7 December 2008

'LAKEVIEW TERRACE' (Dir. Neil La Bute, 2008, US) - Is this Hollywood's first unofficial response to the election of Obama?

It is finally safe to change the rhetoric that one uses from post 9-11 to post George Bush when contextualising mainstream Hollywood films dealing with particularly controversial social issues. Had Paul Haggis’ hugely influential multi narrative soap opera drama, ‘Crash’ been released in the new Obama reality then perhaps critics would have interpreted the racial conflict and tensions differently. Such is the case with a film like ‘Lakeview Terrace’, perhaps the first film to have been released by Hollywood in a context that has dramatically changed since Obama became the first African American president. So perhaps this may be the first response to the election of Obama. However much one wants to disassociate real politics from the real ideologies of ‘Lakeview Terrace’, it is still impossible to overlook the involvement of Will Smith as producer. Not only is Will Smith the biggest and most bankable contemporary Hollywood film star, his iconic status as an influential African American role model is undiminished and it is inevitable that he be compared to a figure like Obama.

Yet such a parallel and mirroring of images is manifested unquestionably in the racism of Abel Turner, a bigoted Los Angeles police officer, played with pure glee and malevolence by the imposing star power of Samuel L Jackson, who seems to embody all the nasty, territorial qualities of Republican conservatism. It is hard not see how the liberally inclined inter racial values of both Chris (Patrick Wilson) and Lisa Mattson (Kerry Washington) seem to symbolise the spirit of a newly reconstructed form of democratic fervour sweeping through the nation. Their desire to settle down and become home owners in an area which they slowly find out is in fact a haven for paranoid, insular conservatives brings to the foreground the issue of racial identity in a world besieged by different kinds of social disparity. Neil La Bute’s study of middle American values in the milieu of suburbia is not uncommon in Hollywood films.

In the 1950s, a range of genres from science fiction to melodrama used the banal setting of suburbia to critique the increasingly conformist attitudes of middle class America. Suburbia came about as a conservative reaction to the influx of black people from the rural areas of the South and into the urban, inner cities. Described by some as the ‘white flight’, high numbers of affluent white families who had traditionally lived in the city migrated to suburbia, and subsequently reinforced the deep segregation that already existed in many parts of America. Another possible explanation for the rapid emergence of suburbia as a place of Utopian, idyllic values was due to the fears of both a communist invasion and an impending nuclear strike which Americans had been told would occur in major urban areas like key cities rather than the obscurity of suburbia. The sexual politics of the 70s seemed to culminate in John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’, a film that represented the most puritanical of sub-genres; the Slasher film. Opening with a devastating sequence of a young boy butchering to death his sister, Halloween not only signalled the demise of the sexual revolution, it suggested that the teenager was no longer safe in the domesticated environment of suburbia. Such a theme of teen angst was turned on its head by David Lynch in the 80s with ‘Blue Velvet’, a film that represented one of the darkest and most disturbing images of suburban ideology. The 90s saw indie film makers like Richard Linklater’s ‘Dazed and Confused’ and Richard Kelly’s ‘Donnie Darko’ reconfigure the image of suburbia as a place for nostalgic teenage anxieties and hedonistic celebrations. Released in 1999, Alan Ball’s subversive and dark take on suburban values, ‘American Beauty’, seemed to be a culmination of an on going Hollywood fascination with family, masculinity and moral bankruptcy in the age of neo liberalism.

In ‘Lakeview Terrace’, Abel Turner, a troubled and bigoted cop, terrorises his neighbours in an attempt to exorcise the death of his wife. Aside from some terrifyingly blunt sequences involving Abel and Chris that underline the racial complexity of today’s American society, the film gradually and perhaps predictably disintegrates into another formulaic thriller. Wholly unnecessary plot contrivances involving a mobile phone and a redundant shoot out at the end carries with it the studio stamp of approval in terms of adequate closure. Nevertheless, had genre constraints not got in the way of characterisation, ‘Lakeview Terrace’ would have been an exceptionally brilliant racial drama, but however, as a star vehicle tailor made for Samuel L Jackson it works just as well.

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