Review: ‘New Urban Cowboy: The Labors of Michael E. Arth’

The problems inherent in making a movie about yourself are encapsulated by the fact "New Urban Cowboy: The Labors of Michael E. Arth" is a film by Michael E. Arth and Blake Wiers.

The problems inherent in making a movie about yourself are encapsulated by the fact “New Urban Cowboy: The Labors of Michael E. Arth” is a film by Michael E. Arth and Blake Wiers. Creator of a New Pedestrianism movement to renovate depressed neighborhoods, Arth appears laudable. Of course, his efforts might even be more laudable if his movie didn’t do so much of the lauding for him. Subject is duly inspiring, but the docu’s faux neutrality and lack of critical perspective will work against its exposure through conventional commercial channels as opposed to self-distributive ones.

A visual artist, surfer and aspiring filmmaker turned architect and landscaper, Arth confusingly gets priced out of his dwelling in wealthy Santa Barbara, Calif., and, after an online search, winds up purchasing, sight-unseen, two properties for $16,000 — in Central Florida. It’s not such a bargain; not only are the houses in sorry repair, they’re located in “the worst part of Central Florida,” in a section of DeLand not-so-affectionately dubbed “Cracktown,” rife with drugs, prostitution and violence. Arth packed his mortified, pregnant wife Maya off to her Bulgarian homeland while he started fixing up the joints. She moved back the night before giving birth.

Arth’s idea was to keep buying, renovating and selling properties in the blighted hood until Cracktown turned into a new garden district in which picturesque residences, their middle-class new owners and freshly planted flora created a “pedestrian village” low on traffic and crime. Initially skeptical local authorities and potential investors turned into boosters as the area underwent a dramatic transformation for the better.

That kind of personal industry and success is hard to argue against. But “Cowboy” doesn’t help its case by excluding discussion of arguments that might reasonably arise. No one wants to live with drug dealers, but what happens to the other Cracktown renters and residents pushed out by a gentrification that turns the hitherto largely African-American neighborhood a whiter shade of pale? A couple of times one gleans that not everybody appreciates Arth telling them what to do with their property. But nary an unkind word is heard — at least onscreen.

“Special places attract special people, there’s no doubt about it!” chirps one new arrival. People who can afford the area’s drastic market appreciation, presumably.

These lingering questions might have simple answers, but their lack of address makes the doc’s perspective seem suspect. It ends with an embarrassing montage of interviewees heaping praise on Arth, as if the preceding 95 minutes haven’t been self-promoting enough.

Some editorial tightening might help, though ideally Arth, his ideas and projects would benefit most from a documentary scrutiny that boasted at a semblance of nonpartisan detachment.

Tech aspects are adequate; music leans toward Celtic folk tracks.

New Urban Cowboy: The Labors of Michael E. Arth

Production

A Golden Apples Media production. Produced by Golden Apples Media. Directed by Michael E. Arth, Blake Wiers.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Wiers; editor, Wiers; additional camera, Arth; sound, Wiers, Arth. Reviewed on DVD, San Francisco, Sept. 27, 2007. (In San Francisco Documentary Film Festival.) Running time: 92 MIN.

With

Michael E. Arth, Maya Petkova Arth.
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