A melancholy meditation on urban blight and inner-city decrepitude, "Urbanscapes" occasionally undercuts its own purpose by offering harshly minimalist, meticulously framed images -- underscored by everything from Mozart and Bach to Eminem and Motown -- that achieve, almost perversely, a stark, stripped-to-essentials splendor.
A melancholy meditation on urban blight and inner-city decrepitude, “Urbanscapes” occasionally undercuts its own purpose by offering harshly minimalist, meticulously framed images — underscored by everything from Mozart and Bach to Eminem and Motown — that achieve, almost perversely, a stark, stripped-to-essentials splendor. Despite that seeming contradiction — or perhaps because of it — pic by husband-and-wife documakers Lorena Luciano and Filippo Piscopo could generate limited theatrical interest before relocating to more hospitable TV neighborhoods.With equal measures of sorrow and simmering rage, the Italian-born, U.S.-based helmers focus on parts of Detroit, Chicago, Newark and the South Bronx that have, through happenstance or design, devolved into dilapidation. In the Highland Park section of Detroit, auto worker Gen. Gordon Baker sadly notes the widespread unemployment and urban decay caused by plant closings, and rails against officials who he feels bankrupted his city, leaving citizens without adequate public services. Marion, his social-worker wife, bitterly recalls so-called “urban renewal” programs of the 1960s that seemed designed only to displace low-income African-Americans. Photographer Mel Rosenthal sounds a similarly cynical note when he returns to his old neighborhood in the South Bronx, an area that became “an international metaphor for urban disaster” in the 1970s and ’80s. Rosenthal blames many of the problems on a city government-sanctioned policy of “planned shrinkage.” Another photographer, New York-based Camillo J. Vergara, speaks of what he has observed during 30 years of taking photos of specific neighborhoods in Chicago and Newark. (In this, he often sounds like Harvey Keitel’s obsessive street-corner photographer in Wayne Wang’s “Smoke.”) But his most powerful pics appear in a gallery exhibit of his many photos of the World Trade Center — including some he snapped on 9/11. Two scenes remain in the mind long after the closing credits. As the Bakers drive through the decayed magnificence of a once-popular Chicago movie house that has been turned into a parking garage, the image is borderline surreal. At another point, Rosenthal remembers seeing wild dogs running through the streets of the South Bronx, pursued by men brandishing lassos. Rosenthal found himself thinking: “Could this really be a city in the United States?”