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Camera Obscura 16.2 (2001) 1-35

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A Taste for Shrinking: Movie Miniatures and the Unreal City

Sarah L. Higley


Discrepancy of size is a form of distortion, and all forms of distortion shock us into attention.

--Steven Millhauser, "The Fascination of the Miniature"

Now she realized that this was the world of powerful, underworld men who spent most of their time in the darkness. In their voices she could hear the voluptuous resonance of darkness, the strong, dangerous underworld, mindless, inhuman. They sounded also like strange machines, heavy, oiled. The voluptuousness was like that of machinery, cold and iron.

--D. H. Lawrence,
Women in Love

I live in a city where a special show on "the miniature" (Small Wonders ) was on display at the Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum for two years, the leavings of a woman obsessed by dolls and dollhouses. I was born in a city where the Narcissa Niblack Thorne Miniatures and the Colleen Moore Fairy Castle are prominent items at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Science [End Page 1] and Industry, respectively. I grew up in a city within easy reach of Disneyland's "Storybook Land," which floats you past Mr. Toad's miniature house; "Mott's Miniatures" at Knott's Berry Farm; Andrew Leicester's Zanja Madre, a stylized miniature cityscape; and the impressive Carole and Barry Kaye Museum of Miniatures, featuring such famous exhibits as Pat and Noel Thomas's Greene and Greene Craftsman Bungalow and the Golden Train from Copenhagen a with its little cargo of rubies and emeralds. I've known from the start that the wealthy have the best miniatures (c.f. the famous Queen's Dolls' House, built by numerous craftsmen and presented to England's Queen Mary in 1924), the most lifelike miniatures, the most detailed and enormous. Detail is important. As a child, I nursed a potent fantasy that I could have an entire doll city to play with, to see at once, and to imagine that I lived in. I drew maps of it and countless pictures of its various neighborhoods, always seen from a bird's-eye view, always at twilight, when lights from the various doors and windows would spill out into the darkened streets. This town of mine would not be your average, Pollyanna doll town, with its pristine chapels and picket fences. Nor would its houses be built in that irritating two-dimensionality, missing their back wall. My houses would be models of real homes. My town would have parks and filling stations and outlying districts. It would have its neon signs and its amber streetlights, its used-car lots, and its mournful, distant harbors and factories. Perhaps I longed for these details because of my childhood of privilege and protection. Perhaps I longed for them as a teenager because of my early memories of industrial Indiana. Maybe I shared with Gudrun Brangwen, in Lawrence's Women in Love (1921), a sense that the city was voluptuous in its grittiness, and this was my way of domesticating it. In my imaginings it became gigantic, and engulfed me. If it were spread out before me, filling up an entire football stadium in all its minutia, I would crouch down in its narrow streets, bringing my eye to doll level (as I did so often with my tissue-box houses) and try to see it as "normal." Falling into the doll town was as important to me as flying over it--why, I do not exactly know. Perhaps this article will bring me closer to finding out. For in the world of commercial miniatures, [End Page 2] I am always disappointed; but in the world of movie miniatures, my wish is granted. Watching the movies, I do not remain a crouching giant: the camera brings me down and into the horrifying and fantastical world of the set--at doll level. The movie miniature gives me a taste of shrinking, but in the safety of a virtual city. A simulated city. What it implies about not only simulation, but power...


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pp. 1-35
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2005
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