Title: Suburbia (1983)
Director: Penelope Spheeris
Cast: Chris Pedersen, Christina Beck, Flea
So there I was last night at a punk show, listening to a band that’s been playing for 15 years (but I’d never heard of in my life) and suddenly it dawned upon me how I’ve been following the Puerto Rican punk scene for more than 13 years; going to the shows, enjoying the energy, but never being a “punk” perse, kind of like that character in SLC Punk! (1998) played by Jason Segel, you know, the one who didn’t look punk but was the craziest of the bunch, well, I wasn’t the craziest of the bunch, but I’ve always been there, as an observer of human behavior, documenting with my video camera as much as I could. So anyways, I asked the lead singer of one of the bands what he thought punk was all about, he told me it was a mentality, then he went on about how audiences had changed, the violent mosh pits still occur, but with less frequency, audiences are not so much into hurting themselves in the mosh pit anymore. Apparently, Punk Rockers are more into listening the music and lyrics than jumping up and down like mad men, in a way, audiences are more ‘cerebral’. It was good to hear from a true punk rocker, that one thing hadn’t changed about the scene, it’s all about the mentality which is always, inevitably infused with the music. Another element remains a constant: punk rockers are outcasts of society. The ones who turn their backs on a world they don’t agree with, just like the kids in Penelope Spheeris’s seminal punk rock film Suburbia (1983).
Like SLC Punk! (1998) or The Doom Generation (1995), Suburbia is another one of these films that depicts angry, angst ridden youths rejected by the very society they despise, the atypical outcasts. Most of the time, these films take place in dilapidated neighborhoods, forgotten by society and ignored by their governments. Suburbia feels almost post-apocalyptic in nature with its rundown, abandoned neighborhoods that feels like something out of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981). The director of this film, Penelope Spheeris, filmed the whole thing in a completely abandoned neighborhood in L.A. The neighborhood chosen for the shooting of the film had been emptied in order to make way for a freeway that was going to be built there. The place looks like a lonely ghost town filled with empty houses with broken windows and walls filled with graffiti, a lonely, ugly place to be sure, but not entirely empty. The gang of punks that we follow in this film who call themselves ‘The Rejected’or the 'TR's' for short; all live inside one of these abandoned houses, they’ve gone and made it their home. They are all running away from something in their lives, be it abusive or alcoholic parents, a dysfunctional household or simply “society as it is”. One way or another, society has kicked the TR’s in their collective asses; it is this quality that brings them together.
The film sets its bleak aura from its very first frames when we first meet this punk girl hitchhiking in the middle of the night. A car stops and gives her a ride; unfortunately they immediately get a flat tire in the middle of nowhere! This neighborhood they’ve stumbled upon isn’t a pretty place, packs of wild dogs run around the neighborhood looking for humans to munch on! And they seem to have a craving for babies because they immediately attack the ladies baby and eat him up! Seriously! That’s how this movie begins! So Suburbia grabs your attention right away, it immediately sets the mood for the kind of film you can expect; just so you know what you’re getting yourself into. The symbolism in that scene didn’t pass unnoticed for me, this is a movie about youth under attack. A film about young people who feel the world is wildly chewing them up and spitting them out. So just so you know, this isn’t going to be a sweet old tale with a happy ending, Penelope Spheeris made a film about young people striving to survive in a harsh, violent world that turns its back on them and attacks them every chance it gets. The shock continues as we discover the sorry state in which these kids live in, surrounded by roaches and rats, actually, one of the characters actually has a rat for a pet!
The Rejected are the result of a world where everything is done for them, everything is pre-packaged, prepared, there’s no joy for these kids in a world where everything is bought, especially when they have no money to buy anything with. They don’t want a job that will chain them down; they want their freedom to do whatever they want to do, when they want to do it. In this respect, I feel them. I wish I could roam around the world aimlessly, trying to have as much fun as possible (actually this is still my mentality whenever I’m not working!) but I have to eat and I have to have a roof under my head and these things don’t pay themselves. Unfortunately, the truth is that this care free lifestyle is intimately entwined with poverty. The T.R.’s want their freedom, but the price to pay for leading this lifestyle is going through life without money, which inevitably leads to stealing. One of the more memorable scenes involve the kids breaking into various suburban households raiding refrigerators and stealing from convenience stores and supermarkets. Sure this is a question of survival, but they probably also feel they are kicking “the man” squarely in the balls. You want to take away our freedom? You reject us? We take your food! If you want to create a harsh world, then its dog eat dog, only the strongest survive!
In many ways, Suburbia feels more realistic and authentic than other punk films. One of the elements that aids the films authenticity is that with the exception of one or two actors, most of the characters are performed by real life punk rockers or band members from real bands, for example Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers plays ‘Razzle’ the dude who attempts to eat a live rat. So these are punk rockers as actors, not actors trying to portray punk rockers, which in this case, works like magic. Another asset to this punk rock anthem is that it was directed by Penelope Spheeris the director behind the celebrated documentary on the L.A. punk scene called The Decline of Western Civilization (1981). According to Spheeris, many of the situations that we see depicted in the film are based on real life events she witnessed herself in the L.A. punk scene, or are based on news articles she read. I wouldn’t doubt this to be true, from my own personal experiences; I’d say the way the punk rock lifestyle is depicted here is pretty accurate. It doesn’t glamorize the lifestyle, it shows it like it is, or at least how it was in the early 80’s in L.A. Still, I’ve found some similarities with the Puerto Rican Punk Scene, so if you’re a punk rocker, you will more than likely find some similarities with the scene in your country/area. Another positive aspect of the film is how low budget it feels. Suburbia was a Roger Corman production, a producer who’s always prided himself in producing low budget cinema; Suburbia only cost 1 million bucks to make! This low budget quality of the film fits perfectly with the subject matter, it makes everything that much darker and grittier. Finally, this is a tragic tale that focuses on the lives of a group of extremely troubled kids trying to make sense of the world they are living in, I highly recommend any punk rocker out there to check this one out! It is essential Punk Rock Cinema.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Penelope Spheeris, setting up a scene