Miniaturize yourself to afford a McMansion

Here is a (fanciful) way to truly downsize and still acquire a McMansion:

Matt Damon stars as Paul Safranek, an overstretched man in an overstretched world, working as an occupational therapist down at Omaha Steaks and still living in the house where he was born. Paul hungers for a fresh start and finds it courtesy of the newfangled technique of “cellular miniaturisation”, which promptly shrinks the recipient to a height of five inches. This technique has apparently been pioneered by scientists out in Norway, although one might just as easily claim that Payne has been doing it for years. Films like Election, Sideways and Nebraska, for instance, spotlighted a burgeoning crisis in American masculinity, focusing on men who fear that they’re seen as small by the world. With the excellent Downsizing, Payne has simply gone that extra mile.

The benefits for Paul are clear from the outset. As a little man, he costs less and consumes less. His assets of $152,000 convert to a whopping $12m in the bonsai community of Leisureland Estates, which means that he can now afford a McMansion or a luxury bachelor pad, like one of those cash-poor Londoners who sells their Hackney flat and then buys up half of Rotherham. A flick of the switch and the process is complete. Afterwards the nurses return to theatre and lift the clients from their beds aboard small steel spatulas…

The point, of course, is that glass-domed Leisureland is merely America in microcosm, with all the same corruption and wealth-disparity, loneliness and strife. Neither does it exist in splendid isolation. If the outside world starts to burn, then Leisureland is all-but guaranteed to go down in flames too.

It sounds like the McMansion critics win in the end in this fantasy land.

Seriously though, wouldn’t many Americans want to say they had both downsized as well as acquired a sizable and well-appointed house? Here is how this could happen:

  1. Given the size of many new houses in recent years, people could downsize – lose 1,000+ square feet – and still have really large houses.
  2. Downsizing does not necessarily mean giving up amenities. What if someone gives up a large home for a smaller home but it has all the latest features or is located in the trendy neighborhood? Downsizing can be associated with trying to live a simpler life but this could be hard for many.

We’ll have to wait and see what those with the potential to downsize – largely Baby Boomers – actually do.

Wrong direction on Lake Shore Drive in “When Harry Met Sally”

I noticed this again recently: the movie When Harry Met Sally gets an important feature of Chicago wrong early on. As described by IMDB:

When Harry and Sally drive from the University of Chicago to New York, they should drive on the Lake Shore Drive heading to the south (to the direction of Gary), not to the north (to the direction of downtown). So they should not be on the Lake Shore drive on the north of downtown.

It is not clear how this mistake was made but it could be an easy one to make for multiple reasons:

  1. The University of Chicago is an island onto itself on the south side of Chicago. It takes several miles and multiple social worlds to get to the better known, wealthier, whiter part of Chicago (the Loop and North Side). Perhaps this is commentary about where University of Chicago students end up?
  2. Would the view along the southern portion of Lake Shore Drive be recognizable to many people? The views of Chicago are very different at these different ends. The southern approach to the city provides a more industrial, working-class view while the north side emphasizes high-rises and waterfront amenities.
  3. Perhaps this could further fuel Chicago’s sense of inferiority compared to New York City: “they don’t even know the north and south sides of our great city!”

Film about McMansions on Martha’s Vineyard

Here is a review of how a film examining the larger and larger homes built on Martha’s Vineyard:

The premise of the film begins on familiar ground, with Bena casting a critical, almost dogmatic eye on the issue:

“On the first day that I arrived I landed several jobs and it wasn’t long before I was working seven days a week. My main gig was carpentry. At first I really enjoyed the work, but over time I found myself working on larger and larger homes. The larger the home, the more my sense of uneasiness increased. And the fact that they were often third or fourth homes seemed incongruous with their enormous size. They looked more like bus stations or hotels, not summer cottages.

The houses were heated year round and I found the waste of resources shocking and depressing. Not only did the “starter castles” dwarf the cottages and historic homes they replaced, they seemed out of keeping with everything that I love about Martha’s Vineyard. I felt like I was ruining the place that I wanted to call home. And that is why I took off my tool belt and picked up a camera.”

But as the film progresses, Bena’s approach becomes much more nuanced. In talking with other local carpenters who work on these huge houses, we discover that their livelihood depends on these large contracts. We hear from long-time residents, some of whom are uneasy about telling newcomers what to build or not to build. In his interviews with some of these owners of these oversize mansions, we hear the human side of their stories as well. But we also see how some of these wealthy homeowners take advantage of legal loopholes — or even flout them completely — with serious consequences.

This sounds interesting and surprisingly multi-faceted for a story about McMansions.

At the same time, I suspect the story is complicated here because of tourism. This is not a “normal” location but rather one that locals as well as thousands of visitors might consider “home.” Additionally, there is a lot of money involved with what it takes to visit and build (with limited land). When the president travels there and draws attention to this particular issue, this is a special place. The story of McMansions at Martha’s Vineyard might be able to reach more people because of the known location but it isn’t necessarily the same McMansion story as teardowns in Los Angeles neighborhoods or in suburbs outside of Washington D.C. or new McMansions in the exurbs.

Suburban settings and McDonald’s filmed in Georgia

The new film The Founder tells of the founding of McDonald’s and involves a number of suburban sites – that were all recreated in Georgia:

Because of their limited budget and ultrafast 34-day shooting schedule, the filmmakers had to be resourceful in showing McDonald’s restaurants all over the United States, without actually leaving Georgia.

So, they repurposed their “Des Plaines” building.

“When you see Schaumburg, when you see Minneapolis, when you see all the McDonald’s from around the country, those are subtle reworkings of only one set,” Corenblith said.

“Just by changing the parking lot stripes configuration, it was a very subtle way to tell the audience that, no, this isn’t the place you just saw because the cars are now parked perpendicularly and not diagonally or parallel.”

Corenblith’s eye for authentic detail fooled even Keaton. He assumed the crew had found an old McDonald’s restaurant and rehabbed it for the film shoot.

The magic of Hollywood…or the similarities in suburban settings?

This movie may be worth seeing just to consider the American suburban lifestyle. Would McDonald’s and other fast food companies exist without it? Fast food takes perfect advantage of a number of factors: suburbanites need to/want to drive, all that driving means it would be convenient to eat along the way, fast food restaurants are often located at busy intersections or along busy roads, the dining experience is standardized, and the reasonable prices appeal to the middle class. No suburbs, likely no McDonald’s or a very different kind of McDonald’s.

New data on (a lack of) diversity in Hollywood and on TV

A new report on diversity in Hollywood and television was released yesterday:

The study, titled the Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity, examined the 109 films released by major studios (including art-house divisions) in 2014 and 305 scripted, first-run TV and digital series across 31 networks and streaming services that aired from September 2014 to August 2015. More than 11,000 speaking characters were analyzed for gender, racial and ethnic representation and LGBT status. Some 10,000 directors, writers and show creators were examined, as was the gender of more than 1,500 executives.

The portrait is one of pervasive underrepresentation, no matter the media platform, from CEOs to minor characters. “Overall, the landscape of media content is still largely whitewashed,” the study concludes.

In the 414 studied films and series, only a third of speaking characters were female, and only 28.3 percent were from minority groups — about 10 percent less than the makeup of the U.S. population. Characters 40 years or older skew heavily male across film and TV: 74.3 percent male to 25.7 percent female.

Just 2 percent of speaking characters were LGBT-identified. Among the 11,306 speaking characters studied, only seven were transgendered (and four were from the same series).

These appear to be pretty consistent patterns. Given the racialized and gendered history of the United States, is it more surprising that white men still dominate in certain categories or that little has changed even with the discussions of recent decades?

One other thought: in No Logo, activist Naomi Klein recounts her own efforts to push for more diversity in advertisements. In a chapter titled “Patriarchy Gets Funky,” Klein says:

We thought we would find salvation in the reformation of MTV, CNN, and Calvin Klein. And why not? Since media seemed to be the source of so many of our problems, surely if we could only “subvert” them to better represent us, they could save us instead. With better collective mirrors, self-esteem would rise and prejudices would magically fall away, as society became suddenly inspired to live up to the beautiful and worthy reflection we had retouched in its image. (p.108-109)

And corporations bought into it:

That’s when we found out that our sworn enemies in the “mainstream” – to us a giant monolithic blob outside of our known university-affiliated enclaves – didn’t fear and loathe us but actually thought we were sort of interesting. Once we’d embarked on a search for new wells of cutting-edge imagery, our insistence on extreme sexual and racial identities made for great brand-content and niche-marketing strategies. If diversity is what we wanted, the brands seemed to be saying, then diversity was exactly what we would get. And with that, the marketers and media makers swooped down, airbrushes in hand, to touch up the colors and images in our culture. (p.111)

The real issue lay elsewhere:

But our criticism was focused on the representation of women and minorities within the structures of power, not on the economics behind those power structures…

The prospect of having to change a few pronouns and getting a handful of women and minorities on the board and on television posed no real threat to the guiding profit-making principles of Wall Street.

Maybe the issue is less one of representation on the screen and more about who controls the industry and resources.

Did Back to the Future succeed because it was set in a small town?

One journalist argues Back to the Future was aided by its small town setting:

Strip away the time-travel facade and Back to the Future is a fun, zany small-town comedy, with its nastiest villain a high school bully and its biggest triumph a kiss between his two victims. Director Robert Zemeckis seized upon the concept of Marty McFly’s DeLorean trip to 1955 while looking through his parents’ basement and stumbling upon relics from their graduating class. He pitched the idea to Steven Spielberg, who agreed to produce the project. The strength of the movie is that its most fantastical element is rendered as something any audience member could imagine: the bizarre and frightening experience of meeting your parents as their teenaged selves. Compared to the current era of summer movies, so focused on omnipotent superheroes doing battle on a planetary scale, that simplicity feels revolutionary…

But Back to the Future topped them all, literally traveling back in time to tap into America’s small-town ‘50s nostalgia.

An interesting argument as Americans do like the idea of small towns. And I suspect that data may suggest that most recent blockbuster films – whether action/superhero movies, disaster films, and dystopian films – are primarily set in big cities. Big cities may offer bigger spectacles, more potential for destruction and a broader scale for both danger and heroism, while small towns in such films suggest more intimate lives. Of course, the devastation and action portrayed in such films would have a profound impact on a suburban or rural landscape (disturbing major sources of agriculture could be quite problematic) but there are fewer people and buildings involved.

Applying Weber’s concept of disenchantment to Jurassic World

A journalist suggests Weber’s “disenchantment” could explain a world where scientists create new dinosaurs:

Yet the Indominus Rex’s business necessity is itself born of a spiritual void arguably endemic to capitalism itself. If “Jurassic Park” owes its ancestry to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, there’s a straight line between “Jurassic World” and Max Weber, the early 20th century German thinker whose celebrated 1917 lecture “Science As A Vocation” is one of the source texts for an important sociological concept known as “disenchantment.”

“Disenchantment” is the process through which empiricism replaces mysticism as an organising and motivating principle for both individuals and society at large. For Weber, the rise of capitalism meant that the rigors of daily existence started to find meaning through earthly and numerable concerns, rather than through one’s relation to an ineffable metaphysical power. In a sense, disenchantment is shorthand for the victory of the market over religion…

This is the movie about the moral, spiritual, and economic crisis of boredom at a dinosaur park. The crisis is not as far-fetched as it seems. We’re in the era where the Lourve, repository of the some of the world’s most sublime artistic accomplishments, isn’t immune from the selfie stick plague. There are now classes dedicated to taking Instagram photos of food. Look at all these people with their smart-phones out as Nationals pitching demigod Max Scherzer closed in on a (tragically blown) perfect game on June 20th. Layers of distraction and disenchantment separate people from even the rarest and most spectacular of events, even when they’re unfolding directly in front of them…

The movie is a kind of sly meta-joke about the traditional entertainment industry’s finely-honed ability to shovel as much brand identification and fan service down audiences’ throats as is humanly possible. The Indominus Rex — really just a larger, more violent version of “Jurassic Park’s” T-Rex — embodies the soul-deadening, almost self-destructive character of an industry whose primary commercial readout seems to be monstrous retreads. It’s a movie about the movies’ failure to impress audiences, and those audience’s enduring inability to be impressed by anything that’s genuinely new.

And that is why we continue to read and teach Max Weber in sociology courses from the introductory level to graduate school. If this was the subject of an end-of-the-semester research paper in a theory course, it could end up being pretty good. As noted here, Weber saw some of the benefits of capitalism and modernity but was pretty prescient regarding its consequences. Even critiques of the system – such as this film which highlights the downsides of science and progress – still have to play by the same rules, meaning that it has to sell to the mass public to be considered a “success.”

Hunger Games salute used by Thai protesters

Young adult fiction can lend itself to protest movements:

Fans of the popular book and film franchise The Hunger Games will recognize the hand signal instantly: the middle three fingers of the hand, raised to the sky. A gesture of resistance against the repressive government in the fictional world of Panem, it has now become a very real symbol of protest in Thailand at demonstrations against the junta that took power after the May 22 coup d’etat.

Crowds making the gesture have been pulled off the streets, according to reports, and a lone protestor was dragged into a taxi and arrested after making the hand signal…

Although the junta imposed a media blackout for television, satellite, and radio thanks to the immense popularity of social media in Thailand, discussion and criticism of the coup has continued on platforms like Twitter and Facebook—including tweets both documenting and encouraging the salute.

This is a fascinating example of protesters borrowing from the realm of literature and entertainment. The Hunger Games books contain some interesting commentary about modern society amidst their action and made-for-TV scenes. Just how different is the situation with the Capitol from the situation in Thailand? It may not even matter as it links their protests to a well-recognized symbol from mass-produced and consumed books and movies that can draw attention to their plight. Is there a similar symbol they could have used that would get them more attention or help their cause more?

Interpreting the architecture of “12 Years a Slave”

A movie critic looks at what director Steve McQueen says in the architecture of the film 12 Years a Slave:

Beginning with an early shot that pans up from Northup’s face and through dozens of layers of bricks before ending with a shot of the Washington skyline — he is in for it, that scene says — the movie takes up architectural symbols in a sustained and strategic way.

This is most obviously true in the way the porches of the slave owners’ houses tower over Northup like looming Parthenons of white privilege. It is most persuasively true of the pair of structures that Northup helps to build and that become a visual way to track his slow path back to freedom.

First comes a slave shack that he works to frame and that stands in the background, roofless, as he hangs from a tree after barely surviving a lynching attempt. Next is what turns out to be a gazebo on the grounds of a second plantation. The gazebo is roofless as well for scene after scene, until Northup meets and tells his story to a sympathetic abolitionist carpenter played by Brad Pitt.

Once they make a pact that will lead to Northup’s freedom, McQueen gives us a shot of the completed gazebo, with Northup standing under it. He’s recovered at least a suggestion of his dignity; he won’t have to work, write letters, clean himself or take abuse from his various white tormentors in the open air any longer.

Architecture is society — in this film as in all of McQueen’s work — and Northup is about to be restored to it. This is also where convention comes in: Architecture gives us one of the first signs that the movie is going to have an old-fashioned happy ending.

There is more here about how McQueen has used architecture in his other films.

This review makes it sound like the architecture is symbolic. In this film, it indicates Northup’s fate. But, what about how the characters interact with the architecture and space? What about how social space affects their interactions?

House of Cards may be all the rage but how many people have actually seen it?

Derek Thompson notes the disconnect between all the attention the TV show House of Cards is receiving versus the number of people who have actually seen it:

Netflix doesn’t share (and doesn’t care about) live audiences, and neither do its advertisers, because there aren’t any. So rather than rough Nielsen figures, we have to go by even rougher broadband analytics. But here’s our best guess: “Anywhere from 6-10% of subscribers watched at least one episode of House of Cards,” Procera Networks found, and in the U.S., “the average number of episodes watched during the weekend was three.” Fascinatingly: There was no appreciable increase in Netflix’s overall traffic.

Given that Netflix has just under 30 million domestic subscribers, that means that two to three million people watched House of Cards in its opening weekend. (A previous Procera estimate went as high as 16 percent of Netflix subs, or nearly 5 million.)…

It’s awkward to compare streaming estimates to Nielsen estimates, but it seems safe to say the average CBS program has at least twice times as many viewers as House of Cards...

The outcome is sort of weird. Pop culture critics, who tend to be attracted to the thing that’s most popular, mostly ignore the most popular shows on TV, which are lower-brow fare crafted to get high ratings. Meanwhile, a handful of networks whose business models rely on subscriptions rather than advertising amass all the most-talked-about shows on television. And that’s how the people reading about TV and the people watching TV live in two separate worlds.

A similar issue is taking place with the Best Picture nominees for this year’s Oscars: few Americans have actually seen any of the nominees.

Among other questions, the poll asked 1,433 Americans whether they had seen any of the nine best-picture nominees, plus two other films competing in other categories. The Academy Awards will be hosted by comedian Ellen DeGeneres on March 2.

Among those who responded to the online survey, Somali piracy thriller “Captain Phillips” was the most-watched film, at 15 percent. But 67 percent said they had yet to see any of the eleven films in the poll.

The outer-space drama “Gravity” was second with 14 percent, while crime caper “American Hustle” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Martin Scorsese’s portrait of 1990s greed and excess, each had been seen by 12 percent of those surveyed. The numbers include those surveyed who may have seen more than one of the nominees.

The survey found that 60 percent of respondents were unsure about which film should win best picture. Slavery drama “12 Years a Slave” had the most support at 9 percent.

With the fragmentation of media in recent decades, this shouldn’t be any surprise: viewers can see what they want and now, can often do it when they want. It is difficult to really have a larger, public, shared conversation in the United States about a single media event like it would have been fifty years ago when the Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. It might only be possible today with real-time events, like the Super Bowl or major political happenings (though now people can watch many sources broadcasting and interpreting the same events) or coverage after a major disaster.

Perhaps this also helps explain the popularity of viral videos: compared to the time investment for a TV series or a movie, a video tends to only take a moment or two but the viewer can then be an expert or a participant immediately.