Yesterday we screened Robert Todd’s Master Plan at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies & Planning, and I’m still thinking about it. It’s a beautiful documentary of the best kind: one that presents stirring images and thought-provoking juxtapositions, but once stirred and provoked the viewer’s thoughts are allowed to marinate a while. The film shies away from any pat conclusions, seeming much more comfortable presenting a landscape of places, ideas, and lines of inquiry for us to wander and ponder along with Todd, rather than a single “punch line” he wants us to “get”; I was reminded of the line from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where Pirsig talks about the importance of thinking about “what things are,” and not just “what things mean.”
Indeed, the film had a certain Zen-like quality, both in its attention to small details and quietly “just being” in the places it explores, as well as its non-attachment to a single-purpose narrative. Although described as “a feature length film about housing,” its scope extends far beyond simply looking at physical housing: its subject is homes, habitats, communities, neighborhoods, buildings, landscapes, and the ways people interact in, around, and with them; the bulk of the footage presents a wonderfully rich portrait — or perhaps nonstop pan — of the ways humans live in places. Beyond all this — and the luxuriously decompressed pace takes plenty of time meandering before arriving at this point — the focal point of the film finally settles on a prolonged meditation on the homes and communities of incarcerated individuals, which is apparently a longer-term project for Todd. (An earlier film, In Loving Memory, explored the experiences of prisoners on death row; his next major project will examine ways that former prisoners are re-integrated into their home communities.)
In a departure from the rest of the film, a near-final segment on a violence- and poverty-prevention program in Chelsea and Springfield, MA known as ROCA seems to turn the narrative of the story over to the organization’s deputy director, Yusef Id-Deen. Prior to this point, the camera shied away from nearly all of the actual people, only glimpsing the lonely echoes and negative space and residual traces of residents: an empty swing swaying, a shadow tracing across a kitchen floor, a door half-open; honestly, I can’t think of another film that was more about people and showed less of them. In the ROCA segment, however, we see the faces of our subject head on, especially through the charismatic persona of Id-Deen, who seems able to draw and hold the previously-shy camera. Himself a former criminal and convict who found a path out through study, work, clean-living, and determination, he provides a moral framework for the film (although if truth be told, this viewer in particular was still digging the more Zen-vibe of the earlier scenes, and would have been content to marinate a bit longer). The camerawork continues to be visually captivating,1 presenting images of the slow and painstaking process to restore our broken housing, broken landscapes, and broken neighborhoods — all of which patiently remind us of the potential to repair our broken individuals, broken homes, and broken lives as well, provided, of course, we are able to be ever-mindful of both the details and the relationships involved.
1 Really no pun intended: the film deserves better that that…