Quick Review: Suburbicon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By midnight, the crowd has disappeared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cities standing in for other cities in films and TV shows

A longer discussion of how holiday films treat big cities includes information on where these films are made:

The irony, of course, is that these movies that portray the cruel hustle of big cities and the virtues of small-town life are filmed in big cities that get high marks for livability. Christmas Town, like many products of the holiday rom-com industrial complex, was shot in the made-for-cable Christmas movie wonderland of Vancouver, British Columbia, which boasts an abundance of studios and proximity to a variety of urban and rural shooting locations. Vancouver is also a perennial high-scorer in urban happiness and well-being rankings, a place that Canadian journalist Charles Montgomery singles out for praise in his book Happy City. (As this first-hand report from the Christmas Town shoot reveals, conditions on set were somewhat less magical: Filmed on a suburban backlot during a heat wave, the movie used leftover ice from Vancouver’s fish markets as a stand-in for snow.)

Other films rely on Toronto, another Canadian metro with enviable livability scores, to play the urban heavy; while certain landmarks may stand out to local viewers, the mostly American Christmas-movie audience is none the wiser. They’re too busy inhaling the on-screen, small-town romance that Hallmark and its kin have carefully crafted to make us believe miracles happen—just not in the big city.

Many films are made in these locations given the cost of filming in Canada versus the United States as well as the ability of these Canadian cities to stand in for many American cities.

Instead of looking at just holiday films, how many American viewers notice anything amiss when they are actually looking at Vancouver and Toronto on the screen? Would they even notice? Between the use of different cities plus the use of backlots, a good number of television shows and films may include very few to no shots from the location depicted on-screen.

Does this matter in the long run for viewers? On one hand, not at all. Relatively few on-screen depictions of places actually involve much unique material from those places. Think of the average television show: the activity largely takes place within buildings – homes, offices, restaurants/coffee shops, and the like – and involves a limited set of characters. The show may be set in a prominent location yet it could take place in any large city (outside of some establishing shots or an occasional reference to local culture). On the other hand, seeing deplaced places – generic cities and neighborhoods – suggests every place is similar. Does it matter that Full House took place in San Francisco or How I Met Your Mother took place in New York City? Not really. An on-screen big city is largely like any other on-screen big city.

If holiday films need generic cities and neighborhoods, Vancouver and Toronto can work. If they truly wanted unique locations and let those locations help drive the plot – such that a story from Omaha would differ from one in Phoenix or Charleston – then the movies themselves would be richer and more complex.

Kevin McCallister of Home Alone does not live in a McMansion

From a Buzzfeed list of tweets about Home Alone, here is one that considers the primary setting for the movie:

HomeAloneMcMansion

While the house may appear to be a McMansion because of its size and suburban settings, there are multiple pieces of evidence to counter this (compiled from multiple websites including fancypantshomes.com, themirror.co.uk, and census.gov:

1. The home was constructed in 1920. This construction predates McMansions by roughly six decades.

2. The home sold in 2012 for just over $1.5 million. This is beyond the price of most McMansions.

3. The home does not suffer from the architectural issues facing many McMansions (likely because it was built in 1920): it has a consistent brick facade, a symmetrical front, and not too many gables.

4. The home is not in a suburb with residents striving to look wealthy; this is a wealthy suburb with a median household income of $220,000 for its over 12,000 residents.

5. Because this is an older and smaller suburb, it is indeed possible to walk from the McCallister house to downtown which is less than half a mile away. It is possible to have big houses located in walkable neighborhoods (which is part of the appeal for some teardowns in older suburban neighborhoods).

Kevin McCallister lives in a big house, a house for wealthy people, but it is not a McMansion. The primary setting for Home Alone is a large and older single-family home far beyond the reach of most Americans and located within a walkable and wealthy suburb.

“Trophy ranches” may disappear with Baby Boomers

One segment of the luxury property market does not appeal to younger buyers or those who do not understand the appeal of a “trophy ranch”:

Decades ago, a generation of America’s wealthiest, raised on television shows like “Howdy Doody” and “The Lone Ranger,” headed west with dreams of owning some of the country’s most prestigious ranches. Now, as those John Wayne- loving baby boomers age out of the lifestyle or die, they or their children are looking to sell those trophy properties…

Jeff Buerger, a local ranch broker with Hall & Hall in Colorado, said there are more large trophy ranches on the market right now than he can recall in his nearly three decades in the business. There are about 20 ranches priced at over $20 million on the market in the state, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of listings…

Unlike other sectors of the U.S. high-end real-estate market, ranches can’t fall back on international purchasers. Broker Tim Murphy said there is virtually no demand for ranches from international buyers, many of whom “don’t get it.”…

“The last wave of buyers was the baby boomers who fell in love with John Wayne and wanted that experience for themselves,” Mr. Buerger said. “Today, it’s more about conservation. You’re starting to hear more landowners talking about wildlife habitat enhancement and ecological work.” Other targeted groups include wealthy families from the East Coast or Silicon Valley.

I would guess this is not just about baby boomers: it is about broader conceptions of what is the ideal property if someone came into significant money. The implication in the story above is that media, particularly John Wayne films, created a desire for these locations. Presumably, other media depictions would fuel desires for other properties. Depending on the tastes and background of buyers, this could range from:

1. Pricey downtown condos or penthouses in the middle of urban action (whether in well-established wealthy neighborhoods or in up-and-coming places).

2. Suburban McMansions that offer a lot of space and unique architecture.

3. Traditional mansions with sprawling homes whose size and design imply old money (in contrast to the flashy yet flawed McMansions).

4. Impressive vacation homes right on desirable beaches.

Perhaps the trick of any of these is to try to ensure that there are future buyers for your property. If demand drops, your hot high-status property may not hold up as a desirable location for the long-term.

Filming the world around Hollywood and California

In working on some recent research, I ran into the classic 1927 map from Paramount Studios showing filming locations in California (reproduced in numerous works):

ParamountStudioMapCalifornia1927

Add this to the capabilities of shooting on backlots and the world may be relatively easy to access from Hollywood. There are likely other reasons the film and television industry chose to locate together in and around Hollywood but having such varied nearby locations likely helps.

One thing that is missing from this map: urban locations. This map certainly reflects an interest in more natural settings. Los Angeles in 1927 was still under development. Even later Los Angeles can be fairly distinctive – just look at all the car ads filmed in and around the city. San Francisco offers some spectacular scenery but its uniqueness means it could be hard for the location to double for other places.

Seeing kitchens of the future on TV and in movies

A look at the evolution of modern kitchens in the middle of the 20th century includes one paragraph on how the new kitchens ended up in the media:

Midcentury movies, TV shows, and cartoons are loaded with examples of Rube Goldberg–like futuristic kitchens that automated cooking and cleaning tasks, sometimes to an absurd degree. The Hanna-Barbera cartoon The Jetsons debuted on ABC in 1962, portraying a nuclear family living in mid-twenty-first-century Orbit City. The Jetson family—husband and wife George and Jane, son and daughter Elroy and Judy—lived as a typical early 1960s family would have. Jane was a housewife, and George worked (just a few hours per week, it’s noted) for a company called Spacely Space Sprockets. The Jetsons had a robot maid named Rosey, who wore an old-fashioned black-and-white maid’s uniform, and zipped around the Jetson household on a set of wheels. The Jetsons’ kitchen was like a futuristic version of the Horn and Hardart Automat, where customers could select meals and desserts from behind little glass doors. A device called the Food-a-Rac-a-Cycle offered tried and true dishes like Irish stew, beef Stroganoff, prime rib, pizza, and fried chicken on demand.

Perhaps the book says more about the mass media depictions of kitchens around this time – there is certainly no shortage of scholarly work on the TV shows and films of the postwar era, the time when more and more Americans moved to the suburbs and encountered new kitchens as well as new ideals about how kitchens should look and be used.

But, this paragraph does not give us the full picture of what kitchens looked like on television and in movies. Instead, we hear about lots of examples and one specific example from The Jetsons. Just how many depicted kitchens at the time actually had “futuristic kitchens”? And were these futuristic kitchens popular (part of popular television shows and movies) or influential (tastes changed because of the depictions)? This is less clear.

Indeed, as I suspect this book would argue, how exactly the modern kitchen evolved is a complex tale. This is true for many social phenomena as rarely can one firm or design or product upend everything. And accounting for changing tastes is quite difficult.