Edge Cities

Radiant City

2006, 85 mins., Canada
Screenplay: Gary Burns and Jim Brown
Directors: Gary Burns and Jim Brown
Mock Documentary

Suburbs are funny: the more they were criticized the more developers built them. Even the cast of this mock doc admit that most of them live in suburbs too–although they hasten to add, not as bad as the one they inhabit in the film.

Whoops, it was supposed to be a secret that there is a cast. The directors want you to think that you are watching a documentary and then at the end the cast members introduce themselves. Fortunately cinematic literacy being what it is, not too many will be taken in as easily as that. Maybe by the time we see a vacant lot with a sign that says Site of Future Church or Single Family Housing or another one that says Site of Future Day Care Center or Single Family Housing, we’ll catch on. Or when the leading dad plays himself in Suburb: The Musical at the town hall or when one real estate agent makes it clear that she buys every house on the market so that she can re-sell them (but seems never to sell any).

The aerial shots of actual developments establish these fictional communities more successfully than most of the character sketches: we see a magnificent array of single-family and multiple unit dwellings as if the entire horizon has been blanketed by Monopoly houses, as if these exurban houses have swallowed up the rest of the megalopolis.

We do meet some typical documentary talking heads, experts on suburbs and the self-defeating nature of this model development for expanding the city. One of them, James Howard Kunstler, is especially clear about their hopelessness; as the author of The Long Emergency (2005) about the coming collapse of the oil-driven economies like our own, he adds a poignant almost humorous end-of-history air to the film.

The directors’ earlier (feature) film, waydowntown, dramatizes a wager among workers in office buildings and apartments all linked by the Plus 15 Walkway of Calgary: the bet is to see who can live the longest without touching down on the city streets. It is an apt metaphor for the end of the metropolis: one lives and works and plays in buildings one cannot leave. Add the suburbanites who eventually will not be able to commute because there is no more gas, inadequate suburban transit systems, and the future of megalopolis is now.

Further Reading:

Eisner, Ken. “Radiant City.” Variety, 19 Oct. 2006. Applauds the directors’ “latest vision of dystopia [as] an edgy look at exurbia.”

Seitz, Matt Zoller. “Life in the Sprawling Suburbs, If You Can Really Call It Living.” New York Times, 30 May 2007. High praise especially for the cinematographer Patrick McLaughlin, whose “eerie, sometimes monumental images italicize the experts’ statements, making the suburbs seem like an asphalt-and-Sheetrock dreamscape where democracy goes to die. “

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