John David Rhodes. Spectacle of Property: The House in American Film. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 2017. 288 pp.
Review by Pamela Robertson Wojcik
In Spectacle of Property, John David Rhodes successfully establishes the house as central to the American cinematic imagination, “the ground of realist representation” and “one of the most powerful metonymic signifiers of American cultural life” (pp. vii, viii). While the house signals privacy, enclosure, autonomy, stability, prosperity and more, Rhodes focuses especially on the house as a spectacle of property. Rhodes suggests that the spectacle of property links cinematic spectatorship to country-house tours and the cabinet of curiosities, all designed to immerse us in the spectacle of other people’s property. Rhodes’ project entails rethinking cinema spectatorship as an experience of short-term tenancy, in which the spectator “pays for the right to occupy a space to gaze up at a space they can never occupy” (p. 13). Throughout, Rhodes situates the house amidst discourses of modernity, architectural history, and the considerations of gender and race that underlie the spectacle of property.
Rhodes aims to dislodge the city somewhat from its privileged place within cinema studies and especially discussions of modernity and to argue for the house as an image equal to technological or urban modernity. Rhodes does not acknowledge the work of British feminist literary critics and historians such as Rita Felski, Judy Giles, and Victoria Rosner, who have long noted that the opposition between modernity and domesticity tends to gender modernity male and who view home life as crucial for forming modern feminine subjectivities. Still, he is right that much work in film studies on modernity tends to focus on experiences of public life, urban streets, and the masses, only citing domestic living in the context of tenements and/or homelessness.
Rather than consider genres, such as the house in horror or melodrama, Rhodes organizes the book according to architectural style, with chapters devoted to the bungalow, the modern house, and the stick and shingle house, respectively. This rather odd choice ultimately works very well, as Rhodes creates a dense and detailed view of each house’s architectural history, deployment in films, and larger cultural meanings. Discussing the bungalow, Rhodes considers a wide array of films including the noir-melodrama hybrid Mildred Pierce (1945, dir. Michael Curtiz), Maya Deren’s experimental Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), and John Cassavetes and Charles Burnett’s independent films A Woman Under the Influence (1974, dir. Cassavetes) and Killer of Sheep (1978, dir. Burnett), as well as the bungalow’s colonial history in India and its use on the Hollywood studio lot to suggest the pliancy of the bungalow as alternately a space of possibility and a space of containment.
Rhodes’s chapter on stick and shingle housing suggests that this style, associated with nostalgia, is deployed to show the dangers of staying put, or what Rhodes describes as families condemned to their property. Alongside wonderful analyses of Meet Me in St. Louis (1944, dir. Vincente Minnelli) and Grey Gardens (1975, dir. Albert and David Maysles), Rhodes offers a fantastic reading of Psycho (1960, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) as a film that “explores stubborn investments in property,” linking the Bates mansion and motel (which stay put despite being isolated by the highway), Marion’s job in a real estate office, her theft of a deposit for a house, and the underlying argument about property ownership that prevents Sam from marrying Marion (p. 181).
Spectacle of Property points cinema studies in new directions that should inspire scholarship, teaching, and debate about space, modernity, and Hollywood history. It will be on my syllabus this spring.