Sketchpad: The Burbs

The Burbs Tom HanksWhen I watched American movies in my UK-based youth, I barely noticed that they were foreign. There was something slightly exotic about paper boys throwing newspapers over sprinklers and onto lawns from their bikes, about screen doors, pies with pumpkin in them, Halloween, and the fact of Corey Feldman’s existence, but I had little sense of the USA as a place on a distant continent, populated by another people. I’d seen so much of America on TV and film that t barely felt like a foreign land. It’s only later in life (i.e. about now) that I really feel the distinct separateness of America, the knowledge that it is not the country I grew up. This should be surprising, since many of the films I was watching (usually because they were the films most forcefully marketed into my face) deliberately set out to make the of middle-American or suburban everyday seem strange and malevolent. I’m thinking specifically of the films of Joe Dante (GremlinsExplorersTwilight Zone: The Movie, InnerspaceMatineeSmall SoldiersThe Hole…), for whom this has been something of a defining trait.

Gremlins Invasion of the Body SnatchersIn Dante’s movies, action is bordered by representation. People receive instruction and commentary from movies and TV: think of how a key scene in Gremlins is echoed by the TV on the wall showing Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as if the world of movies was issuing a dire warning. In The Burbs, there are screened references from Mr Rodgers (the ultimate and absurd example of good neighbourliness), The Exorcist (less so), and a few others. As in so many of Dante’s other works, the cartoonish, gothic excesses of American sf and horror B-movies are splashed directly all over neighbourhoods which are otherwise clean and close-knit, if a little overs-stuffed with eccentrics and obsessives.
The Burbs Wendy Schaal and Bruce Dern
This is a little like a Looney-Tunes Spielberg mashup, or maybe just a bug-eyed remake of Rear Window, where neighbourly nosiness segues into passive-aggressive territoriality before sliding down into outright paranoiac prejudice. But it does remind me now of what a delightful physical comedian Tom Hanks is (was?), and that before they straddled the globe with giant robots and crusading capers, American movies kept their allegorical turf wars picket-fenced and local.
Tom Hanks in The Burbs