Home Video Hovel: Suburbia, by David Bax
“Everyone knows families don’t work.” So proclaims one disaffected Southern California teenage punk rocker in the waning minutes of Penelope Spheeris’ harshly, mournfully beautiful Suburbia (out now on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory). It’s not a surprising conclusion for a movie whose opening scene ends with a stray Doberman pinscher tearing apart a toddler in front of his mother. But the sentiment is also more heartfelt than one would think, especially coming after one of the film’s high points, a sequence in which a group of punks lay out stolen sod in a shopping mall and gather on it to watch a news report about the nuclear arms race like happy siblings enjoying a fireworks display. In Suburbia, nuclear fear is preferable to the nuclear family.
Two years after the release of her seminal Los Angeles hardcore punk scene documentary The Decline of Western Civilization (a poster for which adorns one of the character’s bedroom walls here), Spheeris returned to the scene to tell a fictionalized, but no less powerful, story about a group of young punks, mostly teenage runaways, squatting in an empty house on a street of empty houses, all of which have been seized by the city of Los Angeles in order to be demolished to make way for a new freeway. Insofar as a plot exists, it has to do with the kids’ contentious relationship with a couple of their closest neighbors, good old boys recently laid off from a factory. That narrative, though, mostly gets in where it can fit in between scenes of the crew attending shows by bands like The Vandals, T.S.O.L. and D.I.
In the same way she did with Decline of Western Civilization, Spheeris aims to foster understanding between audience and subject by adopting an utter disdain for bullshit (which is pretty much in keeping with the punk ethos). That means avoiding any temptation to glorify their scene; this is by no means a Never Never Land fantasy. On the contrary, it is often hellish in its filth (cockroaches have free rein of the house), its violence (a murder at a concert inspires more bemused gawking than terror) and, especially, its casual racism, homophobia and misogyny. In short, these punks are neither heroes nor anti-heroes, only human beings.
Spheeris’ empathy and lack of judgment allow her to conform to the pace of the world she’s entered, as opposed to trying to corral it into her own. That looseness and openness to improvisation gives Suburbia an energy and a sense of an insular world that recalls a movie like Mean Streets. She feels sympathy for the kids’ shitkicker antagonists too. But they are villains not because of their trucker hat/hunting rifle lifestyle but rather because they lack the punks’ willingness to be honest about what pisses them off about the world. Instead, they direct their rage at anyone and anything that falls outside the status quo, which, sadly, makes Suburbia as vital a picture of our time as it was of its own.
Given the nature of the film’s milieu, it’s a bit difficult to describe Shout!’s new 4K scan in terms of its “beauty.” But the tactility one hopes for from a new HD mastering is certainly there. You may even feel as dirty-faced and cockroach-ridden as the characters themselves. The stereo mix is serviceable for dialogue and sound effects but noticeably, wonderfully punk rock for the concert scenes, which are louder across the board.
Special features include two audio commentaries, a delightfully candid one with Spheeris alone and another with Spheeris, producer Bert Dragin and actress Jennifer Clay, who plays Sheila, the first member of the household to whom we are introduced in the film, just before she sees that dog kill that kid.