Scenes From The Suburbs :: [Review And Comment On A Police State Lest We Kid Ourselves In 2011]

In Scenes From The Suburbs, Spike Jonze's symbolic film accompaniment to Arcade Fire's 2010 release, The Suburbs, a cadre of white Houston teens face off against one another and their families under the umbrella of an ever-present, menacing police state. SWAT teams in black hoods patrol the streets, even at one point gunning down an innocent in cold blood, an image that looks all too real to anyone with a YouTube account in Bahrain, Syria, Egypt, Oakland or Detroit. The film's narrative fulcrum involves the two main characters held against a chain link fence as their friendship crumbles under the questioning of a faceless police officer. They've done nothing wrong, and this is the point - the metaphorical figures of state security forces holding the place for the unsettling panic of kids with so little to do, even less to stand for, slowly being ripped apart by something they do not understand and cannot quite make out. The violence in the Suburbs is lyrical, imaginary and important, but these invocations have weight. For in too many parts of America's inner cities, you can recast Jonze's work with teenagers of a different color, pull the film shoot out of the subdivisions and into the street, and these bits of symbolism become all too real.

A beautiful, washed out looking near-feature, Scenes From The Suburbs reads as pretty as it is intentionally ambiguous. Butler is already on the record about wanting to make a fun, sort of Red Dawn-y short film about the suburbs of his youth. Not coincidentally, one of the central character's name is Winter, both an ode to his narrative arc and a water color blurring of the name, "Win Butler". The hard-to-pin front man also plays the role of a Texas policeman, holding a very real shotgun as the teens ride by on bikes holding their very fake bee bee guns. The kids ride home, fresh off an afternoon shooting plastic bee bees at people from an overpass, one of those fun and familiar images of a youth well spent throwing snowballs at cars or bangsnaps at pedestrians, stupid, yes, but largely harmless. But the scene with the police is unsettling. Will there be a real shooting amidst these halcyon images of adolescence? What about these strange military and police vehicles that awe and trouble the protagonist teens?

The climax of this interaction between the kids and these faceless SWAT teams becomes the central metaphor of the piece, a friendship under the strains of unknown outside forces. The police serve the role of older brothers, disapproving parents, a suburban milieu so devoid of stimulus that it feels oppressive. However, this oppression is rather intentionally imagined. Butler only uses it to talk about the hard to talk about hymns of teenage life, all against the blandest of backdrops. Do you need cops harassing you when your house looks like my house looks like her house looks like my house? Boredom is recast as repression and repression cast as suffocating boredom. These police are place holders for a million other nameless things generating such hard to place anxiety.

But what about the real kids? This is not to take Butler's childhood or his artistic process for granted as somehow easy, but this symbolic police repression for another set of American teens is very real. In many American cities, the reversed outside-in of Butler's Suburbs, this police presence is not an artistic choice or a metaphor, and the stakes for these other American adolescents and young adults are unusually high. Drop out rates soar, fundamental rights are routinely violated and the police turn increasingly to violence in interactions with citizens, all problems far beyond the unfinished garages of Houston's upscale subdivisions. These are not the themes of Arcade Fire's Suburbs, or Jonze's Scenes, but they are the themes of an enormous constituency of America's youth.

It was only last year in that same city of Houston, physical and metaphorical miles from the languid cul-de-sacs of Scenes, that burglary suspect Chad Holley was nearly run down by a police car and after an attempt at surrender, suffered a beating by more than half a dozen officers. Houston's DA and Mayor first hoped to suppress a video of the assault before later paying bureaucratic lip service to seeing justice done and punishing the officers in question.

Perhaps, Holley should feel lucky he wasn't shot. Oscar Grant, an unarmed Oakland man, was pulled off a BART train, held down by three BART officers and fatally shot in the back on the first day of 2009. Or John T. Williams, the Seattle resident, deaf in one ear and mentally ill, shot four times last fall for refusing to put down the knife with which he was carving small figurines. Debate about the officer's guilt centered largely around whether or not Williams was facing forward or backwards, not that Williams was holding a three-inch carving knife (maybe closed) and the officer a loaded gun or that there were only 10-seconds between the officer getting out of the car and opening fire. These are the unsexy, unmetaphors of real American cities.

This says nothing of even more famous instances of urban police violence, Amadou Diallo's shooting in 1999 where at least one of the four NYPD officers at the scene had to reload in shooting the unarmed Diallo 41 times. Or the Sean Bell shooting in 2006, where the NYPD loosed 50 bullets, killing the unarmed Bell on his wedding day and wounding two others in the bachelor party. The officers were acquitted of any wrong doing in 2008. Just since 1999 the NYPD spent 964 million dollars to resolve lawsuits against the department.

Perhaps these incidents are unsurprising in a country where between 1980 and 2005, police shot and killed 9,500 people, or just under an average of one per day. And, we can hardly expect Win Butler, even as an astute social critic to speak with authority on these issues. They affect places he (and this writer) did not grow up and police oppression rarely seen, let alone experienced. But they are owed more than a line in a verse on Lupe Fiasco's latest single about kids in the ghetto who don't want to be there.

What about the kids in New York City who increasingly have their civil liberties violated in a policy of "stop and frisk," a direct affront to the Fourth Amendment and one that manages to fill New York's prisons with a disproportionate number of non-white youth? What do we say to Jonze and Butler's scenes of white suburban Houstonians smoking weed and getting harassed by the cops when we know white youth on average use drugs more often, while 90% of New York City's arrests for pot are black and Latino? Two fictional stoned kids turning on each other in Houston or thousands of New York teens going to jail in real life. The juxtaposition is, at the very least, striking.

The consequences of this urban police state for many Americans are not  metaphor; they are cold reality. By 2008, the United States crossed the threshold of one out every 100 adults being imprisoned. Prison populations pushed even higher still to a population of 2.3 million men and women in jail or prison at the end of 2009, which, were they all counted together as their own, "prison city" would be the fourth largest urban area in the United States, larger than Atlanta, Las Vegas, Boston and Baltimore combined. This, perhaps, is not "The Sprawl" that Butler intended to address but it is the uncomfortable reality that exists outside his symbolism.

American inner city teens face an aggressive, extremely well-funded, and very real police presence and this revelation risks being awfully high and unnecessarily mighty. Far more versed and talented people have pointed out the obvious, unambiant truths of American poverty, and Bulter and Jonze's Suburbs and Scenes should hardly be lampooned for not addressing these realities. They purport to only be personal reflections of a sepia-toned youth in Houston. But, Butler won the Grammy and Jonze made the movie to go with it, and it was about white teens living in a metaphorical police state while millions of other real kids live in an actual one. These things are unavoidable.

The question is why Butler and Jonze are so willing to create such powerful images when such real ones already persist. Maybe they don't feel like it is their place or platform. I can feel their reticence to reflect on justice without appropriate context. Personally, my white friends and I spent most of high school complaining about the cops, how they were looking for a reason to harass kids like us, how unjust they were. The truth was, like Butler's teens on their bikes, like Butler himself, the cops were never really after any of us. Our problems were purely symbolic - no matter how real and immediate they felt - while others struggled against our imaginary enemies, only for real and for keeps.


Yakov Hadash said...

Well said.

LovelyLadyLeigh said...

Your eloquence and insight is at once pertinent and profound. Thank you for taking the time to disseminate this for the masses. You really do have a way with words.

32feet said...

Really appreciate it. Thanks for taking the time to read.