Full Frame 2K7 Friday

In addition to the Jem Cohen films, I caught four other films on Friday at Full Frame (two features and two shorts). The first short, Alice Sees the Light, focused on light pollution using female narration and statistical information, underlining that information with visuals that depict our attachment to bright lights in the night sky. The other short, Liza Johnson’s South of Ten depicts a group of Mississippians recovering from the aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina. Johnson uses a poetic, elegiac tone to show a number of haunting scenes, including most memorably, an elderly man who finds a trombone amidst the rubble left behind by the storm.

One of the features I caught on Friday was the environmental documentary, Everything’s Cool, which focused primarily on the efforts of people such as writer Bill McKibben, White House whistle-blower Rick Piltz, and and journalist Ross Gelbspan, as well as Weather Channel global warming expert, Dr. Heidi Cullen. Rather than merely making the argument that global warming is happening, the film explores the frustration these men feel about the slowness of the response to the global warming crisis. While the film clearly takes an activist stance, I found it more interesting as an illustration of the long battles that many of these activists faced in getting their story heard and accepted by resistant and often hostile members of the government and news media.

Finally, I caught Radiant City an anti-urban sprawl documentary that is likely to provoke some controversy if and when it receives a slightly wider audience (the title comes from a phrase used by French architect Le Corbusier). The film offers many of the usual anti-sprawl suspects, including James Howard Kunstler, who also appeared in The End of Suburbia, but Radiant City appears to be attempting something different, first by openly acknowledging that most suburbanites know the anti-suburb arguments but may find themselves with few options when inner-city housing is too expensive and too far from good schools.

At the same time, the film introduces us to a couple of typical suburban families, best represented by the Moss family where many of the tensions about suburban life play out. The father, Evan, decides to put on Suburb the Musical, a clearly satirical take on suburban life, while his wife, Ann, complains about Evan’s negative attitude towards suburban life. Notably, the family’s life is neatly planned out on a dry erase calendar color-coded for all the members of the family, but as we see at one point, the son quietly sabotages his mom’s best laid plans by erasing certain events and re-arranging others. The focus on a typical family recalls a number of reality TV shows (Wife Swap and Trading Spouses come to mind), but the references to Evan’s musical suggested something slightly different, as I’ll explain below the fold to avoid spoiling a key component of the film (but if you’ve seen the film I’d love to hear your interpretation of this element of the film).

It becomes increasingly clear that the Wood family is fictional, a detail that becomes explicit when the son accidentally shoots his sister from his bedroom window. The film drops a few hints along the way–Ann’s angry glance at the camera, Evan’s open speculation about whether he should have married–to suggest that the film may be fictional. Once the fiction is clearly revealed, the film’s true precedent, the mockumentaries of Christopher Guest and friends, becomes clear. Of course, we are led to believe throughout the film that the Wood family is “real,” and several audience members complained about being duped, especially at a festival dedicated to documentary. But the directors, Gary Burns and Jim Brown, sought to use the “fakeness” of the film’s subjects to comment n some way on the fakeness of suburban life itself.

It’s an interesting point, and I have no real complaints about faking out the audience in this manner (some of the best “documentaries” in recent memory have done something similar), but I’m not quite sure that their point makes sense or even functions as a critique of suburbia. While it’s easy to fault suburban developers for using names such as “Copper Valley” or “Heather Ridge,” to use the name of my own heather-free apartment complex, I’d imagine that most home buyers attach little specific significance to the name of the subdivision itself and even though shopping malls may evoke lost images of town squares, I’m guessing that most shoppers are not attarcted to the mall in search of a lost public sphere. In short, I don’t think the “fakeness” (or ideological) critique the film offers works as well as the film itself would like to believe. Still, the families involved are entertaining and make a subject that could easily have become tedious a little more enjoyable.

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