Judge Adam Arseneau tried to make his city radiant, but the fire department intervened.
Suburban living is part of the North American landscape: people want a big house, a big yard, yearn for an idealistic dream that falls somewhere between utopia and The Stepford Wives. Enter Radiant City, a documentary from Canadian filmmaker Gary Burns (Waydowntown) and journalist Jim Brown exploring exactly what it means to live in suburbia in this modern day and age, and most importantly, its effects on the individual and the society as a whole.
Facts of the Case
Politicians call it growth. Developers call it business. The Moss family calls it home. Radiant City digs into why so many people choose to move further and further away from one another into gigantic sprawls of suburban development through the eyes of the Moss family buying their first oversize house in the middle of nowhere.
Radiant City contains two separate films running in tandem with one another, interweaving like the two sides of a zipper. The first is a reality television-style mockumentary about the typical North American family making the jump from the city to a new suburban development in the middle of a gigantic field of dirt, comprised of interview with the family and friends and discussing their mixed feelings about their new lifestyle. The second is a more traditional-style documentary, interviewing various architects and social thinkers, and displaying on-screen statistical information, bombarding viewers with words like "social monocultures," "new urbanism," and "intolerant cities." It takes a few minutes to adapt the brain to this style of presentation, running two separate films in tandem, but once you adjust it works surprisingly well. Both segments have been edited together perfectly to complement each other in tone and ideas presented—the first working the heart, the second working the brain. It's a dirty trick, but undeniably effective.
The film makers pulls the camera lens back on the idealistic and utopian suburban living just far enough to reflect on how brutal the environment can be. By developing "communities" far away from the bustling urban centers of community that have slowly developed over many generations, putting everything in easy access, the suburb ends up inadvertently removing its denizens away from the community—despite what the large attractive billboards may suggest. With no accessible shopping, transportation, or community activities, everything is connected through a network of car travel and big-box power shopping centers, with no imperative to spend time in communion with others once safely isolated back in their oversize suburban home. Radiant City suggests that this choice of a life that inherently isolates residents from their fellow citizens is the exact opposite of what "community" should be. Consider the following: it is entirely plausible—nay, reasonable—to assume that men or women can enter their garage, get in their SUV, drive an hour and a half to the city, go into an underground parking garage, and take an elevator up to their cubicle at work, all without having to interact with another human being, and repeat to get home. I know many who live this life to a tee, whose only neighborly interaction is the rare occasions when two people cut their lawn at exactly the same time. Radiant City effectively argues how as a culture, we have an imperative to quest for this lifestyle, thinking it brings us happiness, but for many it may actually contribute to the opposite effect, taking us further away from the things that bring people long-term satisfaction.
Suffice it to say, Radiant City does not like this urban pattern of isolation and decentralization, and attacks it readily as being alienating, depressing, unattractive, and inefficient. Openly criticized for being a waste of resources, of being the opposite of how most developed nations plan their urban space, of being too dependent on having access to a motor vehicle in order to live in its space, the film assaults the issue from both an emotional and intellectual standpoint, arguing in favor of a better solution. Unlike other documentaries that gripe on a subject for two hours and offer little in the way of viable alternatives, Radiant City indeed has a solution: new urbanism. An alternative design principal that alleviates the biggest inherent flaws in the suburban model, one already in full swing in most European locales, designs communities that are pedestrian and transit-oriented, moving business and retail locations into the same area rather than segregating them into monstrous office parks or mega-box superstores—think the city where The Truman Show was filmed (Seaside, Florida, a model new urbanist community). Whether you agree with the solution or not, it is refreshing to see a documentary that it can actually offer a valid alternative rather than simply complain.
What frightens me to the core about Radiant City is how eerily familiar the images and ideas presented resonated on a personal level within my own heart. I live in Southern Ontario, in a town that looks like the towns presented here in this film, and everywhere I look in my own part of the world, I see sprawling development stretching out into endless dirt fields, getting further and further isolated away from the urban centers of community. A Canadian production, much of Radiant City is immediately recognizable in terms of its location shots, but a shocking amount of the imagery is generic—it cannot be pinpointed within any regional certainty whatsoever. To my eyes, it looks like parts of Alberta, but also parts of Ontario, and possibly even parts of Quebec. In reality, it could easily be anywhere in North America experiencing the blight of suburban growth. Perhaps most upsetting, it looks exactly like outside my window.
Though the mockumentary segments of Radiant City tire out as the film winds down, the comments getting more heavy-handed and less realistic in their dejected and glum summation of suburban life, the film puts forth a very persuasive and powerful argument overall, especially for those living the life it depicts. This is documentary film making at its most creative and innovative, tackling with aplomb a seemingly mundane subject and making a compelling film from it. However, be prepared for the unexpected side effects of looking at your surroundings with dismay and borderline disgust. Driving through my town, the film narrative running in a loop in my brain, Radiant City left me feeling dejected about my uninspired, alienating suburban surroundings. I also had an inexplicable desire to throw on Radiohead's "OK Computer" to complete the effect. Good thing I did not; else I might have driven my car off an overpass.
This is a bare-boned release from Koch Lorber, with only a theatrical trailer and no supplements—not even subtitles. For a low-budget Canadian film, the documentary has acceptable production values, with slightly grainy anamorphic images, mildly muted colors, and washy black levels. The dialogue is clear through a stereo transfer, with little in the way of frills, save for a few accompanying ambient music tracks.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In the final act, Radiant City does something very strange. The documentary, already laced with sarcasm and a certain surrealist flavor goes for broke, popping open the car door and bailing out, leaving the car flying out of control right straight through the fourth wall. The mockumentary and traditional documentary narrative threads knot up in a tangled ball. Without spoiling the "surprise," these last twenty minutes are head-scratchingly bizarre and distracting from the tone of the film. In a sense, it makes a certain amount of ironic sense, playing off the notion of suburban communities being anything but, but I am unconvinced if it does the film any favors. It will probably just confuse and annoy.
Perhaps the strongest criticism that can be hurled at the film is that Radiant City fails to acknowledge that just because the deck is stacked against the current suburban model in terms of its isolated location and design, not every community chooses to live in this fashion. Free will does count for something, after all. Community is what you make it, and people do make the effort to interact regardless of where they lay their hats.
Sardonic, enlightening, thought-provoking, and just a bit unsettling, Radiant City will appeal most to those directly impacted by life in suburban North America, particularly in areas of high sprawling growth—Alberta, Ontario, Atlanta, Florida, California, and hundreds of other places. For these dwellers, the film can be a bittersweet examination, a spotlight shone bright into our lives and location, showing every unflattering attribute with perfect clarity. Everyone else will probably just laugh at the poor hapless suburbanites lost in their own tangled sprawl, hoisted by their own petard.
Not guilty. It sure makes me want to move to the city.
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