Burbanex

This is a good image

THE ‘BURBS is one of the Joe Dante films I haven’t watched much — I think only once, until now. But I got the excellent Arrow Blu-ray with the alternate cut and ending and a big documentary and a commentary. EXPLORERS and SMALL SOLDIERS are the other two I want to go back to. Oh, and THE HOWLING also because it’s been years.

There are Dante films that are on TV a lot and if they come on and I watch for five minutes I end up watching the whole thing, no matter how many times I’ve seen them — these are the GREMLINS films and INNERSPACE. Even if I channel-hop into them middle of one, I’ll end up staying to the end credits.

But THE ‘BURBS had sort of slipped by me. I remember it was either Sight & Sound or the late Monthly Film Bulletin that said their problem with the ending — and we all knew there had been more than one ending shot — was that the revelations about the creepy neighbours didn’t fall comically short of our suspicions, and nor did they comically exceed our suspicions. Which I think is probably true, but this time round it played differently.

It’s a really fun film. Tom Hanks is superb (and I miss the funny Tom Hanks, fine as he is in straight stuff), Rick Ducommon is great in the Jack Carson role, Carrie Fisher and Bruce Dern, and then the Klopeks are wonderful, and for a while it seemed like only Dante knew how great Henry Gibson was and would use him.

And then this ending. Which is, it’s true, not quite triumphant comically, but also seems to run against what the whole film is about. Tom Hanks has a fantastic speech at the end in which he denounces the curtain-twitching paranoia he’s been sucked into — THEY’RE not the monsters, WE’RE the monsters! And Hanks bats it out of the park. The Klopeks being innocent really puts the audience on the spot. Well, we kind of knew the protags were getting carried away, but this is really strong. So having the Klopeks turn out to be the monsters after all negates that completely. True, the speech still happens. But what people tend to take away from a film is the ending. A weak ending ruins your MEMORY of the experience. The meaning imparted by the ending is always seen as the meaning being promulgated by the film as a whole.

The original ending was going to be Hanks being loaded into the ambulance and Werner Klopek (Gibson) is in there and he’s going to kill him. Which is the ending of TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (which also had multiple endings shot, but that was, I believe, based around the question of what order the episodes would eventually run in). But the reason they didn’t end on that note was, “Well, you can’t kill Tom Hanks.” Which I understand.

Weirdly, that ending might have worked better for me in terms of what it’s saying — true, having the Klopeks turn out to be killers seems to retroactively justify all the intrusive snooping and paranoia. But look: our hero’s going to DIE for it. Maybe that sort of works. It doesn’t make being a nosy neighbour look all that attractive.

But now, since Tom Hanks can never die, he has to win, and we get Dern and Ducommon preening xenophobically about their success. And while they’re comic buffoons, and Hanks is now disgusted with them, which helps a little… Fiona was RANTING about the inappropriateness of this ending. I think she took it personally, since we’re both a pair of life’s Klopeks at heart. I was more muted in my dissatisfaction, maybe because I was thinking about the difficulty the filmmakers were up against. If you suddenly have to explain all the weirdness including a human femur turning up in a back yard 10 RILLINGTON PLACE style, you’re into the ending of SUSPICION and it becomes a rather dry box-ticking exercise and anticlimactic to boot. And the script hadn’t been written, and filmed, with that intent in mind. It’s like you’re in a labyrinth and all the exits are sliding shut and you’re being channeled towards the most reactionary finishing line, the one that ends by making the conformists in the audience feel good about themselves.

So it’s a film that could be Dante’s most subversive movie apart from the last ten minutes.

Does the same objection apply to REAR WINDOW, which was kind of the progenitor for THE ‘BURBS? The characters debate whether spying on your neighbours can ever be a good thing, but then it turns out it can. But that also makes us feel rather awkward when Lars Thorwald confronts L.B. Jeffries with his “why are you persecuting me?” speech, and Jeff is even more tongue-tied than usual. Does that get Hitch out of trouble altogether? Is THE ‘BURBS held to a different standard because it’s satire, and so ducking back into being on the side of the normals feels like more of a cop-out?

And if it turns up on TV will I get sucked into watching it again? That’s something I won’t know until it happens.

5 Responses to “Burbanex”

  1. Terrific write-up. I remember watching it as a kid and loving it, but also hoping that the Klopeks weren’t really innocent, because even age 9 that seemed incredibly hokey to me. I think they’d done the same plot on the Dennis the Menace cartoon just a week earlier. So, even though now I’m older and more liberal than a 9 year old, I still think the audience needs some kind of catharsis.

    The last time I watched it, I remember thinking that Bruce Dern should’ve been a twist villain, using the Klopeks as a distraction for his own sinister practices. It’d be a much better use of a manic Dern.

    How different is the alternate cut? Do you think Dante chopped the right bits?

  2. David Ehrenstein Says:

    This I one of Joe’s best films, and considering all the back and forth between belief that the Kopeks are up to something awful and the last ten minutes which suggests (but just barely) that they aren’t is the true subject – Suburban Paranoia.

    Fpr those of us who remember his one-man Midnight shows the casting of the beyond brilliant monologist Brother Theodreas the senior Klopek is a masterstroke.

  3. The original cut is better, I think, and Gibson gets a bit at the end that helps tie things together, but it still has the same unresolvable problem for me. The dream sequence is longer and has Kevin McCarthy — but the top image is only in the release version. There should be a supercut.

    I think a surprise reveal like some other character being the real weirdo would help me admire the intended message but you probably need a lengthy rewrite to set that up and pay it off, and they were filming during the writers’ strike… But yes, it would avoid the near-inevitable let-down if the Klopeks were innocent and give us the childish pleasure we require. And Dern could get a monologue!

  4. I read the screenplay several years before it was made. The original title was BAY WINDOW. Alas, I have no memory of the original ending.

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