The interrogation of suburbia's facades is hardly new fodder for Hollywood or independent filmmakers. The Academy Award--winning Ordinary People of 1981 was hailed as an incisive foray into middle-class malaise; it garnered praise as a subtly artful critique of family values and the importance of appearances and surfaces to the sustenance of bourgeois culture. Prior even to Ordinary People, movies such as The Stepford Wives (1975), Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice (1969), The Graduate (1967), and the melodramas of Douglas Sirk pushed the envelope by subjecting suburban life to intense scrutiny, raising issues of conformity, gender parity, the naturalness of monogamy, and the decay of the nuclear family.
The mid- to late nineties witnessed a number of films with similar aims of laying bare the pitfalls and contentions of suburban life. These films, however, have for the most part surpassed their predecessors in terms of their ambitions to expose or redefine subject matter heretofore regarded as taboo in mainstream cinema. Ang Lee's The Ice Storm (1997) explores preadolescent sexuality against the backdrop of the baby boomers' disenchantment with the enterprise of free love. Todd Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) dramatizes the collusive powers of home, school, and media to degrade or destroy the body image and self-esteem of adolescent girls. Greg Motolla's Daytrippers (1996) chronicles a family outing that facilitates another sort of "outing"--the husband's closeted homosexuality.
This essay focuses on two recent critically successful films of suburban life, Sam Mendes's American Beauty (1999) and Todd Solondz's Happiness (1998), as two events that have facilitated public discourse about social taboos and the moral and aesthetic implications of their representation in mainstream film. I examine the public reception of these two films vis-a-vis a popular online forum, the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). In recognizing this forum as a new audience formation, I attempt to delineate the cultural meanings ascribed to these film events by online citizen-critics. (1) In particular, I will address how the taboo of pedophilia, to some degree dramatized in both films, gets spoken through this online medium. I do not intend to affix any static or discrete meaning to the practices, situations, and effects that pedophilia as a category may come to signify. In fact, part of this project entails an examination of what people choose to identify or disavow as pedophilia and how gender, sexual object choice, and narrative strategies inform these choices. Additionally, I will explore the category of homosexuality as a "structuring absence" in the film events' public discourse. (2) Starting from the assumption that any critical map of public reception requires an examination of the silences and fissures contained within the event's emergent discourse, I contend that homosexuality's virtual absence in the body of popular critical discussion is worth exploring further. This absence, I suggest, is symptomatic of the cultural tendency to supplant rather than complicate categories of difference in the construction of textual meanings.
Before I attempt an analysis of the online discourse, I will give a brief history of...
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