White Bird in a Blizzard

I was honestly taken aback when Arcade Fire's album The Suburbs won the Grammy for Album of the Year. I had never been a huge Arcade Fire fan - they've always been far too earnest for my tastes - but I was basically fine with their first two albums. The Suburbs, however...  Oof. That record was still too earnest, but now it was too earnest and too on the nose. Weirdos and outcasts have been making art about how the suburbs are a shitty, soulless place to live pretty much since the day the suburbs were created, so who was alive in 2010 that needed a double disc concept record to explain this groundbreaking idea to them? The first time I heard it my gut response was: hey guys, we've seen American Beauty, too. It's never gotten better for me after that first listen, either.

I know many people will disagree with me about that record, and yes, I can admit that I'm oversimplifying what Arcade Fire was trying to say on The Suburbs. Still, I wanted to bring it up because to me it's the perfect example of a work of art that did a bad job of critiquing the suburbs, and I thought it might be a useful comparison point for White Bird in a Blizzard, which does a great job of exploring suburban ennui.

In case you haven't heard of White Bird in a Blizzard, it's a Gregg Araki movie from 2014 about a teenage girl whose mom begins to act increasingly drunken and out of control before just... disappearing one day. The film has a tricky tone and narrative structure, since it starts off as a satire of middle class domesticity, but as it evolves it becomes more of a mystery, and as the mystery deepens the tone becomes a lot darker. Which brings me to my first point: a big part of the reason why White Bird in a Blizzard's skewering of the suburbs doesn't wear out it's welcome is because the movie doesn't devote itself entirely to that one theme. Whereas every single song on The Suburbs echoes similar themes, White Bird expresses a certain amount of suburban frustration but then adds more elements and more complexity as it progresses. That forward momentum keeps the movie from stagnating, which is important, because it's very easy to tackle a topic that's this picked over in a way that feels banal.

The second point that I would like to make was probably said best by the ever helpful housekeeper Mary Poppins: "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down." White Bird in a Blizzard's critique of the suburbs isn't any more novel than Arcade Fire's, but at least White Bird is expressing itself using humor. The imagery White Bird uses to depict a bored housewife's life isn't particularly original - yes, there is a scene where she gets drunk on white wine early in the afternoon! And yes, she does hit on the neighbor's teenage son because her sex life is so unfulfilling! - but the film is self aware enough to know when it was bordering on cliche, and it's sense of irony ultimately keeps it from becoming insufferable. If Arcade Fire had ever been within a mile of a sense of irony, I might not have found their record to be so pretentious.

Most importantly, White Bird in a Blizzard doesn't condescend to the suburbs in the same way that The Suburbs does. Because White Bird in a Blizzard focuses on a family, it triangulates three different views on the same subject, allowing it to effortlessly illustrate what makes the suburbs so attractive to some and so suffocating to others. It shows us a woman who is quietly drowning in misery, a man who is hiding behind conformity, and a child who is passively accepting the only world she knows, and together those perspectives offer a surprisingly nuanced portrait of a complex phenomenon. Which is a sharp contrast to Arcade Fire's monochromatic take, which mostly boils down to calling the burbs the ultimate in alienation in a series of slightly literary metaphors.

In some ways I'm sympathetic to people who hate the cookie cutter sameness of the burbs, but I also get frustrated by people who only view the burbs only as a negative. Most of the families that moved out to the burbs did so because they thought that moving to "better" neighborhoods was the right thing to do for their families. Now, whether that idea was right or wrong is open for debate - hell, I'll even admit it was probably wrong - but ignoring those people's good intentions seems unfair to me. There's been so much suffering in the annals of human history that I actually think that trying to build your home in a place that seemed safe, clean and comfortable is kind of commendable. (Admittedly, I'm kind of square.)

Of course, that doesn't mean that I think America's fascination with endless subdivisions is above reproach, but it is to say that I'm sensitive to how people frame their critiques. I'm more likely to buy your argument if you make it with some subtlety and humor like White Bird in a Blizzard does, because even if I don't ultimately agree with you I can at least enjoy your company for a bit. But if you want to make those exact same points with sledgehammer sincerity and absolutely no nuance - well, you might persuade the Grammy people, but you can count me out.

Winner: Me

White Bird in a Blizzard on IMDB