The Apartment Plot: Urban Living in American Film and Popular Culture, 1945 to 1975.
By Pamela Robertson Wojcik.
Duke University Press, 2010. xiii + 310 pp. $24 paper, $85 cloth.
An important autobiographical detail about Pamela Robertson Wojcik that helps bring into focus this remarkable and thoughtful book: While Wojcik has for years been a professor at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, she commutes every day from her home in Chicago. This fact testifies to the love of urban living, and its complex negotiations of social connection, that animates The Apartment Plot's innovative approach to a wide variety of American films and other cultural objects in the postwar period. In fact, in the preface to her book, Wojcik begins with a rather detailed two-page recounting of her own adult life as "a history of apartments," and the book concludes with her looking out the window of her current home at the Chicago skyline. In between, Wojcik explores what she calls an unacknowledged genre of American film and culture, the apartment plot, and its expression of a "philosophy of urbanism."
This turn to thinking about the apartment as a central space of the American postwar imagination is in itself a welcome adjustment to the "Leave It to Beaver" suburban house that tends to mediate our impression of the era, as expressed by the work of Lynn Spigel in Make Room for TV and others. Yet Wojcik points out that apartment living was also on the rise in the postwar period and represented a silent majority of the American experience.
The apartment as cinematic space, meanwhile, has tended to take a back seat to whatever genre it finds itself in, whether a thriller like Rear Window, a comedy like The Odd Couple, a melodrama such as The Courtship of Eddie's Father, or a horror film like Rosemary's Baby. Wojcik compares this situation to the road film and film noir, both of which bring together spatial and thematic similarities across a range of previously established genres. The larger genre question that the apartment plot brings up for the book, then, is how we approach mise-en-scene in thinking about genre. Cinematic space should be a larger and more consistent part of the genre equation, and not just a selective consideration brought up with the western, for example, and not the musical.
Having brought the space of the urban apartment to the fore, Wojcik contends that these films are set in apartments not incidentally, but in a way that "stands as a figure of urban living and ... navigates the tensions between privacy and community, loneliness and density, contact and entanglement" (36) described in Jane Jacobs' famous 1961 work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs looms large in The Apartment Plot, and with fair historical justification. The Death and Life was a widely discussed and debated analysis of and prescription for urban living emphasizing the small daily rhythms of urban interaction, "the ballet of the good city sidewalk" (to quote Jacobs), and a retort to the grand "masculinist, modernist" visions of Le Corbusier and Robert Moses.
The importance of Jacobs' portrayal of city life to Wojcik's analysis comes into relief in Chapter 1, a fascinating analysis of Rear Window as the archetype of the apartment plot. Other scholars, influenced perhaps by an auteurist slant on Hitchcock's film, have read Jimmy Stewart's character, Jeff, as isolated and voyeuristic, and the space of the courtyard itself as fractionated, cutting off each tenant from the others in an indictment of the solipsism of the urban experience. In this view, the woman whose dog Lars Thorwald throttles speaks for the film: "Neighbors like each other, speak to each other, care if anybody lives or dies. But none of you do!"
For Wojcik, however, this view misapprehends the film's mise-en-scene, which is constantly shown as porous, permeable, opening the individual to social connections both trivial (chit-chat across the courtyard) and profound (as when the composer's music halts Miss Lonelyheart's suicide attempt). Doors (and even windows) remain habitually unlocked in the apartment plot, like Jeff's in Rear Window, allowing easy entry--welcome in some films, invasive in others (e.g., Rosemary's Baby). Thus Thorwald is the villain of Hitchcock's film not just for killing his wife, but for having no sense of community, as he alone does not come to the window when the woman cries over her dog. He just wants to be left alone, and that, for Wojcik and Jacobs, is a crime of urban life as well.
The tensions evident in Wojcik's reading of Rear Window--between public and private, work and home, etc.--continue throughout the other chapters in her book. Each chapter focuses on a particular "tenant" in the apartment plot: the playboy in Chapter 2, the single girl in Chapter 3, the housewife in Chapter 4, and the urban African American in Chapter 5. At first glance these chapters appear like the loosely connected series of case studies so common to academic books. As the chapters progress, though, you realize that this organization is designed methodically to elaborate Wojcik's "philosophy of urbanism" and its variety of deployments and implications in the apartment plot.
Chapter 2 examines the bachelor apartment as imagined in Playboy in the 1950s before considering its representation in films from Pillow Talk and The Apartment to The Odd Couple, Rope, and The Boys in the Band. In these representations, the bachelor apartment evokes masculinity and heterosexual conquest, but the importance it places on design, consumption, and other "feminine" traits makes the space (as the progression of film examples suggests) "vulnerable to queer influences" (91). At once a space marking a public gender identity, the bachelor apartment can also "closet" its inhabitant in other ways.
Chapters 3 and 4 turn attention to the female tenants of the apartment plot, single and married. If the bachelor apartment both confirms and troubles dominant notions of masculinity, the single girl's bohemian place (exemplified by Holly Golightly's in Breakfast at Tiffany's) is a temporary reprieve from conventional demands of femininity, domesticity, and marriage. The sparse, second-hand furnishings of these apartments in films like Cactus Flower and Klute operate as way stations for young women to try on a modem, urbane, career-oriented lifestyle. Ultimately, however, this time is "a rehearsal for marriage, a time to experiment sexually and also to shed homosocial bonds" (168), so as to be able to leave for the suburbs with an appropriate man (as Jane Fonda's Bree prepares to do at the end of Klute).
In the increasingly dystopian films of Chapter 4, the city becomes a kind of suburb for the married woman, combining the alienation of the suburbs with the vulnerability of city life. The chapter builds to the horrifying Rosemary's Baby, in which the porousness of the apartment literally allows Satan to enter (and enter Rosemary). Yet Rosemary's horror turns to domestic acceptance of her role as stay-at-home demon-mother, suggesting that the Betty Friedanian isolation of the housewife trumps the liberating potential of the apartment.
Lastly, Chapter 5 takes on the marginalized role in the apartment plot of the African American tenant. The chapter begins and ends with the The Jeffersons in the 1970s moving from a house in Queens to "a deluxe apartment in the sky" on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. A rare and late example of geographic and class mobility for black protagonists in the genre, the series demonstrates that this "philosophy of urban life" and its cultural representation is tacitly a white philosophy. Though the postwar period saw large migrations of blacks to Northern cities, their appearance in the genre happens rarely enough to suggest a cultural version of 1960s "urban renewal" policies, or what James Baldwin called "Negro removal" (227). As earlier chapters showed the apartment in dialogue with the suburb, here the tenement, in films like A Raisin in the Sun and Watermelon Man, becomes the other space that helps to define the African American apartment (as the business practice of redlining made the suburbs an impossible choice for blacks). These films critique the status quo, Wojcik notes, showing the failure not only of "access to different neighborhoods, but access to an ideal of the urban," the kind described by Jacobs but unavailable to all (at least, not yet).
The Apartment Plot is a deeply researched and engaging volume standing at the busy intersection of film, cultural, and urban studies (though the film studies thoroughfare is the widest). Reading it will give city dwellers a renewed sense of why they put up with it, and any film lover a wealth of films, both classic and forgotten, to see with fresh eyes.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2011|
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