Monday, November 1, 2010

The Suburban Prelude: The City (1939)

An interesting film, created as part of the 1939 New York World's Fair, is 'The City', an heavily anti-urban vision of the perils of the the modern city agglomeration.  Using a number of images from both the smoky and polluted industrial Pittsburgh and the crowded, frenetic cosmopolitan New York City of the 1930s, the film sets the stage of life in the city as overwhelming and unhealthy.  Written by Lewis Mumford, and indicative of his nostalgic view of cities, the film does offer up an alternative - a Howard-esque garden-city model of inspired new American Greenbelt towns (notably Radburn, NJ and Greenbelt, MD) that were at the time a planning panacea that reflected the forthcoming suburban ideal.

The Internet Archive has a variety of formats for download -  Part I is available here; Part II here.  Below is a short excerpt.

Coming from the ideology of The Regional Planning Association of America's plea for community chaotic cities and urban sprawl," the film was screened next to the Little Theatre in the Science and Education Building which was ironically next to the General Motor's Futurama exhibit, which was an interpretation of which would become the interstate highway system.  A great article in Wired offers some of the impact: "GM's ride presented a utopia forged by urban planning. Sophisticated highways ran through rural farmland and eventually moved into carefully ordered futuristic cities. "You have to understand that the audience had never even considered a future like this," says Howland. "There wasn't an interstate freeway system in 1939. Not many people owned a car. They staggered out of the fair like a cargo cult and built an imperfect version of this incredible vision."

:: image via Wired

The ideology of good planning in new towns, coupled with a the adjacent highway system of easy mobility offered by Futurama, offers a somewhat creepy glimpse into what would become the ubiquitous suburban pattern of the next 50+ years.  There is definitely a biased slant (which is pretty comical at times), giving it a feeling of satire - but was the information (essentially a discrediting 'snuff film' on the city) was dead serious at the time.  Some commentary info from IMDB:
"Made by a group of people with, if not an axe to grind, a purpose in mind, which appears to be a plug for future suburbia and back to the idyllic towns of the past and the Big City would just be a place where people work but not live. Or something like that, as it is told in a schizophrenic method that primarily drones on about started like this and it was good, and it becames this and it was bad, yada, yada, yada. Based on how America looks today...large metroplexes surrounded by super highways surrounded by look-alike suburbs with more super highways leading out to other metroplexes--- the goal was accomplished but the results aren't what was envisioned in 1939. The film was made possible by funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and has a definite leftward-slant which is no surprise based on some of the names connected with the original film."

The City from Post-Classical Ensemble on Vimeo.

While undoubtedly influential on the anti-metropolitan sentiment that continued well beyond WWII, the film is notable as a mainstream media outlet for planning, bringing a message to a wide audience (even with a score from Mr. Americana himself, Aaron Copland).  I would love to see the pitch to hollywood execs, wondering how a didactic film such as this would fly today, with its focus on urban planning and contemporary society (compared to say, the more evocative treatment of Baltimore in 'The Wire' which have become our visions of the City today).

:: The Wire - image via Obit magazine

How would this fly in todays media-saturated environment? It is perhaps plausible, an analog being the contemporary documentary 'An Inconvenient Truth' which surprised many with a wide theatrical success on a more academic subject.  (Perhaps due to it being applicable to all of us - or maybe we just really like Al Gore)  Is there an opportunity for a new form of documentary that can fill the niche in a similar way, or does this need to be dressed up to get the point across.  Something for HBO to consider, versus The History Channel.

Lots of clips out there if you can't download the full thing.  Check out some additional shorter video clips from YouTube:  Thanks to Prof. Abbott @ PSU for introducing this one in class.

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