Talkin' Bout Our Degeneration

Director Richard Linklater drives through Eric Bogosian's bleak subUrbia.

Performance-art renegade Eric Bogosian penned the play subUrbia partly as a typical teen-angst manifesto, basing its characters loosely on the suburban Massachusetts slackers he hung out with in the early '70s. But of course, given his particular mix of intelligence, ambition, and pretension, subUrbia doubles as a state of the union address that wrings its hands over the violently deadening effects of the middle-class American dream. Clearly, Bogosian escaped his own suburban upbringing with his imagination intact, perhaps even sparked. So: Does his tale of 20-year-old Caucasian punks pounding beers and harassing women and minorities really represent the further decline of western civilization, or just a familiarly brutal story that one lives to tell? Tipping the scale slightly toward the latter, the sensitive cynic Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise) directs the subUrbia film by replacing some of Bogosian's macho nihilism with a palpable concern for the characters, and perhaps even a faint ray of hope.

Per Bogosian, sex, drugs, and rock & roll abound in subUrbia, and help turn its contemporary portrait of teen rebellion into an archetypal one. Still, the film gains depth from its relation to Dazed and Confused, another night-in-the-life portrait of a slacker ensemble, but one whose mid-'70s setting granted a spirit of blissful nostalgia. Set 20 years later in the fictional, generic, aptly named wasteland of Burnfield, Texas, subUrbia shows that the stakes are higher--for both the slackers and the director. Here, Linklater is collaborating with a certified grown-up who also happens to be the screenwriting equivalent of a shock-jock, meaning that laid-back bong-hits have been supplanted by endless black-comic cruelty and a lot of sociocultural pissing and moaning. Obviously, that's reflective of the times: Where Dazed and Confused led to a communal road-trip for Aerosmith tickets, it's doubtful that the kids of subUrbia could agree on a single band that didn't suck.

In this way, it's no wonder that one of the film's running debates has to do with what constitutes artistry or success, or even meaningful communication. The story is set in motion when the negligible rock star Pony (Jayce Bartok), known as "the geek who played that folk music at the senior prom," pulls his stretch limo into the parking lot of Burnfield's 7-Eleven-type convenience store, and regales his indolent former schoolmates with stories of Sandra Bernhard's lunch salad after playing a hometown gig that none of them bothered to attend. At the other end of the creative spectrum is Sooze (Amie Carey), a spiky-haired punk chic who's busy perfecting her pseudo-feminist performance-art rant ("Fuck Oliver Stone! Fuck Bill Clinton!... Fuck all the men!")--but who's nonetheless thrilled at the prospect of designing Pony's latest album cover. Purest of all, perhaps, is Buff (Steve Zahn), a part-time pizza store employee and full-time delinquent whose videotape of cloud imagery--shot on a stolen camcorder while he was tripping on 'shrooms--marks him as a budding MTV auteur.

The chief naysayer of the bunch is Jeff (Giovanni Ribisi), who argues that selling 90,000 records does not an artist make, and that he's just as creative himself by virtue of saying that he has nothing to say. "I can do anything I want as long as I don't care about the result," he says before stripping butt-naked for his own untitled work of Dada theatrics, enjoyed by an audience of one. If subUrbia was primarily Jeff's story--which, thankfully, it isn't--the film might have been about how we hate it when our friends become successful. But in fact, owing largely to Linklater's love of young actors and Bogosian's monologue-heavy style, these kids are all natural-born performers. The sexy, xenophobic hothead Tim (Nicky Katt) plays Judd Nelson to the Molly Ringwald-isms of Erica (Parker Posey), Pony's perfect-to-a-fault Bel Air publicist. And the drunken Buff makes like a living cartoon, constantly pantomiming sight gags with his dick, unaware that his latest conquest, the rehab-grad Bee-Bee (Dina Spybey), is barely holding it together.

Albeit less obsessively than Kids, subUrbia constructs a thorny weave around "realism." Bogosian's pontificating kids may often seem mere props for the playwright's drama, but it's also true that suburban adolescence is predicated on acting out. For these characters, the convenience-store parking lot really is a stage: a spot-lit platform in the middle of nowhere from which to test various methods, make their voices heard. Although the kids' saving grace might be their gift of gab, the fact that no one holds center stage for very long reflects their carefully cultivated alienation; it's easier for a bitter white boy like Tim to claim that he's oppressed if he sticks to the periphery, coming out only occasionally to vent his rage against the store's Pakistani-American manager, Nazeer (Ajay Naidu). The enlightened one of the group only by default, Jeff objects to Tim's racial slurs and increasingly violent behavior. But it's typical of Bogosian's own wicked demeanor that some very dark plot twists--co-authored, you might say, by he and Tim--prevent the ostensible good guy from doing the right thing.

If Bogosian unconsciously professes a certain kinship to the film's biggest asshole, Linklater may have his own alter-ego in the gentler, well-intentioned Jeff. Still, it seems another sign of the times (and the adversarial collaboration) that subUrbia has no single main character, no particular moral voice. Nazeer's chastening judgment that the white kids "throw it all away" has been construed as the author's, but this character's self-described dream--to someday gloat about his success from a heated swimming pool--hardly seems less empty. The only almighty power here is the suburban landscape itself, represented in Linklater's ominously familiar tracking shots of endless fast-food restaurants, gas stations, strip-malls, trailer parks, pre-fab homes, and vacant lots. For the director, this is not the end of the world--not when a kid can still reach out to hold another's head in his hands. Linklater drives by Bogosian's vision of hell, but stops to linger on his own homespun theme: that of interpersonal connections missed, and sometimes made.

 
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