Wednesday, January 14, 2009


I read the novel this movie’s based on when it first came out and honestly don’t remember much of the plot except the basic idea that life in the new suburbs for WWII vets and their wives was depressing.

Really depressing.

As a kid, I suspected that to be true, even though the idea of new houses with new futuristic appliances and things like “rec rooms” seemed awfully enticing for a while when I was still too young to recognize the illusion in the projections of what made the times supposedly so “modern.”

I don’t know if you’ve read the book more recently, but if you have let me know how close the movie is to it. The house Leonardo DiCaprio’s and Kate Winslet’s characters live in certainly didn’t match the memory of what I saw in my mind when I read it decades ago.

Maybe I misread it, but I thought Revolutionary Road was a new development, and my memory of those (mostly in artist renderings and a few photographs) is houses that looked new (and “modern”) on plots of land that had been bulldozed out of farmers’ fields or forests to create the development and therefore didn’t have fully grown trees, let alone old growth ones etc. as in the movie.

In fact, the movie makes the house and the neighborhood look like old wealth, or at least old near wealth from the vantage point of my neighborhood at the time.

But that aside (and it’s a big aside for me since part of the depression in my mind at the time was caused by the brand new cookie cutter aspects of those developments, even the more upscale ones), the movie still doesn’t seem to reflect what I remember about the book (except that both are really depressing) because I remember thinking the writing was pretty fine, despite the depressing points being made about the subject matter, but the writing in the movie seemed completely unmemorable to me.

I met the author of the novel the movie’s based on, Richard Yates, when I was at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop in the ‘60s, and later on, a few years before his death, again in Hollywood around 1990 as I remember it. He was only briefly in both places, as far as I know, and my encounters with him were pretty brief too because, at least with me, he was fairly guarded, which I interpreted as aloofness and thought it had to do with my coming on still like a kid from a working-class background and him being more from what I thought of as the Ivy League (what later was called “preppy”) elite.

I was at Iowa on the G.I. Bill and with my wife—so I identified to the extent I could with the idea of young veterans and their wives living in new locations, but my experience while still in the service and afterwards was that whatever new community I found myself in with my then wife Lee, there was always a group of artists and bohemians living among the more “normal” folks, who made it tolerable and often a lot of fun and occasionally even inspiring and enlightening.

Of course I was also working part of that time as a musician and always writing (even published already) so that too made my circumstances a lot different from the DiCaprio character in REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (but then, he could’ve gone to college on the G.I. Bill as well if he chose, which maybe is part of the point but one never made).

Never having lived in one of those new developments, I couldn’t say if they were as vapid as described in novels like REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, but maybe because I found my own way out of what I took for a stifling environment (the one I grew up in, which actually was varied and exciting and deeply inspiring but I couldn’t see that yet), but the solution just seemed simpler to me even then, like “move” or find your own kind of people wherever you are, etc.

And like I said, the writing in the movie didn’t seem that sharp or original or even memorable (there was one line of dialogue that jumped out and I wondered if it was Yates’ but only the morning after I saw it I can’t remember it). Yates was known even back then as a “writer’s writer” because his choice of words and sentence structures were supposedly so well crafted.

They did seem worked on and ultimately precise and clear, but the style also, to me, seemed derivative (like a cross between Updike and Hemingway) and bland, as if his writing was meant to mirror the dullness of the suburbs he was writing about (the “imitative fallacy” as it was called at Iowa if I remember correctly).

As for the movie, I found it almost as depressing as I had anticipated, and not engaging emotionally at all. I cry at the drop of a sentiment these days, but no tears came to my eyes watching this. DiCaprio and Winslet did some serious emoting, but I still find him so boyish that it’s hard to accept him in these more grown up roles (Winslet seemed older to me, like a woman with a boy, which undercut the attempted gravity of the story).

I thought Winslet would have been better cast in BENJAMIN BUTTON instead of Cate Blanchett, but let me suggest that Brad Pitt would have been better cast in REVOLUTIONARY ROAD in the DiCaprio role. He could play the appearance of more promise than he actually has and the other attributes that are the character’s tragic flaws that generate the melodrama of the story (and it did come across to me as totally melodramatic) and still seem like a match for Winslet.

And there were the usual things that didn’t make sense or add up story wise (like kids being disappointed in not moving when they made it clear and most of us know kids like to stay where their friends are and with the familiar, or New York streets and Grand Central Station filled only with men in gray (flannel?) suits etc. and women looking on their way to jobs as secretaries, where were my working-class relatives and the relatives of my friends? Or for that matter the Beat type characters that were everywhere as well then, a minority but still, the writers associated with that generation as “Beat” were only expressing a phenomenon that was occurng in my experience pretty much everywhere, even in the suburbs, etc.).

In the end, the movie came across to me as a proto-feminist screed, an attempt to show how hard it was to be a woman in the world of the 1950s suburbs, and even the city, and there’s a lot of truth in that aspect of the movie, (and perhaps was in the novel too and I just don’t remember it that way).

But if you want to see that theme handled really beautifully and originally and much more sensually and drmataically and successfully, read Kate Chopin’s novel THE AWAKENING that in some ways tells the same story as the Kate Winslet character’s, only much more satisfyingly and movingly, and Chopin did it in the late 1800s, over a half century before Yates got around to it.

1 comment:

Curtis Faville said...

My parents were an odd couple, my stepfather having been born in 1901, my mom much younger but coming from a peculiarly matriarchical household, which allowed me to see the post-war GI Bill middle class in sharp relief. On the block I grew up on, the breadwinners hankered to move into one of the new cookie-cutter developments. The family across the street, the Hickses, had two pretty blonde daughters, and Mr. Hicks, who was only a truckdriver (with one eye, yet!), longed to live the life of the newly prosperous. He was the first to get a Polaroid camera, for instance, and I can still remember the smell of the sealer he spread on the new "instant" prints. Not long after that they did move into a "tract" development across town, paying (I think) the unimaginably huge sum of, say, $6500 for a house with a red wooden rooster glued on the garage door. It didn't seem to matter that there were probably a hundred other identical red roosters in the neighborhood. We saw little of them after that. The older daughter Gail became an airline stewardess and met her husband--a real hunk, by all accounts--who was a passenger.

My parents belonged to a skeptics' class which rejected all this "keeping up with the Joneses" but, of course, that was partly because they couldn't summon up the energy and desire to excel themselves. My stepfather, who had worked in the construction trades as a foreman, was offered a position as a sales and contract manager of a big new housing development down on the San Francisco Peninsula in the mid-50's. We all sat around the table and tried to decide whether he should take it; it would have involved a big free tract home, and several years of job security. In the end, he declined. We spent the rest of my childhood poor, and disappointed, but we didn't regret that decision.

The Fifties cliche was of the kind of class of people who are the subject of Cheever's stories: Middle and Upper Middle Class whites, the Father commuting, the wife a "homemaker"--prosperity and order. It's the world against which the Beat Revolution rebelled; against security, predictability, routine, defined roles, etc., and of the alienation and "anome" which became the watchwords of a generation's disillusionment.