The Spectacle of Property

Curator's Note

Charles and Ray Eames’s film House: After Five Years of Living (1955) opens the filmmakers' house up to the curiosity of our eyes. The film’s succession of shots that move from exterior to interior puts before us the house’s architecture and, just as importantly, its contents. This house (completed in 1949) was designed by the Eames as a contribution to the Case Study House program orchestrated by John Entenza. Its can-do, no-frills modernism (it was made entirely of industrially produced, pre-fabricated materials, ordered from suppliers, delivered already cut to size) acts as a container for the Eames’s collection of objects and artifacts, which includes works of modernist painting, folk art, utensils, toys, specimens of nature, and so on. What this glass and steel house is, in another words, is a modern(ist) iteration of the cabinet of curiosities—that most private and interior of early modern domestic spaces that existed only so to be made public, to be marveled at. The cabinet of curiosities is this house’s ontology, a grounding idea that constitutes the Eames house, tout court. The film, House, doubles the actual house’s function: it exhibits the house’s exhibition of itself and of its contents. Cinema, like this house, makes easy and transparent our access to objects that do not belong to us. House, then, in its obsessive exhibition of two people’s private property, theatricalizes cinema’s tendency to make us look at stuff that does not belong to us. Our pleasure in looking is somehow intimately connected to a masochistic investment in cinema’s rehearsal of property boundaries. (The country house visit is surely one important forerunner to movie going.) Cinema’s spectacle is, as I'd like to call it, a “spectacle of property.” Cinema, then—especially when it concentrates its attention on the house, and on this modernist house in particular, whose windows carry our gaze from inside and out and back again, uninterruptedly—is like another early modern contrivance: the ha-ha. This barrier between public and private, working and reposeful spaces generates visual pleasure by the disavowal of property boundaries, despite the fact that a ha-ha is a more efficient barrier than any fence. The Eames’s House impresses us with the sense that cinema’s extension of possession is easeful and democratically available. In fact, cinema underwrites and enacts a long-running spectacle of dispossession.



Thanks for this great post, JD, which resonates with Daniel's in some fascinating ways. I was thinking about the house in Black Girl, where the "spectacle of dispossession" underwrites the film's postcolonial perspective. We never see that chic modernist apartment as a desirable property fantasy because the film shows us from the outset that this fantasy (Diouana's fantasy of modernity) is doomed to failure. The gap between Senegal and France is as effective and as invisible as a ha-ha.

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