Gary Burns (Waydowntown) and his friend, broadcaster Jim Brown, live in Calgary. Recently they collaborated on Radiant City, a sorta-documentary about urban sprawl. While the topic of the film sounds more like the subject of a lecture you would skip in order to, well, do almost anything else, the movie is actually a sly and subtly funny jab at the way our lives are being shaped by the world we buy into. It plays a little like An Inconvenient Truth meets Waiting For Guffman. We caught up with Jim and Gary at the Sutton Place hotel bar on Burrard and charged the drinks to Alliance Atlantis…
ONLY: A point that comes up in Radiant City is the acceptance of a false reality or a hyper-reality where what people are seeking is not accurate. The illusion of a quality or standard of life that’s desirable but doesn’t actually exist.
Jim Brown: This may not be the case in Vancouver, but in Calgary, if you mention to a young family that maybe they should raise their kids in a high-rise they’ll look at you like you’re insane. On the one hand they are conditioned to want a lifestyle because they see it on TV or in movies: like there’s Chevy Chase and he’s a gym teacher or something but he lives in this house in suburban Chicago worth like six million dollars, and people see that and think “that’s what I want.” And they try to get that but what can they get? A plastic copy where not only is the siding not real, but the shutters are stapled on and the porch isn’t deep enough to sit on.
Gary Burns: When we were looking for houses to shoot in, our location guy found this one house and when you look at it from the street it’s got a big double garage, but the garage is the whole house, and we couldn’t even shoot in the house it was so small. If you put your office in the garage and parked your car on the street you might have something.
JB: The other thing about these houses is what are they going to be like in thirty years? I mean they’re crap. There’s nothing real about them. You could basically take it all apart with your hands. It’s plastic.
ONLY: One of the things I like about the film is that it presents itself as a documentary, but it’s really a comedy.
JB: Our idea from the beginning was “let’s make a movie about the suburbs, but let’s make it entertaining.” We figured most people weren’t going to go out and see a documentary about urban sprawl, so we wanted to liven it up. It was our intention to make it funny. But also to have all the information there and to hopefully have the people leave the theatre where they might have an interesting chat over a beer afterwards about where we are living and the kinds of communities we are building.
ONLY: You guys walk a fine line between presenting the film as a documentary and creating characters. Was that a difficult thing to maintain, without going too far either way?
GB: I think from the beginning we were just as interested the documentary form as we were in the subject matter. And it really lends itself nicely, the idea that we could play loosely with the documentary form just like the developers play loose with selling the suburbs.
ONLY: Here in Vancouver we live in an urban environment, but we are still facing the issues of highway expansion and there seems to be a failure to look farther than five years down the road as to how this is going to shape the way we live.
JB: Well it’s hard to get politicians to look longer than their term in office. And in Calgary, the suburban vote elects candidates. The non-suburban vote is not enough to get in. If you want to win you need the suburbs. And that requires freeways, extra lanes, more schools and building an infrastructure that serves the car. Whereas if you could get elected mayor just on the urban vote you could run a campaign based on public transit, you could run on walkability or on trying to cut smog and getting cars off the road. But you can’t do that in Calgary.
GB: People who are voting for mayor right now are voting for road construction, but what they don’t realise is that in ten years from now their homes will be worth nothing, because they’re voting for a worse quality of life where they’re going to be stuck in way worse traffic.
Now playing at VanCity Theatre.
April 6-11, 7:15 & 9:
April 12, 1:45 & 4:00