The Age of the City Planning Movie Has Arrived

Ezra Glenn blew on an old-fashioned train whistle. “All aboard for ‘Last Train Home’!” The crowd chuckled. “Our conductor, Tunney Lee, will make some announcements at the front of the car. There are still some snacks left in the dining car.” Glenn motioned to a spread of mooncakes and other Chinese treats on a small table at the edge of the classroom. The room was full. Movie night at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning had begun. Qin, a teenager who chooses to leave school in the countryside for factory work in "Last Train Home". Photo via the film's facebook page.

City planners, take note: We are living in the golden age of city planning films. You may not have been waiting for this period, or even have imagined that such a thing was possible. Yet, it’s here.  But what makes a movie qualify as a city planning movie? And what makes for a good city planning movie?

As this journal reported, Berkeley is accepting its first master’s thesis in film this fall. Recording equipment and editing software are increasingly affordable and accessible. City Planning, the most magically amorphous field of study, can extend a legitimate welcome to a huge range of film topics.

“Last Train Home” is about Chinese family fractured by factory life. The parents, too poor to support their infant daughter, decide to move to the city and send their wages home. Their daughter is a teenager when the film begins. She is angry that she doesn’t know her own parents, deciding whether to stay in school or go on to factory work against their wishes, and mourning the death of the grandfather who raised her. The family reunites only once a year – a trip made possible by China’s extensive train system. The film captures that trip again and again. Chinese New Year produces the world’s largest human migration.

Lee, a professor in the department, took five minutes to offer some context for the movie before turning down the lights. Glenn, lecturer in the department and movie buff, explained that he would show a few previews for upcoming films in the series. Movie night is Glenn’s brainchild. As the film began he was hovering at the door, unstacking chairs for latecomers and fiddling with the temperature. The room was packed.

“Our users are caring more and more about movies, and about showing them,” said Heather McCann, the MIT Urban Studies & Planning librarian who has been helping Glenn secure movie rights. McCann pays between $250 and $450 for each movie. That price includes “Public Performance Rights,” or the right to show the film to groups within the university community if no admission fee is charged. McCann and Glenn went to buy “Play Time,” they stumbled upon Janus – a movie distributor they hadn’t yet encountered – and its full list of movies. “The list was awesome,” said McCann. She ended up buying more than one.

Good news for Glenn. Good news for movie-goers. “A movie takes everyone to the same emotional space,” said Glenn. He loves the moment when the lights go up. It’s like the Peace Be With You Moment at a Catholic Mass, he says, or sitting down for a post-show drink with a date. Five minutes after “Last Train Home” ended, a group of friends lingered, talking about the movie and solidifying their plans for the evening. “That movie blew my mind,” said one of them as she walked out the door.

Glenn has launched an Urban Film Blog and is accepting movie reviews from anyone with insight. “We don’t want to know whether you liked it or not. We want to know what it means, what it exposes about the nature of cities.” Contact to submit a film review.

MIT’s Urban Planning Film Series runs every Wednesday or Thursday evening from September to December in 2012. It includes both feature films and documentaries. As the program flyer states, each screening includes “additional video ephemera”. When Glenn showed ‘The Parking Lot Movie,” a parking lot expert gave introductory remarks. When he showed “Dark Days,” a film about people who live under the train tracks in New York, he handed out fliers for the Somerville Homeless Coalition’s 5k road race.

A scene from "The Parking Lot Movie". Photo via the film's site.

This is Glenn’s complete 2012 movie night list:

  • THE PARKING LOT MOVIE (2010): A documentary on the lives of parking lot attendants who work at The Corner Parking Lot in Charlottesville, Virginia. Directed by Meghan Eckman.
  • DARK DAYS (2000): Independent filmmaker Marc Singer explores the underground world inhabited by residents of New York’s underground tunnels. Music by DJ Shadow.
  • THE LAST TRAIN HOME (2009): Every spring, China’s cities are plunged into chaos, as millions of city-dweller attempt to return to their rural homes by train for Chinese New Year. Directed by Lixin Fan.
  • THE CITY DARK (2011): A documentary about light pollution and the disappearing night; “a search for night on a planet that never sleeps.” Special guest: Susanne Seitinger, City Innovations Manager, Philips Color Kinetics. Co-sponsored by the PBS “POV” Community Network. Directed by Ian Cheney.
  • LAND OF OPPORTUNITY (2010): Juxtaposing the perspectives of protagonists from different walks of life, this project reveals how the story of post-Katrina New Orleans is also the story of urban America. Directed by Luisa Dantas.
  • THE AGE OF STUPID (2009): A man living in the devastated future of 2055 looks back at footage from our time and asks, “why didn’t we stop climate change when we had the chance?” Directed by Franny Armstrong.
  • MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES (2006): Follows Edward Burtynsky through China as he documents the evidence and effects of a massive industrial revolution through stunningly beautiful large-scale photographs of quarries, recycling yards, factories, mines and dams. Directed by Jennifer Baichwal.
  • TRUCK FARM (2011): Tells the story of a new generation of quirky urban farmers in New York City. Directed by Ian Cheney.
  • STREET FIGHT (2005): Chronicles the bare-knuckles race for Mayor of Newark, N.J. between Cory Booker, a 32-year-old Rhodes Scholar/Yale Law School grad, and Sharpe James, the four-term incumbent and undisputed champion of New Jersey politics. Directed by Marshall Curry.
  • THE PRUITT-IGOE MYTH (2011): Tells the story of the transformation of the American city in the decades after World War II, through the lens of the infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing development and the St. Louis residents who called it home. Directed by Chad Freidrichs.
  • PLAY TIME (1967): “With every inch of its superwide frame crammed with hilarity and inventiveness, Playtime is a lasting testament to a modern age tiptoeing on the edge of oblivion.” Directed by Jacques Tati.

What movies would you include in your list, and why?

Alexa Mills is the Director of Media Projects at the MIT Community Innovators Lab (CoLab) and edits CoLab Radio.