Hollywood’s Nomads: On Pamela Robertson Wojcik’s “Unhomed”

By Ned ResnikoffApril 10, 2024

Hollywood’s Nomads: On Pamela Robertson Wojcik’s “Unhomed”

Unhomed: Cycles of Mobility and Placelessness in American Cinema by Pamela Robertson Wojcik

IN ADDITION TO being the capital of the American film industry, Los Angeles is the epicenter of unsheltered homelessness in the United States. Last year’s point-in-time count—a rough survey of who is homeless on a particular January day—identified more than 52,000 unsheltered people in Los Angeles County. The number of Angelenos who experience unsheltered homelessness at some point over the course of an entire year is likely much, much higher.

As homelessness has grown worse, it has come to dominate L.A. politics. Polls in 2022 found that a majority of voters considered it the top issue in Los Angeles’s most recent mayoral election, and both the city and the county have formally declared states of emergency. And yet, for all the visible homelessness in Hollywood (1,374 homeless individuals, according to the L.A. region’s point-in-time count), homeless people rarely show up in contemporary Hollywood movies. As Pamela Robertson Wojcik writes in her new book Unhomed: Cycles of Mobility and Placelessness in American Cinema, “Hollywood has engaged in a kind of NIMBY denial of the discomfort close to home.”

In Unhomed, Wojcik demonstrates at length that Hollywood’s denialism is a break from precedent: earlier American films show a consistent preoccupation, even fascination, with homelessness and housing insecurity. A professor of film studies at the University of Notre Dame, Wojcik is the author of two other books about the role of home and place in American cinema—Fantasies of Neglect: Imagining the Urban Child in American Film and Fiction (2016) and The Apartment Plot: Urban Living in American Film and Popular Culture, 1945 to 1975 (2010). In her latest, she traces the evolution of film’s itinerant wanderers from the tramps and hobos of the silent era up to the titular drifters of Nomadland (2020). According to the book’s introduction, “Unhomed is about a curiously neglected dominant in American culture: mobility without Manifest Destiny, movement without terminus, geographic mobility that does not produce hope of social mobility.”

As that sweeping statement makes clear, Unhomed has more on its mind than homelessness, strictly defined. Wojcik also devotes attention to popular depictions of hippie hitchhikers, World War II veterans struggling to reintegrate into society, and members of the precariat scraping by in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. What unites these marginal figures is how they experience “the physical dislocation and the condition of being unhomed prior to, or instead of, finding a new location.” Wojcik’s approach allows us to follow, in exhaustive detail, the evolution of the female hitchhiker in cinema; to examine how depictions of race evolved in movies about homeless people as the demographics of the US homeless population shifted; and to zoom in on a range of microgenres that have cropped up through the years.

It’s a broad net to cast, encompassing as it does the entire history of American cinema. And while Wojcik makes no claims to comprehensiveness, she covers an astonishing number of films over the course of Unhomed, ranging from Charlie Chaplin’s silent movies to postwar screwball comedies, 1970s exploitation flicks, 1980s horror shlock, and modern-day arthouse features. To the amateur, the relentless cascade of film citations can become stultifying after a while—imagine listening to a friend summarize the plot of a movie they saw recently, and then imagine if your friend had seen every movie recently—but this is not a book for the casual film buff.

Wojcik’s goal is not to read deeply into a handful of cherished films but to tease out hidden patterns across entire genres, from their most celebrated exemplars to their justly forgotten detritus. In one particularly amusing section, she looks at the late 20th-century crop of movies centered on “a bromance between rich/housed and poor/unhoused men.” Trading Places (1983) is the obvious example, but Wojcik sets that film against three other riffs on the same theme: Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), The Fisher King (1991), and With Honors (1994). After briefly summarizing the premise of each movie, she identifies their shared narrative architecture: a rich man encounters an unhoused man, and they transform each other in dramatic but predictable ways. The unhoused man “undergoes a makeover” and, in turn, “brings authenticity and wisdom to the rich man’s life.” To expunge whatever homoerotic subtext lies behind the bromance, the rich man (or, as in Trading Places, both the rich man and the unhoused man) is slotted into a heterosexual pairing with a beautiful woman.

Here, Wojcik broadens her analysis to tell us what this story says about popular perceptions of homelessness (emphasis mine):

As in the romantic comedies discussed above, the homeless bromances navigate yuppie guilt and envy, and, by extension, the audience’s guilt and envy, through narratives that enable individual homeless people to be uplifted by and absorbed into the rich person’s world. The homeless character serves to judge, but not condemn, the yuppie lifestyle. Rather than address inequality itself as a problem, these films offer the homeless person the opportunity to gain access to a life of comfort and security. The homeless characters are usually disconnected from the larger world of homelessness; they are mostly lone men. To the degree that the homeless person is seen as part of a community […] that community is left behind as the poor man joins the rich.

Wojcik structures her work around five “cycles” arranged in chronological order, one being “World War II Mobilization and Homecoming as Social Problem.” Her approach is mostly successful when the cycles are regarded in isolation. But the conceptual glue holding them together—the very idea of being “unhomed”—can become too wooly at times. Is someone unhomed when they go on a long road trip? What about a short-term subletter? And if a traumatized war veteran can be both unhomed and stably housed, what does that mean for the alienated suburbanites of various middlebrow dramedies? Perhaps the book’s most jarring moment comes when Wojcik refers to “the forced rehoming of Japanese Americans into internment camps,” “forced rehoming” being a strange euphemism for imprisonment.

That said, there is a deeper, if unremarked upon, continuity between Wojcik’s cycles: each concerns phenomena that unfolded in the immediate vicinity of Hollywood. The first silent films about tramps and hobos premiered roughly around the same time that Skid Row became a major hub for homelessness in Los Angeles. The veteran housing crisis that Wojcik covers in her second cycle drove California’s postwar suburban building boom. Her third cycle focuses on hippie hitchhikers; surely, I don’t need to belabor the role of hippies in California history.

Hollywood’s treatment of social issues famously reflects the worldview of people who live in Los Angeles and work in the film industry, but hers remains an essential point to make, as it raises a set of deeper questions about cinematic depictions of “unhomed” people. What is the true nature of the social transformations covered in Unhomed, and how does it differ from its dramatization in film? How does homelessness in California differ from homelessness in other parts of the country, and how do California’s idiosyncrasies bias the version that shows up on-screen? How do movies, in turn, shape the United States’ social and political response to homelessness?

The fourth and fifth cycles catch up to contemporary homelessness. Skid Row’s long history aside, unsheltered homelessness is very much a new thing: as Peter H. Rossi writes in Down and Out in America: The Origins of Homelessness (1989), up until the late 1970s, “the homeless by and large were familyless persons living in very inexpensive (and often inadequate) housing, mainly cubicle and SRO [single-room occupancy] hotels.” It was only in the last quarter of the 20th century that “literal homelessness”—that is to say, unsheltered homelessness and emergency shelter residence—became a widespread urban phenomenon.

Not many Americans today realize that the current homelessness crisis is of such recent vintage, and Wojcik offers a helpful corrective to her readers by taking a longer view. She does her readers a further service by accurately observing that modern homelessness is not the result of a sudden spike in urban drug use and mental illness. (If substance use and mental illness were the primary drivers of homelessness, then West Virginia, with its staggering opioid crisis, would have a higher per capita homelessness rate than California.) But Wojcik errs in her diagnosis of how modern homelessness emerged. Her causal explanation, while not entirely wrong, is incomplete.

Wojcik blames Reagan-era increases in poverty, “changes in social policy,” and deregulatory neoliberal housing policies. Besides Reagan, the other villains in this story are yuppie gentrifiers; Wojcik observes that “[t]he rise of yuppies, and especially their role in gentrifying neighborhoods, was viewed as a correlative to the displacement of the homeless.” Notably, she refers to “urban renewal and gentrification” as a linked pair, as if they are fundamentally the same process.

But while Reagan’s crusade against the welfare state certainly didn’t make homelessness any better, the beginning of the literal homelessness era slightly predates his inauguration. As for “urban renewal and gentrification,” that phrase is closer to the mark but still misleading. Urban renewal was an intentional process of neighborhood destruction that eradicated hundreds of thousands of housing units. Gentrification came later, when the populations of major US cities started adding new residents again and local housing stock failed to grow commensurately.

It’s important to be clear on this sequencing because it helps us identify the real culprit in the modern homelessness crisis—one that Wojcik fails to mention. I’m referring to the latticework of land use rules that preserve urban housing scarcity.

American cities didn’t just destroy housing during the urban renewal era: they made it effectively illegal to rebuild what was lost. From 1960 to 1980, policymakers in Los Angeles alone slashed the city’s “zoned capacity”—the maximum number of housing units the city could legally accommodate according to local zoning—by more than 60 percent. As a result, the housing supply in Los Angeles continued to decline even as white yuppies started moving back into cities and bidding up the cost of existing homes. The current housing shortage, and the resulting homelessness crisis, followed.

It might strike readers as pedantic to spend so much time on the history of US housing policy while reviewing a book from a film studies imprint. But it’s important to get the story right, and not just because of what the cause and effect tells us about how to end the homelessness crisis. If restrictive land use rules are largely to blame for homelessness in Los Angeles, that has interesting implications for Wojcik’s work—implications that can lead us to identify deeper continuities between the film cycles of Unhomed.

Consider Wojcik’s second cycle, about the rehoming of World War II veterans. In the films of this cycle, which include From Here to Eternity (1953), South Pacific (1958), and the Gene Kelly/Frank Sinatra vehicle On the Town (1949), successful rehomings largely occur in the context of monogamous, heterosexual domesticity: it takes the love of a good woman to help the veteran protagonists of these movies settle back into civilian life. This vision of salvation through the nuclear family is, of course, deeply related to the postwar mythos of the suburbs. And that in turn might lead one to reasonably ask what these movies tell us about the political forces fueling low-density development in midcentury Los Angeles and to what extent these films’ valorization of the detached, single-family home presages the era of urban renewal and downzoning.

Of course, Hollywood schmaltz didn’t cause the housing crisis. And as Wojcik notes, several of the films in her cycle about returning veterans “highlight alternate modes of living that challenge traditional single-family ideals [and] highlight the appeal of the collective.” Nonetheless, these movies—and the movies from Wojcik’s third cycle, on female hitchhikers—might offer us some information on the ideological currents that led American cities to cap urban growth, thereby producing the urban homelessness depicted in the fourth cycle.

This brings us to the present day, when homelessness is more visible than ever on the streets of Los Angeles but, as Wojcik notes, scarcely present in contemporary American cinema. As cinema loses its centrality as an American art form—as it becomes subsumed into the undifferentiated digital sludge known as “content”—other media, other content, have come to speak more directly to the country’s anxieties about homelessness.

Right-wing infotainment is currently perhaps the United States’ most economically productive pop culture genre, and it has taken up the challenge with gusto. If the quintessential portrait of American homelessness used to be well intentioned but vaguely dehumanizing, it is now more straightforwardly fascist: a rationalization for violence against the unhoused, and in some cases an outright celebration of it, as we saw with Fox News’s canonization of the man who choked Jordan Neely to death.

I’m not sure how we got here from the yuppie Prince and the Pauper high jinks of Trading Places. But Wojcik’s scholarship reminds us that popular American depictions of homelessness used to be different: flawed, shortsighted, and ambivalent, but guided by the dim sense of one another’s humanity.

LARB Contributor

Ned Resnikoff is policy director for California YIMBY, a nonprofit working to end California’s housing crisis. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Nation, The New Republic, and MSNBC.com, among other publications. He writes an occasional newsletter.


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