie, but has lade bare the lie that sustains it for so many: the fallacy that she is ‘better’ than her neighbours and deserves to ‘break free’ more than anyone else. I was initially surprised at the press this movie was getting, or indeed, that it was made at all. Surely the recent death of John Updike reminds us that we’ve seen this before: the ‘American Pastoral’, to use Phillip Roth’s phrase—working a job you hate to support a joyless marriage in a cookie-cutter home—is a myth, and authors, filmmakers and playwrights have been telling us this for 50 years. In fact, the film’s source material, Richard Yates’s original 1961 novel, emerges in this criticism of America’s utopian promise.

So why now? Perhaps Mendes is tapping into the recent resurgence of 1950s nostalgia. Of course, wistful pining for the Cold War has popped up everywhere from the latest Indiana Jones calamity to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s excellent Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, 2006). But this nostalgia is perhaps best encapsulated in the popularity of AMC’s Mad Men. As Mark Grief put it in last October’s London Review of Books:

Mad Men is an unpleasant little entry in the genre of Now We Know Better. We watch and know better about male chauvinism, homophobia, anti-semitism, workplace harassment, housewives’ depression, nutrition and smoking. We wait for the show’s advertising men or their secretaries and wives to make another gaffe for us to snigger over….

Beneath the Now We Know Better is a whiff of Doesn’t That Look Good. The drinking, the cigarettes, the opportunity to slap your children! The actresses are beautiful, the Brilliantine in the men’s hair catches the light, and everyone and everything is photographed as if in stills for a fashion spread. The show’s ‘1950s’ is a strange period that seems to stretch from the end of World War Two to 1960, the year the action begins. The less you think about the plot the more you are free to luxuriate in the low sofas and Eames chairs, the gunmetal desks and geometric ceiling tiles and shiny IBM typewriters. Not to mention the lush costuming: party dresses, skinny brown ties, angora cardigans, vivid blue suits and ruffled peignoirs, captured in the pure dark hues and wide lighting ranges that Technicolor never committed to film.

If Revolutionary Road has a darker subject material than Mad Men, what Grief calls the ‘Doesn’t that Look Good’ comes out in the glossy production values: the beautiful Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet simply glow in the foreground of a dreary, overcast decade. The stacattoed, pronounced acting style of the two protagonists emphasizes the dreamlike quality of the film: the tragedy of this couple might appeal to modern-day audiences, but their predicament is not our own.

Indeed, ‘suburbia’ as it exists in the social imagination, is no longer the domain of the white middle-classes. The young professionals DiCaprio and Winslet represent are increasingly eschewing the suburban lives of their parents and turning to the hip urban centres of the West.  Moreover, as this article at CBC Toronto suggests, new immigrants turn first the suburbs when looking to purchase their first Canadian home. It’s not surprising, then, that this social reality disappears in the nostalgia of Mad Men and Revolutionary Road. In the first season of Mad Men, the racism of pre-civil rights America is relegated to the odd anti-Semitic joke and the voiceless black elevator operator. In Mendes’s examination of middle-class struggle—in both Revolutionary Road and his modern-day-staged Oscar winner, American Beauty (1999)—race is entirely absent.

Nevertheless, Sam Mendes is a competent filmmaker and Revolutionary Road is a well-made testament to his craft. Winslet is indeed compelling in demonstrating the boxes that crop up around us, keeping our hopes and dreams at bay. To be sure, even Winslet and DiCaprio’s antidote to America’s oppression—a move to Paris ‘where people are alive’—seems pale and ill-thought out. So what then, is the benefit of superimposing a nostalgic gloss over the emptiness of life under twentieth-century capitalism?

The answer, I think, lies in the symmetry of the narrative. As James Woods writes revisiting Yates in the New Yorker,

The book’s form is a solid delight of symmetry and repetition. Just as April’s first pregnancy scuppered the original European escape (but didn’t really, because Frank never intended to go), so her third scuppers the later one (but doesn’t really, either, for the same reason). Frank’s father also worked at Knox. A play opens the novel, and a performance ends it, as the Wheelers’ neighbors, the Campbells, tell the new owners of the Wheelers’ house about the tragedy that has vacated the property. In the very last pages, Mrs. Givings, the appallingly eager real-estate agent who had sold the Wheelers their house, describes, to her husband, the new owners in the same language she once used to describe the Wheelers: “She’s very sweet and fun to talk to; he’s rather reserved. I think he must do something very brilliant in town.” Frank’s children, now motherless, will have the kind of parentless existence with their uncle that April Wheeler had as a child, and which, her husband felt, damaged her. So the horror begins all over again: these repetitions and circularities overlap to make the novel’s heavy plait of determinism.

One could say that the nostalgia inherent in Mendes’s interpretation of Yates’s novel was prefigured by the original work.  The ‘hopeless emptiness’ that infects Frank and April Wheeler infects us now, but the feeble solution held up to them—moving to Paris—yields an appealing simplicity embodied and totalized by Mendes’s revisionist 1950s that is foreclosed to us. We can appreciate and invest in the tragedy of the Wheelers because it seems somehow more manageable.  We engage with their struggle because it allows us to disavow our own; even as we see ourselves in the Wheelers, our hopeless emptiness in theirs, the veneer of nostalgia whisks us away to share the Wheeler’s pain without the complication of postindustrial economies, feminism and globalization. And so we beat on, boats against the current, etc.

1 Comment so far
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Beautiful review. I haven’t seen the film yet but hope to. Grief’s assessment of Mad Men is dead on. One almost feels uncomfortable with the tug of war between being outraged at how bad things were (and thank the stars we are so much more enlightened) on one hand and the seduction of beautifully lit nostalgia for a simpler and often lush and exciting period.

Comment by Beijing York

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