Movie Review By Andrea Chase
It's one of nature's eternal struggles. The need to conform versus that tiny little voice inside us all that cries out to be recognized as unique, even if it means collecting every commemorative plate that the Franklin Mint can produce. I can't think of a better place to examine that struggle than America's first suburb, Levittown, and no better film to do the examining than John O' Hagan's inspired documentary, "Wonderland
Credit the modern notion of suburban living to William Levitt. He saw the housing shortage after World War II and came up with the idea to build seventeen thousand identical homes in a potato field. People flocked to it, clamoring to buy into the mid-century version of utopia.
Levittown was an interesting social experiment. People were assigned homes alphabetically. Everyone's name on one street began with "s." And it was remarkably homogenous. It was couples only and they were all young, white, and solidly middle-class. The need for self-expression must have burned deep and urgent.
We meet some of the original pioneers. They speak directly into the camera, talking about Levittown as their little piece of the American Dream. It's a dream filled with cocktail swilling parakeets and demonstrations of hobbies cultivated in reaction to the white-bread sameness of it all, the most extreme being keeping track of ghostly pranks that may or may not have been committed by something from the great beyond. They reminisce about simpler times that included furtive wife-swapping.
Then there are the children who grew up there. One describes it as like living in the film "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." Bill Griffith, creator of Zippy the Pinhead, credits his Levittown upbringing for his skewed view of life.
The camera here isn't just an ironic observer, it's also a gleeful co-conspirator. O'Hagan aims it at his subjects and holds them up to us in a way that is neither demeaning nor condescending. His affection for them is palpable.
What we learn from "Wonderland" is that even though everything we've feared about the suburbs is true, it's not as bad as we thought.
© 1997 • Andrea Chase • Air Date: 11/19/97
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