53rd Chicago Int’l Film Fest #10: “Experimental City” (USA)

“Experimental City” (USA)
Directed by Chad Freidrichs

0e9325-20170705-swatara03Director Chad Freidrichs, whose “Pruitt-Igoe Myth” (2013), is one of the better, great, even, docs describing the failures of  American urban development in the mid-twentieth century, follows that up with “Experimental City”, a disjointed, but dense, doc about an altruistic urban renewal project that never quite got off the ground. Utilizing nothing more than newspaper clips, governmental promotional collateral, and tapes of committee meetings, Freidrichs successfully paints a detailed picture of the process, and ultimate failure, of creating an experimental city in Minnesota. It’s a bizarre and intriguing story, as the purpose of this city was to try as many different (and previously unheard of) approaches to solving the major problems faced by the countries over-crowded urban centers…pollution, lack of green space transportation, living condition, etc…and, if successful, pass them along to those centers.

But when I say Freidrichs is successful, I mean he paints a very in-depth picture. That he is able to do so with the limited evidence available to him in a humorous and entertaining manner is a small miracle. The problem is that, interesting as this moment in time was, it doesn’t hold up for ninety minutes, and, when all is said and done, it seems he tries to tackle too much story with not enough narrative. There are stories WITHIN the stories that are more interesting, and focusing on them might have yielded a better result. Perhaps he could have stuck to the mastermind behind the city, Athelstan Spilhaus, whose creativity and ability to turn his imaginings in to action are pretty spell-binding. Or maybe focus more on the the fight by the residents of the town selected to house the city, Swatara, MN, to keep their way of life untouched – more specifically, their protest march from their town to Minneapolis (160 miles) in the dead of the Minnesotan winter, and the obstacles they faced. Alas, as it is, the film ends with a shrug, much like the subject matter, and as entertaining as his process is, it’s not enough to make us feel like we took part in something of great value.

That isn’t to say Freidrichs doesn’t give it an amazing go. He knows how to animate the most mundane material and make us smile along the way. If you ever wanted to know how to edit a film based solely on what must have been hours of research, minutes of city committee meetings and photographs of people sitting behind tables, this is it. He’s a very accomplished director. There just isn’t enough there there…even if the story is crazily curious. I can’t recommend as a doc for the masses, but if you are a student of urban history, you’ll want to see this simply for the creativity of the city’s planning.

Written on 10/21/2017

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