Pamela Robertson Wojcik


On her book The Apartment Plot: Urban Living in American Film and Popular Culture, 1945 to 1975

Cover Interview of November 07, 2010

The wide angle

The book addresses a few different fields of inquiry.  These include film genre, and writing on genre by people like Rick Altman.  They also include ideas about urbanism.  I focus especially on two texts, Jane Jacobs’s 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Henri Lefebvre’s Right to the City from 1968.

I focus on Jacobs, an urban planner, to emphasize the currency in mid-century thought of ideals of porousness, density, community, and public life that her work signals.  These ideals run counter to dominant notions of containment that have colored so many of our perceptions of the fifties and beyond.  The apartment plot navigates the tensions between privacy and community, loneliness and density, contact and entanglement that Jacobs describes.  The unique qualities Jacobs attributes to the city are, I argue, animated in the apartment plot, not simply as an external feature of public city life but situated inside the apartment unit and building.

My understanding of urbanism as a philosophy stems also from my reading of the French philosopher and theorist of space Lefebvre.  In analyzing the concrete problems of the city in mid-century, Lefebvre arrives at a philosophy of the urban, a conception of its ideal form.  Something of a utopian ideal, the urban figures in his writing, nonetheless, as a right, and a possibility.  Describing the right to the city as a right which defines civilization, Lefebvre characterizes it as “the right to urban life, to renewed centrality, to places of encounter and exchange, to life rhythms and time uses, enabling the full and complete usage of these moments and places.”

This interest in urbanism represents something of a shift in my work.

My first book, Guilty Pleasures, examined what I called feminist camp as both a performance practice and a mode of spectatorship.  I was interested in countering the notion of the passive or victimized female spectator, subject to her own oppression in images.  I was also interested in seeking affinities and alliances between queer and straight and gay male and female cultures as a strategic move for identity politics.

Much of my other work has been engaged by issues of performance; I edited a collection titled Movie Acting.  And I edited a collection of essays on popular music in film called Soundtrack Available.  What links these works, I think, is my interest in looking at aspects of film that have been somewhat neglected, and film’s relation to other arts, such as popular music and theater.  My perspective on those things is always informed by issues related to ideology, and especially gender.

The Apartment Plot began initially as a book on genre.  Watching That Funny Feeling one day, I was struck by its similarity to Pillow Talk.  I began thinking about many different kinds of apartment plots—Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Rear Window, Wait Until Dark, Klute, and Boys in the Band—and started seeing links between them. The exterior view of the courtyard apartment in Rear Window (Hitchcock 1954). Courtesy of the author’s research collection.

But as I began looking into the films, I became aware of how much this dominant strand of film and popular culture had been ignored or denied by the dominant reading of the period.  Most accounts of the fifties assume not only that everybody moved to the suburbs, but also that entertainment shifted its focus to the suburbs as well.  Again and again, I would read that the housewife was the dominant image of women, the suburban breadwinner the dominant male, and that all movies and TV shows looked like Leave It to Beaver.

The films pointed in a different direction—an urban fifties.  They also pointed toward a burgeoning singles culture.  Against the typical stereotype of the mandate for early marriage in the fifties, they served as a reminder that this was also the era of Playboy magazine, Sex and the Single Girl, and queer urban pulp fiction.

So, I not only examined the films as a genre, locating formal and thematic affinities among them, but also started to look at them as documenting an urban reality, on the one hand, and urban fantasy, on the other, both reflecting the urban and imagining it.

I also started thinking about the differences among urban experience for single men vs. single women, gay people vs. straight, married vs. single, and black vs. white.  So, rather than organize the chapters around subgenres—such as the musical, thriller, romance, etc.—I decided to organize them by “tenant”—bachelors, single girls, young marrieds, and African Americans.