Review of Spectacle of Property: The House in American Film | Leonardo/ISAST

Review of Spectacle of Property: The House in American Film

Spectacle of Property: The House in American Film
by John David Rhodes

University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2017
256 pp., illus. 54 b/w. Trade, $112.00; paper, $28.00
ISBN: 9781517903695; ISBN: 9781517903701

Reviewed by
Jan Baetens
April 2018

Film as a medium has been associated with a wide range of other social practices and technological innovations, such as window-shopping (see Anne Friedberg’s 1993 Window Shopping) or railroad (see Lynne Kirby’s 1997 Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema). In all these cases, however, there is an almost ontological link between the camera and the other cultural form or technology: railroad tracks and celluloid strips, screen watching and stopping in the streets to watch window displays. The project that John David Rhodes elaborates in this book is much less self-evident and therefore much more challenging and stirring. By bringing together the world of cinema and the world of private houses (Spectacle of Property addresses the architecture of the individual house, not that of the office building or the skyscraper), he succeeds in producing new ways of looking both at cinema and at houses – all of this in the larger context of the constructing and experience of new spaces as well as the attempts to maintain no longer viable forms of living and to anticipate the housing and looking forms of tomorrow.

Yet the key word in this multi-perspective study of inhabited and watched at spaces is not architecture or cinema, it is “property,” more precisely property as alienated labor –– in the Marxist sense of the word –– that is work performed by others and converted into goods that can be (re)sold by those who own it, thanks to the work of these others. The definition of these others is based on class and race: unskilled or hardly skilled laborers, often slaves of descendants of slaves. Rhodes does not only invite us to watch movies and houses as property, which would have been rather uneventful, but to watch houses in movies as a prism that makes us realize cultural and economic mechanisms created by property in film as well as in houses, and this is a fascinating move that makes us think of the impact of property on people –– those who own it (enjoying it, but also suffering from it in more than one regard) and those who don’t (either because they cannot afford or, even worse, because themselves are being considered property by others (as the classic definition of slaves entails, a definition whose consequences are far from having disappeared in today’s society).

In spite of not being direct or ontological, the relationships between cinema and the house are multiple and systematic in American culture. Throughout the whole book Rhodes patiently builds the theoretical and methodological frame that allows the reinterpretation of cinema in light of the house and vice versa. The starting point of Spectacle of Property is in the first place the house, the main structure of the book being imposed by the history of architecture rather than by the history of film. Rhodes mainly focuses on three typically American styles (which are not read in chronological order): the bungalow, as introduced in California after the First World War (it was sharply discussed in works such as Adorno’s Minima Moralia); the Modernist architecture we link with post-World War Two building styles (as in the case of the bungalow, Rhodes concentrates here on Southern California), and the nostalgic 19th-Century “stick and shingle” house (as exemplified in what is probably the most famous house in the film history, the Bates family house we see in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (not the motel, but the Gothic house on top of the hill).

The aim of Rhodes is not to simply match movie style and house style, in spite of countless intriguing correspondences (the author notices for instance the strong resemblance between the 1960 Bates House and what appears on the screen of a drive-in movie; he also draws our attention to houses we see, often without really noticing them, behind the fences of the studio lots; he underlines the functional identity of the transparency of glass wall and certain film techniques; or, more daringly perhaps, he compares the theater seat to a place we rent to watch at houses we will never possess). Instead he stresses the multiple tensions that may exist between movies and the houses they contain, such as the praise of Modernist architecture in dramatically mainstream and stylistically old-fashioned movies or the use of the unsophisticated bungalow architecture in complex avant-garde experiments. In a similar vein, he also discloses the ways in which American cinema, which is supposed to uncritically and apologetically defend private property and free enterprise, shows time and again the failures of the actual use and ownership of private houses, which symbolize and in certain cases even engender death and destruction. The book contains for example an illuminating new reading of Mildred Pierce, which illustrates the multiple traps and dead ends of the bungalow – in this case inextricably linked with a strong gender dimension.

More generally, what Spectacle of Property powerfully demonstrates is the exceptional efficacy of crossing the two discourses of cinema and the house – two discourses which are moreover very diverse, for they contain elements from architecture, history, film studies, critical theory, philosophy, economy, race, sex and gender studies, aesthetics, etc. The combination of these multiple entrances and perspectives allows Rhodes to take away the blindfold that prevents us from seeing houses, films, and people in terms of property. Thanks to his analyses, the reader becomes aware of the fact that film does not only shows houses all the time, but that the way in which these houses are shown teaches us how cinema both dissimulates and reveals that film itself is labor-based property, that houses are not just living spaces but forms of property that structure and determine what people are (or not) and what they do (or not). The almost seamless montage of theory, criticism, text, image, archive and interpretation, on the one hand, and of film analysis and architecture history, on the other hand, produces renewed visions of the American house, no longer as a purely material or aesthetic construction, but as a machine that builds and destroys individual lives and communities. Finally, the book also offers us many truly original perspectives on topics we thought we knew too well, such as for instance Modernism. Rhodes focuses here on the issue of the “easiness” of Modernist architecture – easy to hate or to love, but easy anyway, which he confronts with the generally acknowledged “difficulty” of Modernist poetry and literature, and this contrast opens refreshing new perspectives on the specific situation of architecture in culture.

Spectacle of Property is a game-changing publication, which ceaselessly emphasizes the ethical and political dimension of cultural criticism. One should hope that it may inspire similar work in other fields than film studies as well.