Using Chicago skyscrapers as inspirations for spaceships

“Jupiter Ascending” may not be very good but some of the spaceships are based on Chicago architecture:

When Hull came to Chicago, the Wachowskis began peppering him with reference photographs of Chicago buildings, facades, landmarks, ornamental detail and infrastructure. “Of all the directors I have worked with, they are by far the most architecture-minded,” he said. “They wanted a very decorative vision for the ships, almost Louis XIV-like in places, existing alongside this other aesthetic, far more gothic and less feminine.”

Indeed, the Wachowskis, who started a small construction company and worked as carpenters before becoming filmmakers, wanted the two warring ships at the center of “Jupiter Ascending” to somewhat reflect Chicago itself. “I like how the great curling femininity of the Frank Gehry (Pritzker Pavilion) is juxtaposed against the weight of those harsh, more severe buildings on Michigan Avenue,” Lana said. “I liked that tension in Chicago, that something as elegant as a big river can curl through so many grandiose statements. When we were looking at the design of the ships, we kept exploring this, placing almost baroque, exuberant levels of detail on one end, while on the other, contrasting a rigorous, rational logic.”…

“But also I really love the top of the Carbide & Carbon Building (on Michigan Avenue),” Lana said. So its lighthouse peak informs the back of Titus’ ship, while the front is, well, a play on the flying buttresses that shape the top of the Tribune Tower. “But I often wasn’t flamboyant enough for the Wachowskis,” Hull said. So the gold-green design along the facade of the Carbide building is mirrored on the outside of the ship. And inside: The ceiling of the ship’s loading dock is reminiscent of the dense mosaics in the Chicago Cultural Center ceilings; the long, vaulted chapel is vaguely similar to the reading room of the Newberry Library. “Which was a sanctuary for me as a kid,” Lana said, “where I went when I cut school.”

Balem, played by Eddie Redmayne, is the imperialist, the severe, ominous bully. His ship, therefore, is gothic, less curvaceous than Titus’ ride. The front end, its T-shaped bow, has some inspiration in the terra-cotta faces that watch from the facade of the old Tree Studios building on Ontario Street. And there are hints of the former Midway Gardens entertainment venue in Hyde Park, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (torn down in 1929). “His ship is more of a towering, hard-looking, Albert Speer-ish brutalism,” Hull said, “but it would be too on the nose for his designs to just reflect that, to not suggest Balem wouldn’t want some ornamental embellishment to his world.” So, his boardroom has touches of the latticework beneath the Loop “L” tracks.

An interesting source of inspiration for objects – spaceships – that we might typically think are otherwordly or something completely different. Additionally, buildings are pretty static, even if they are involved in dynamic social settings, while spaceships have incredible mobility. But, as noted in this earlier post about The Hunger Games, it is difficult to make something completely new. Human creativity rarely involves completely innovative ideas that have never been expressed before but rather often involves taking existing forms and objects and doing new things with the mix. So, in trying to imagine the future, why not draw some on the past while also adding potential changes?

This is also a reminder that Chicago architecture is influential. If we do get to an age of large spacecraft, would Chicago still be a major inspiration? Could we have competing fleets based on different global cities?

Seeing 1940s Chicago in a lost promotional film

Chicago, the #7 global city today, looked quite different in the 1940s in long-lost promotional footage:

In contrast to typical city promotional films, this video offers glimpses of downtown spots like Buckingham Fountain along with the city’s manufacturing plants and meat-packing facilities. The footage also comes with all sorts of statistics and facts. For example, Michigan Boulevard (now Michigan Avenue) carried more than 55,000 automobiles on an average day.

Based on the credits, it appears the video was produced by the Chicago Board of Education, with an assist from United Airlines (for the aerial shots). The release date of the film has also been pinned to between 1945 and 1946. John Howatt, credited as the Business Manager of the Board in the video, was elected on January 8, 1945, and Johnnie Neblett, the narrator, died on September 15, 1946.

Altman writes that he thinks the video was meant to attract people or companies to Chicago, or perhaps as a resource in the classroom. But according to DNAInfo, a spokesman from the Chicago Board of Education said that staff haven’t been able to find any reference to the film in its archives.

A few quick thoughts on seeing this film:

1. The tall buildings are quite different. One, there aren’t as many. Yes, Chicago was dense but it was more due to low-rises. Two, they don’t have the shine that we have come to associate with skyscrapers and instead tend to be covered in stone or masonry and are marked by pollution. (Blame the International Style, which bloomed in Chicago.)

2. The focus on industry is interesting. Manufacturing would have made up more of the economy at the time (Chicago, like many Rust Belt cities, lost hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs in the late 20th century) while the emphasis today is more on finance and services.

3. Some of the footage of Lake Shore Drive seems quaint as it appears to sometimes have two lanes each direction without many barriers between each side or the paths and sidewalks nearby. This was the era before major highways as we know them which were not completed in the Chicago region until the mid 1950s.

4. What is missing and can be found in pretty much any major city? Like any growth machine which wants to promote high-quality growth, this film omits the lower-class areas of the city. Chicago at the time had numerous poor neighborhoods including the Black Belt on the South Side which was the only place where blacks could live. These areas somehow didn’t make it in…

5. I wonder at times how much the less-than-high-def footage influences our interpretations of the past. Chicago looks fairly inviting in this film – bustling, beautiful lakefront, lots of nice buildings – yet it all looks so grainy. We’ve reduced this look to a filter on our Instagram accounts but it is hard to find the HD images that might help us make an apples-to-apples comparison of scenes.

Quick Review: Stellet Licht/Silent Light

(This is a guest post written by Robert Brenneman, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont. His book Homies and Hermanos: God and Gangs in Central America (Oxford University Press) will be released in October.)

A well-regarded sociologist who studies Latin America and publishes regularly in the area of theory and qualitative methods recently recommended that I watch the film “Stellet Licht” / “Silent Light” (2007). The film takes an existential approach to explore the tension between morality and desire in a conservative community of Mennonites in rural Mexico. I had not heard of the film until David Smilde recommended it to me, and so I was delighted to see that Netflix has made it available by streaming. I had high hopes. Smilde shows the film to his students in social theory at the University of Georgia and I am always on the lookout for films that both inspire and instruct students. Alas, watching the film was a disappointment to me as a Mennonite and as a sociologist.

First, the good. Mexican film-maker Carlos Reygadas is both talented and gutsy. Both the decision to write a film about Mexican Mennonites and his insistence that the film not rush its characters or its story paid big dividends in the realm of cinematic beauty, if not at the box office. A New York Times reviewer rightly raves about the opening scene, which gives a powerful sense of both the visual and aural beauty that surrounds–no, engulfs–the Canadian Mennonites who moved to this region in the 1940s in search of religious freedom and the right to educate their children in non-state, German-speaking schools. Reygadas shows us some of the power and the glory of rural Mexico in this story of piety and pleasure. But unlike the rural Mexican “whiskey priest” in Graham Greene’s classic novel, Reygadas’s protagonist is neither compelling nor instructive. That is not a criticism of Cornelio Wall Fehr’s portrayal of Johan, the Mennonite father torn between his love for his family and his desire to be with his mistress Marianne. In fact, most of the actors carry out their roles with impressive ability and subtle grace. Opting to fill the major roles with Canadian Mennonites, not professional actors, was another bold move, and one that allowed Reygadas to film almost entirely in the same low German dialect spoken by the Mexican Mennonite communities themselves. Indeed, when the attention is on the actors, it’s easy to forget that the film was shot on-site in Chihuauhua, Mexico.

The problem here is not in the direction, which is unusually bold and beautiful, incorporating long, still shots and unconventional camerawork to patiently unfold the narrative, but rather with the story itself. Reygadas does not understand the community he has entered and wishes to narrate. I do not make this accusation lightly nor out of a suspicion that the director/writer had some sort of voyeuristic desire to expose or profit from a tightly-knit, little-understood community. In fact, I think Reygadas does the best he can to develop his characters as individuals. But ultimately, the story fails because the lives led by these individuals make little sense absent the backdrop of a tightly-knit community that holds to a particular religious narrative–one that derives ultimate meaning from submission to God and to the community of faith. Mennonites (whether in Mexico, Canada, or the United States) believe that their Christian faith cannot be lived out in solitude but relies upon active participation in a community that seeks to model Jesus’ non-violent love by living simply, non-violently, and without the status-judging of hierarchies of title or prestige. Of course, ideals do not easily translate to reality and so conservative Mennonites and their religious cousins, the Amish, have relied on explicit rules and strict measures of social control in order to enforce simplicity and “right living.” Sociologists like Peter Berger have pointed out the irony of a pacifist religious group that practices excommunication through shunning–one of the harshest penalties imaginable given the social world of those who grow up in such a community. But rule following and and punishment for violators must be understood through the lens of belief in a God that entrusts discipline to the community itself. Sociologically speaking, discipline ensures the future of a community with such high ideals. In some cases, it also protects the weak. Take Esther, Johan’s unlucky, even pitiable wife, whose suffering is only enhanced by her husband’s unbelievable commitment to honesty about his on-going affair. Such commitment is beyond belief not because no Mennonite could do such a thing, torn by a belief in truth-telling and a desire to experience love, but rather because no Mennonite community would allow it. Extra-marital affairs do happen, even in very conservative Mennonite communities, but when they do, the leadership of the community moves with exceeding swiftness to expose and discipline them. I once witnessed such discipline when I visited my grandmother’s church in Middlebury, Indiana. The disciplinary service actually replaced the sermon–this was serious business as far as the church was concerned. It was seen as an assault not just on a family but on the whole community. The service was videotaped and a copy was sent to the violator, who was not in attendance despite the multiple pleadings of the church leaders. I was told that the individual repented and later returned to his family.

The point is not that conservative Mennonite or Amish communities are idyllic or that “the ban” is not so onerous, but rather that strict piety and even its enforcement can have the effect of protecting not just communities but families and individuals. Specifically, the proscription of extra-marital affairs protects women from suffering in ignominy and silence of the way portrayed by Johan’s wife. Ethical misconduct of this magnitude would never stay put in a densely-networked Mennonite community. It has a way of getting round to the light of day. And when they do, their protagonists are not given Johan’s luxury of ponderous indecision at the expense of a tortured-but-submissive wife. Reygadas’s film, because it focuses only on individuals and never moves beyond the scope of the family, cannot hope to capture the sense of what it is like to grow up–or grow old–in a dense, strict religious community. The longish final scene of a funeral is a perfect example of the director’s myopic misunderstanding.* In the scene, Johan and his family is surrounded by a handful of resigned family members, shell-shocked but stoic in the midst of their tragedy. I have never heard of a tiny, sparsely-attended Mennonite or Amish funeral. They are actually very large social affairs, with tons of food and hundreds of guests. I once spent a weekend in the home of some elderly conservative Mennonites in Belize (an off-shoot of the Mexican group) who told me that they were spending much of their time going to the funerals of friends and family in Belize and Canada. Nor are conservative Mennonites heroes of emotional stoicism like Esther’s children, who gaze perplexedly at her coffin, almost in wonderment.

In short, I found Reygadas’s film disappointing and the story unconvincing because I saw little evidence in it of the network density that characterizes typical conservative Mennonite communities. That density can be oppressive for sure, but it does not leave individuals alone, in existential wasteland, in their suffering. Johan and Esther (not to mention Mistress Marianne) are adrift in this film. If I had to put it in sociological terms, I would say that the film lacks “understanding” of the Mennonite social world or what Weber called “Verstehen” and therefore fails to meet the criteria for good classroom film–film that helps students understand a social world that is distant from their own. I’m disappointed to report that I won’t be showing it to my students any time soon.

*I recognize that this scene is intended to recall a similar ending in the film Ordet by Carl Theodor Dreyer, so I won’t critique the bizarre nature of the conclusion in the scene. In any event, any film should stand on its own strengths.

Moving away from academic journals and toward “Performative Social Science”

Most sociologists aim to publish research in academic journals or books. One sociologist suggests a new venue for sharing research: creating fiction films.

Kip Jones hates PowerPoint presentations. He doesn’t care much for academic journals, either. An American-born sociologist, who teaches in the school of health and social care at Bournemouth University in England, Mr. Jones says that “the shame of research is that you spend a lot of money and the knowledge just disappears — or worse, ends up as an article in a scholarly journal.”

So when he was invited to participate in “The Gay and Pleasant Land” project — an investigation into the lives of older gay men and lesbians living in rural England and Wales — Mr. Jones decided that the best way to present the project’s findings to the public wasn’t by publishing the results or delivering a paper at a scholarly conference, but by making a short fiction film…

That’s what Mr. Jones is counting on. “Most of my own work is around developing a method — what’s known as Performative Social Science. I’ve worked with theater. I’ve worked with dancers,” he said. The idea is to combine serious scholarship and popular culture, using performance-based tools to present research outcomes.

Jones suggests that research is often forgotten and that is why he sought to make a film. This raises some questions:

1. Is a film more “permanent” than a research article or book? Without widespread distribution, I suspect the film is less permanent.

2. Is this really about reaching a bigger audience? Academics sometimes joke about how journal articles might reach a few hundred people in the world who care. A film could reach more people but it would need effective distribution or a number of showings for this to happen. This also requires work and how many academic films are actually able to reach a broad audience?

3. Can a film acceptably convey research results compared to a more data-driven paper? Both data-driven work and films need to tell a story and/or make an argument but they are different venues.

In the end, I don’t think we will have a sudden rush to make such films as opposed to writing more academic work. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more established researchers create films and documentaries to supplement their work. (See Mitchell Duneier’s Sidewalk disc which included a documentary.) Such films could reach a broader and younger audience, i.e., putting it in the Youtube world of today’s college students.

(Another note: can you find many academics who would actually defend the use of Powerpoint? It seems like an odd way to begin the story.)

Quick Review: Revolutionary Road

In my continued quest to watch movies involving the suburbs, I recent saw Revolutionary Road (although I have not read the 1961 book on which the film is based). Here are some thoughts I had after watching the film:

1. The main thrust of the movie is that the couple is unsatisfied in the suburbs. This is not an unusual plot for books/movies/critiques of the suburbs. But I wonder after watching the film whether this couple would be truly satisfied anywhere or doing anything.

2. There are two complicating factors in the story. One, the couple decides to move to Paris in order to escape the suburban doldrums and two, while in Paris, the wife will work and support the husband who will have time to think and relax. These ideas, the glamor of Paris plus the reversal of 1950s gender roles, seem to dog the couple throughout the rest of the film as they are unable to to achieve these goals.

3. I was struck that the lives of the children in the film are quite tangential to the plot. The story suggests the adult couple is stifled in the suburbs but we don’t get much insight into how this affects the children. Or, perhaps this is suggesting that the children don’t matter very much or that if the couple is unhappy, the children are bound to be in for a difficult time as well.

4. Like some others stories in this genre, this film features a mentally ill man who is the only one able to see through the suburban facade. The irony, of course, is that the man who society says is unfit is the only one able to voice the issues that the couple faces. The implication is that those in suburbia are actually the mentally ill.

5. The husband works for a firm that suggests computers are the future. I wish some of this contrast between this machine-driven future and the dull suburban life was developed further: do computers provide hope or another nail in the consumerist, family-oriented suburbs?

Overall, I didn’t find the film particularly noteworthy as you can find a very similar story in a number of other places. The contrast between the suburbs and Paris and the suburban lifestyle versus a life where the wife supports the family could be truly revolutionary but it ends up more of a fleeting, unattainable dream than anything else.

(This film got good reviews from critics: it was 68% percent fresh, 135 fresh out of 198 total reviews, at

Documenting fair use 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:

Two Italian film directors describe Roman suburbs

Two Italian film directors discussed their new film Et In Terra Pax, which is set in a “Roman council estate” in the Roman suburbs.  Here is how they described these Italian suburbs:

?MB: I was thinking a lot about a story set in the Roman suburbs…

MB: We live in part of Rome both close to the centre and the suburbs, which was useful to observe without being involved. We like Roman suburbs, and we think that in suburbs you can breathe the real Rome. The centre is great but it’s for tourists, rich people or to spend Saturday nights. Real live [sic] is somewhere else…

Can you talk about the idea of the housing complex being like a prison?

DC: A lot of suburbs in Rome are characterized by this kind of view: big grey buildings, a kind of ghetto filled with people. A city can’t grow in this way because the risk is that people can be excluded from the rest of Rome. We consider the building we chose like another character, a metaphor for loneliness. It looks like a prison but it’s full of life and ready to explode (in a good or bad way) at whatever time.

Et In Terra Pax is not an international audience’s image of Italian life. Was it important to show this side of life?

DC: Sure, we think it’s very important to show the dark side our country, not only for international audiences but also for the Italians too.

Compared to the typical American portrayal of suburbs, the land of single-family homes, lawns, and kids running around, this is a different image: large apartment buildings built away from the vibrant city center and illustrating the “dark side” of Italian life.

This discussion hints at how some European suburbs differ from their American counterparts. While most Americans see suburbs as the refuge of the wealthy, some European suburbs are where the low-income apartment buildings are built. The center of the European city is the place to be, not the outskirts of a metropolitan region as in the American case.

I am also intrigued by the idea that the apartment building is treated “like a character.” Elsewhere, they say the building they filmed in was about 1 kilometer in length, housed about 14,000 people, and features “strange, fascinating and disturbing architecture.”

Fair comment

A mea culpa note: I originally wrote this post about a week ago.  At that time, I thought that SF360 was moderating their comments and not approving mine, for reasons that I implied might have something to do with the policy position of my remarks.  I was wrong — there was an innocuous, technical reason that my comment did not post.  Thanks to SF360’s editor Susan Gerhard for helping me get my comment up, and my most sincere apologies to her and everyone at SF360.  I made a mistake, and I thank Susan for being so gracious in the way that she corrected me.


I made a comment recently on a SF360 article titled “What you Need to Know to License Music for Film”.  Here is the relevant bit of the article that I was addressing:

Licensing can be a complicated, frustrating process. Yet, the copyright owners have exclusive rights over the music and using the music in a film will generally not be considered a fair use. Therefore, to avoid litigation a filmmaker must acquire the necessary licenses before including any music in their film. [emphasis added]

As I wrote in my comment, this characterization of fair use is, at best, highly misleading:

George [Rush, who wrote the article] says that “the copyright owners have exclusive rights over the music and using the music in a film will generally not be considered a fair use.”  This is simply not true; there are a lot of uses of music in films — particularly documentary films — that can be considered fair use.  There is a Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use, and there are even companies that issue errors and omissions insurance based on fair use claims.

Before using any music in your film, you should definitely seek legal counsel.  But don’t assume that you *always* have to license music.  Despite the grumblings of music labels, fair use still exists.

George is right that the issues are complicated and that sometimes hiring a professional (like him) to help negotiate various music licenses is the proper way to proceed.  But that’s not always true.

Quick Review: Babies

I watched the film Babies recently with the hopes that I might use a portion of it to illustrate the idea of socialization in my Introduction to Sociology course. I didn’t end up using the film but I still have a few thoughts about this 2010 film:

1. The film follows four babies: one each in Namibia, Mongolia, Japan, and San Francisco. Between the four of them, there were some contrasts. But I’m not sure there was enough variation in these cases. Outside of the Namibian baby, the other three families were fairly Westernized. The Japanese and American baby seemed to experience similar things. If the goal was to draw attention to how babies develop in similar stages yet do so in unique cultural settings, I think this could have been improved. This is a problem that also plagues case studies: cases need to be selected in such a way that they have variation on the key variables of interest (culture in this instance).

2. The movie has no narration – it is a compilation of scenes tracking their development and there is some instrumental music. This leads to a lot of “awww” moments but the film struggles to say something larger.

3. Some of the scenes were quite well put together. The shots of the Mongolian child seemingly out in the wilderness on his own (a constant backdrop of mountains and cattle) were impressive.

4. I know this is an inherent problem in a film that attempts to follow four children through several years of life but I didn’t feel like we had a good understanding of the broader context the babies were in. There was little or no information about their parents or families. I felt like we saw a lot of scenes meant to show the different stages of development but little of the full story. Since the film was somewhat short (just under 80 minutes), ten or fifteen minutes of this information could easily have been added though it would have altered the approach.

Overall, this was an engaging film as it is interesting to watch the children grow up. There is much potential in these scenes but the film as a whole struggles to make a larger point.

(This film was okay in the eyes of critics. According to, 69% of critics – 67 out of 97 – said the film was “fresh.”)

Debunking the Transformers 3 movie trailer

While recently in the theater to watch True Grit (perhaps to be reviewed later though I am not well versed in either Westerns or Coen Brother’s films), I saw the new trailer for Transformers 3. The trailer takes some liberties with an important moment of history and is debunked by ESPN’s TMQ:

Philip Torbett of Knoxville, Tenn., writes, “In the just-released trailer for the third Transformers movie, the premise is that the Apollo missions were a cover to explore a downed alien spacecraft. When the moon spins and the Apollo landing area is no longer facing Earth, the astronauts climb a ridge and explore the massive alien craft which is mere feet away from the Lunar Module. When the moon spins back, the astronauts quickly return to the lander and pretend to be collecting rocks. But the moon revolves such that we always see the same side. This makes the opening premise of the movie impossible, because any alien craft that landed in the Sea of Tranquility would have been continuously observable from Earth with a decent telescope.”

TMQ’s rule of sci-fi is that I will accept the premise — enormous instantly transforming living organisms made of metal that require no fuel or other energy and can fly without lift or propulsion, hey, why not? — so long as action makes sense within the premise, while laws of physics are observed. The moon is turning on its axis, but the same side always faces Earth. If the moon did not turn on its axis, as it revolved around the Earth, we’d see the dark side just as often as the familiar light side. The moon is “tidally locked” with Earth — its gravity creates tides in the oceans, while Earth’s gravity locks the light side of the moon facing us. That the moon is tidally locked — rotating on its axis, but the same side always facing Earth — is the reason we see the same surface features whenever we look up at the moon but never see the dark side.

The entire time the Apollo landers were on the moon, they were visible from Earth. Hollywood assumes that with science literacy being what it is, most moviegoers won’t know this. Did the scriptwriters know it?

A good question. When I first saw the trailer, I was torn between thinking it was absurd (quite the hulking alien spacecraft) and thinking it was clever (by being tied to an iconic moment in history).

Pointing out the issues with this backstory leads to a larger question: should we be willing to overlook historical or scientific impossibilities for the sake of having an entertaining movie trailer or film? Should a movie like The Social Network be truthful or be entertaining? I tend to dislike such changes though they can be done better in some movies than others.

We could also ask about how many viewers of the Transformers trailer or film would even think about this issue of the moon rotating.