Kaid Benfield Archive


Radiant City - apt and fun on suburbia, but fair?

Kaid Benfield

Posted July 21, 2008 at 1:05PM

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While flipping channels the other night, I came across a film on, I think, the Sundance Channel called Radiant City.

I didn’t see the beginning, but what I saw was mesmerizing.  It’s a documentary-style comment on life in the suburbs, shot outside Calgary, Alberta, by a Canadian film company.  Calgary's suburbs in the foreground, downtown in the background (by: ShazzMack, creative commons license)I have since learned that it was made in 2006, was released in May of 2007, and won a 2008 Genie award for best documentary from the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television.

I say documentary-style because, to invoke the great Kris Kristofferson lyric, it is partly truth and partly fiction, the fiction better to make the point.  As the film’s press kit puts it:

“Something’s happening on the edge of town. 

“There’s a desperate housewife in the parking lot, a musical chorus line mowing the lawn — and a loaded gun in the upstairs closet. Welcome to Radiant City. 

“Gary Burns, Canada’s king of surreal comedy, joins forces with journalist Jim Brown to craft a vivid account of The Late Suburban Age. 

“Sprawl is eating the planet. Politicians call it growth. Developers call it business. The Moss family call it home."

The film features music from Joey Santiago of the Pixies and interviews a range of leaders in the land use field, including Andres Duany and James Howard Kunstler.  I know and admire Andres and I am very familiar with Kunstler’s work.  I think I’m on safe ground when I say that both can be highly entertaining and neither is given to understatement. :)

The New York Times review gave it four and a half stars out of a possible five:

“Blending documentary elements and some dramatic material (you don’t realize which is which until the movie springs its best surprise), “Radiant City” is an acerbic position paper on the cultural damage done by postwar architectural fads. The film unfavorably contrasts early-20th-century suburbs, which were built around shared public spaces and more conducive to pedestrian life, with their postwar successors, which lured inhabitants by promising huge amounts of space and no obligation to care about what happened beyond your property line. . . .

“The cast of characters mixes . . . a theater troupe working on a musical about suburban life, a tightly wound mother who micromanages each day on a refrigerator scheduling board, and a young teenager who observes the vastness of his personality-free exurb from the top of a cellphone tower. (He says he’s careful not to stay up there longer than a few minutes because he doesn’t want to get a brain tumor.)”

Here’s the two-minute trailer:

As I said when I began, I found the film mesmerizing and, in fact, want to see it again.  Its view of the worst of suburbia reinforces my own to an extent. 

But, in the end, I wonder if the joke is funny anymore.  The film was made pre-foreclosure crisis, pre-housing-value plunge, pre-gas price increases.  What might have been fair in 2006 seems a little heartless today, when suburbanites are suffering the consequences of a gamble many of them didn’t realize they were making.

I think of my friend J who lives near Tysons Corner and bought a huge SUV several years ago because his kids liked it in the showroom but now can’t afford to drive it.  I think of my in-law T who bought his 40-acre dream in the Virginia horse country but now finds his long-distance commute to be wearing on both the psyche and the pocketbook.  People made the choices they made to live on the fringe from the limited menu put before them, for all sorts of understandable reasons.  And now a lot of them are screwed.  Poking fun at them seems a little like poking fun at a lung cancer patient for smoking.

The film’s title, by the way, comes from a manifesto by Le Corbusier, the early-20th-century Swiss architect and futurist.