Master Plan (Robert Todd, 2011)

I first saw Robert Todd’s Master Plan over five months ago, 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.”

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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.)

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Waste Land (Lucy Walker, 2010)

As part of the 2012 noon-to-midnight MIT 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.

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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.

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Hurdy Gurdy (Daniel Seideneder and Daniel Pfeiffer, 2011)

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.)

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