The geographical improbability of Ferris Bueller and a limited view of Chicago

Ferris Bueller and friends see a lot of the Chicago region in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off but their journey is improbable:

Chicago is a big city. Like, really, really big. The makers obviously looked at what they wanted Ferris to do and decided to leave geographic and timeline reality in the dust as Ferris and friends drove away in a red Ferrari GT California Spyder.

Case in point: Ferris begins his day on the far upper side of Chicago, in one of those fancy North Shore neighborhoods past Northwestern University. He convinces friend Cameron—who lives in a different fancy neighborhood—to borrow his dad’s Ferrari, pull the subterfuge with his girlfriend at the school and then drive into the city. The clock is already ticking!

But then! A longish discussion with the parking garage attendants. Sightseeing at the then-Sears Tower. Lunch (impersonating Sausage King Abe Froman). More sightseeing at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. A Cubs game! (Games typically last 3 hours, by the way.) Then more sightseeing back downtown at the Art Institute, followed by an epic parade crash. By this time, it must be nearly midnight! But no, it’s back up to the northern suburbs (presumably during rush hour) followed by an emotional discussion about life and love with friends, a ridiculously long footrace home and… Ferris is back in his bed by the time the folks walk in. By our math, those shenanigans would’ve taken roughly, oh, two days! Or at least 26 hours.

This would not be the first time a movie took liberties with geography (see another Chicago example here). It is easy to think why a film would do this: they want to have characters move in places that are well known, they do not necessarily have to adhere to rules of space and time, and the point of this film is about teenagers having a crazy day in and around the big city.

At the same time, films (and TV shows that follow similar logics) present a distorted view of cities. I could see this working out in two ways in Ferris Bueller. First, they visit the most well-known sites of the city. These can be fun locations, full of people, recognizable around the world. Ferris and friends have fun there. But, this reinforces only certain parts of Chicago and the surrounding region, missing out on a lot of other interesting sites. Second, their visits are quick in and out trips. They drop in, see the most important parts, and leave. In other words, not only do they primarily visit tourist sites, they are the ultimate tourists: they consume and move on and then return to mundane daily life.

These issues are on top of the time and space concerns of the film. Perhaps most viewers do not care about any of these; Chicago looks like a fun place in a time when the city (and other big cities) faced major issues. But, if viewers see enough films and TV shows that do this, they take in a limited perspective of cities and urban life.

Bringing the City Council meeting to a (participatory) stage

I have read through decades of City Council and other local commission minutes for research projects. Thus, I was intrigued to find out a playwright had taken real City Council experiences and put them together into a participatory performance:

Inside a hushed theater, a voice on the loudspeaker instantly lets the audience know this isn’t your typical performance.

“By joining us tonight” a soft female voice says, “you’ll be standing in for someone who was actually part of a local government meeting somewhere in the U.S. in the last three years.”

The show, for the most part, doesn’t use actors. Instead, theater goers are asked to volunteer to play the role of city council members, the mayor, and regular citizens at a city council meeting. The performance is staged just as if it were a real meeting, with real people participating in a play that reflects the good, the bad, the ugly, and the sometimes nail-biting tediousness of participatory democracy…

“How do you take someone whose way of speaking or obvious demographic might be very different from yours and respectfully put it in the room?” Landsman asks. “How do you give voice to someone else’s language? For me it’s like walking a mile in their shoes – verbally.”

I would love to see this and to participate. The play takes something mundane to most people and provides an opportunity to see how things work and different people approach their community.

Here is why this has the potential to matter: Americans say that they like local government but their involvement is often limited (as exhibited by low turnout rates for local voting). And much of the time in local government boards, committees, and groups may involve arcane discussions of local ordinances, approval of paying bills, and odd local political or interpersonal disputes. Yet, these meetings help shape the character of communities. Even if there is a sizable public discussion about a development project or an annexation or a significant change, it is in the local government meeting that the vote actually takes place. These discussions and decisions can make a difference and set a community down a particular path for decades.

I would guess those who see this play do not immediately show up at all the local meetings eager to observe. However, at the least, it could help reveal some of the local processes that have the potential to impact all of our lives and communities.

Quick Review: Suburbicon

I try to keep up with movies, books, TV shows, and music about the suburbs. I recently watched the 2017 film Suburbicon. Here are three thoughts:

1. The basic plot of the film extends a decades-long emphasis on the underbelly of suburban life. The main focus is on what looks like a typical suburban family – white, middle-class with the father working in a corporate office, one kid, in a recently-constructed suburban community – but they turn out to have family issues. The question at the end of the IMDB summary – “Who would have thought that darkness resides even in Paradise?” – is one that dozens of works have considered.

2. The twist to this film is that the under-the-surface issues of the white family are juxtaposed with the experiences of a black family who moves into the home directly behind the white family. As soon as I heard the last name of the black family (Mayers), I thought of this incident from 1957 in Levittown, Pennsylvania:

It began on the afternoon of Aug. 13, 1957, when the Levittown Times newspaper (the precursor to the Bucks County Courier Times) reported “The First Negro Family to buy a Levittown home” had moved into a house at 43 Deepgreen Lane in the Dogwood Hollow section that morning. The family included William Myers, his wife, Daisy, and their three small children…

Day 1: Within hours after the newspaper hit the streets, small groups of agitated Levittowners are already gathering in front of the Myers home. Throughout the evening, the crowd continues to grow. By midnight, more than 200 shouting men, women and children cluster on the Myers’ front lawn. A group of teens throw rocks through the Myers’ front picture window, and 15 Bristol Township police officers are dispatched to the scene. Soon, the county sheriff arrives, and orders the crowd to disperse. By 12:30 a.m., two adults and three teens have been arrested. Now, with the violence increasing, the sheriff wires the Pennsylvania State Police asking for immediate assistance. His request states, ”…the citizens of Levittown are out of control.”…

Day 7: As darkness settles, a group estimated at about 500 men, women and children gather directly across the street from the Myers house. Despite repeated warnings to leave, many in the crowd stand defiant — screaming, shouting and cursing at police. Finally, 22 state troopers, swinging clubs, charge into their midst. Men are slapped across their backs and knocked down; women are slapped across their buttocks. Many in the crowd become hysterical. Curses, cries and shouts of “Gestapo” are hurled at the troopers. Following the melee, remnants of the crowd linger along Haines Road well into the early morning hours. At one point, they defiantly join together to sing “America” (better known as “My Country ’Tis of Thee.”).

Day 8: About 500 men, women and children gather along the Farmbrook section of Haines Road. A rock is thrown, striking a Bristol Township police sergeant on the head and knocking him unconscious. He is rushed to Lower Bucks Hospital, then transferred to Rolling Hills Hospital. He suffers a concussion and ear lacerations, but fortunately will soon recover. A 15-year-old boy is seized in the incident, but later released. State police inform the protesters, “A police officer has been injured … Absolutely no more crowds will be permitted in the area.”

By midnight, the crowd has disappeared.

There is no direct commentary about the contemporaneous fates of the two families but the connection is interesting to consider. The white family cannot hold themselves together while the black family simply wants to live a quiet suburban life? The two boys are able to interact even as the adults lose their heads? The community cares about skin color more than they do about violent acts?

3. I wonder how much narratives about the hidden negative aspects resonate with viewers. For those who already dislike the suburbs, perhaps it feeds the critiques. But, for suburbanites or for those who aspire to living in the suburbs, does a story like this seem credible? It reminds me of a quote from sociologist Bennett Berger after studying a working-class suburb:

The critic waves the prophet’s long and accusing finger and warns: ‘You may think you’re happy, you smug and prosperous striver, but I tell you that the anxieties of status mobility are too much; they impoverish you psychologically, they alienate you from your family’; and so on. And the suburbanite looks at his new house, his new car, his new freezer, his lawn and patio, and, to be sure, his good credit, and scratches his head bewildered.

If there are plenty of racists down the street in suburbia or families that fall apart, does this stop others from living in suburbia?

Music tastes, “fervent eclecticism,” and cultural omnivores

A review of the new TV series High Fidelity suggests musical snobbery has changed:

So how are we to think about the key motto—“What really matters is what you like, not what you are like”—referenced in all three versions of High Fidelity? Hornby’s aphorism might sound outdated in the era of identity politics, when Twitter’s brawls over art can make independent aesthetic judgments seem secondary to proudly lining up with one’s tribe. Hulu’s High Fidelity does, refreshingly, correct the exclusionary spirit that went with the original’s lack of diversity. Yet crucially, the series retains the assurance that music preferences reflect something individual, ineffable, soul-deep, and in need of sharing. Kravitz’s Robin—a brooding biracial and bisexual space cadet enamored of the Beastie Boys, Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, and the folk singer Nick Drake—eludes any image neatly tied to race, gender, or sexuality. In one hilarious subplot that highlights taste as an idiosyncratic proxy for identity, Cherise posts a flyer looking for bandmates in sync with her ideal sound: “Think Brian Eno producing Beyoncé fronting Soul Coughing but with Daniel Ash on guitar.”

Such fervent eclecticism is countercultural in any era, because by definition it flouts paradigms. Here it represents another way in which the new High Fidelity audiophiles feel they have, as Cherise puts it at one point, “opted out” of their own algorithm-obedient generation. But they’re not quite the oddballs they think they are. Genre boundaries have been melting in popular music lately, and the quest for self-definition through sound is no niche practice. As I write this, my social feeds are full of people sharing their personalized Spotify report on their most-listened-to songs of the year. Some users are LOLing at the quirkiness of their habits (one friend’s top five artists of 2019 included ultra-glossy contemporary country, hard-edged underground rap, and the Barenaked Ladies). Others cheekily revel in the stereotypes it turns out they’ve fallen into (“so gay,” texts someone whose No. 1 was Carly Rae Jepsen). I’m not seeing a lot of mockery; I am seeing a lot of curiosity, amusement, and discussion. The tools of High Fidelity’s rankers and curators have been democratized, and of course not everyone is going to use them for esoteric adventures. If you’ve got a problem with that, you might be a snob.

This reminds me of sociological research on “cultural omnivores”:

The term cultural omnivorousness was first introduced to the cultural consumption literature by Richard Peterson, in 1992, to refer to a particular cultural appreciation profile. According to his definition, this profile emerged in the late 20th century, in accordance with macro changes experienced in the socioeconomic and political spheres. Omnivorous consumers have an increased breadth of cultural taste and a willingness to cross established hierarchical cultural genre boundaries. In other words, the concept refers to a taste profile that includes both highbrow and lowbrow genres…The omnivore thesis is extremely important for contemporary cultural theory because it pushes researchers to scrutinize the current status of the relationship between culture and power. The contributors to this debate have provided competing answers to the following crucial questions: What is the strength and direction of the association between socioeconomic status and cultural taste? Are we witnessing the decomposition of cultural-class boundaries and snobbishness? How far does cultural omnivorousness bring tolerance and cultural inclusion? These questions, asked within the debate, demonstrate the concept’s significance for our understanding of sociocultural change. Many case studies have shown that eclectic repertoires are more likely to be embodied by the educated middle classes. Peterson himself argued that the employment market has begun to seek this kind of wide-range awareness and cultural inclusiveness. It seems that being a true omnivore requires certain skills, investment, and prior cultural knowledge, which can be translated into advantages in other social fields. Moreover, empirical research is now sufficient enough to show that omnivores are selective and they show little tolerance for the genres associated with lower social/cultural status. Therefore, this repertoire may very well be considered a new form of distinction—a strategy the economically and culturally advantaged use to “make” their identity and distinguish themselves from others.

In short, research shows that tastes in music and other realms is connected to social class. A way to differentiate your tastes from someone else is to have a wider repertoire, particularly for those with resources. Extending this review a bit, then perhaps cultural omnivorousness has spread from those with educational and financial capital to broader segments of society. Could being a cultural omnivore be something more people now aspire to or admire?

Becoming a cultural omnivore and expressing this in daily life is another avenue worth exploring. In High Fidelity, this took place within a record shop where selling music provided the backdrop for ongoing conversations about music. In daily life today, cultural omnivores or those who want to be might have different experiences. Is it easier to be an omnivore with all the streaming music services that allow access to different artists, genres, and songs? While the music supply has expanded, where do conversations about music or extended interactions regarding music now take place?

Finally, fitting these kinds of tastes in music and other cultural products with broader senses of identity (race, gender, class, etc.) could be fascinating. Is being a cultural omnivore still elitist or tied to particular kinds of people? Or, are there multiple ways to be a cultural omnivore that draw on different identities?

“Live from Des Moines and Miami”: twin spectacles of our time

At the gym a few days ago, I saw this headline about the temporary location of a morning news show: “Live from Des Moines and Miami.” The Iowa caucuses on Monday and the Super Bowl today in Miami share some characteristics:

1. Weeks and months of hype. The Super Bowl does not get as much lead up since the participants have only been known for two weeks but both are highly anticipated events. The Iowa caucuses only happen every four years so the combination this year is not normal.

2. The media attention paid to both. Even as they come at different parts of their respective processes – the caucuses come after a lot of campaigning and debates and then kick off primary season while the game concludes a popular NFL year – they are great material for news reports, opinion leaders, and everyone else in the media who might not always care about politics or football.

3. Competition and winners and losers. A football game has a clear winner and loser (though more unusual circumstances might cast a doubt on the victors). The caucuses are not so clear as the outcome requires interpretation but everyone will be looking to name the winners and losers once the voting outcome is known.

4. The entertainment value of it all. The football game is more clearly entertainment – it is just a game after all – but politics is in this camp these days as well. Both events are exciting and at least this year relatively close. With all this tension building, why not locate a morning show to live work from Des Moines and Miami?

In sum, these events seem to go together: the largest American sporting event takes place tonight and the fate of the free world/the most important election of our time/the race to beat the incumbent president really takes off tomorrow. For those who will be watching and broadcasting, may they be entertaining and full of high ratings.

Depicting heaven, hell, and in between through mid-century modern, the 1980s, and the Getty Center

The creators of The Good Place aimed to create a specific aesthetic for the locations on the show:

Rowe: There’s a signature that is heavily inspired by mid-century modern. Not just because it looks cool and clean, but because [the creative team] made a very deliberate dedication to a certain style per world. So the ’80s were the Medium Place. The Mad Men era was the Bad Place. The heightened, more European, I would say, version of that influenced the backlot. Dan Bishop created that cute, charming, endearing vibe from European villages. Those ice-cream colors and those colorful pops in our flowers—those defined what the rest of the world would look like.

It’s very important to point out that [Ted Danson’s character] Michael was an architect, and that was a character choice from Mike Schur that influenced everything from there. What architect going to school, at any stage doesn’t love mid-century modern? Plus the age of the actor—he’s all dressed up. If he was designing kooky ’80s architecture or ’70s skyscrapers, I don’t know if those would fit.

The focus on European villages gets at some features of desirable places: existing at a human scale, full of street-level activity including food and shopping alongside people talking and walking, and a relatively small set of people. (One feature of these some villages that might be missing on the TV show: the homes seem to be set apart from the village area, separating home and work.) While the village streetscape could be part of a larger city (perhaps each neighborhood or district has a village area like this), it hints at more small-town life. Residing in smaller-scale villages might fit better with human history than the substantial urbanization of the last two centuries. At the same time, we view big cities as centers of progress and human achievement. Perhaps the choice of villages hints at human desires for social connections and a human scale rather than big cities. (But Michael’s depiction is not what it seems – so is this commentary about European villages?)

As for heaven itself:

Rowe: When heaven showed up, it was pretty much unanimous right away that they wanted to shoot at the Getty [Center, an art museum in Los Angeles]. There was a lot of discussion that happened to help the Getty get on board, because obviously they have a brand they want to protect. The location manager went and said, “It’s a show about heaven, and we’re showing the Getty as a place of paradise.”

We actually didn’t do that many things there, because the architecture speaks for itself. People breeze through that museum, and you can ask them, “Oh, did you see any paintings?” And they’re like, “Yeah, I kinda saw the modern stuff upstairs, but I was basically outside the whole time.”

The Getty Center is indeed a unique building and it connects modern architecture, gardens, and a view overlooking Los Angeles. As an oasis set apart from the Los Angeles bustle, I could see how it would be compared to heaven:

Getty2

Comparing depictions of heaven across time and cultures could prove to be a fun exercise. How much do the depictions reflect contemporary tastes or standards? If the architects of today or those with architectural knowledge generally like mid-century modern, this is what they might prefer heaven to look like. Would Christians throughout the United States agree? There have been too many depictions of clouds for that not to show up somewhere and ancient Greek architecture – familiar to Americans in a number of important buildings including government structures – might be popular. Would heaven look more like the nondescript suburban megachurches of today or more like a Gothic cathedral? Or, would Americans prefer heaven to look like mansions in a well-kept suburb or prefer it to be more about nature? And global depictions would likely differ significantly from these options.

Argument of the movie Yesterday: Beatles songs would wow everyone regardless of who performs them or when they are performed

The movie Yesterday takes away all knowledge of the Beatles and their music and puts the songs into the mouth and guitar of regular musician Jack Malik. And the music previously unknown becomes massively popular.

Ignoring the other parts of the plot, this is an interesting basic argument: the songs of the Beatles, their music, is so good that it can be put it a different time period and with a solo singer-songwriter and they can create a stir. Is this true? What made the Beatles such a phenomena? A few of the popular theories that have been debated for nearly six decades:

  1. They came at the right time and right place. Rock music already existed (see Elvis) but the Beatles energized people in a different way. The broader cultural milieu was open to them in a new way: from Britain needed a cheeky group in a period of still trying to dig out of the aftermath of World War Two to Americans wanting a diversion from the Kennedy assassination to a postwar adolescent generation looking for heroes.
  2. The sum of the parts – some talent among the individual members of the Beatles – added up to something spectacular. This is a good analogy to what sociologists would say about social groups or social networks: these collectives can do things that individuals on their own cannot. The Beatles together, the combination of their skills and thoughts, made something magical.
  3. The Beatles made multiple advances in music, ranging from original songwriting to psychedelic sounds to innovations in the recording studio to excellent songs. They started with songs like “Please, Please Me” and “From Me To You” and made numerous changes along the way.
  4. The songs themselves are simply good. The combined songwriting talents of Lennon and McCartney plus the development of Harrison made music that has stood the test of time.

All together, few bands or musical acts have made music where such a film could be made. It is hard to imagine a world without the music of any number of major musical acts but the reach and influence and staying power of the Beatles is hard to match.