[URBANTH-L]Film Review: Radiant City, directed by Gary Burns

Angela Jancius jancius at ohio.edu
Thu Oct 19 21:06:40 EDT 2006


A sprawling documentary of our times
Oct 16 2006 -- The Globe & Mail


Among the many documentaries at this year's Vancouver International Film 
Festival is an 86 minute feature that takes on one of the most important 
issues before our cities: suburban sprawl. The distractingly named Radiant 
City was jointly written and directed by feature director Gary Burns 
(Kitchen Party, A Problem With Fear), and CBC radio talking head Jim Brown, 
both of Calgary --Canada's largest city by area, and a place that knows 
something about sprawl.
"We took all the specific references to Calgary out of the film in the 
editing," says co-writer-director Mr. Burns in an interview after the VIFF 
screenings, clearly wanting to generalize the film's argument about endless 
instant developments, "we even digitally altered a license plate, so you 
couldn't see it was Alberta."
Consequently, the critique of suburbia here is generic, maybe too much so, 
with the film-makers rounding up a squad of talking heads, planting them 
beside freeways, in schoolyards, and alongside real estate billboards that 
could be anywhere, then letting them rip.
Among Radiant City's opinionizers are American urban journalist William 
Howard Kunstler, Calgary architecture school head Marc Boutin, even the 
terminally over-exposed Toronto philosopher of everything, Mark Kingwell.
Print Edition - Section Front
  Enlarge Image

But this suburban show-and-tell is stolen by two grade school kids, sardonic 
yet wise commentators on the phenomenon that shape their lives -- the big 
box houses, new schools under construction, parental overprogramming of 
their lives, not to mention the finer points of paint ball etiquette.
One statistic brings home what it is to be a suburban kid (and chauffeuring 
parent) these days -- half of us walked to school in the 1950s, while only 
10 per cent do so now.
Interspersed between the kids and the expert interviews are animated little 
commercials with lots more juicy factoids about North American suburbia: the 
average house was 800 square feet in 1950, 1,500 by 1970, and a staggering 
2,266 by the year 2000; the average driver spends the equivalent of 55 
working days a year commuting by car (four times as long as the average 
annual holiday); traffic injury and death rates are three times higher in 
suburbia as downtown; people who live in city centres are 6.3 pounds 
lighter, on average, than their suburban cousins; and so on.
The best feature of Radiant City is cinematographer Patrick McLaughlin's 
fresh visual documentation of the textures and streetscapes of brand new 
neighbourhoods, and his images are the film's most eloquent critique of 
sprawl. Using rich autumnal light recalling Sven Nykvist's lens work for 
Ingmar Bergman, crane shots of new subdivision signs make them look like 
Broadway sets, and telephoto views of clumsy new houses reveal them as 
variations on military barracks.
Mr. McLaughlin's camera skills and the dab hand at interviewing possessed by 
CBC radio journalist Mr. Brown combine to spark some hilarious clips, 
especially Mr. Kunstler's riff on the pointless over-use of chain link 
fencing. Mr. Kunstler is the author of The Long Emergency, the latest in his 
long string of books criticizing American energy waste and linked suburban 
sprawl, putting it bluntly in the film: "This way of living is coming off 
the menu."
The film is short on analysis -- finding the invisible forces that create 
and extend sprawl such as our extravagant public subsidies for suburban 
infrastructure and transportation, for one.
For another, there is the skewing of property taxes onto businesses, 
artificially lightening the load for ever more bungalows, while also 
displacing jobs to ever more remote (and hence low tax and low rent) 
municipalities, the deadly recipe that is firing sprawl around Vancouver, 
and leading to the Campbell government's current mania for bridge-building 
and freeway construction.
Radiant City is scarcely better when it comes to solutions for this 
continent's addiction to sprawl, ever more questionable in an era of 
permanently higher energy costs. The only talking head who has an agenda is 
New Urbanism co-founder Andres Duany of Miami, who was recently engaged to 
lead an urban design workshop for Vancouver's East Fraserlands.
Pointedly, the film does not show the too-cute, mock-New England Calgary 
suburb of Mackenzie Towne -- for which he and wife Elizabeth Playter-Zyberk 
provided the initial idea fifteen years ago. If the future of suburbia is 
mild versions, like Mackenzie Towne, of New London, Connecticut or other 
faves from Duany and Zyberk's student days at Princeton, we are in real 
trouble indeed.
I guess only a native Albertan and ex-Calgarian like me can relay this 
difficult message: What is most missing from Radiant City is Vancouver 
itself, the most radical critique of conventional suburban thinking in North 
American. Burns and Brown needed to get out of their closed loop of 
bungalows and strip malls to find viable alternatives.
Long before Larry Beasley, Vancouver had Canada's densest neighbourhood in 
the West End, then pioneered mixed income, mixed housing tenure zones such 
as the South Shore of False Creek, and demanded and got ever more from our 
downtown developers.
Yes, I know it is not 'all about us,' but spending nearly an hour and a half 
criticizing suburbia without showing a key alternative just over the Rockies 
is not, as both CBC Radio and Fox News agree, fair and balanced.
Produced by Burns Films and the National Film Board, Radiant City will have 
a theatrical release in the spring, with an airing on CBC late next year.
German cultural critic Walter Benjamin once said that "Architecture is best 
appreciated in a state of distraction." In other words, it is best 
appreciated and understood not as the head-on object of consciousness, but 
incidentally, in the ordinary comings and goings of daily life.
In his head-on examination of sprawl in Radiant City, Gary Burns did not 
achieve the sly analysis of urban phenomenon which are crucial to his 
previous narrative features like Way Downtown. Mr. Brown, keep those stats 
and interviews coming for your radio documentaries, and Mr. Burns, tell us 
about cities through characters, not characterizations. 

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