By Christopher Bell | The Playlist October 28, 2011 at 2:58AM
For those unacquainted with documentarian Gary Hustwit, his small body of work may seem like bland pills that are hard to swallow. To date he has made a movie about a font ("Helvetica"), our relationship with manufactured objects ("Objectified"), and now urban design ("Urbanized"). These aren't the most enticing subjects -- they all have a vague stench of "homework" or "PBS" -- but no one is more aware of these pre-judgements better than the filmmaker, who has managed to confound expectations and instead compose films that are enjoyable and, at times, very fascinating. He continues in this mode with "Urbanized," the final entry in his "design trilogy."
Comprised of interviews with city planners, experts and everyday dwellers, the director examines municipalities both ranging in age from Grandpa New York City to the young, modernist poster-boy Brasília. The question is, where to start? One of the movie's only rough patch is at the beginning, which overwhelms with a barrage of various talking heads. It's quite difficult to follow and, given the unexciting premise, is the wrong foot to start off on. Targeted is Mumbai and its crowded slums, a place with a population as dense as London but with nearly impossible living conditions. Born of improper planning, the impoverished are squeezed adjacent to large luxury apartments, forced to build rickety shacks on top of one another due to lack of space. While there’s some talk about 10 families to one toilet and people having to choose between heaters and bathtubs, Hustwit doesn’t allow this early section to breathe, and it contains material ripe for its own movie. Quickly moving on from something with such weight is a bit awkward and feels mistaken, not to mention terribly inconsiderate.
It’s even odder, too, because it doesn’t accurately represent how the filmmaker generally operates. He has a perfect sense of pacing (which is a huge asset given this kind of material), knowing exactly when to dwell and when to progress. He also implements a warm, welcoming interview style which is never disrespectful (odd fellows in “Helvetica” are never belittled; similarly, “Urbanized” presents the arguments of disgruntled citizens and government officials even-handedly). Chalk it up to a minor misstep.
After another messy bit on Brasília which critiques the city for its car congestion and poor design, the filmmaker finally rebounds with a spotlight on Bogota. The documentarian slows down a bit and gives the mic to the former Mayor, allowing him to elucidate on successful public transportation and his catering to citizens’ demands. In a refreshing sequence, we follow him around the neighborhood (as opposed the wealth of sit-down interviews beforehand), establishing his relationship to the community as he greets fellow citizens. He points to paved lanes made for bikes while cars must drive on dirt roads. “We’ll get to it, but the people wanted this and the people come first,” he says. At this point we too develop a bond; maybe it’s the showcase of likable urban ideas in effect or the sheer fact that it’s a positive scrutiny as opposed to the two negative observations it follows. Either way, Hustwit finally has us hooked and we’re in for the ride.
Bouncy instrumental tunes coat the various interludes between city-specific sections, often highlighting a variety of urban activities and elements. Following sections are just as involving as “Bogota,” ranging from large endeavors (the revamping of an unused subway line in New York City) to intricate development ideas to be used in a variety of places (squares no bigger than 100m x 100m for eye comfort, emphasis on movable chairs to promote leisure time). The director takes on a myriad of things, but his avoidance of architectural jargon and focus on what cities mean to people emotionally propels the film forward. He looks at these places as not chic homes or congested areas drained by distancing hustle and bustle, but as exciting, affable environments.
Though it takes 20 minutes to find its footing, “Urbanized” is mostly very likable and quite enlightening. These kinds of informational documentaries run the risk of being insipid, but the filmmaker injects just the right amount of verve and life into the proceedings to prevent it from feeling like classroom busy work. With this trilogy officially coming to a close, we’re very interested to see what he tackles next and how he does it. [B]