Is the Home Ever Not Precarious? The Long Arc of Genres of Precarity

Beggars of Life (William Wellman, 1928)
Tracing the historical roots of the current cinema of precarity via the image of the tramp, Pamela Robertson Wojcik argues that narratives about the unhomed have always been central to American film.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “Media, Precarity and the Home.” To read the introduction and other posts in the series, click here.]

This roundtable begins with the premise that “the precarity of home” has become an especially prominent subject in film and media representations in recent years. Certainly, as Anna Viola Sborgi indicates in her introduction, there has been a spate of films concerned with precarity and homelessness, and these films have been engendered by changes in the economic system ushered in by neoliberal policies, including the loss of a safety net and labor rights that have dismantled job security and created deep inequities and instability; diminished governmental support for housing and increased privatized gentrification; and also a more generalized feeling of “ontological condition of vulnerability” attendant upon living “without a protective net provided by others, by social caring, and collective protection.”1Gabriel Giorgi, “Improper Selves: Cultures of Precarity,” Social Text 31, no. 2 (Summer 2013): 71.

I have discussed precarity in contemporary cinema by focusing on mobility in films about precarious youth.2See Pamela Robertson Wojcik, “Perpetual Motion: Mobility, Precarity, and Slow Death Cinema,” in Media Crossroads: Intersections of Space and Identity on Screen, edited by Angel Matos, Paula Massood, and Pamela Robertson Wojcik (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021), 111-126; and Pamela Robertson Wojcik and Paula Massood, “Note from the Editors: Precarious Mobilities,” Feminist Media Histories: An International Journal 7, no. 3 (Summer 2021): 1-18 However, while we can discuss the specifics of this historical moment and these recent films, neither housing insecurity nor cinematic investment in the same are new. My current book project Unhomed: Mobility and Placelessness in American Cinema examines different cycles of American film that show characters as unhomed and placeless, mobile rather than fixed: failing, resisting, or opting out of the mandate for a home of one’s own. I examine tramps, soldiers returning home from World War II, hitchhikers, street people, and the precariat in five distinct film cycles. These films suggest the degree to which ideas of home and fixity in America depend upon othering certain modes of mobility while promulgating others. They show a tension in the American imaginary between viewing homelessness as, on the one hand, deviance, or threat, and, on the other, as freedom and independence; and provide ways of thinking about what it means to be domiciled, who can choose to be unhomed, and how mobility is defined through privilege and precarity. Rather than marginal, these cycles of films about unhomed figures remind us that genres of precarity have been central to the American cinema (and American story) all along. These precarious narratives, in effect, unhome dominant narratives about American cinema as a cinema focused on ideologies of success and social mobility.

Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, 1944)

Home is the structuring absence that shapes the sense of being unhomed, but it is a mistake to think of home as a simple or stable construct. If, as John David Rhodes argues, “the detached single family home is one of the most powerful metonymic signifiers of American cultural life — of the dreams of privacy, enclosure, freedom, autonomy, independences, stability, and prosperity that animate national life in the United States,”3 John David Rhodes, Spectacle of Property: The House in American Film (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), viii. it is also the case that home is represented most often as troubled, precarious, invaded, porous, or otherwise unstable. As Rhodes says, in most film genres — melodrama, film noir, musicals, horror, the western — “we are confronted immediately with the problem of how one is to live in a house, whether one is to live in a house — in one house or another, or even whether to live in a house at all” (italics mine) 4John David Rhodes, “‘Concentrated Ground’: Grey Gardens and the Cinema of the Domestic,” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 47, No. 1 (Spring 2006): 102.. Some of the most idyllic treatments of home in American cinema are films that place tremendous pressure on the stability of the home. Think of Meet Me in St. Louis (Minnelli, 1944) where the family home comes under threat by the patriarch’s desire to advance his career, risking especially the romantic investments of his daughters, but also displacing his children from the comforts and familiarity of home and neighborhood; or You Can’t Take it With You (Capra, 1938) where a banker’s son romances a woman while, unbeknownst to him, his father tries to force the family out of their home for a real estate development. Both of these films invest the family home with tremendous affective power, but do so by showing it — and the family ties it represents — as vulnerable.

Modern Times (Charlie Chaplin, 1936)

In Unhomed, I discuss the long cycle of tramp films from 1895 to about World War II, comprising hundreds of films with tramps as main characters. Home is sometimes seen as out of reach due to the tramps’ poverty. As Susan Fraiman says, describing shelter writing, when characters are unable or unwilling to take home as a “given,” imagining or contriving a home becomes all the more urgent and precious.5Susan Fraimain, Extreme Domesticity: A View from the Margins (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 14, 25. In Beggars of Life (Wellman 1928), as the tramp Boy (Richard Arlen) and Girl (Louise Brooks) — disguised as a boy and wanted for murder — settle in to sleep inside a haystack, the Girl opines that she knows what she wants: “A place to be quiet, clean, a place to call home. I never had it – that’s why I want it so much.” Her desire is never fulfilled, even as she escapes on a train to Canada. In Modern Times (Chaplin, 1936), Chaplin’s Tramp and the Gamin (Paulette Godard) fantasize about a home. As they sit on a curb, he asks her where she lives. “No place — anywhere,” she answers. Just then, a couple step out of their house, the man in neat work clothes, overalls and a jacket, the woman in a gingham dress and crisp white apron. They hug and wave goodbye. The Tramp initially mocks them, imitating the woman’s loving exclamations, then asks, “Can you imagine us in a little home like that?” A conjoined fantasy sequence follows in which we see the Tramp, wearing overalls and a neckerchief, situated in a cozy home. He plucks a grapefruit from a tree, then calls a cow to the kitchen door to fill a pitcher of milk, and eats grapes that dangle from above the door; while the Gamin, wearing a pretty patterned dress and apron, with a bow in her hair, cooks two enormous steaks. Their fantasy of domestic plenitude makes them conscious of their hunger, and the Tramp declares “I’ll do it. We’ll get a home even if I have to work for it,” as the inevitable arrival of a policeman interrupts their idyll.

But while the tramp can be seen as someone who has failed to achieve the American dream of success and home ownership, he — and tramps are most often white men — is more often shown as resisting, opting out, offering a critique of the necessity for home. “Hobohemia,” a term popularized in the 1920s by Nels Anderson’s book The Hobo: The Sociology of the Homeless Man (1923), was identified with “absence of feminine manners, morals and domesticity.” 6Todd DePastino, Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 83. In the discourse around the tramp scares, the tramp was seen a “super-mobile” masculine figure aligned with more general associations between public space, mobility, and masculinity, as well as freedom and authenticity.7Tim Cresswell, The Tramp in America (London: Reaktion Books, 2001), 13, 97.

Suspense (Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley, 1913)

The tramp, sometimes, presents a threat to domesticity as he invades domestic spaces as in D.W. Griffith’s The Lonely Villa (1909) or Lois Weber’s Suspense (1913), both of which adopt a triangulated structure with the tramp threatening the female domestic space while the man is outside the home. Alternately, as the tramp cycle matures, the tramp often provides a cure for domesticity in crisis. In My Man Godfrey (La Cava, 1936), for example, the imposter tramp Godfrey (William Powell), secretly a wealthy Bostonian, discovers authenticity and grit through homeless tramps then teaches the same to the wealthy Bullock family when they hire him as a butler. Godfrey saves the family from financial ruin, humbles a “Park Avenue brat,” and brings much needed discipline to the screwball disorder of the home. Both the tramps’ invasion of the home and their ministrations to dysfunctional homes reveal the home’s vulnerability and precarity.

Tramp films are just one instance of genres of precarity. I contend that rather than marginal to American cinema, genres of precarity have been central to it and that we can trace a through line from tramp films to other cycles of films about veterans, drifters, hitchhikers, and street people, to contemporary films of the precariat. The question remains for such films, then and now, whether these narratives serve as a call to action or merely work in a manner typical of exploitation cinema, to moralize while they titillate.

Notes[+]

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