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.)
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.