Imperialism goes both ways, what does the neglect the United States show for the rest of the world that it occupies and terrorizes when it manifests domestically as only more tumult and schism?
The persistent belief that the American Dream is real, and belief in the hack that if you approach it with all due cynicism, there is a path to prosperity to be forged, and no matter how frequently this proves untrue for anyone outside of the ruling class, or proving oneself useful to its interests, American media cleanly breaks down our understanding of the principals of any success story into character archetypes. SubUrbia written by Eric Bogosian and directed by Richard Linklater is no exception, but with the compelling meta-narrative that, for all our fracturing, our distance from one another, our isolation, even in a society, is too great to overcome without first coming together.
This films succeeds where, previously I’ve argued, films like Falling Down (1993) fail as racial and political commentary (while succeeding to an unimaginable extent, otherwise)— there’s abstraction to the struggle, and there’s no real overriding message of solidarity about these failings, but the historiographical revisionism that comes with setting the record straight about how and why something happened, but not what to do next. This film is, by contrast, makes clear the level of comfort with the status quo, or whatever version of it they experience, they are experiencing, and each has a contrasting view point about what surviving in it means, of course, relative to their own position within it. If Michael Douglas in Falling Down didn’t see himself as a peer of his victims, all of the characters in SubUrbia see themselves as peers of each other, while indulging in the almost utopian requirement of there being an underclass to exploit to ensure their consistent material comfort.
Jeff and his friends are recently high school graduates— himself an aimless student, the avatar of a well-intentioned suburban liberal, probably more empathetic to the materialist reality of the working class than most of his group (for reasons I’ll explain in a moment), his girlfriend Sooze (an aspiring performance artist— a cariacture of the put-upon surburban inmate, trying to move to New York at the behest of a potentially ill-meaning professor), Tim (a traumatized veteran, whose life experience emboldened his uneasiness and ultimately outright racist hostility), and Buff (the biggest slacker of them all, but evidently an aspiring video artist). The plot centers around their nighly ritual of drinking behind a convenience store owned by a married immigrant couple, Nazeer and Pakeesa, and their awaiting the arrival of high school friend, Pony, and his agent Erica, who is on tour with his now-successful band.
Pony, returning home to find enthusiastic friends he didn’t have in high school, is now eager to lift them up; he wants Buff to help him direct a music video, he wants Sooze to contribute artwork, only Tim seems to see Pony’s actions for the friendship bid that it is. Jeff, on the other hand, wonders how this guy can be successful, when theorhetically, one can do everything right and still amount to very little. Tim and Jeff, again, seem to exemplify the main conflict of the film— is everything experiential, or can a measure of empathy be sufficient to make sense of the world?
Nazeer and Pakeesa’s evening plays out, more or less, throughout the entire film— first frustrated by Jeff’s willingness to pay for what he takes from the store, but not what it costs, then Tim’s dismissal of them entirely because he believes they can fundamentally never be the same in their community, and Nazeer and Pakeesa tolerate this until early the next morning, when Nazeer breaks, and Pakeesa leaves. Despite their best effort to be part of the community, their role in it is as some kind of hassle, to the suburbanites, more cop-like, in their minds, than the literal cops used as a threat against Nazeer and Pakeesa to defend Buff’s refusal to leave the premises entirely. You have this undercurrent of propriety from the Americans, with Jeff challenging this idea that it’s solely theirs, with Sooze arguing Burnfield isn’t worth the effort at all, and Tim perceiving himself as being displaced by immigrants when, in actuality, his self-flagellation of remaining idle is his own doing, and intensified by his time in the military.
There’s some relevance to contemporary discussion of what constitutes meaningful consciousness— is Jeff, concerned with building community connections ultimately, correct, or Sooze, who believes her visual art’s impact on feminism is the true liberation (despite being dismissive of the conflicts right in front of her), or Buff, content with grifting through this system harmlessly but not blamelessly, or Tim, who ultimately is content to watch a community cannibalize itself? Pony is the avatar of the neoliberal belief in capitalism— he perpetuates the idea that with hard work comes reward. “Idealism is middle class bullshit”, says Jeff, to which Sooze counters, “No, sweetie, cynicism is”, with Tim taking the position of vast apathy.
The climax of the film involves an altercation between Tim and Nazeer—antagonized to varying degrees all night by the community members, the police (Buff responds to a threat by Nazeer that he will call the police by informing him that his cousin is a cop, who will not believe the complaint; the police also hassle him earlier about the price of items in the store), etc. - which ends with Nazeer, armed confronting an armed and belligerent Tim, and Tim ultimately wandering off into the night, unable to act on the impulses and extremism you see stoking all evening. Nazeer explains at one point that he is in the United States to become an engineer, he is running the store to pay for this education and support his family, and one day, he won’t be in the position of being at the bottom. Jeff—after talking Tim down, beseeching him that if we could all get to know each other as humans, this tension wouldn’t need to exist- later asks him basically why he does all this, why put up with all of this crap, living at the bottom in a country where very few are willing to empathize, let alone be civil, and Nazeer, halfway defeated or halfway contented believing he can leave this behind, tells him “complicated or not, life moves on.”
Jeff becomes the idealist we warns about, while acknowledging that cynicism is what allowed this to go so far before he would intervene; ultimately, Nazeer proves to be the realist about Jeff’s situation, he “threw it all away” by being this way. It’s not empathy to side ally with the oppressed if one doesn’t also challenge the injustice and oppressive manifesting one perpetuates; he stands up to his friends, but in no meaningful way, he still, at the end of the film, loses it all. As for Nazeer, his job is just his job; it’s not who he is, it’s what he does, and the idealism of climbing out from this stage of his life is perhaps understandable, given any common reasons immigrants leave their home countries to come to the United States, but he’s of no illusions about what’s ahead of him, something Jeff is only just cluing into as he become an adult.
What is implied about Jeff’s conclusion is that things are this way, but they don’t have to be; life in the US at this time is all about getting a hook into the lesser evil and, personally, not organizationally, benefitting while others do not. Jeff understands that it is inherently unfair that, both, Tim must suffer after serving his country thanklessly, and to his own detriment, but primarily that Nazeer shouldn’t live perpetually below everyone else because of what nationalism contradicts in the rhetoric of the American Dream, which, at this point, is a cruel joke on the disadvantaged masses. Jeff correctly identifies the enlightened principles of secular humanism as a path forward, and if this were a different movie, he might have even gone all the way to taking a Marxist approach towards examining who the real enemy is. It’s not Buff, but Buff’s cousin the cop, and not him as a person, but what he represents as an agent of such a system.
“There are no hierarchies in nature other than those imposed by hierarchical modes of human thought, but rather differences merely in function between and within living things.” wrote Murray Bookchin (c’mon, you knew this was coming) in Post-Scarcity Anarchism. What we see on screen is effectively an autonomous zone with diplomatic relations with the Burnfield PD— only Jeff seems to see a problem with this, while Tim is resigned to this being his injustice, and Nazeer, the price he must pay to move beyond it, but the problem is that this the illusion the suburbs, as a construct, gives the true pervasive, inherently violent, nature of nationalism context— for Nazeer, for whom this truth is (knowingly) demonstrated at the climax, conform to subjugation to your role, or be prepared to fight for your life.
“There’s a lot of people with a lot of fury in this country–America is seething at all times. It’s like a Gaza Strip that’s three thousand miles long.” said Henry Rollins of the reactionary nature of most interpersonal, and increasingly macropolitical human interactions in the United States; potentially everything is a purported trigger for an advancement of one’s extremism. In 2020, we see this manifest as capitulating to extremists, lest we offend their sensibilities and they become more extreme, rather than confronting the reality that their extremism may have genuine roots in anxiety about some issue, the extent to which is dominates their life is usually not, and capitulating to it becomes an exercise in resource hoarding rather than an invitation to discourse or even meaningful mollification, it’s emboldening because there’s no one to stop you. That’s the Tim storyline in a nutshell, and in the final confrontation with Nazeer and Tim, in front of the store in the early morning, Jeff’s attempt at intervention is an appeal to the humanity, not the extremism, of Tim to understand he’s not hurting any system that ever screwed him by attacking Nazeer and holding hostility for immigrants.
“The great project of our time must be to open the other eye: to see all-sidedly and wholly, to heal and transcend the cleavage between humanity and nature that came with early wisdom.” writes Murray Bookchin— ultimately, this is the point Jeff makes in his appeal; the fracturing of humanity along arbitrary lines, for an idealist, makes little sense, and the cynic in him understands his appeal will go unheard at least by one party, to whom he was never truly a peer, and feckless to the other party, to whom he’s a woefully ineffective ally. Seeing the bigger picture, that a whole humanity is required for parity with the rest of the ecology, was never Jeff’s deficiency, seeing the complexity of the fracturing, it turns out, was.
The only time Nazeer ends up heard, but not understood, is when he resorts to speaking the only language Tim will also understand, the threat of physical, bodily harm— he speaks using the logic of the oppressor against itself, Tim doesn’t know whether or not it’s for real, but he won’t stick around to find out. The problem with Tim’s thinking is that, whether he realizes or likes it or not, he has more in common with Nazeer than he does those who benefit from his zealotry, his ideological drive to mistrust; as Mikhail Bakunin writes, and perhaps its relevance in building a solution, now nearly 25 years after this film’s release, is clear applied to ideology and zealotry, “The first revolt is against the supreme tyranny of theology, of the phantom of God. As long as we have a master in heaven, we will be slaves on earth.”
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