Monday, January 1, 2007
An interview with Subdivided filmmaker Dean Terry
"This is my little experience. It's not journalism, it's not objective, it's not any of those things. It's my view, my little experience over a three year period: there it is."
In his academic guise, Dean Terry is Assistant Professor of Aesthetic Studies in the Art & Technology program at UTD. Further, he is Director of the Online Worlds Lab, which has something to do with a metaverse which recently premiered a totally non-real (in the taking-up-physical-space sense) art gallery. Kind of like a museum within a dream made e-flesh.
More to the current topic, Dean is a filmmaker with something to say about the character and quality of modern living, and the spaces we as a society design for it. Dean's latest project, Subdivided, airs on KERA at 8 p.m. Wednesday night.
Subdivided takes an informed look at the current state of suburban life, concentrating on the way architectural and community design affect people and their social interactions. The film contrasts new residential developments, such as those emerging from the prairie on the far commuter fringes of the metroplex, with older communities where historic, character-rich homes are being gradually replaced by cookie cutter McMansions, or "starter castles," as one of his interview subjects colorfully refers to them.
If you live in a gated community or a new suburban development and find yourself feeling isolated and strangely removed from any sense of community; if you can't understand why nobody on your block spends time outside, or smiles at you when you bump into them, or bothers to introduce themselves; if you're tired of worrying about global warming and the war in Iraq and the bird flu and the imminent collapse of the global economy (and who is not?), then here's a new ill to consider: the design of your residential neighborhood and the very house (or castle) you live in may be adversely affecting your interaction skills, and those of your family. It might even be contributing to the local crime rate.
With all this in mind after viewing a pre-release version of Subdivided on DVD, I had an opportunity to meet with Dean Terry and ask him a few questions.
PegasusNews: Was it your personal experience as a homeowner that led you to move forward with this project?
Dean Terry: I grew up in Little Forest Hills. That was the 'hood for me. I used to hike the creeks with friends. That was my stomping ground 'til college. When I moved back to the Dallas area (after living in California), one of my first experiences with people in my new subdivision was when I saw this guy across the street mowing his lawn. I figured this would be a good opportunity to introduce myself, but as I walked across the street and the guy saw me, he turned and mowed his way into he back yard.
This is by no means something isolated to North Texas - during research for the film I learned about attitudes like this all over the U.S. in suburban residential areas.
Anger is a great motivator. I was angry because I came back (to Dallas), had settled down, was ready to make a family. I was ready to settle in and be part of the community. But there was no community.
First I was mad at the people (in the neighborhood). I was ready to scream at them. Then I learned that there were macro reasons inherent in the philosophy and execution of neighborhood design that were directly responsible for their isolationist behavior. The interaction dynamic functioned in a fashion similar to that of apartment complexes; I could tell there was something broken.
Through research into community design, I found ways that the problem could be corrected: by designing communities better to begin with, and by looking around for examples of how to build stronger communities.
As I watched people trying to build a stronger community over the course of making the film, my dominant emotion changed from anger to inspiration. It's not a bad thing to want to be somewhat insular & isolated, but I think most people want some kind of connection, and to feel a sense of place.
PN: In regard to Little Forest Hills: you've shown that there are certainly some eccentric people in that neighborhood.
DT: Not a freak show, but to show that people feel a freedom to express themselves. And that's kind of oppressive, when people don't feel any comfort at all, not even to go outside.
It's happening everywhere. How you design things affects everything, especially the community. If you just come in and build something so that it will sell - you do have the right to do that, but you don't know how it will affect the community. People get upset, leave. Communities are very fragile. Connections start to crack.
PN: Where was the subdivision that you moved to when you returned to Dallas, where you found the neighbors to be so insular?
DT: I debated whether to mention that in the film and decided not to. It was the Bent Tree area.
PN: When you began the film project, who was your target audience? Do you feel that the PBS viewing audience is perfect for a film like Subdivided?
DT: I want people who live in those places to be able to identify what's happening, and to know there are other ways to design places. You should tell your city councilperson to get themselves educated, to understand that you don't have to build the same kind of subdivision sprawl-pattern all through Frisco or wherever they're going.
A lot of developers actually know about these things. I interview a really good one in there, Bill Gietema... they actually understand it. They're fighting against the zoning. The whole system is set up to be very, very efficient, but it's all based on this idea of how you're supposed to build things. It's really destructive to community. You drive long distances, you go to school over here and you go to work way over here. The new urbanists who I introduce in the film, the leading new urbanist says, 'No! We want to do all those things together, we want to be able to walk.' So I want people in those neighborhoods to see it.
It's happening! You get these people together - I've seen them at conferences - they listen, they learn, but it's turning this machine around, this engine that's been going in the same direction for so long.
I think the PBS audience will be very receptive to it, of course. I shot 60 hours (of video), and I'll have a lot of it, for free, on the net: YouTube and Google, so I"ll have a bunch of other content that's just out there. There's this fun thing out there now with Fred Curchack, the well-known performance artist in town - I had him reenact road rage. I couldn't use it in the film but he did such a great job I had to keep it and it's on the web. It's sort of making fun of the whole road rage thing.
One day just as almost a performance piece myself I had a friend drive me during traffic - because I never do that - at 4:30 or 5 p.m. from downtown all the way to as far as the suburbs go, all the way up 75, just to feel that thing, and it's an awful thing - it's really awful. So there's one of the best arguments right there for changing the layout of a community. Just do that.
PN: If the current state of things collapses, new urbanism gains favor and destinations aren't spread out all over the map, do you see a great contracting taking place? Will people retreat to the urban areas?
DT: I don't know. There's different ideas about that. I'm not really an expert on how that would happen. That's an economics question. I think you'd see them trying to make it so most of the things they do are much closer to each other. That's the basic idea.
The extreme view is maybe James Howard Kunstler's, who's written a well-known book called The Long Emergency. His theory is basically energy prices are gonna get completely out of hand. Even if part of his idea is right it's gonna get much harder and much more expensive to keep these places, and to drive, and all the energy costs.
PN: How about Desperate Housewives? The folks on Wisteria Lane manage to operate under subdivision rules and yet remain neighborly; they know each other by name, etc. How do you explain it?
DT: Well, some of them (subdivisions) work, I'm not saying they're all like that, just because they're newer. It's really like dependent on the people who are there and how much leadership is in the area. That's why I showed Little Forest Hills as an example. It's almost like the tone, the neighborhood style - if you live there, you feel like you have to match the style - if everyone's cold and indifferent, that's the way you're going to be. For the most part you're gonna do the same thing or get really mad like I did.
Some people like to have their fences really high and not say "hello" to anybody, and that's O.K., but not everyone wants that. This house I moved into right next to UTD over here has much lower fences. It's really kinda nice. You can see around, see everybody. And there's no trees to contribute to privacy.
The leadership thing is really important. Every neighborhood has their neighborhood association; some of them can certainly be oppressive, but sometimes... I want some of those people to see the film, because the ones in the neighborhood where I was (Bent Tree), I don't think got it at all. There was a higher and higher crime rate over there, constantly, and the response is, you know, more security systems, big bars on the windows, instead of what like Robert Putnam says, the leading social scientist in this whole area, who I interviewed - he has this thing in there, the number one determiner for the crime rate is how many people in the neighborhood know each others' first names. Not how many police, not how many alarms - we need to figure out ways to strengthen our community bonds, rather than figure out ways to create higher walls and more gates and all those kinda things. It just doesn't work: all you do is lock yourself in and become more fearful, and what you really should be striving for is to be more open to each other, rather than more closed.
So in Little Forest Hills, their leadership style is wholly inclusive - it's the opposite, and it's worked! I show Scot Williams down there, who's one of the leaders, and MAN does he work hard! They have 8 or 12 that are very engaged, maybe 20 or 30 that are sort of engaged... they all kind of cycle in and out as to whoever's really on fire, so whoever those neighborhood leaders are, they have to kinda "get it." And I hope the film helps with that.
PN: It seems so common sense, but apparently a lot of people don't get it.
DT: The common reaction is "more gates, more fences" - there's a misunderstanding at a fundamental level.
The point is overcoming the design deficit - there's a design deficit that leads to dysfunction, and understanding that you really have that. It's like, "O.K, we understand that we can't walk anywhere, we understand there's no cafe, no store, no anything. The streets aren't walkable, they're dangerous." All those things are bad for the community. They're TERRIBLE! There's no parks.
The problem is the people these city leaders go to first are people who work with traffic. So they figure out the traffic part first, what's good for cars and how that works, and then maybe they'll consider putting a crosswalk in or something. And it's sort of the opposite, really, of what it should be.
PN: It's funny, speaking of creeks, I used to collect fossils, and the area around Las Colinas, for instance, is a great place to hunt because of the strata - and there's all these creeks cutting through the topsoil exposing the rock, but when you actually park your car out there and get out to walk around you immediately attract the attention of the cops - because you're not driving, you're actually out walking. And apparently you're infringing on some kind of sacred property rights, though nothing is actually posted.
DT: Texas is a rough place to have... yeah, I grew up hiking around in the creeks too and I think that doing anything in nature that's not highly controlled nature seems very suspicious here.
People wonder why land in California is so expensive, well there's a reason for that, a lot of the land has been left alone and not developed. You've gotta take care of what you have.
PN: You mention isolation vs. community, and you talk about the neighborhood associations and such, but you don't really talk about church as an institution that might contribute to pulling people together.
DT: There's quite a few of those: things I didn't mention at all, but I did give a lot of thought to church, and in fact I went to one, hung out in one, a big one, a huge thing that looks like an aircraft hangar - Prestonwood Baptist, a GIGANTIC thing - it looks like another airport. It's huge. It's a megachurch. I did go there and sorta hang out. I think churches can be good and bad: I think they can be good if they're inclusive, open, helpful and provide a center for community activity. When we were in Little Forest Hills, the churches there allowed the community groups to meet there and do things. They even showed my film when it premiered in Little Forest Hills in the main part of one of these churches, which was weird for me because I haven't gone to a traditional church in a long time - but it was nice of them to do that, and they were very helpful.
But at the same time, and Robert Putnam talks about this, churches can also be very divisive. They can have a lot of views that lead to separation from one another. And I think, to be blunt, some of the Southern Baptist churches do just that. You know, they're not inclusive of gays, things like that, not good. And they have a long history of that. Robert Putnam says there's "bonding social capital" and "bridging social capital" - they're really good at bonding, but not very good at reaching out to people and bridging. Some churches, not all.
To do that in the film would have taken so much time, I just didn't deal with it. I will put some of it on the web - in fact I"ll probably write a little piece about this and put it on the web, to provide filler. Because the other big thing is media. One of the biggest reasons we are so isolated is because of media, television, things like that. I'm big on technology, and design can connect people and design can separate people. People design cell phones, iPods, interfaces, software, everything - and so I'm real concerned right now, my next project is technology that connects us, rather than disconnects us. So I'm gonna have a section on the web that deals with media, I interviewed one of the leading media critics, and I'll put that online, but it was just too much to bite off (for this film).
PN: That's you narrating the film, right?
DT: Yeah. It's highly annoying, but yes it's me. I wanted to have a personal voice in there. As bad as my voice is, I wanted to have it in there.
PN: I didn't think it was bad at all. But it is recognizably you.
DT: And just on that note, that's the whole point. The thing in the program that I do, the emerging media program, is establishing or empowering authentic personal voices. The film is trying to be that. This is my little experience. It's not journalism, it's not objective, it's not any of those things. It's my view, my little experience over a three year period: there it is.
PN: It came across that way. I see you did the music for the film. What's your musical background, that would prepare you for that part of the project?
DT: I've had a recording studio, I've produced records out in California, and I've made recordings of myself since 1985 up at UNT - I studied music at UNT, so I have a long history of making recordings.
PN: Yeah, you were really jammin' there on the last tune in the closing credits.
DT: All a capella guitar - just a guitar and no other instruments, but for the next film - I've built my studio up again. This one, the music is very minimalist, just for time's sake, 'cause I could spend a year or more, just on music. I'm very meticulous with the music. So instead of being meticulous I thought I'd be more improvisational.
PN: I thought it was great. I enjoyed it.
DT: Thank you. Wait for the CD! No, I'm just kidding.
PN: Where does a $1 billion sports stadium fit into the new urbanism scheme of things?
DT: That's an ugly question. I'll have to think about that. That sounds like an Andres Duany question. I have no idea. I'm not gonna answer, but thanks for warning me on that one - that and the Desperate Housewives question, I'll have to be prepared for those.
PN: There's an artsy "unsteadicam" video sequence in the middle of the film where you're tracing a white stripe across an empty parking lot, the camera's floating along, and then it tracks up a light pole.
DT: Most of the video I've done for a long time is very experimental, and so I wanted to have some of those elements in there wherever I could have them. The visual part was very important to me, how it looks... especially the non-people part. I really tried to work hard with the camera work and did almost 98% of it myself.
PN: It flowed really well. That part in the parking lot made me sit up and take notice.
DT: That comes out of my experimental background - that's really like a performance art piece, with me going to the parking lot - I call it 'drawing a line' - I use it in my classes, I tell my students to go out and draw a line with their video cameras. It's just a way to get away from the voices and the ideas and see something purely visual. Like an interlude. My other favorite shot is during the parade sequence, where Gary Griffith is up there talking, and I pull backwards past all the kids on their bikes. If you watch it - it goes by pretty quick - all the stuff (like kids getting on their bikes and riding off) happens at just the right moment. I was walking backwards and not looking behind me and just going.
I spent a lot of time just hanging out in parking lots and weird places way up north, and stuff like that.
The project actually got started with still photography. I was so assaulted by the environment, now I'm sort of used to it, which is scary, I HATE being used to it, but I was like, 'Wow, it's so stark!' So I just went around with my camera when we first moved here and just took pictures, like the backs of Targets, these houses with no trees, all this stuff.
PN: I like the photo used on the DVD jacket (pre-release version), in the parking lot, with the single tree growing out of the middle of all the concrete.
DT: That's my favorite photograph. It's a parking lot up in Frisco.
PN: It says a lot, all by itself.
DT: It's my favorite photo, that's why it's on there. And so I took lots of photos like that... and that's before I knew it was gonna be a film.
Quotes from Subdivided interviewees:
WILLIAM GIETEMA JR.: "Homebuilders are looking for as few regulations as possible, and they're not interested in offering a lot of choices."
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER ON THE CURRENT STATE OF SUBURBIA: "It's a cartoon of country life in a cartoon of a country house. The dirty secret of it is it's very disappointing. It's less clear where 'home' is. We live our lives in big triangles (going from home to work to shopping areas), and the triangles have gotten much larger."
ROBERT PUTNAM: "For most of the 20th century, Americans were becoming more and more connected with one another. And then suddenly, mysteriously, in the mid- to late-60's, all across America, people began doing all these things less. There's a big change in the degree to which American communities are connected with each other."
ANDRES DUANY: "We Americans know about design, except when in comes to architecture. In architecture, we're completely incompetent. The American example is a bad example for the rest of the world."
Clips from Subdivided
Ex Patriots From the Suburbs
Subdivided airs on KERA 13 on Wednesday, January 3.