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Five Films Present Candid View of Urban Upheaval

June 13, 2012

In its series “Sometimes Cities: Urban America Beyond NYC,” New York City’s Anthology Film Archives explores the intersection of architecture and people.

By Dante A. Ciampaglia

Requiem for Detroit?
Photo courtesy Anthology Film Archives/Julian Temple

Requiem for Detroit? was developed by director Julien Temple to chronicle the “first post-American city.”

 

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When director Chad Friedrichs began work on a documentary about the notorious Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, he thought he was making a film about architecture and environmental determinism. But as he did more research, the focus on design “kind of melted away.” Archival footage and contemporary interviews with former residents displaced shots of buildings and commentary from experts.

“Bringing in residents’ voices was something we really, really wanted to do because it was perceived as a voice that was lacking,” Friedrichs says of his film The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, released in 2011. “Everything since, say, the 1970s has really focused much less on the actual lived experience at Pruitt-Igoe and much more on the general—how Pruitt-Igoe fits into an architectural story or how it fits into a story about urban design.”

“It’s like Pruitt-Igoe became an idea at a certain point, as opposed to an actual living, breathing community,” he adds.

This conceptual shift expanded the scope of the documentary, made ita surprise hit for Friedrichs and his distributor, First Run Features, and placed it in a small but important group of normally overlooked urban documentaries that preserve the experiences of everyday people in America’s cities. These intimate films rely on ground-level urban narratives more than expert analysis, tend to be populist condemnations of outsized corporate and governmental forces conspiring against the citizenry, and are traditionally relegated to film festivals or fly-by-night screenings, if they’re shown at all. But as the success of Pruitt-Igoe demonstrates, there is a hunger for, or at least a growing interest in, these types of films, driven, perhaps, by the toll prolonged economic stagnation takes on U.S. cities and the public. 

Not coincidentally, Anthology Film Archives in New York is screening a series of these documentaries from June 14-17. “Sometimes Cities: Urban America Beyond NYC” presents five films (including Pruitt-Igoe) that confront the scope and complexity of the forces—economic, political, corporate, social, cultural—that have fueled urban upheaval across the country, not just New York, since the mid-1960s.

“Part of the conception, for me, was trying to counteract a little bit the sense that I have that people in New York don’t really get it as far as what’s happening to cities,” Anthology programmer Jed Rapfogel says. “I think there’s a gulf between people’s experiences of living in a city here versus what’s actually happening elsewhere.”

Like Pruitt-Igoe, the other films featured in the Anthology program eschew the lifeless celebration and sterile dissection of cities by scholars, authors, and other experts in favor of a bottom-up view of the American urban experience that looks beyond major metropolises like New York or Chicago. The films are stark yet exhilarating, denying us the comfort of clinical distance in favor of direct confrontation with the harsh, often disturbing realities facing the people left behind when a city implodes.

Sometimes City, a 2011 film by Tom Jarmusch (brother of filmmaker Jim Jarmusch), takes this approach to experimental levels. Jarmusch, who lived in Cleveland for more than a decade, trains his camera—sometimes standard-definition video, sometimes Super 8 or 16mm—on nearly 50 people in the city and lets them talk. And talk. And talk. Rather than editing their stories into sound bites, Jarmusch stacks one story on top of another to form an uncomfortable, honest cinematic portrait of the people who struggle to resuscitate Cleveland.

“Originally I kind of thought I’d be more playful with the voiceovers and voices over images,” Jarmusch says. “But then, as I was shooting, I just thought, I don’t want to do that at all. I don’t want to cut away from these people. I just want to be with them, watch them, listen to them, and then sort of, if possible, hang out with them.”

Another film from recent years, Requiem for Detroit?, was developed by director Julien Temple (The Filth and the Fury, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle) to chronicle the “first post-American city.” It’s a more conventional documentary, in that Temple balances expert analysis with “real” people. But he upends the dynamic. The experts are all Detroit residents, too, and rather than watch them in an office or a studio we follow them—and the other interviewees—to empty highways, overgrown gas stations, collapsing auto plants, shuttered schools, and abandoned homes. This integrates us into their lives, but more importantly immerses us in a physical space: the remnants of a city destroyed by 30 years of slow-motion economic decimation.

While Requiem and Sometimes City share few aesthetic similarities, they are conceptual siblings. They take an issue that can easily be abstracted when discussed by scholars or sociologists and make it tangible and immediate by focusing on the potent, melancholic recollections of everyday people. “All we usually hear are the experts,” Jarmusch says. “It’s just different hanging out with people who live somewhere.”

By widening the lens on the issues choking American cities, these and the other films in Anthology’s series (and the subgenre from which they originate) restore the voices of people who, for decades, have been ignored. In the process, they recalibrate the conversation about American urbanism.

 

Featured Films: “Sometimes Cities: Urban America Beyond NYC”

June 14-17
Anthology Film Archives in NYC
For more information: anthologyfilmarchives.org/

Sometimes City
2011, directed by Tom Jarmusch

Sometimes City is sort of a de facto coda to another film in this series, Tighten Your Belts, Bite the Bullet, from 1980. In the earlier film, Cleveland is left for dead when Mayor Dennis Kucinich spurns the corporate interests looking to manipulate city government. Sometimes City is a portrait of the city and its people nearly 30 years later. Crime is rampant, gangs operate with impunity, homes are abandoned, and jobs are scarce. Yet people remain, and director Tom Jarmusch gives nearly 50 of them a forum to talk about their city and the realities they face by remaining there. But rather than editing their stories into sound bites, Jarmusch stacks one story on top of another to form an unflinching portrait of a community struggling to resuscitate the city. It’s a rough, raw, and exceptional film that forces a direct confrontation between subject and viewer that’s unique to documentaries about American urbanism.

Requiem for Detroit?
2010, directed by Julien Temple

This BBC production maneuvers through the infrastructural and human ruins left in the wake of what one resident calls a “man-made Katrina,” the 30-year slow-motion decimation of Detroit at the hands of the auto industry, the government, and its own population. Director Julien Temple calls Detroit the first post-American city, a model of what lies ahead for the nation as it loses its hold on manufacturing and traditional industries that fuel the middle class. This seems like empty hyperbole until we’re confronted by sections of Detroit being reclaimed by nature — trees grow through abandoned homes, plant life thrives in old industrial sites apparently corrosive to life, and numerous adjoining empty lots leveled into farm-ready fields. The Detroit in this film is artist Thomas Cole’s Desolation come alive. Requiem for Detroit? has moments of melancholy, horror, and hope. But it’s ultimately a terrifying window into a future staring down dozens of industrial cities across the country.

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth
2011, directed by Chad Freidrichs
From Architectural Record’s review in January:

Drawing heavily on archival footage, raw data, and historical reanalysis, the film reorients Pruitt-Igoe as the victim of institutional racism and post-war population changes in industrial cities, among other issues far more complex than poor people not appreciating nice things. But while director Chad Freidrichs opens a new vein for discussing Pruitt-Igoe, he doesn't totally dispel the titular myth about it. But even if The Pruitt-Igoe Myth falls short of its stated goal, it's nevertheless exceptional. In an important act of preservation, Freidrichs captures the voices and memories of five former Pruitt-Igoe residents. Their stories are the kind being lost in the current incarnation of urban revival. As projects like Pruitt-Igoe are torn down and developers lust over the land under the rubble, the lives of displaced residents are ignored and forgotten. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth is an attempt to reverse that. It correctly finds value in preserving this disappearing American experience on film and should serve as a prototype for similar efforts of cultural preservation.

Tighten Your Belts, Bite the Bullet
1980, directed by James Gaffney, Martin Lucas, and Jonathan Miller

At the end of the 1970s, New York and Cleveland found themselves at similar crossroads: fend off bankruptcy by instituting government-mandated and long-needed reforms and tax increases, or capitulate to corporate interference in local government to ensure civic solvency. New York chose the latter and remained afloat, while Cleveland the former and ultimately defaulted. Tighten Your Belts, Bite the Bullet is a 48-minute chronicle of the decisions, ramifications, and personalities (including a young Dennis Kucinich during his term as Cleveland’s mayor) that doomed Cleveland and, in hindsight, maybe New York, too. The film feels a bit PBS-y at times, but its aesthetics do nothing to dilute its potency. It’s you-are-there filmmaking that captures the first battles in a war still being waged between Wall Street and Main Street where short-term victories are long-term defeats and short-term defeats doom cities to oblivion.

Taking Back Detroit
1980, directed by Stephen Lighthill

Despite Detroit’s long history of organized labor, it’s postwar reputation as the center of American consumer culture makes it sound like the last place that would elect not one but two socialists to public office. But it happened in the late 1970s, as Ken Cockrel took a seat on city council and Justin Ravitz became a Recorders Court judge. Director Lighthill packs a lot into the film’s 55 minutes, setting both men’s histories and how they ended up in office against the backdrop of their personal crusades. For Ravitz, it’s reemphasizing the “justice” in the criminal justice system; for Cockrel, it’s standing up to an auto-industry plan for a private housing community that would eviscerate acres of public access to Detroit’s waterfront. Both causes are lost, of course, but their enthusiasm and dedication to the underserved of the city make Taking Back Detroit a compelling portrait of a singular moment in American history.

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