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 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.

Quick Review: The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

This documentary (written about earlier here) is a fascinating look at the ill-fated Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis but it also speaks more broadly to public housing in general in the United States. A few thoughts about the documentary:

1. The documentary tries to tell a comprehensive story about why Pruitt-Igoe failed. The argument is that is was not about bad residents or poor architectural design: the project was built as part of a system that is set up to fail where the government supported suburban growth after World War II, white flight out of cities like St. Louis, a flood of poorer residents to northern cities looking for jobs, urban business interests looking to clear slums and open up development opportunities, a shift away from an urban industrial economy, and issues of race and segregation throughout. In other words, this is a complex issue and simply eliminating public housing or building better developments don’t effectively address all of the relevant concerns.

2. This contains a great mix of archival photos, video clips, and interviews with former residents. I wish more of these images of cities and public housing from the 1950s and 1960s were readily available.

3. There is an interesting section on control over the residents of the projects. For example, the documentary says men were not allowed to live in the projects in the early days for women with children to get aid money. Therefore, a new generation of children in the projects lived without fathers and male figures. Additionally, early residents were not allowed to have television sets.

4. The documentary effectively shows the hope present at the beginning of such projects. For many of the early residents, this was a step up from tenements. These projects were not failures from day one. The repeated pictures of the projects with the gleaming St. Louis Arch in the distance drives this point home. Additionally, one resident repeatedly tells of good moments in her life while living as a kid in the projects.

5. While the film is directly about St. Louis, this is a story repeated in numerous other American big cities. The Chicago story doesn’t seem too different: the projects were built on land civic and business leaders chose, the projects were a step up from tenement living, and within several years the projects became incredibly segregated, rundown, and the social problems began to spiral out of control.

6. There is one issue that the film doesn’t tackle: why exactly did this one project get torn down and not notorious projects in St. Louis and other cities? Why, for example, did it take until the 1990s and the HUD’s HOPE VI program for projects like the Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini-Green (the last building demolished just last year) to be demolished? There is clearly more to the story here in St. Louis as well as elsewhere: as the projects experienced more problems, why did it take decades to do something about it? (I’m not suggesting here that demolishing the projects was necessarily the best way to go. As the film briefly asks, what happened to all of those people who left?)

In the end, this would be a great film to show in class to discuss public housing and related issues of urban development, race and class, and public policy.

Quick Review: Living in the Material World (film)

I recently watched the Martin Scorsese film about George Harrison’s life titled Living in the Material World. Here are a few observations and thoughts about the roughly 3 hour documentary:

1. I think this would interest a lot of Beatles fans. Indeed, 1/3rd of the film is about the Beatles and the rest of the film has a lot of references to the group and other band members. I was actually surprised by the big emphasis on the group as well as the music of Lennon and McCartney. Both Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr gave recent interviews for the film.

2. The other 2/3rd of the film deals with Harrison’s career after the Beatles. The best sections include more rare concert and home movies footage to show George in his element. I wish the film used more of the home movies as they would help us get further insights beyond the rock star image.

2a. There is a lot in this section about Harrison’s spirituality. Beyond the music, I think this film wants us to know how important spirituality was to Harrison and how he tried to follow spiritual principles. This reminded me that both John Lennon and George Harrison were both openly spiritual seekers throughout their adult lives.  From what I’ve read and seen about both of them, I’m not sure either really found what they were looking for.

2b. Another big portion of the solo career section deals with the #1 album All Things Have To Pass Away. This makes some sense: this 1970 release showed that Harrison really was a songwriter and musician in his own right. While the Beatles were breaking apart in the late 1960s, Harrison was stockpiling songs. At the same time, the film downplays Harrison’s subsequent releases. They may not have been as good but Harrison made music for three more decades.

3. The music all sounds really good. While Harrison doesn’t have the big back catalog of music that other music legends have, many of his songs still sound fresh and relevant.

Overall, I’m not quite sure what to make of this film. One goal seems to be to try cement Harrison’s musical and spiritual legacy. However, the movie glosses over some rougher patches (such as Eric Clapton falling in love with Harrison’s then-wife) and doesn’t explicitly try to assess where Harrison fits within the field of rock music. Should we see Harrison more of a spiritual seeker than a true music legend? How much did Harrison really do on his own outside the Beatles? These questions aren’t fully answered but there is enough interesting footage here to keep fans interested.

(Of the 18 reviews counted by, 16 were positive. Another note: this site says the film is 1 hr, 34 minutes so I’m not quite sure what the critics saw.)

New documentary “Mansome” look at the rise of metrosexuals

A new documentary titled Mansome (see the trailer here – and features Morgan Spurlock, Will Arnett, and Jason Bateman) examines the “metrosexual revolution” in the United States:

“I don’t highlight my hair, I’ve still got a pair,” [Brad] Paisley sings in his hit, “I’m Still a Guy.”

But a new documentary called “Mansome” finds that more men care about what they look like. And for them, getting pampered the way women have for so long doesn’t mean being any less of a man…

Many men are throwing out the rigid definition of masculinity — “avoiding femininity, emotional restriction, avoiding of intimacy, pursuit of achievement and status, self-reliance, strength and aggression, and homophobia, ” Latham wrote in his 2011 Psychology Today article, “Where Did all the Metrosexuals Go?”

“There is a growing body of research showing that men are rejecting these narrow gender stereotypes and exploring different ways of expressing what it means to them to be a man,” said Latham. “One way of doing this is men’s increased focus on personal appearance.”

There could be a pretty interesting story here. I would be interested in seeing how the documentary ties in marketing and advertising to these changes. Isn’t Spurlock’s ironic moneymaking ability tied to discussing/exploiting particular social issues for marketing purposes – look no further than his documentary The Greatest Story Ever Sold. I’ve been particularly amused by the Dove commercials about “manhide.” Imagine marketers salivating at the idea of selling products to a whole other gender.

At the same time, this sort of documentary seems like it could end up being hokey and only travel in gross stereotypes rather than really tackle the profound gender issues in our society in recent decades. Spurlock, Arnett, and Bateman all have the potential to be mawkish rather than profound…so perhaps I’ll have to check out this film and report back. Thus far, the reviews at are not good: only 24% fresh.

How does this “metrosexual revolution” fit with arguments that males are encouraged to be violent in our society through means like movies and video games? Has the “gentler male” view won out?

Trailer for documentary about tiny houses: “Tiny – A Story About Living Small”

A supporter of tiny houses has put together a new documentary titled “Tiny – A Story About Living Small.” Read a little bit about the personal experiences behind the film and see the trailer here.

Not Christopher Smith, 30, and his girlfriend Merete Mueller who are building the tiny home of their dreams. 

The couple’s house, set in the mountains of Fairplay, Colorado, is ‘about 125 square feet’ and ’19 feet long wall to wall’…

Apparently a ‘good home’ simply consists of a sitting area, kitchen, bathroom and a queen-size bedroom (set in a vaulted ceiling that makes space for a loft). 

‘The interior looks a lot bigger than the exterior,’ Miss Mueller told ABC News.

Not only is their new home economical in space, it’s also energy efficient and runs on solar power and has a composting toilet…

Mr Smith was so inspired by the miniature buildings he visited that he decided to make a documentary about the project called Tiny – A Story About Living Small.

Visit the official website for the documentary here. I’ll have to get my hands on this when it is released.