In order to keep posts in this blog focused the core mission (as stated above: “cities, planning, data, communities, participation”), I’ve decided to move film reviews to the new UrbanFilm site, home of Urban//Planning Film Review. So:
In World on a Wire (reviewed previously), Rainer Werner Fassbinder explored the possibility of creating a miniature world through the use of a computer. In Hurdy Gurdy, a wonderful new short film from a German and Estonian collaboration, we get to enjoy the ways that the camera itself can render our real-world in apparent miniature (although I suspect a computer played a part as well…), giving us an entirely new and delightfully playful perspective on everyday scenes of urban life.
The film — all of four minutes long — uses stop-motion photography along with a technique that either is, or perhaps simulates, what is known as “tilt-shift” photography. The images below give a rough sense of the effect, which is to change the depth of focus and the level of detail; when combined with the increased speed and mechanical jerkiness (due to the stop-motion animation), the film transforms footage of a typical sea-side town into a magical micropolis of urban interaction: a true sidewalk ballet which unfolds as tourists arrive, streetcars come and go, crowds surge and flow, and daily life weaves and cycles in an endless state of humming activity. (The title itself refers to the mechanical music box, where one could just wind it up again and have the whole scene-and-song play over again and again.)
A number of other short videos using the tilt-shift technique can be found on-line, and quite a few choose city scenes or the movement of crowds to show off the magic; for example, see this popular short depicting a day in the life at Disney or this one showing streetlife in New York City. But it would be wrong to regard Hurdy Gurdy as nothing more than a cool demonstration of a visual trick: rather than letting the technique be the whole story, Seideneder and Pfeiffer use the effect to focus us on the beauty, color, and harmony of our ever-changing world. In a surprising way, even as we watch the film and smile and wonder and are entertained and entranced by this non-stop motion, we discover the time and space to meditate on the smallness of our individual existence and the majesty of the patterns we collectively create.
The film was screened in Somerville, MA, as part of the 2012 Independent Film Festival of Boston, and it seems to be making the rounds of similar festivals here and abroad, including Cleveland, Woodstock, Florida, Lisbon, Rotterdam, and Cannes. Look for it wherever independent films are found.
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.)
Janus/Criterion has just re-released a beautiful print of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1973 two-part film, World on a Wire, and I was fortunate enough to have 210 minutes free on a Saturday afternoon to go to the Brattle to watch it. It’s great.
Plot-wise, the film covers much of the same ground as The Matrix and Inception – although it was made 30 years earlier – but this aspect is covered pretty well by other reviews. That said, the themes of living in the dream-like reality of a world of simulacra – and the ultimate dream of escape to a higher reality – take on a special richness in Fassbinder’s work, infused with the pathos of counter-cultural 1970s Germans.1
Visually, the entire film (originally shot in square 16mm for television, like an instamatic photograph) is beautifully fake, presenting the veneer of the world that was the 1970s: plastic molded offices full of plastic molded furniture and plastic molded people with plastic, blank faces – with the exception of our hero, Fred Stiller, the new Director of the Simulacron Project at the Institute for Cybernetics and Futurology. Stiller’s work, known as Simulacron 1, is the most sophisticated computer simulation ever made, a massive program modeling a world of 10,000 “identity units” for the purpose of making accurate scientific and government projections. It’s a planner’s dream: a simulated world where real life plays out for the purposes of forecasting future conditions and testing varios alternatives (“How much steel production will the economy require in 30 years?”; “Should we build more housing units in Baden-Württemberg or Schleswig-Holstein?”; and so on).
As part of last month’s noon-to-midnight Urban Planning Movie Marathon, we screened Waste Land, which has already won a number of awards, including the 2010 Audience Award for Best World Cinema Documentary at Sundance, an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature, and the Amnesty International Human Rights Film Award given out in Berlin. It is really a great movie: clever dialog, complex characters, a well-paced story that develops over the course of the film in unpredictable ways, a compelling (but not overpowering) soundtrack, and stunning camerawork that makes great use of the entire screen. Added to all of this, it calls attention to a global policy problem that is all-too-easy to ignore: what happens to the waste we all create, and what are the environmental and human consequences of our very way of life.
The film follows Brazilian-born Brooklyn artist Vik Muniz as he travels to “Jardim Gramacho,” a sprawling landfill located outside of Rio de Janeiro. He’s a fun, interesting protagonist – clearly believing in the importance of his work but also able to see the absurdity in the entire world of art – and he seems comfortable navigating easily between the slums of Rio and the art galleries of London. Early in the film he dreams up the crazy idea of making portraits of Gramacho’s garbage pickers – not with film or paint, but by literally drawing them in garbage.
I recently came across an absolute gem from the video archives of the MIT Museum, called Big City 1980. It’s an hour-long film produced by CBS in 1961 to coincide with MIT’s 100th anniversary, and it explores some possible futures for the coming generation of cities. In 1961 the world was forecasting a doubling of the urban population in just 20 years, and the video looks ahead to how existing cities (Philadelphia) will need to change and how entirely new mega-cities will spring into existence (Brasilia). Wonderful footage, nice (albeit hokey) framing by the talking heads, and a great window into one of the profession’s greatest generations.
The film was digitized by the museum as part MIT’s 150th anniversary celebration. I’ve embedded it all here, or you can see it on TechTV.