RADIANT CITY written and directed by Gary Burns and Jim Brown. An Odeon release. 86 minutes. Opens Friday (March 30). Rating: NNNNN
As the census recently proved, most of Canada's new growth is happening in the suburbs, where huge, anonymous-looking developments are spreading out of control from our major urban centres.
None of this surprises Gary Burns and Jim Brown, the writer/directors of Radiant City, an informative, disturbing and completely engaging documentary about suburban sprawl.
Feature filmmaker Burns (Waydowntown, The Suburbanators) and CBC writer Brown both grew up in the burbs, but this was back in the 1960s and 70s. The new developments, they point out, feel much different.
"There's a greater sense of isolation, a real disconnectedness from the world, particularly during the day, when we did most of our filming," says Brown.
"From the time the last SUV leaves in the morning until the first school buses begin to arrive in the afternoon, these places are almost completely deserted. And they are so incredibly silent. You don't even hear birds singing, because there are no trees."
Radiant City focuses on the attractive and prototypical Moss family, whose four members are divided about the pros and cons of their home. Mom likes the big kitchen (she shows off the palace with pride), while Dad, suffering through long commutes, misses the energy and humanity of the city. He's even taken a role in a tongue-in-cheek community production of Suburb: The Musical (co-written by Daily Show head writer David Javerbaum), to his spouse's chagrin.
The two kids, meanwhile, feel lost and dislocated amidst the generic neighbourhoods intersected by highways and big-box store complexes.
The filmmakers intentionally avoid identifying the suburb where the Mosses live, or where a series of experts (from urban planners to real estate agents) are talking from. Calgary, Toronto and even Miami feature in the film not that you can tell them apart.
"The only names we use are the names of suburban communities, because those places and their names are so interchangeable," says Brown. "A place called Evergreen or Scenic Acres could be anywhere in North America."
The filmmakers also wisely avoid campy references to 1950s suburban kitsch, ubiquitous in advertising and TV. (Think, for instance, of those intros to Citytv's Speakers Corner.)
"We wanted to show that it was possible to make a doc about suburbia without all that," says Brown. "You know, the 50s black-and-white clips of Mom, Dad and Junior pulling up in their Buick Skylark in front of their new ranch-style bungalow, or of Mom showing off her latest time-saving kitchen gadget, with the retro narrator that sounds so funny to our irony-loving ears."
Instead, this intelligent doc toys with the genre's conventions, not just in its central narrative, but also in the way the subjects are photographed by Patrick McLaughlin. Social critic James Howard Kunstler, who makes hilariously bombastic (and dead-on) statements about the issue, is shot using a wide-angle lens, while another expert talks to us at the back of an empty moving bus.
"We wanted to take a subject that a lot of people would consider fairly dry and make it as visually interesting as possible," says Brown. "I think Patrick did an amazing job."
And where does Brown see the suburb situation in, say, 25 years?
"I don't see it substantially changing unless that change is forced upon us, either because gas becomes too scarce or expensive to maintain the commute or environmental concerns force governments to act," he says.
"If left to our own devices, with no brakes put on developers, I think we'll continue to build more and more sprawl."
RADIANT CITY (Gary Burns, Jim Brown) Rating: NNNN
Co-director Gary Burns is well-qualified to make this doc about suburbia, having captured the boredom and anomie of Calgary's burbs in features like The Suburbanators and Kitchen Party.
Here, with CBC journalist Jim Brown, he provides an entertaining and informative look at the history of suburban sprawl, focusing on one very divided family and featuring an assortment of experts, from bitterly sarcastic social critic James Howard Kunstler to a perky real estate agent named Peggy Scott. The directors know exactly what they're doing with each beautiful image captured by cinematographer Patrick McLaughlin to illustrate what the subjects are saying. The Moss family - smug mom, distant dad, alienated kids - are often filmed separately to suggest their isolation.
The information is always revealing, and the climax will make you reconsider what goes on behind those two-car garage doors.