Suburban schools (“institutions that are supposed to be the best”) and race (“the deeper systematic issues of race in this country”)

The new documentary America To Me looks at race in a well-funded suburban high school in the Chicago area:

“When you look at institutions that are supposed to be the best, and look at where they fail, you get a deeper understanding of where we’re failing as a whole, everywhere,” James said in a telephone interview.

James and three segment directors spent the 2015-16 academic year embedded inside the high school to follow 12 students in what appears to be a challenging, model educational environment for a highly diverse student body…

“What I hope people take away is a much more complete and full understanding of some of the deeper systematic issues of race in this country,” James said, “even in liberal communities like Oak Park. Even in well-funded school systems like Oak Park’s.”…

“Just because you live in suburban America,” James said, “if you’re black or biracial, it doesn’t mean everything’s cool.”

The setup is a good one: the suburbs are supposed to the places where the residents who live there can together share in amenities like nice single-family homes and local institutions, including schools, that help their children get ahead. If you live in the suburbs, many might assume you have a pretty good life.

But, of course, race and ethnicity matters in the suburbs as well. Historically and today, suburbs can work to exclude certain kinds of residents, often along race and class lines. Suburbs can have some of the same residential segregation issues as big cities. This means that students may be near each other in schools but may not necessarily live near each other or share other settings. Suburban poverty is up in recent decades. All together, just because someone lives in the suburbs does not guarantee a good job or a white middle-class lifestyle.

Regardless of where the documentary ends up at the end, perhaps it can help show what the suburbs of today often look like. The image of white, postwar suburban homes may match a few communities but many others are more diverse and face occasional or more persistent issues.

Quick Review: One Big Home

A documentary involving McMansions on Martha’s Vineyard I blogged about earlierOne Big Home – has now been released. Here are some thoughts I had after reviewing the film:

  1. This is an engaging story. The promotional material says it was filmed over 12 years yet the time goes quickly as it puts together interviews, public meeting footage, and striking images of both natural and man-made settings from Martha’s Vineyard.
  2. The documentary does a nice job representing multiple points of view. While the filmmaker clearly dislikes these trophy homes – though there is a point where his public activism regarding the issue wavers after the birth of his first child – the film presents local workers, ranging from carpenters to architects to builders, and residents defending property rights and expressing concern about a community imposing regulations on construction.
  3. The filmmaker’s personal story also enriches the film. As he and his soon to be wife learn they are expecting a child, they see a need for more space and a more permanent home. They employ an architect and end up constructing a home around 2,500-3,000 square feet (depending on whether the lofts are used). The film displays some of his own personal quandaries regarding how much space they really need and whether it is worth it to have upgrades in the home. This leads to a basic question: when Americans do feel they need more space, how much space should they be able to acquire?
  4. If there are two parts of the film that could use a little expansion or more explanation, here is what I would vote for.
    1. At the end, the community debates a cap on the square footage for new homes. This is an important part of the entire process yet it goes by pretty quickly in the documentary. It feels like an epilogue when there is a lot of process that might be interesting to show. Ultimately, how exactly did the public conversation develop to lead to an overwhelming majority in the end? What were some of the successful and less successful steps in putting this cap in place?
    2. We see a lot about Chilmark but hear very little about the rest of Martha’s Vineyard. How does this small community interact with the other doings on the island? From the footage, this part of the island is more rural but there are likely some interesting comparisons to be made.

This is a well put together documentary that asks questions facing many American communities: what should be done regarding the construction of large homes? The future of many American communities and the residents affected therein will be affected by these choices.

Biggest European youth survey to conclude with two documentaries

Several researchers are embarking on what they say will be the biggest survey of young adults in Europe but what the results will lead to is different:

RTÉ is seeking 18-34-year-olds to take part in a pan-European online survey that it hopes will produce the “most comprehensive sociological study” of the age group ever presented…

Processing the data will involve a three pronged approach. There will be a quantitative side based on the questionnaire results, a qualitative approach based on documentary videos of groups of people and individuals filling out the survey, and a comparative approach looking at how the answers compare with other European societies…

“We’re ultimately going to produce two one-hour documentaries later this year, which will be the sociological analysis of the survey, and which we hope will provide a very valuable window into contemporary Ireland today.

If there is so much good data to be collected here, the choice to conclude with a documentary is an interesting one. On one hand, the typical sociology approach would be to publish at least a journal article if not a book. On the other hand, if the researchers are trying to reach a broader audience, a documentary that is widely available might get a lot more attention. At least in the United States, documentaries might be seen as nice efforts at public sociology but they are unlikely to win many points toward good research (perhaps even if they are used regularly in sociology courses).

Why doesn’t the American Sociological Association have an arm that puts together documentaries based on sociological work? Or, is there some money to be made here for a production company to regularly put out sociological material? Imagine Gang Leader For a Day or Unequal Childhoods as an 80 minute documentary.

The “intensification of nervous stimulation” in documentaries of the cities of China and Taiwan

Two new documentaries suggest the rapid urbanization of Chinese and Taiwanese cities may not be orderly:

Armed with newly available digital video equipment, independent documentarians have given Chinese filmmaking a genuine vanguard. “Disorder” is among the most disjunctive and disturbing of recent exposés. The movie’s first image shows a broken water main gushing like Old Faithful in the midst of a busy thoroughfare. The second shot frames a pedestrian beneath a car, the apparent victim of a traffic accident. Later he is seen — still lying in the street — bargaining for a payoff with the driver who struck him…

For 58 minutes, “Disorder” bombards the viewer with interwoven bulletins, presented without comment. Many are grotesque human-interest stories: Shops peddle illegal bear paws; escaped pigs roam the highway; a cockroach emerges from a bowl of noodles. One man brandishes what looks like a live crocodile, another washes himself in a polluted tributary of the Pearl River. Other sequences are more violent recordings of arguments and breakdowns. Civilians brawl with the police, and the movie ends with a remarkable sequence of cops beating a man nearly to death…

Most scenes are a single shot, without causal links to what precedes or may follow. Chronology is obscure; so is motivation. “Stray Dogs” won the grand jury prize at the 2013 Venice Film Festival, and given its radical near-absence of narrative, the movie has been a polarizing work. Some critics, including Stephen Holden, who reviewed “Stray Dogs” in The New York Times when it opened here last September, see it as akin to a gallery film installation. Others have noted that Mr. Tsai’s emphasis on activities shown in real time is suggestive of performance art…

Like other films by Mr. Tsai, it has a postapocalyptic feel. Torrential rain is virtually constant, and Taipei feels depopulated — a place where events, mostly concerning food and shelter, may be staged in situ. The aesthetic tension between Mr. Tsai’s beautifully lit and framed compositions and the desolation of his characters’ lives is disconcerting. They do not live in the metropolis so much as haunt its ruins.

The reviewer links the films to the thoughts of Georg Simmel in “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” Simmel argued the individual would be overwhelmed in the modern city since there are too many things going on. To fight back, the individual would need to adopt a blase attitude. Perhaps, then, we can see these documentaries as attempts to gain some distance from the chaos of the urbanizing megacity. At the same time, modern film seems particularly well-suited to hinting at Simmel’s predictions given the prominence and frequent use of rapid cuts or non-traditional narratives (i.e., non-linear).

Of course, documentaries don’t have to be made this way. Indeed, it would be interesting to contrast these two with films that show the mundane and sequential features of modern life in a big city: going places, working low-skill and/or repetitive jobs, shopping or searching for necessities, child care, sleeping. Alas, these might not lend themselves as well to screens that want pretty rapid takes on what life looks like.

Court says director of “The Queen of Versailles” did not defame film’s subject

The director of an interesting film about the largest single-family home in the United States was cleared of defamation charges in court:

Lauren Greenfield received a best director nod at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival for her documentary, “The Queen of Versailles.” Now, two years later, she has another victory to her credit, which may ultimately prove more important to her career.

An arbitrator at the Independent Film and Television Alliance ruled that her movie about David and Jackie Siegel was not defamatory. This seems to end Siegel’s effort to punish Greenfield for her film, which centered in large measure on the family’s profligate ways — building a 90,000 square-foot mansion (to replace the 26,000 square-foot home they lived in); spending $1 million a year on clothing, and having a household staff of 19…

Siegel charged the film defamed him and his company. His claims were dismissed by a federal court judge, which is how the case ended up in arbitration.

“Having viewed the supposedly egregious portions of the Motion Picture numerous times, [the Arbitrator] simply does not find that any of the content of the Motion Picture was false,” the arbitrator, Roy Rifkin, ruled.

An unflattering but true story can still be told. But, if the story was not going to be positive, why participate in the first place or go through the whole process after things had turned sour? As I note in my quick review of the film, the story is less about the big house and more about what happens when someone loses lots of money and disconnects from his family. Also see a September 2013 update on the fate of the home.

New documentary shows China’s Internet addiction camps

A new documentary goes inside Internet addiction facilities inside China:

In a documentary called Web Junkies, filmmakers Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia go behind the doors at the Daxong Camp in Beijing – one of China’s first of many rehab correctional facilities.

The film captures the expressionless faces of the teens, males mostly, dressed in camo uniform attending the three-to-four month “treatment”, which involves military physical training, medication, therapy sessions and controlled diet in order to reconnect them with society.

The addicts, who mostly are brought in against their will by their parents, stay in barren and bleak cells at night, completely cut off from electronics. Except when they are wired up to machines so psychologists can observe their brain activity. Then, during the day, they sit like specimens in front of a panel of doctors in white coats as they try to reprogram their subject…

The documentary, which is being shown at the Sundance film festival, serves to highlight the psychological and physiological effects of the internet, but also calls into question whether parents are simply using this “disorder” to blame all manner of social issues and behavioural issues.

See the documentary’s website, including a clip from the film, here.

There are several interesting factors at work here:

1. Defining internet addiction itself.

2. Discussion of how to best treat Internet addiction.

3. How this treatment occurs in a country, China, that some Americans view as authoritarian.

Perhaps it would be worthwhile for some people who know much more about this topic to see this documentary, read about what is going on in China to address Internet addiction, and then compare it to treatment options here in the United States.

Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s problems include living in a “American-style suburban McMansion”?

The mayor of Toronto is getting all kinds of attention – and at least one person thinks one of his problems is “American-style suburban McMansion”:

Also from the Gawkerverse: this Ken Layne piece about Rob Ford’s essential un-Canadianness, which wrongly asserts that “when he sits around his American-style suburban McMansion, he literally sits around his American-style suburban McMansion.” Rob Ford’s house is suburban, but it’s actually a pretty modest place.

Americans are known for their big houses. It shouldn’t be a surprise that this is something Canadians pick up on since most Canadians live quite close to the U.S.-Canada border. Indeed, there are plenty of stories regarding McMansions in the Chicago metropolitan region and Chicago and Toronto are often compared to each other. But, which part of the insinuation is worse:

1. That a Canadian acts like an American?

2. That owning a McMansion is a bad thing anyway (whether one lives in Canada, the United States, Australia, and other places with McMansions)?

3. That sprawl/suburbs are bad?

This also reminds me of the documentary Radiant City that involves Canadian suburbanites outside of Calgary but utilizes a number of American opponents to McMansions and seems to be most interested in tackling American-style sprawl. A side note: it is a film that includes a mock musical about mowing lawns.

New eight-part CNN documentary series on Chicagoland

CNN ordered a new series directed by Robert Redford that looks at Chicago:

In Chicagoland, executive producers Robert Redford and Laura Michalchyshyn team with Brick City filmmakers Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin in an eight-part series about “a city generating change and innovation in social policy, education, and public safety – to meet national and local challenges.”

According to CNN’s release, Chicagoland will capture “the riveting, real-life drama of a city looking to unite at this critical moment in the city’s history. In the aftermath of a countrywide economic collapse, Chicago faces the challenges of improving its public education system, and neighborhood and youth safety. Can the city’s leaders, communities, and residents come together in ways that expand opportunities and allow aspirations to be realized?”

In a statement, Redford praised Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel: “The vibrant culture and opportunities inherent in this 21st century, world-class city run alongside profound daily challenges. Much of it falls on the shoulders of its tough, visionary mayor, his team and people doing heroic work in neighborhoods throughout the city. Chicago has always had a rhythm all its own. It’s a city that wears its heart on its sleeve and I am honored to be a part of telling this story.”

“Chicago is the quintessential American city and where it goes tells us a lot about where our country is going,” added series producer Levin.

Some quick thoughts:

1. Generally, the term “Chicagoland” is used to refer to the entire metropolitan region of over 9 million people, not just the city of Chicago. But, it sounds like the series is primarily about the city. It would be interesting if there was some focus on the region as a whole…

2. The last quote from the producer fits with a common image of Chicago: Chicago is a truly American city with the possible strengths and weaknesses that come as being part of the United States as well as being located more in the center of the country. Chicago has had this image for at least a century now and it sounds like the documentary will continue this idea.

3. I wonder how laudatory or critical the documentary will be. How much criticism or praise will local politicians receive? How much of the documentary will talk about positive aspects of the city/region versus the present challenges?

4. Connected to #3, will the documentary be more like the recent biting book review in the New York Times or sounds more like Chicago boosters?

Quick Review: The Queen of Versailles

I recently watched the 2012 documentary The Queen of Versailles which details the quest of David and Jacqueline Siegel to built the largest house in the United States. My thoughts on the film:

1. I’ll be honest: I’m disappointed more of the movie isn’t about the house. And, I hope the house is completed just to see what an 85,000 square foot house looks like.

2. The film ends up being a lot more about what happens when a wealthy person/family suddenly sees that money disappears. This is an interesting story in itself. How do they adjust? How much of their behavior really changes? Even if they say they can readjust to a lower income, which is closer to what they grew up with, it appears this is is a really hard process. This reminds me of recent research suggesting people feel losses more strongly compared to equal gains.

3. Jackie is a somewhat sympathetic character but David Siegel is the one to watch here. His mood gets darker and darker as his financial prospects dim. I felt sorry for him; he freely admits at several points that he can’t separate his family and work and it shows in how he lives. Is this what trying to hold on to money looks like? If so, it doesn’t look attractive at all.

4. The film does address at various points who is responsible for the situation the Siegels are in: banks who made money easily available or people who got addicted to this easy money? But, the film doesn’t go far enough in trying to resolve this. It would be interesting to see banks or financial institutions interviewed on this particular case, or even more broadly, to get their side. We see the personal fallout of the problem as the Siegel family tries to recover but the film only hints at the bigger picture.

While this is an interesting story, I wonder: if the outlandishly large house was not involved, how different is this from a number of reality shows or films about wealthy people? In the end, I do think the family is pretty honest about the changes they are experiencing and perhaps it is this authenticity that sets this documentary apart.

(Note: critics like the film. On RottenTomatoes, 98 out of 103 reviews were fresh.)

“The Queen of Versailles” is not about a McMansion

More reviews are coming out of the new documentary The Queen of Versailles (and critics are liking it according to RottenTomatoes.com) but I would still argue with some of the depictions of the 90,000 square foot house at the center of the film. Here is an example: the Jewish Daily Forward has a headline titled “The Biggest McMansion of Them All.” I’ve argued this before: a 90,000 square foot home is far, far beyond McMansion territory. This is the land of the ultra-rich. Take this information from the same Jewish Daily Forward story:

David Siegel, 76, is the billionaire founder of Westgate Resorts, which he claims is “the largest privately owned time-share company in the world.” Jackie, 31 years his junior, is David’s surgically enhanced wife, and mother to seven of his 13 children. They live in a 26,000-square-foot home in Orlando, Fla., with a household staff of 19. They believe the house is too small…

All went well until the credit crunch of 2008. The Siegels’ problems weren’t caused by the house — though it did become a burden. Rather, David’s company ran into trouble as lending dried up. Typically, Westgate customers borrowed money from the company to pay for their vacation time-shares. The company, in turn, borrowed from the banks at lower interest rates. When the banks stopped lending, the bottom fell out.

Added to that difficulty was the burden of the PH Towers Westgate, a new 52-story high-rise luxury resort in Las Vegas, which drained Siegel’s corporate resources as well as $400 million of his own money. Finally, in November of 2011, Siegel was forced to sell…

Originally, the project was going to be a look at how the wealthy live and, of course, at the Siegel’s house-in-progress. It was very much in line with Greenfield’s previous work as a documentarian and photographer.

I’m looking forward to seeing this film at some point but it is difficult to draw conclusions about McMansions and American excess from one ultra-wealthy couple. Thus far, it sounds like reviewers and others see this film as a metaphor for the American economic crisis of the last five years or so and I’m not sure you can stretch it that far. As a view into the life of the elite, it may be fascinating but it would be difficult to describe this as a “typical” experience that explains the logic behind all McMansions and excessive consumption.