This short excerpt is from Places Journal's article "Prop and Property: The house in American cinema, from the plantation to Chavez Ravine," which in turn was adapted from John David Rhodes' book Spectacle of Property. The article, which investigates the many layers of property inherent in the production and viewing of movies, investigates in particular the films Gone with the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird, revealing how their themes of race and property are made even more complex by the practicalities of Hollywood filmmaking.
Perhaps the most mysterious and desired feature of housing is the privacy of property, and especially the property of and in the house. Property, however, is fungible and alienable. Whatever is promised by the house is radically susceptible to violation, displacement, and loss. Often the experience of property’s violation or redefinition involves an unwelcome reminder that the house is not a very private place after all. Partly we know this: we have all spent time in living rooms, on porches, or in other spaces of the house in which it is nearly impossible to say where the public ends and the private begins. But when property’s inherent instability is experienced vividly—whether in “real life” or in representation—we are forced to confront the tenuous relationship between public and private, as well as the tenuousness of all property relations as such.
Cinema heightens the ambivalent but powerful pleasure we take in looking at property. The private property of the house is already a spectacle, of course, as the house is a medium for making visible the wealth of its owners and inhabitants. In a movie theater, this spectacular function is multiplied. We pay to occupy a space owned by another in order to look at something—the film—owned by yet another (at least after the bust-up of the vertically integrated Hollywood monopolies). When we see a house onscreen, the property relations implicit in the seemingly simple activity of moviegoing proliferate into confusion. And yet there is a kind of clarity in what is at stake here. In purchasing a movie ticket we pay for the right to occupy a space in order to gaze up at a space we can never occupy.
This is the story cinema has been mutely telling all along—a story about the house, the security and ease it promises, and the horrible anxieties produced when we try to force the house to deliver on those promises.
Read the rest of the article on Places Journal to discover Hollywood's complicated relationship with property, race, and eminent domain.