January’s film shows how planning can humanize once oppressive city living

Probably the city has been written about and filmed more often than any other topic of serious human endeavor—certainly more than war, science, and art, and probably religion, too. Go to Wikipedia and run your eyes down the lengthy list of films about cities. Wikipedia admits its list is incomplete.

And why not? Cities have figured more prominently in human history, both in the history of suffering and the history of achievement, than the field, the stream, the temple, the museum or the library. Cities embody all of these manifestations of human hope and sorrow. Cities are never static. They change, change, change. Older cities are layered. You dig down and find alternative manifestations. Usually the deeper layers represent less democracy, fewer opportunities, and certainly less humane planning.

Filmworks has shown a few films about cities over the years, notably Waste Land and City of God. This pair of films is representative of how writers and filmmakers see cities, ranging from romanticized to negative points of view. Waste Land exhibits, first, problems—the disease and degradation of uncontrolled garbage pile-up, and second, the transformation of lowly dump workers who band together to produce lending libraries, clinics, and, unexpectedly, art. City of God is much darker, depicting gangs run amock and adopting violence as a way of life.

Cities are humankind’s greatest invention; no one descriptor covers it all. It’s like nuclear power—both a grand source of energy and a terrible killer. That’s probably why Ric Burns took 14 ½ hours to capture New York City in his seven-part documentary about NYC (New York: a Documentary)—the standard two-hour format just would not do.

Books and films about cities tend to take these two routes, positive opportunities and despair. Some attempt both, thin blankets thrown over a very large subject.

On Friday January 13, Filmworks will show Urbanized, the last film of Gary Hustwit’s trilogy on design. Hustwit is fascinated with the process of making a better can opener or mouse trap—anything, small or large, that rests on some kind of intelligence for the betterment of society. In Urbanized, Hustwit takes on the largest tool of all, the city. Critic Bob Turnbull, in a website implausibly (or brilliantly) called “Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind,” writes this about Urbanized:

Gary Hustwit’s final film in his design trilogy is essentially a call for engagement in the democratic process and a treatise on the power of community action. You should walk out of his film talking, arguing and, most importantly, thinking. Thinking about your city, thinking about your living conditions and thinking about what you and your government should be doing.

Thus Urbanized is a positive rumination on cities worldwide. It also renders them wondrous to look at. Hustwit’s cinematographer Luke Geissbuhler sprinkles the film with fetching images. Go back to our home page and watch the trailer with its amenable domes, arches, bike paths, greenswards, and busy streets in which randomness achieves its own aesthetic. Yes, there are shots of packed-together squalor and too-crowded streets, but these are rendered as part of the wonderful diversity of cosmopolitan living.

Bill Weber of Slant Magazine notes an attempt to present the city in a balanced way in Urbanized.

Even defenders of dubious concepts such as the ever-growing sprawl of metropolitan Phoenix are given voice without being framed as villains, but the film’s concerns are decidedly with people who will never have a pool or a backyard—and in Mumbai or Santiago, whose lives are transformed by access to private toilets and bathtubs.

Is Hustwit’s vision too optimistic?  When does the pendulum start to swing back from beauty and livability to blight as the poor continue to pour into cities? How will the problems of crowded cities be resolved? In our lifetime? The next? Never? It’s going to take a lot of Hustwits to turn the corner. Maybe all of us need to assess what we as individuals can do—from something as committed to serving on neighborhood planning committees to bothering to pick up a piece of trash in a park. It takes a society.