Tara Nova

Today's McMansion mentality owes much of its dream power to the big screen.


Nothing these days is as real or reliable as realty--it is the last bastion of our phantom economy. Yet an enormously interesting practice has crept into the art and religion of realty that makes one wonder just how real realty is, not least because it is derived from that other great cultural transaction with ghostliness and dream--the movies. I am talking about the process known as "staging the house."

If you haven't had reason to sell a property lately, then you will need some explanation of the term. It begins thus. The property-owner wishing to sell his house calls in a realtor who inspects the property, suggests an asking price and then raises the matter of "staging." "Staging?" the resident asks. This is selling a house, not putting on a play. That's when the realtor puts you straight. First, he or she points out that those colors you painted the walls are really "too personal" and suggests that, really, the way you live in your house, well, it's "unappealing." Then the realtor proposes bringing in a "stager," a person who will go through the house with some off-white paint and dispense with much of the furniture you're foolishly fond of. Don't worry, the funky stuff goes safely into storage. In its place are just one or two choice pieces--an adorable Ethiopian palm in an ocher urn, perhaps. What the stager wants is space, light and emptiness; you can't underestimate how sellable those things--the essentials of McMansions large and small--are.

What exactly is this "staging" you're paying for? It's production design. This is no longer your house that is being sold; it's a movie set, a dream house, an interior expanse where future fictional beings might live. The potential buyers who visit this "set" will have their own store of remembered movies from which they'll hopefully be inspired to conjure stories that play well here.

What I'm getting at here is that there is no luxury greater in American film than that of space, the kind of desirable emptiness in which the ardent imagination may find itself. The luminous space evoked by Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story when she shows just how dance-like, beautiful and fulfilling an ordinary walk can be when it's the 20-yard journey from the sofa to the cocktail cabinet is not really different from the miracle of discovery promised as John Wayne contemplates the land where he will create a great cattle ranch in Red River. The radiance, the energy and the liberty of so many heroes and heroines in American movies are given expression by the lounging room life has granted them. Look at My Man Godfrey, The Lady Eve or any of the other sublime stories made about the daft rich at a time when so many Americans were poor.

The Georgian historical experts advising on Gone With the Wind felt bound to tell producer David O. Selznick that the houses built for the characters, especially the famous Tara, were all considerably larger than the real plantation homes of the South. Whereupon Selznick smiled at their lack of the right sporting instinct and said, Come on, guys, this is a movie--the audience wants the houses grand because they need to be worthy of Scarlett O'Hara. In other words, Scarlett O'Hara was on her way to making the shift from being an authentic Georgian of the 1860s to being an eternal figurehead in romance. Give her room.

At a more profound level, though, nothing was more inviting about America than its prospect of actual space. Rooms and apartments in Europe have always tended to be more cramped than in America. Poverty, and its lack of privacy (and privacy is surely vital to the expansiveness of the American imagination), can be measured in square footage.

So much of the glory in American architecture--just feel the airiness in so many Frank Lloyd Wright buildings--is the boldness that can wall in such great space and make it rhyme with the far larger space beyond the space we call nature, or the frontier. A particularly beautiful expression of this, as well as one that intimates its closeness to madness and horror, is the enormity of the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Yes, those sets were actually built in Britain (because Kubrick had chosen to withdraw his family from the great spaciness of America), but surely the Overlook could only exist in America or the imagination. And it is a luxury hotel, with continental public rooms and corridors like railroads, made even emptier by being off-season. The great space houses just the three members of the Torrance family, which allows room for so many more ghosts.

But The Shining is a rare work in that it recognizes the luxury of space and begins to challenge or criticize the enlargement. Far more often, just as a matter of course, the spaces in American movies are larger than they would be in life, but large enough for the rhetoric and music of dream and advertisement. The question is, can we ever truly be large enough to command those spaces, or are we lost there, not quite at home?