|Movie Towns and Sitcom Suburbs: Building Hollywood’s Ideal Communities is my first book, published in October 2015 by Palgrave Macmillan. The Amazon listing is here and the publisher’s page is here. There are both hard copy and e-book versions (the Kindle version looks not to be linked from the publisher’s page, but you can get it through Amazon.)
The book ties together my interests in urban planning and cinema, looking at the depiction of cities and towns in film and TV, and considering the implications of such cultural imagery for urban planning practice.
In November 2016 the book was awarded the Cutting Edge Research and Teaching Award at the Victorian Planning Institute Awards for Excellence.
Here’s the publisher’s blurb:
The depiction of cities in the cinema has received considerable attention in cinema studies since the 1990s. However, generally the work in this area has been done by film and cultural theorists (and, to a lesser extent, academic geographers). Given my background as a practicing planner, I was interested in exploring the feedback that occurs between how we view cities and towns in culture, and how we build communities in real life. While the book is still very much a work of cinema studies, my hope is that this perspective provides a distinct approach to this area of study.
The narrative of how conceptions of community changed in both popular culture and urban planning thought weaves throughout the book. Cultural depictions of cities and towns from film and television are examined, alongside actual built examples. I also consider hybrid spaces such as studio backlots and theme parks.
The following chapter outline gives a little more detail of what is covered.
Introduction: Visions of Community
A discussion of the links between urban planners’ conceptions of cities and towns and those that circulate in popular culture, including some discussion of how the interactions between real and imagined places occur.
Chapter 1: Movie Towns
A look at the classic imagery of the small-town movie as it circulated in Hollywood movies of the early 1940s. I talk about how these depictions of community anticipated the kinds of places that would be sought out after World War II. Major works discussed include It’s a Wonderful Life, Our Town, The Magnificent Ambersons, Kings Row, Shadow of a Doubt, and Meet Me in St Louis, amongst others.
Chapter 2: Sitcom Suburbs
A look at the depictions of community in classic 1950s sitcom, centering on Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, and The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet. I look at how these paralleled the explosive growth of suburbs in the early postwar era, and consider how the sitcom suburb differed from the movie town discussed in Chapter 1.
Chapter 3: The Bad Suburb
Because we think of sitcoms when we picture 1950s imagery of suburbs, it’s often assumed that the cultural depictions of suburbs in that era were always rosy. In this chapter I trace the strain of anti-suburban imagery in films starting from immediately after world War II and extending through to the 1980s. I parallel this with the rise of broader discontent with the realities of suburban life. Major works discussed include Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, No Down Payment, All That Heaven Allows, The Swimmer, The Graduate, The Stepford Wives, and Poltergeist.
Chapter 4: The Fake Town
This chapter looks at the way media depictions crossed over into the construction of physical places. The places constructed and planned by Walt Disney are examined as examples of attempts to bridge the gap between ideals of community and everyday reality. I examine Disneyland and Disney’s ultimate planned town of EPCOT, and consider the way the reaction to these places has informed subsequent discussion about planned environments.
Chapter 5: Constructing the Movie Town
A look at the planning movement of the New Urbanism, considering the way that its imagery of community parallels the media-driven depictions of community discussed in earlier chapters. To what extent do these try to rediscover the same classic notions of community that are celebrated in film and television? I consider, in particular, two communities that have become inextricably intertwined with dialogues about fantasy spaces: the prototypical New Urbanist town of Seaside and the Disney-built community of Celebration.
Chapter 6: Deconstructing the Movie Town
If New Urbanist communities reflect deeply rooted cultural depictions of community, then surely this has helped aid their acceptance? I suggest it hasn’t been that simple. This chapter explores the criticisms of New Urbanist towns, and examines the cultural backlash against the picture-perfect planned community, as seen in films such as The Truman Show and Pleasantville.
Conclusion: The Perpetual Suburb
Given that the New Urbanists’ encounters with popular culture left them somewhat diminished, I conclude the study with a consideration of how urban planners might negotiate with media-driven ideals. I consider the explosion of anti-suburban depictions that has occurred since the late 1990s – including works such as The Ice Storm, Far From Heaven, Revolutionary Road, and Mad Men – and consider the way in the “bad suburb” has become normalised as somehow more “real” than other forms of community.
Reviews and Citations
Jim Collins, Professor of Film and television at the University of Notre Dame:
Dave Mercer, Associate Professor, RMIT University, writing in Australian Geographer:
From the citation for the 2016 PIA (Vic) Award for Planning Excellence (Cutting Edge Research and Teaching):
I am a practising urban planner, and a lecturer in urban planning at RMIT University. I am the Planning Editor of the Victorian Planning Reports. From 2007 to 2010 I was co-editor of the magazine Planning News. I have written on both film and urban planning for a variety of publications. My consultancy webpage is here.
Publisher webpage. Includes links to several e-book versions.
Amazon listing. Including hard copy and Kindle.
Readings online – for my local (Australian) readers who would like to support independent bookstores! (Note – I’m leaving this link up but it is ludicrously expensive; I suggest you try elsewhere).
Book Depository listing. (Perhaps a good option for Australians).
Page for “Screening Spaces” series, of which this is part.