Every weekend of my childhood, it seemed, my parents would pack my sisters and me into the family Montego, and we'd head to Long Island, looking for houses. We children didn't dread the routine, the highway drive from Brooklyn and the perpetually deferred decisions. Instead, we reveled in the fantasy. First we chose which room would be ours; there would be no sharing here. Then we would sweat the details--the relative merits of a cathedral ceiling versus a sunken living room, the pivotal differences between a split-level and a splanch.
We never moved. And as time went on, I was glad that Long Island remained always just out of reach. Being from Brooklyn came with its own set of associations, but nothing could be worse than coming from there. Sitcoms and stand-up comedians underlined the message in number two pen-cil: Everybody knows this is nowhere. And many of the most acclaimed films of recent years have kept up the assault. The results were intermittently trenchant, in the case of Sam Mendes's American Beauty, or bitterly hilarious, in the hands of director Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness). Yet no matter who was behind the camera, there seemed to be only one way to treat suburbia: with scorn.
"I always wanted to make a documentary about this town," aspiring film maker David Gold announces in Eric Mendelsohn's brave and beautiful Judy Berlin. "About the paperboys, and about the PTA ladies. But nothing sarcastic. Nothing sarcastic. About how in winter you can see people eat their dinner behind those windows that get all golden-colored, about how beautiful it was. And it would have everything in it--everything."
He's crossing a field in the middle of Babylon, Long Island. Back home at 30, so bitter he hasn't even begun to lick the wounds of creative disappointment, he's been stewing in his parents' house, immobilized. Yet on the single magical day that makes up this magical film, he ventures again into the world that produced him. He should be ashamed to be from Long Island. He should turn the experience into the acrid raw material of comedy. Instead, he confesses this private dream to the film's indefatigable title character (played by Edie Falco), an aspiring actress herself, a bottle blonde with adult braces who is on her way to California to pursue the kind of career that has knocked David for a loop.
Built like a fishing pole with glasses, David (Aaron Harnick) would be an easy target in a Todd Solondz world; he might even be the brother of Dawn Wiener in Dollhouse, the nerd who gamely plays clarinet in a dreadful garage band called the Quadratics. In Judy Berlin, he's clearly a stand-in for the writer-director, who is making his feature debut. (The film won Mendelsohn best-director prize at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival.) Mendelsohn hasn't made a documentary, but he has lovingly detailed the small pleasures and peculiar comforts of the suburbia that produced him. Shot in otherworldly black and white, brilliantly scored to harpsichord music, Babylon in Judy Berlin is a land of surprises. Mendelsohn never utilizes the typical bird's-eye camera angle that looks down on a suburban neighborhood and renders its homes and its lawns indistinguishable. His camera continually looks up in wonderment--at the buzzing street lamp, the swaying willow tree, the perfectly drawn penmanship lesson stapled to the classroom wall.
Two momentous events set the film in motion. There's a solar eclipse, during which many of the film's characters are jiggled off their life course. And no less importantly, it's the beginning of the school year, a date that can still tingle with excitement for even the most jaded school-system vet. A schoolteacher's son, the director is deeply respectful of teachers for their fortitude, their struggles to keep their own emotions in check and to put their children's needs first. It's no easy feat for Sue Berlin (Barbara Barrie), a no-nonsense divorcée who yearns for the married school principal, Arthur Gold (Bob Dishy). The comforting rituals and rhythms of the school year keep Sue Berlin sane. When the bell rings and the students file in, she's fine. But the eclipse unsettles her. It also exposes a neediness in Arthur that isn't being fulfilled in his marriage to Alice, played with dotty dignity by Madeline Kahn in her final role. Alice could be the mad housewife you've seen a million times before. Painfully alone, she pads through her empty house aching for connection, whether with her husband, her uncommunicative son, or the cleaning lady Carol (Novella Nelson), who stays blissfully disengaged by the hum of the vacuum cleaner.
Freed up by the eclipse (and what a long eclipse it is; Mendelsohn's surreal whimsy tests a viewer's patience), Alice wanders through her subdivision with fresh eyes. Meanwhile, her angry son David is tagging along with Sue's daughter Judy, alternately horrified by her misguided passion and wowed by her chutzpah. Since Judy Berlin first traveled the film festival circuit, Edie Falco has gone on to win acclaim and an Emmy for her television role as Carmela in The Sopranos. This can only help the film get seen, and that's all for the best. Yet of all the performers, Falco comes closest to smudging the line between sympathy and parody.
Los Angeles beckons to Judy, but in the meantime, what's an aspiring actress to do on Long Island? Bit parts in local commercials and a gig at History Village, a historical recreation based on Old Bethpage, an aging Long Island tourist attraction that Mendelsohn enjoyed as a kid. Dressed in Colonial garb, Judy mimes her wifely duties as a fellow recreator solemnly narrates ("First there was the milking of the cows"). The director's ear for the ridiculous captures the tone of mock importance ("The--work--was--back-breaking"). But there's more to History Village than easy laughs. The film acknowledges how many of us, especially those born and bred in the suburbs, long for roots. Yet a silly Colonial village doesn't give suburbia history and, therefore, stature. Time has done what fakery can't. Babylon is old enough to have seen several generations of children romp through its schools and playgrounds. It's no longer shiny and new, no longer holding out the promise of the perennial present. Life and sadness have left their mark.
Since we know that the director himself did get away, it's nearly miraculous that he retains so much sympathy for the teachers and custodians and school secretaries who haven't. In cinematic suburbia, the fathers have lives away from the shag carpeting and overdone decor. They gather by the railroad (as in The Ice Storm) and shuttle off to another world. At heart, then, to laugh at suburbia is to laugh at the women who stay home. And so it is in such recent dissections as American Beauty or Happiness. Nothing is more cruel in Mendes's acclaimed film than watching real estate agent Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening) break down after furiously cleaning a house she wants to sell. And think about how much more sympathetically Solondz treats Philip Seymour Hoffman's heavy-breathing phone pervert, or Dylan Baker's pedophile Dad, than the lovelorn Camryn Manheim in Happiness.
The women at the heart of Judy Berlin--the title character, her mother, and Alice Gold--are aging, hungry, flawed, lonely, and self-deluded. But they are never grotesque. When they're acting foolish, they're being brave. Alice wanders; Sue finds the courage to give Arthur a kiss; and Judy, talentless Judy, does more than talk. She heads to Los Angeles to get famous.
I don't mean to portray Mendelsohn as starry-eyed about the world he has conjured. Melancholy visits the characters in Judy Berlin with the regularity of the daily mail. People in the neighborhood aren't looking out for each other the way they once did. A former schoolteacher who now has Alzheimer's walks the streets alone. Alice has slipped far enough into her own world that she hasn't even been over to see her good friend's kitchen renovations. And while the white housewives are kind enough to ask about the health of their black housekeeper's daughter, you know that kindly concern is as far as it goes. The needy Alice pleads with Carol to continue their "spacewalk" through the eclipse-shadowed neighborhood, but Carol has to head home, to her own neighborhood and her own problems.
Beneath the gleam of new appliances and fresh paint, suburbia's promises have always been contradictory. Community and privacy. Safety and isolation. The newly minted members of the middle class who flocked to Long Island fled cramped worlds that weren't of their own making, only to make neighborhoods even more homogeneous than those they left behind. Built to disappoint, the suburbs are more poignant than ridiculous, ripe for the sort of humane comedy so rarely seen on screen today.
I hope that Mendelsohn's effort gives heart to other film makers--and writers and artists--willing to make peace with their suburban roots instead of spitting on the doorstep of the family ranch. The wunderkind director Paul Thomas Anderson has described his own opus, Magnolia, as a stubborn love letter to his scorned childhood home, L.A.'s San Fernando Valley. And like Mendelsohn, he relies on a bizarre act of nature--a stunning rain of frogs--to set right the lives of the lonely, the pained, and the dying who cross paths there. Judy Berlin isn't quite so biblical, and in its small, quiet way, is all the more powerful. So is Tom Gilroy's Spring Forward, another indie with a suburban setting that has played the festival circuit but, ominously, hasn't yet made it to the multiplex. Here a pair of ornery parks-department workers, brilliantly played by Ned Beatty and Liev Schreiber, learn to communicate, to teach, and to heal during four seasons of not-so-hard labor. It doesn't sound like much on paper, which may be why this big-hearted film is still awaiting a commercial release. Like Judy Berlin, Spring Forward sacrifices comic swipes for human connection. The film is set in New England, not New York, but the sentiment is the same. Profound moments can happen in the town square or at the mini-mall. You can think you come from nowhere and still go home again. ¤