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Urban Elegies: Do America's Post-City Docs Recall Italy's Post-War Neorealism?

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by Anthony Kaufman
June 14, 2012 8:35 AM
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“It’s a slow motion Katrina.” By coincidence, this exact statement is spoken in two different recent documentaries, Chad Freidrichs’s The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (2011) and British director Julien Temple’s Requiem for Detroit? (2010), both playing at the nonfiction series “Sometimes Cites” at New York’s Anthology Film Archives from June 14-17. I've written about the films, as well as the recent wave of docs about urban decay, for my SundanceNow column, Docutopia, in a piece titled "The End of the American City on Film."

I think there may be a limit to how many films of this type the marketplace can sustain, but I do think The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (recently released on DVD) is one of the best released docs of the year.

As I wrote in my column, "What makes the film remarkable, in spite of its unappealing-sounding title, is how it elicits fresh outrage and empathy for what went down at Pruitt-Igoe [a St. Louis housing development] nearly half a decade ago. Freidrichs creates something uncommonly affecting through deeply resonant archival images (see above), poignant news clips (a black man breaks down in tears on camera because he can’t find a job to support his family), and intimate interviews with its former residents. While one former Pruitt resident fondly recalls the smell of pies cooking and the sounds of kids playing—the scents and sounds of a close-knit community—another man recounts how it all went to crap, watching his brother being murdered right in front of his eyes in the same hallways."

Documentaries about fallen American cities and its displaced poor populations are nothing new, of course, going all the way back to Michael Moore's 1989 classic Roger and Me, focusing on Detroit neighbor, Flint, Michigan. And even earlier: "Sometimes Cities" also presents two films from 1980: "Tighten Your Belts, Bite the Bullet" and "Taking Back Detroit." 

Compared with the futurist cinematic celebrations of the modern city, most famously Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin, Symphony of a City (1927) and Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929), which glorified workers, machines, vehicles and industry—often in furiously cut montages—these new “post-city” documentaries prefer the languorous tracking shots of crumbling homes and fallen industries.

In one of Roger and Me’s most pointed passages, the camera, for instance, tracks past rows and rows of bombed-out-looking houses while the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” plays on the soundtrack.

As I wrote in the SundanceNow article, "That formal device can be seen in docs such as Florent Tillon’s Detroit Wild City (2010), Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing’s Detropia (2012), Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man (2012) and Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez’s Burn: One Year on the Front Lines of the Battle to Save Detroit. Often filled with a kind of post-apocalyptic lyricism, these films share a fascination with the beauty of detritus and ruin, perhaps more akin to post-WWII Italian Neorealist classics Rome: Open City and Germany Year Zero."

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