The Elements of Cinema: King Vidor’s “The Crowd”

In July I was pleased to present an old favorite, King Vidor’s “The Crowd,” as part of the Brattle Theatre’s Elements of Cinema series.


It’s a hard film to categorize: it combines aspects city symphony, silent comedy, melodrama, epic genres, and a sort of nascent proto-neorealism. The visuals are heavily influenced by the German Expressionism of the 1920s, but really blends everything into a style all his own…. As you watch, be sure to pay attention to the way the characters interact with the city and the crowd: the city of the 1920s is an extremely public place: notice the tension between private and public, between free will and conformity, between individual and “the crowd.” There are profound tensions — especially for an increasingly urban America after the closing of the frontier. Watching movies together in the great old movie houses like this — alone in the dark with our fellow city-dwellers — provided an important forum for us to navigate these tensions, in our own heads and in public, individually and as a crowd.

See the Brattle’s Film Notes to read my full introduction to the film.

My Brooklyn to Air on PBS

We’re pleased to pass along the news that MY BROOKLYN (recently screened as part of the MIT Urban Planning Film Series) will be featured in a special national PBS Broadcast on TV on Tuesday, January 14, 2014.

The screening is part of the PBS series America ReFramed, curated by the American Documentary team (the producers of POV). America ReFramed brings nonfiction independent films to the airwaves and cable, showcasing films that give viewers a “snapshot of the transforming American life—the guts, the glory, the grit of a new and changing America.”

Most of the screenings are on PBS World channels, but some regular stations (like WGBH — yay, Boston!) are showing it on their main channels too. To find out if you have PBS World via broadcast or cable, go to and enter your zipcode. The program you are looking for is “America ReFramed” and the date for My Brooklyn is Jan. 14th, 2014. (It’s not as complicated as it sounds, and there are some other amazing documentaries on the series so it’s worth knowing how to find it.)

My Brooklyn will also be streaming free from the America ReFramed site for a month. If you haven’t seen it yet, this is your chance; and if you have seen this amazingly personal gentrification narrative, please help us spread the word.

Gaining Ground at MIT: Wednesday, December 11, 2013

There will be a free screening of GAINING GROUND: BUILDING COMMUNITY ON DUDLEY STREET at MIT on Wednesday December 11th, 6:30pm, MIT AVT/Long Lounge, Room 7-341, 77 Massachusetts Ave. Food provided, Q&A to follow.

The film — a one-hour follow-up to the award-winning documentary Holding Ground (1996) — shows how one diverse Boston neighborhood has stemmed the tide against enormous odds. In the midst of the economic meltdown, GAINING GROUND explores the innovative, grassroots organizing efforts of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) in Boston. DSNI was created 25 years ago when the community had been devastated by bank redlining, arson-for-profit and illegal dumping, and has become one of the preeminent models for community-based change. Over the course of two years, we watch a new generation of leaders working to prevent foreclosures and bring jobs and opportunities for young people to one of the city’s most diverse and economically challenged neighborhoods.

This screening is sponsored by the MIT Office of the Dean For Graduate Education.

Just Added: Shift Change (2013)

Thanks to some great students at New Economy@MIT and our awesome partners at MIT Rotch Library, we’ve been able to fill a gap in our fall schedule with one more film:

  • Thur 11/7: SHIFT CHANGE: PUTTING DEMOCRACY TO WORK (2013) With the long decline in US manufacturing and today’s economic crisis, millions have been thrown out of work, and many are losing their homes. The usual economic solutions are not working, so some citizens and public officials are ready to think outside of the box, to reinvent our failing economy in order to restore long term community stability and a more egalitarian way of life. SHIFT CHANGE tells the little known stories of employee-owned businesses that respond to this challenge, competing successfully in today’s economy while providing secure, dignified jobs in democratic workplaces. Directed by Melissa Young and Mark Dworkin. Co-sponsored by New Economy@MIT. 60 minutes. 6pm, MIT Room 3–133.

Note: Unlike all other films in the series, this one will start at 6pm. As always, free and open to everyone. Please join us, bring friends, spread the word.

MIT Urban Film Series: Fall 2013

Happy Labor Day, and welcome back to the new school year. We’ve finalized the line-up for our Fall 2013 MIT Urban Planning Film Series, listed below. As always, we’ve included some classics—including a 50th anniversary showing of Francesco Rosi’s HANDS OVER THE CITY to start us off—as well as some great new stuff, exploring renewable energy, gentrification, crime and the Mexican drug wars, and the promise and perils of international development. We continue our partnership with PBS/POV American Documentary to bring some special community screenings to the Boston area. And we’ve even included a special pre-Thanksgiving show of 2007’s crowd-pleaser, KING CORN.

(Note: click here to download the complete schedule as a nice pdf flyer. Please feel free to print, copy, distribute—all are welcome!)

  • Thurs 9/12: HANDS OVER THE CITY/LE MANI SULLA CITTA (1963) Rod Steiger stars as a scheming land developer in this blistering work of social realism from 1963. An expose of the politically driven real-estate speculation that devastated Naples’s civilian landscape, the film moves breathlessly from a cataclysmic building collapse to the backroom negotiations of civic leaders vying for power in a city council election, laying bare the inner workings of corruption with passion and outrage. Directed by Francesco Rosi. Winner of the Golden Lion, Venice Film Festival. 105 minutes; Italian with English subtitles. 7pm, MIT Room 3–133. Rod Steiger in HANDS OVER THE CITY (1963)

  • Thur 9/26: 5 BROKEN CAMERAS (2011) This Palestinian-Israeli-French co-production presents a deeply-personal first-hand account of life and non-violent resistance in Bil’in, a West Bank village surrounded by Israeli settlements. Filmed by Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat, who bought his first camera in 2005 to record the birth of his youngest son Gibreel, the collaboration follows one family’s evolution over five years of village upheaval. As the story unfolds—structured in chapters around the destruction of each one of Burnat’s cameras—we witness Gibreel grow from a newborn baby into a young boy who observes the world unfolding around him with the astute powers of perception that only children possess. Burnat watches from behind the lens as olive trees are bulldozed, protests intensify and lives are lost in this cinematic diary and unparalleled record of life in the West Bank. Directed by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi. Winner, World Cinema/Directing, Sundance; Special Jury and Audience Award, IDFA; Nominated for Academy Award, Best Documentary Feature. 90 minutes; Hebrew and Arabic w/English subtitles. 7pm, MIT Room 3–133.
  • Thurs 10/10: CAPE SPIN! AN AMERICAN POWER STRUGGLE (2011) This tragicomic tale explores the surreal and fascinating battle over America’s largest clean energy project. When energy entrepreneur Jim Gordon first proposed putting 130 wind turbines in fabled Nantucket Sound, he had no idea that a firestorm would erupt, as the country’s first proposed offshore wind farm triggered a schism in this idyllic coastal region, pitting neighbor against neighbor and environmentalist against environmentalist. Revealing the root causes of their furor, the filmmakers enjoyed unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to the key players on both sides of the controversy. The tale frames the battle over Nantucket Sound as a microcosm of America’s struggle towards energy sustainability. After 10 years, $70 million and 8,000 pages of analysis the Federal Government approved the wind farm project on April 28, 2010—but the controversy continues…. Directed by Robbie Gemmel and John Kirby. Official selection: Woodstock Film Festival, Cleveland International Film Festival; Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival. 84 minutes. 7pm, MIT Room 3–133.
  • Thurs 10/17: BEAUBOURG (1977) The great Neo-Realist Roberto Rossellini’s beautiful and languid final film documents the opening of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, candidly presenting the public’s response to this major cultural phenomenon. Shot on the Pompidou Centre’s opening day in 1977, Rossellini hid dozens of microphones throughout the building to create a soundtrack composed of the public’s reactions to this cultural phenomenon—or in the filmmakers own words, “A film without comments or music.” As the Italian director here turns his inimitable eye upon “Beaubourg” in a vision of critical skepticism, we are transported back to experience this highly influential cultural center at its nascence. Directed by Roberto Rossellini. 55 minutes. 7pm, MIT Room 3–133. Filming BEAUBOURG (1977)

  • Thurs 10/24: GOOD FORTUNE (2010) A provocative exploration of how massive international efforts to alleviate poverty in Africa may be undermining the very communities they aim to benefit. In Kenya’s rural countryside, Jackson’s farm is being flooded by an American investor who hopes to alleviate poverty by creating a multimillion-dollar rice farm. Across the country in Nairobi, Silva’s home and business in Africa’s largest shantytown are being demolished as part of a U.N. slum-upgrading project. The gripping stories of two Kenyans battling to save their homes from large-scale development present a unique opportunity see foreign aid through eyes of the people it is intended to help. Directed by Landon Van Soest and Jeremy Levine; presented in collaboration with the award-winning documentary series POV ( Winner: Witness Award, Silverdocs Film Festival; official selection: IDFA Festival; Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. 90 minutes. 7pm, MIT Room 3–133.
  • Thur 11/7: SHIFT CHANGE: PUTTING DEMOCRACY TO WORK (2013) With the long decline in US manufacturing and today’s economic crisis, millions have been thrown out of work, and many are losing their homes. The usual economic solutions are not working, so some citizens and public officials are ready to think outside of the box, to reinvent our failing economy in order to restore long term community stability and a more egalitarian way of life. SHIFT CHANGE tells the little known stories of employee-owned businesses that respond to this challenge, competing successfully in today’s economy while providing secure, dignified jobs in democratic workplaces. Directed by Melissa Young and Mark Dworkin. Co-sponsored by New Economy@MIT. 60 minutes. 6pm (note different time), MIT Room 3–133.
  • Thurs 11/14: MISSION HILL & THE MIRACLE OF BOSTON (1978) Once a predominantly Irish neighborhood of houses, churches, and small stores, after World War II Boston’s Mission Hill began to change: thousands of units of public housing were built—and allowed to decay there; nearby hospitals expanded, displacing people from their homes; developers and speculators bought and sold property and built twenty-story apartment buildings. A new, poor population and an affluent professional population arrived to compete for parts of the old neighborhood. Through the voices of the people of Mission Hill, the film tells the story of urban renewal, racial conflict, and the struggle of a neighborhood to survive through changing times. Directed by Richard Broadman; special award winner, Boston Society of Film Critics, 1984. 60 minutes. Special guests: Karilyn Crockett, MLK Visiting Scholar, MIT; John Grady, Professor of Sociology, Wheaton College (producer). 7pm, MIT Room 3–133.
  • Thurs 11/21: KING CORN (2007) Special Thanksgiving feature. A feature documentary about two friends, one acre of corn, and the subsidized crop that drives our fast-food nation. In the film, two friends move to the heartland to learn where their food comes from. With the help of neighbors, genetically modified seeds, and powerful herbicides, they plant and grow a bumper crop of America’s most-productive, most-subsidized grain on one acre of Iowa soil. But when they try to follow their pile of corn into the food system, what they find raises troubling questions about how we eat—and how we farm. Directed by Aaron Woolf; written and featuring Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, with a special appearance by Michael Pollan. Winner: George Foster Peabody Award; Official selection: SXSW; Big Sky Documentary Film Festival; Chicago International Documentary Film Festival. 88 minutes. 7pm, MIT Room 3–133.
  • Thurs 12/12: MY BROOKLYN (2012) Billed as “the real story behind the takeover of America’s hippest city,” the film follows director Kelly Anderson’s personal journey, as a Brooklyn “gentrifier” seeking to understand the forces reshaping her neighborhood along lines of race and class. Anderson moves to Brooklyn in 1988, lured by cheap rents and bohemian culture, but by the election of Michael Bloomberg in 2001 a massive speculative real estate boom is rapidly altering the neighborhood. She watches as an explosion of luxury housing and chain store development spurs bitter conflict over who has a right to live in the city and to determine its future. While some people view these development patterns as ultimately revitalizing the city, to others, they are erasing the eclectic urban fabric, economic and racial diversity, creative alternative culture, and unique local economies that drew them to Brooklyn in the first place. No less than the city’s soul is at stake. A film by Kelly Anderson and Allison Lirish Dean. 85 minutes. 7pm, MIT Room 3–133. MY BROOKLYN (2012)

As always, all films open to the general public, free, first-come/first-served; most shows to include previews, shorts, and/or additional video ephemera. Special thanks to MIT’s Rotch Library for help tracking down titles and rights and MIT A/V Services for troubleshooting the tech with us. Times and locations subject to change; please check prior to coming. For more information, contact

Bidder 70 at MIT

Just in time for Earth Day, Fossil Free MIT is sponsoring a free screening of BIDDER 70. On December 19, 2008 Tim DeChristopher disrupted a highly disputed Utah BLM Oil and Gas lease auction, effectively safeguarding thousands of acres of pristine Utah land that were slated for oil and gas leases. Not content to merely protest outside, Tim entered the auction hall and registered as bidder #70. He outbid industry giants on land parcels (which, starting at $2 an acre, were adjacent to national treasures like Canyonlands National Park), winning 22,000 acres of land worth $1.7 million before the auction was halted. The film centers on this ingenious act of civil disobedience, which helped ignite a spirit of civil disobedience in the name of climate justice.

The event will take place on campus in building 54, room 54-100, Monday April 22 at 9:00pm.

MIT Urban Film Series: Spring 2013

It’s February, Groundhog Day is behind us, New England in hunkering down for a REALLY BIG STORM, and here at UrbanFilm we’re putting the finishing touches on our MIT Spring 2013 Urban Planning Film Series.

This semester, we’re pleased to be able to feature a couple fiction titles, in addition to our usual lineup of the best new documentaries on urban and related issues. We’ll continue our tradition of welcoming film-makers, urban scholars, and local planners, activists, and organizers to attend and offer commentary on the films, thereby building community as we share these films, and expect to partner with PBS/POV American Documentary on a few special events as well. The complete schedule should be up here within a week or two, but for now we wanted to at least tell you what’s up for the start of the series:

  • Thurs 2/21: STREET FIGHT (2005) Chronicles the bare-knuckles race for Mayor of Newark, N.J. between Cory Booker, a 32-year-old Rhodes Scholar/Yale Law School graduate, and Sharpe James, the four-term incumbent and undisputed champion of New Jersey politics. Directed by Marshall Curry. Academy Award Nominee, Best Documentary (2005). (Last semester we tried to screen this one, only to be foiled by a rare blackout that hit the MIT campus back in November; hope for better luck this time.) 83 minutes. 7pm, MIT Room 66–110

  • Thurs 2/28: NIGHT ON EARTH (1991) For this special fiction feature, we’ll travel around the globe with Jim Jarmusch: five cities, five taxicabs, a mad-cap collection of strangers in the night. For this [celebr|explor]ation of everything that makes cities eternal, unique, and endlessly fascinating, Jim Jarmusch assembled an extraordinary international cast of actors (including Gena Rowlands, Winona Ryder, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Beatrice Dalle, and Roberto Benigni) for a quintet of tales of urban displacement and existential angst, spanning time zones, continents, and languages. Jarmusch’s lovingly askew view of humanity from the passenger seat makes for one of his most charming and beloved films. 128 minutes. 7pm, MIT Room 3–133

  • Thurs 3/7: THE WORLD OF BUCKMINSTER FULLER (1974) Architect, engineer, geometer, cartographer, philosopher, futurist, inventor of the famous geodesic dome and the dymaxion car, and one of the most brilliant thinkers of his time, Fuller was renowned for his comprehensive perspective on the world’s problems. (It’s safe to say that Bucky Fuller was one of the main reasons I got into planning in the first place; his 1981 book, Critical Path gave me the optimism to imagine that we humans could actually plan for a better world…). For more than five decades he developed pioneering solutions reflecting his commitment to the potential of innovative design to “do more with less” and thereby improve human lives. Now more relevant than ever, this film captures Fuller’s ideas and thinking, told in his own words. 80 minutes. 7pm, MIT Room 66–110

  • Wed 3/13: note change of day DETROPIA (2012) Detroit’s story encapsulates the iconic narrative of America over the last century—the Great Migration of African Americans escaping Jim Crow; the rise of manufacturing and the middle class; the love affair with automobiles; the flowering of the American dream; and now the collapse of the economy and the fading American mythos.

    With its vivid, painterly palette and haunting score, DETROPIA sculpts a dreamlike collage of a grand city teetering on the brink of dissolution. Detroit’s soulful pragmatists and stalwart philosophers strive to make ends meet and make sense of it all, refusing to abandon hope or resistance. Their grit and pluck embody the spirit of the Motor City as it struggles to survive postindustrial America and begins to envision a radically different future. “The most moving documentary I have seen in years.”—David Denby, The New Yorker. Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. 86 minutes. 7pm, MIT Room 66–110

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MIT IAP 2013 Series: Really Long Films

Every January, MIT suspends regular classes and hold the “Independent Activity Period,” or IAP. In recognition of this season, our ongoing Urban Planning Film Series continues with a twist: since there are no classes, problem sets, or other distractions to contend with, all month long the series will feature some of the great long (or even super-long) films.

All films open to the general public, free, first-come/first-served; many shows include previews, shorts, and/or other video emphera. Special thanks to MIT’s Rotch Library for help tracking down titles and rights and MIT A/V Services for troubleshooting the tech with us.

  • WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE (2006): Subtitled “A Requiem in Four Acts,” Spike Lee’s heart-rending portrait of New Orleans in the wake of the destruction manages to be both intimate and epic. Originally aired as a four-part HBO miniseries, the film tells the heartbreaking personal stories of those who endured this harrowing ordeal and survived to tell the tale of misery, despair and triumph. The documentary looks at a community that has survived death, devastation and disease at every turn. Yet, somehow, amidst the ruins, the people of New Orleans are finding new hope and strength as the city rises from the ashes, buoyed by their own resilience and a rich cultural legacy. In the words of the director, “New Orleans is fighting for its life. These are not people who will disappear quietly—they’re accustomed to hardship and slights, and they’ll fight for New Orleans.” Directed by Spike Lee, 255 minutes. Thur 1/17, 2pm, MIT Room 3-133
  • HALF THE SKY (2012): Originally aired as a four-hour television series for PBS and international broadcast, shot in 10 countries (Cambodia, Kenya, India, Sierra Leone, Somaliland, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Liberia and the U.S.), this epic work—based on the book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn—introduces women and girls who are living under some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable, and fighting bravely to change them. Traveling with intrepid reporter Nicholas Kristof and “A-list” celebrity advocates Meg Ryan, America Ferrera, Diane Lane, Gabrielle Union, and Olivia Wilde, the film reflects viable and sustainable options for empowerment and offers an actionable blueprint for transformation. Directed by Maro Chermayeff, 240 minutes. Thurs 1/24, 2pm, MIT Room 3-133
  • PUBLIC HOUSING (1997): This cinema-verite documentary captures daily life at the Ida B.~Wells public housing development in Chicago. The film illustrates some of the experiences of people living in conditions of extreme poverty. The events shown include the work of the tenants council, street life, the role of police, job training programs, drug education, teenage mothers, dysfunctional families, elderly residents, nursery school and after school teenage programs and the activities of the city, state and federal governments in maintaining and changing public housing. “…Wiseman salts his film with example after example of pride and enterprise. For every long-lens shot of men on the corner snorting cocaine, there are shots of chess games, sewing circles and laundry hung lovingly on the line. For every bureaucratese-speaking clerk from CHA, there is a sympathetic plumber or a roach exterminator who can’t do enough for an appreciative tenant…. Frederick Wiseman … has an eye for subtle social distinctions” (John McCarron, The Chicago Tribune).

  • As a special treat, the film also contains what filmmaker Errol Morris has described as one the best condom demonstration in film history (“Fred has a gift for filming condom demonstrations…”). Directed by Fred Wiseman, 195 minutes. Thurs 1/31, 2pm, MIT Room 3-133

MIT Urban Film Series: Fall 2012

Now that the students are back at MIT, we’ve started up our Fall 2012 Urban Planning Film Series. Most of the films in this semester’s lineup came out in the past few years, but we’ll be ending with a classic that never goes out of style. Special thanks to our wonderful MIT Rotch Library for help tracking down titles and securing rights. Here’s what we’ll be watching:

  • THE PARKING LOT MOVIE (2010): A documentary on the lives of parking lot attendants who work at The Corner Parking Lot in Charlottesville, Virginia. Special guest: Professor Eran Ben-Joseph, MIT Department of Urban Studies & Planning. Directed by Meghan Eckman. Thur 9/13, 6pm, MIT Room 3-133
  • DARK DAYS (2000): Independent filmmaker Marc Singer explores the underground world inhabited by residents of New York’s underground tunnels. Music by DJ Shadow. Thur 9/20, 6pm, MIT Room 3-133
  • THE LAST TRAIN HOME (2009): Every spring, China’s cities are plunged into chaos, as millions of city-dweller attempt to return to their rural homes by train for Chinese New Year. Special guest: Professor Emeritus Tunney Lee, MIT Department of Urban Studies & Planning. Co-sponsored by the MIT China Urban Development Group. Directed by Lixin Fan. Wed 9/26, 6pm, MIT Room 7-429
  • THE CITY DARK (2011): A documentary about light pollution and the disappearing night; “a search for night on a planet that never sleeps.” Special guest: Susanne Seitinger, City Innovations Manager, Philips Color Kinetics. Co-sponsored by the PBS “POV” Community Network. Directed by Ian Cheney. Thur 10/4, 6pm, MIT Room 3-133
  • LAND OF OPPORTUNITY (2010): Juxtaposing the perspectives of protagonists from different walks of life, this project reveals how the story of post-Katrina New Orleans is also the story of urban America. Special guest: Karl Seidman, MIT Department of Urban Studies & Planning, with a live video-chat with Director Luisa Dantas following the film. Wed 10/10, 6pm, MIT Room 7-429
  • THE AGE OF STUPID (2009): A man living in the devastated future of 2055 looks back at footage from our time and asks, “why didn’t we stop climate change when we had the chance?” Directed by Franny Armstrong. Thur 10/18, 6pm, MIT Room 3-133
  • MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES (2006): Follows Edward Burtynsky through China as he documents the evidence and effects of a massive industrial revolution through stunningly beautiful large-scale photographs of quarries, recycling yards, factories, mines and dams. Co-sponsored by the MIT China Urban Development Group. Directed by Jennifer Baichwal. Wed 10/24, 6pm, MIT Room 7-429
  • FOOD-AND-FARMING DOUBLE FEATURE: In honor of Thanksgiving we’ll be screening two films related to the food we eat and the people who grow it. Thur 11/15, 6pm, MIT Room 3-133:
    • TRUCK FARM (2011) tells the story of a new generation of quirky urban farmers in New York City. Directed by Ian Cheney.
    • DIRT! The Movie (2009) investigates the miraculous substance we all take for granted, and asks, “How can humans reconnect to dirt?” Narrated by Jaimie Lee Curtis, inspired by William Bryant Logan’s acclaimed book Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth; directed by Gene Rosow (40 minute version).
  • STREET FIGHT (2005): Chronicles the bare-knuckles race for Mayor of Newark, N.J. between Cory Booker, a 32-year-old Rhodes Scholar/Yale Law School grad, and Sharpe James, the four-term incumbent and undisputed champion of New Jersey politics. Directed by Marshall Curry. Academy Award Nominee, Best Documentary (2005). Special guest: Professor Phil Thompson, MIT Department of Urban Studies & Planning. Thur 11/29, 6pm, MIT Room 3-133
  • THE PRUITT-IGOE MYTH (2011): Tells the story of the transformation of the American city in the decades after World War II, through the lens of the infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing development and the St. Louis residents who called it home. Directed by Chad Freidrichs. Co-sponsored by the Boston Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC–Boston), the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations (MACDC), and the Mel King Institute for Community Building (MKI). Thur 12/6, 6pm, MIT Room 3-133
  • PLAY TIME (1967): “With every inch of its superwide frame crammed with hilarity and inventiveness, Playtime is a lasting testament to a modern age tiptoeing on the edge of oblivion.” Directed by Jacques Tati. Thur 12/13, 6pm, MIT Room 3-133

See individual links above for more about each showing, including film descriptions and info about special guests. Be sure to check back here for changes and updates, as well as reviews as we roll the films out.