The geographical improbability of Ferris Bueller and a limited view of Chicago

Ferris Bueller and friends see a lot of the Chicago region in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off but their journey is improbable:

Chicago is a big city. Like, really, really big. The makers obviously looked at what they wanted Ferris to do and decided to leave geographic and timeline reality in the dust as Ferris and friends drove away in a red Ferrari GT California Spyder.

Case in point: Ferris begins his day on the far upper side of Chicago, in one of those fancy North Shore neighborhoods past Northwestern University. He convinces friend Cameron—who lives in a different fancy neighborhood—to borrow his dad’s Ferrari, pull the subterfuge with his girlfriend at the school and then drive into the city. The clock is already ticking!

But then! A longish discussion with the parking garage attendants. Sightseeing at the then-Sears Tower. Lunch (impersonating Sausage King Abe Froman). More sightseeing at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. A Cubs game! (Games typically last 3 hours, by the way.) Then more sightseeing back downtown at the Art Institute, followed by an epic parade crash. By this time, it must be nearly midnight! But no, it’s back up to the northern suburbs (presumably during rush hour) followed by an emotional discussion about life and love with friends, a ridiculously long footrace home and… Ferris is back in his bed by the time the folks walk in. By our math, those shenanigans would’ve taken roughly, oh, two days! Or at least 26 hours.

This would not be the first time a movie took liberties with geography (see another Chicago example here). It is easy to think why a film would do this: they want to have characters move in places that are well known, they do not necessarily have to adhere to rules of space and time, and the point of this film is about teenagers having a crazy day in and around the big city.

At the same time, films (and TV shows that follow similar logics) present a distorted view of cities. I could see this working out in two ways in Ferris Bueller. First, they visit the most well-known sites of the city. These can be fun locations, full of people, recognizable around the world. Ferris and friends have fun there. But, this reinforces only certain parts of Chicago and the surrounding region, missing out on a lot of other interesting sites. Second, their visits are quick in and out trips. They drop in, see the most important parts, and leave. In other words, not only do they primarily visit tourist sites, they are the ultimate tourists: they consume and move on and then return to mundane daily life.

These issues are on top of the time and space concerns of the film. Perhaps most viewers do not care about any of these; Chicago looks like a fun place in a time when the city (and other big cities) faced major issues. But, if viewers see enough films and TV shows that do this, they take in a limited perspective of cities and urban life.

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.

Defining the suburban aspects of the movie “Eighth Grade”

Defining the suburbs, whether considering geography or social life, can be complex. So when the film Eighth Grade claims to depict “the tidal wave of contemporary suburban adolescence,” how is suburbia depicted? Here are some key traits according to the film:

  1. People live in single-family homes. Kayla is shown going from house to house and acts as if her bedroom is a personal sanctuary from the outside world.
  2. The story revolves around the lives of children, a key emphasis of suburban life. When not in a home, Kayla is at school. Her social life revolves around school. Family life is critical as the primary relationship Kayla has is with her father who tries at various points to encourage her.
  3. A land of plenty. No one in the film lacks for anything and all the teenagers apparently have phones and devices to connect with each other and broadcast their lives. Some people in the film have more than others but consumer goods are not an issue in the suburbs depicted. Everyone is middle class or above even though we see little of what people do for work.
  4. The shopping mall is part of a key scene, one of the iconic places where teenagers can interact and consume.
  5. There is a good amount of driving required to get from home to home or to the shopping mall.
  6. The teenagers and families depicted are mostly white.

On one hand, the movie depicts a fairly typical residential suburban place. Many of the features of the suburbs listed above are on my list of Why Americans Love Suburbs.

On the other hand, the film does a lot with Kayla engrossed with her phone and social media. Could this take place anywhere? Or, is the film suggesting the particular combination of suburbs and social media leads to a negative outcome (too much online immersion) or positive (the values or features of suburbia help give her a broader perspective about live)?

Furthermore, the film primarily works within a well-worn depiction of suburbia: largely white, middle-class and above, revolving around teenagers, school, and families. Thinking like a sociologist in terms of variables, would it have been too much to situate a similar story in a more complex suburbia with more racial/ethnic and class diversity and a different physical landscape?

Americans love It’s A Wonderful Life but did not heed its main lessons, Part Two

Americans like the movie It’s A Wonderful Life (see its ranking according to the American Film Institute). Yet, I am not sure that those same viewers and reviewers have taken the morals of the film to heart. Part Two today:

George spirals downward because of financial problems at the savings and loan. Additionally, he was not sure about a life running the family business (which he thought his brother Harry would do). In the end, he finds joy in his family and friends in the community. The local relationships, from the local girl he married to the people who utilized the savings and loan, provide him reasons to keep living.

Yet, since the film came out (1946), Americans have moved away from the close-knit relationships. This has happened in two noticeable ways. The shift to suburbs from both big cities and more rural areas led to different kinds of social ties. Suburbanites can be fairly transient and build relationships around avoiding open conflict (see The Moral Order of a Suburb) and through local institutions (like school districts rather than because of immediate geographic proximity.

Additionally, sociologists and others have suggested Americans have fewer close friendships. Even if our social media and online friends and followers have exploded, these are different kinds of relationships compared to close relationships with people with interact with regularly in-person. Furthermore, advice columnists regularly suggest seeing therapists or counselors, more impartial third-party professionals, to work out issues.

Clarence shows George that the lives of those who cares about would be markedly different if he was not around. The closing scene finds the townspeople rallying around George and a proclamation that he is rich because of his relationships. How many people today would hope for such an ending? (Granted, this is a film so how often such joyous community celebrations happened is unknown.)

Of course, the appeal of It’s A Wonderful Life may just be its nostalgia for an age that seems long gone. In an often harried and disconnected world, Americans may yearn for a (fictional?) world where the good guys win, local companies and residents help each other, people have rich friendships, and people live in small towns. But, if anything, our collective decisions since the release of the film have likely moved us further away from these realities.