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 RottenTomatoes.com, 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 RottenTomatoes.com 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.

New documentary: The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

A new documentary about urban life that was released yesterday may just be worth seeing: The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. The film has been reviewed by a number of outlets (including a short review in the New York Times) but here is a longer description in Architectural Record:

Accepted wisdom will have us believe St. Louis’ infamous Pruitt-Igoe public housing development was destined for failure. Designed by George Hellmuth and World Trade Center architect Minoru Yamasaki (of Leinweber, Yamasaki & Hellmuth), the 33-building complex opened in 1954, its Modernist towers touted as a remedy to overcrowding in the city’s tenements. Rising crime, neglected facilities, and fleeing tenants led to its demolition—in a spectacular series of implosions—less than two decades later. In the popular narrative, bad public policy, bad architecture, and bad people doomed Pruitt-Igoe, and it became an emblem of failed social welfare projects across the country. But director Chad Freidrichs challenges that convenient and oversimplified assessment in his documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, opening in limited release January 20.

He makes a compelling case. Drawing heavily on archival footage, raw data, and historical reanalysis, the film reorients Pruitt-Igoe as the victim of institutional racism and post-war population changes in industrial cities, among other issues far more complex than poor people not appreciating nice things. But while Freidrichs opens a new vein for discussing Pruitt-Igoe, he doesn’t totally dispel the titular myth about it. There’s a passing mention of the project’s failure being one of Modernist planning, that such developments “created a breeding ground for isolation, vandalism, and crime.” And of course there’s an invocation of Charles Jencks’ famous declaration that the death of Pruitt-Igoe was “the death of Modernism.” But Freidrichs never adequately addresses Pruitt-Igoe’s place in the history of urban design.

But even if The Pruitt-Igoe Myth falls short of its stated goal, it’s nevertheless exceptional. In an important act of preservation, Freidrichs captures the voices and memories of five former Pruitt-Igoe residents. They tell stories of jubilation when they’re assigned an 11th floor apartment (their “poorman’s penthouse”) and when they see rows upon rows of windows bejeweled with Christmas lights. They share horrific tales of siblings murdered and living in constant fear of who lurks in the shadows. They remember how the welfare office told them they couldn’t have a phone or a television, and how their husbands and fathers weren’t allowed to live with them.

Nearly 40 years after its destruction, the people interviewed for the film continue to wrestle with Pruitt-Igoe’s legacy and its place in their lives. They love it and hate it, but don’t resent it. Despite the piles of trash, mountains of drugs, and preponderance of crime, this was their home. For some, it was their first proper dwelling. They cared deeply about Pruitt-Igoe and still do, even in its current form—a largely overgrown lot roved by feral dogs. Pruitt-Igoe is fundamentally a part of them, and by sharing their memories they obliterate the part of the myth that says it was undone by its people.

Something that just came to mind while reading a few reviews: why was Pruitt-Igoe blwn up so quickly while other notorious housing projects, like several in Chicago, lasted three decades longer? There has to be some interesting local twists to this story.

In an era where high-rise public housing projects are rare if not all gone because of the Hope VI program, it will be interesting to see how these housing complexes are preserved in American history. Will they simply be seen as failures? What will the lessons be?

Documentary about sociologist Zygmunt Bauman

Based on a few stories in the last few days, I have again realized that sociology outside the United States may be quite different. While there is a dance performance in Quebec celebrating the life of a political scientist and sociologist, there is a new Polish documentary examining the life of sociologist Zygmunt Bauman:

“Love Europe World by Zygmunt Bauman”, a film about the world famous Polish-Jewish philosopher and sociologist had its premiere last week.

The documentary was commissioned by the National Audiovisual Institute as a part of the Cultural Program of the Polish EU Presidency in 2011 and directed by Krzysztof Rz?czy?ski.

In the four-parts film (Culture, Europe, The World, and Himself), Bauman reflects upon issues that are central to his work as a sociologist: culture and the times, in which we live.

“The ultimate result of the blossoming of culture, which we have undoubtedly witnessed in the passing years, is a feeling of having gone astray”, says Bauman in the film.

I imagine that European sociologists as public intellectuals might just be considered normal material for documentaries. People like Bauman, Giddens, and Habermas have been quite influential.

What if someone wanted to make a series on the lives of American sociologists? Think of the possibilities: George Herbert Mead, Talcott Parsons, Robert Merton, Peter Berger, Robert Bellah, Robert Wuthnow, William Julius Wilson, and more. (I know I’m leaving a lot of big names out here.) Are there particularly notable paths sociologists took to reach the top of the discipline? Even so, perhaps there is a better question to consider before thinking too much about this: would anyone ever watch these?

Quick Review: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

I recently viewed the latest (April 2011 release) Morgan Spurlock film The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. Here are a few thoughts about this film which could be a nice conversation starter for a number of sociology courses.

1. If you know of Morgan Spurlock and his “formula” (Supersize Me, the TV show 30 Days), you won’t be surprised by how this film goes as Spurlock tries to finance his documentary about product placement (“brand integration”) by having corporations pay to sponsor it. Even though the process may not be a surprise, the movie still feels fresh in a way that many documentaries can’t match.

2. At the most basic level, this film is about raising awareness regarding advertising. It treads some familiar ground about how companies are really selling images or aspirations and how Americans are bombarded with these ideas. While Spurlock doesn’t offer much of a solution at the end (go out into nature for a little?), he certainly is drawing attention to an issue worth paying attention to.

3. Here are a few of the more intriguing sociological insights I picked out of the film:

3a. Spurlock wants to pull back the curtain on product placement and marketing but interestingly, the big companies don’t want to participate. In the end, he catches the attention (and money) of mostly smaller/challenger brands who don’t have the big marketing budgets. From a Marxist perspective, we could suggest that the big companies want to continue to “hoodwink” consumers while the challengers are really interested in doing anything to get product exposure, even exposing their marketing tactics.

3b. Spurlock spends some time in Sao Paulo, Brazil, a city that recently banned outdoor advertising. The mayor and residents talk about how this helps eliminate “visual clutter.” Could we imagine this ever happening in an American city? How many of our famous spaces, like Times Square or Las Vegas, would no longer be famous spaces if advertising was not present?

3c. One marketer suggests Spurlock could play off religious imagery, perhaps portraying himself at the Last Supper surrounded by a bunch of companies who want to use him or to show Spurlock carrying a cross covered in advertising stickers (like a stock car in NASCAR). While the marketer suggests this might be considered blasphemous, it would also get a lot of attention. Later in the film, another insider says to Spurlock regarding marketing his film that “the path of salvation” is to “Sell! Sell! Sell!” in America. What does this commentary suggest about the role of religion in marketing and selling “Christian products”?

4. Spurlock leaves us in a tough spot: can we do marketing with integrity? Can one really “buy in” without “selling out”? The answer is unclear but Spurlock provides us an entertaining venue for starting to think about answers to these questions.

(The movie received fairly good reviews from critics: it is 71% fresh, 77 out of 109 reviews were fresh, on RottenTomatoes.com.)

Documenting fair use

Documentary.org has a wonderful write-up by Tamsin Rawady and Alex Buono about fair use in the documentary film setting.  As the writers/producers of Bigger Stronger Faster, a documentary about pop cultural influences driving performance-enhancing drug use, they grappled with how to tell their story legally:

The first problem we encountered is that it seemed like Fair Use was sort of an urban legend: Does it really exist? Can you really use archival clips without licensing them? And does anyone understand how this all works?

Fortunately, Rawady and Buono retained excellent legal counsel who were able to walk them through the issues and get them a highly defensible final cut, though even that wasn’t easy:

After the film has been released, expect to get calls from copyright holders upset about your use of their footage. Most copyright holders have never heard of Fair Use, and you should allow some money in your budget to have your attorney call and talk through the evidence you have. If you have been responsible in your Fair Use decisions, most complaints will only require one phone call from your attorney to make them go away. We encountered a handful of copyright holders from some very large corporations who were not pleased that their clips had been used in our film, but we were well prepared by our attorneys and had no problem avoiding any legal claims. [emphasis added]

I’m certainly happy that it worked out better for Bigger Faster Stronger than it did for Slaying the Dragon:  Reloaded.  Rawady and Buono’s story reminds us that, in law as in life, (1) an ounce of prevention is often worth a pound of cure and (2) the best (fair use) defense is a good (proactive) offense.

Further resources and reading:

The fair use dragon

Justin Levine over at Against Monopoly points us to a controversy at the recent San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival and reminds us that many content owners believe that fair use in U.S. copyright law is about as real as a mythical fire-breathing creature.

John Diaz of the San Francisco Chronicle explains:

"Slaying the Dragon: Reloaded," a compelling new documentary that critiques the portrayal of Asian women in U.S. visual media, has drawn protests from an unlikely quarter. It wasn’t from Hollywood, which was deservedly scoured for its depiction of Asian women in films from "Rush Hour 2" to "Sex and the City." It wasn’t from conservative commentators claiming political correctness run amok.

Instead, the objection to the documentary by Elaine Kim, a UC Berkeley professor of Asian American studies, emerged from six Asian American filmmakers just before its premiere last week at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. Their complaint: that she used clips of their work without seeking their permission.

Never mind that fair use is written into the copyright statute and explicitly allows for “criticism” and “comment” and “scholarship.”  Never mind that Kim’s documentary seems to fall well within the guidelines laid out by the Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use – and that four separate companies write errors-and-omissions insurance for filmmakers based on the Statement guidelines.

No, the owners of films being criticized by Kim want to get paid:

The documentary addresses images of Asian American women in film, and while that is a worthy subject for a documentary and we respect Ms. Kim’s skills, as filmmakers, we do not consider this "fair use." Every filmmaker knows that he or she has to ask permission before using any intellectual property not belonging to him/her.

Using a clip of our films for review or promotional purposes is standard; however, using it in a documentary to illustrate that filmmaker’s point of view is a creative choice by the documentarian and therefore not subject to fair use.…We feel that Ms. Kim should either license our film footage properly for use in her documentary or remove it before the documentary’s world premiere at the upcoming San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.

The Chronicle reporter was shocked, though readers of this blog shouldn’t be (unfortunately):

For me, as a journalist and champion of free expression, the upshot seemed clear: You cannot give the targets of social commentary the ability to veto it. Does anyone think for a second that the copyright holders of "Rush Hour 2" [which includes a scene where Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan are presented with a buffet of scantily clad Asian women] would consent to allow scenes of that movie to appear in Kim’s documentary at any price?

Kim did end up screening the movie at the festival, but

Kim deleted the clip from "The People I’ve Slept With."

"We did not remove the clip because we were concerned it was not fair use," Kim emphasized in an e-mail. "We removed it because we do not have the time or resources to fight against a filmmaker that personally attacked us and was being unreasonable."

Given the brutal economic and personal realities of litigation, Kim probably made the “right” choice.  Even if she found lawyers to represent her for free, fighting this in court would probably consume a large portion of her personal time and energy for years.  I certainly don’t blame her for her apparently rational choice.

Nevertheless, let us be clear:  this is what happens when copyright law is written to give one side (i.e., copyright owners) sweepingly clear rights but the other side (i.e., fair users) only an amorphous defense.  You don’t get copyright as “an engine of free expression”, as the Supreme Court continues to think.  You get censorship by people who think that fair use is a fairy tale.

Quick Review: Catfish

Perhaps we could consider the movie Catfish a companion to the more publicized film The Social Network (reviews from Brian here, Joel Sage here): both films consider the effects that Facebook and other digital technologies have on our world. But while The Social Network was a stylized retelling of the founding of Facebook, Catfish covers the lives of more ordinary people as they use these technologies to search for love. Here are a few thoughts about this film:

1. The story revolves a guy, Nev, from New York and a girl from Michigan, Megan, who build a relationship built around a Facebook friendship, IM chats, text messages, and phone calls. Both parties are looking for love though why they are doing this ends up being the plot twist of the film.

1a. I think what makes this film work is that Nev is an appealing character. Even though he hasn’t met Megan in the early stages of the film, he falls hard and ends up giggling and swooning like a teenager. But when things turn out to be more complicated than this, he still finds a way to make sense of it all.

2. More broadly, the film presents a question that many people wonder about: can two people really build a lasting relationship through Facebook?  While this is an interesting question, research on Facebook and SNS (social networking site) use suggests most younger people are not looking to meet new people online. Rather, they are reinforcing existing relationships or reestablishing past relationships. And this film deserves some credit: whereas a film like You’ve Got Mail suggests that email and other electronic communication work the same way as traditional dating (and the typical romantic comedy happy ending), this film introduces some complications.

3. The Social Network seems to suggest that technology helps keep us apart. (A side note: this seems to be an argument from the older generation talking about younger generations. One thing I wonder about The Social Network: was it so critically acclaimed because it fed stereotypes that older people have about younger people? How much did the characters in this film resonate with the lives of younger film-goers?) In that film, Zuckerberg founds Facebook in order to join the in-crowd, is being sued by two people after arguments related to developing community-building websites,  and at the end, he is shown still searching for a connection with a girl he lost years ago. Catfish seems to make an opposite argument: despite the imperfect people who try to connect online, the film suggests there is still some value in getting to know new people. When Nev’s love becomes complicated, he doesn’t just withdraw or call it quits – he tries to move forward while still getting to know Megan.

4. This film claims to be a documentary though there is disagreement about whether this is actually the case. Regardless of whether the film captures reality or is scripted, it is engaging. (The presentation seems similar in tone to Exit Through the Gift Shop, reviewed here.) Have we reached the point in films where the line between what is real and what is written doesn’t matter? And should we care or do we just want a good story?

Overall, this film seems more hopeful about the prospects of Facebook and other digital technology. With a documentary style and an engaging storyline, Catfish helps us to think again about whether people can truly get to know each other online.

(This film was generally liked by critics: it has a 81% fresh rating, 109 fresh out of 134 total reviews, at RottenTomatoes.com.)