Arriving at Reading Festival 2009 with £20 spending money, I quickly learned my lesson. The following year, in 2010, I had the far more impressive sum of £50 in my pocket. Surely that would last me the whole weekend?!
But what was behind the sudden increase of budget? Well, it’s because I knew that at the earliest opportunity I’d head to the merch stand and instantly halve my weekend cash to “invest” in an Arcade Fire T-shirt. They were headlining the Saturday night and had just released the best album that I had ever heard.
The follow-up to 2007’s grand and gothic ‘Neon Bible’, ‘The Suburbs’ is a broader, warmer, more nostalgic affair. On the disarmingly soft ‘Wasted Hours’, singer Win Butler recalls spending youthful summers “staring out the window”, seeing a glimpse of the world back then, remembering it years later and trapping it between the edges of a frame. Spike Jonze, director of Being John Malkovich and, later, Her, would do the same with Scenes From the Suburbs, the short film that accompanied the album.
Jonze’s film is a loose sketch of a story, rushed and ragged, befitting of the frenetic teenage mindset it’s reflecting. Set over one summer, it’s primarily about the breakdown of a friendship between two adolescent boys, Kyle and Winter, whose relationship moves from refreshing and kind male intimacy, to public, explosive violence. Coinciding with the demise of their friendship, lurking behind Kyle and Winter’s hangouts, is a different boiling threat.
A steady increase in regressive, dangerous military control, that comes to its peak at Kyle and Winter’s split. Songs from The Suburbs drift in and out of the film, mimicking Jonze’s loose narrative and editing style which plants the film more as a collection of memories, than a linear story.
An initial return to the lo-fi, haphazard style of Jonze’s early skater-video work, Scenes From the Suburbs rolls from Linklater-esque slacker vignettes about drugs and virginity, into a prescient Steven Spielberg styled story of isolation, police brutality and dystopian invasion, appearing like fractured recollections from the director’s many suburban wars.
The circling BMXs, stucco cul-de-sacs and intimidating federal forces from E.T; the water plant, resting in the horizon like Devil’s Tower from Close Encounters; the street-level, frenetic glimpses of violence from War of the Worlds; the splintered family dynamics of Pretty Much Every Steven Spielberg Film. There’s a lot of hat-tipping (or is that fedora tipping?) to the great director, crammed into the film’s nimble 29 minutes.
Scenes From the Suburbs was early through the door, with a cinematic identity that would dominate the decade. It debuted at SXSW, a few months after the release of the album and a few months ahead of JJ Abrams’s Super 8 – a film Spielberg produced – which I unashamedly adore but is also unashamedly one of the sincerest forms of flattery ever put to film. Super 8 has the lights in the sky, the aliens and the bikes; and while generally liked, it didn’t dent the cultural consciousness in any way close to the work of its esteemed producer.
But in the trail of its atmospheric launch came Stranger Things, which unequivocally did create a seismic ripple. Roughing up Spielberg-ian soft edges with harsh grazes of John Carpenter and Stephen King, the romance of wheeling around middle-American suburban driveways was back. After that, King’s It got its own 80s nostalgia glow-up, Jurassic Park came back and re-trod its own three-toed muddy footprint and even Bumblebee turned a Transformer into E.T.
Before all of this came Jonze’s film, which in the intervening years feels more and more present, rather than being safely locked away in its own time. Jonze flashes scenes of brutal police violence before making quick cuts to black; originally invasive memories, now more like witness’s phones being jammed back into pockets. Conversations between loved ones take place between window panes as they’re blocked from seeing each other; an image of emotional shielding that now reads far more physically.
These external forces lead to internal combustion and over a quick few months we see the tightest of bonds disintegrate. Come the end of the summer, the hermetic community has been irrevocably changed – hopefully for the better. The final shot, of a military truck turning around a street corner, could be an exit, but it could be the start of another wave.
On ‘Month of May’, the scuzzy, angsty brother of a double-a side to ‘The Suburbs’, Win Butler sings: “2009, 2010, wanna make a record how I felt then”. The characters in the film actually interact with these lyrics, a crowd of boisterous friends, yelling them to each other. When the film was released, this was how I felt then. I was the screaming teenager, along with thousands of others, not yet aware just how splintered our own crowd would become in just a few years.
Jonze’s film offers some assurance to balance this melancholy, it is less tied to the idea of home and fraternity than some of Spielberg and his suburban imitators. Watching it now, for all its nostalgia, Scenes From the Suburbs, seems more of a reflective piece, not a call to scroll deep into your Facebook profile and feel guilty. It doesn’t pine for those friendships to return, but considerately mourns how they came to be outgrown.
When I bought my T-shirt at the merch stand, the sleeves hung loosely to my elbows; like much of my wardrobe – it looked like a hand-me-down from my older brother. It didn’t matter. It had Arcade Fire on it and I wasn’t taking it off all weekend. A decade later, that hasn’t changed. ‘The Suburbs’ is still my favourite album of all time. It’s just the T-shirt’s a bit small now though.