Visionaries think big: It took Baron Georges-Eugene Haussman to modernize 19th-century Paris, turning it into a city of wide, tree-lined, beautiful and pedestrian-friendly boulevards. And it took architect and city planner Charles-Edouard Jeanneret — better know as Le Corbusier — to reconceive bustling, disorderly urban life as a tidy series of urban lives — work life, home life, going out life, errand-running life — divided between compartmentalized mini-environments: high-rise apartment buildings flooded with light and set in broad, open public spaces far from pedestrian-clogged sidewalks, noisy markets, clubs and restaurants separated from workplaces. But the real-world results are dysfunctional public housing projects and soul-eroding, resource-hogging suburbs.
Jim Brown and Gary Burns hang a powerful antisuburban diatribe in the form of statistics, expert opinions and pictures worth a thousand words on the experiences of the Moss family, father Evan (Bob Legare), mom Anne (Jane MacFarlane), adolescent Nick (Daniel Jeffery) and his younger sister, Jennifer (Ashleigh Fidyk). The Mosses are not, as the presence of the actors' names makes clear, a real family, but they're not just actors, either. They and the other suburbanites Burns and Brown "interview" do actually live in suburban developments, and the line dividing the fictitious and real-life lives is explored in the film's fascinating final 15 minutes. Until then, they maintain the thoroughly plausible fiction that they're genuine families. Anne talks about needing more room for the kids while demonstrating the detailed, color-coded refrigerator calendar she needs to keep track of their overscheduled lives. Evan muses about the alone time his two-hour daily commute affords him and pisses off Anne by participating in a satirical community theater production — "Suburb: The Musical" — that pokes fun at their way of life. Meanwhile, the kids take the filmmakers on a walking tour around the neighborhood where they know none of the neighbors (though Nick is acquainted with the dog next door), are cut off from adjacent communities by eight-lane highways and will have outgrown many of the community services that enticed their parents to buy long before construction was completed.
The real-life experts paint a grim picture of the psychic and economic costs of suburban living: the enormous infrastructure and fuel requirements of the two- and three-car family; the isolation of developments where there are no sidewalks that lead to the "power centers" where residents can eat, shop, go to the movies and meet friends; and the systematic destruction of the very grassy, tree-shaded beauty city dwellers moved for so that developers can build more single-family housing for nature-jonesing city dwellers. Canadian filmmaker Gary Burns (2001's WAYDOWNTOWN) and journalist Jim Brown's sublimely slippery, slightly surreal and not entirely "just the facts, ma'am" documentary subjects Le Corbusier's vision of La Ville Radieuse ("The Radiant City") to merciless scrutiny, and if it raises more questions than it answers, they're questions that merit serious consideration.
leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh