Friday, March 18, 2011


With more titles announced for Full Frame I have to say I was quite surprised to see THE PRUITT-IGOE MYTH making the cut. In my previous True/False write-up, I wrote critically on the film while leaving out specific issues I have with the film. In preparation for the FF screening, where I'll attempt to revisit the film if nothing high-priority is scheduled against it, I'd like to give it a second chance.  Before I get the critique rolling, I'll restate my positive thoughts on the film: (1) the idea for the film is potentially great, (2) some of the archival footage is fantastic, and (3) I love that they included interviews from former residents.

Questions concerning decisions made, keeping in mind I took no notes.

Fortunately it does not happen often, but on rare occasions films will use footage multiply in a way that adds seemingly nothing to form or content - PRUITT-IGOE does this on several occasions. There are many clips that are used multiple times, most egregiously in a montage that seems to desire some emphasizing effect that falls utterly flat. We get the St. Louis City Limits sign at least three times (yeah, we get population dropped); a rent sign zoomed in on at least three times - for what effect? A focus-pull from a broken window, presumably in Pruitt-Igoe, used multiple times. Not only is it odd that clips are reused, but odd that these clips are reused - more on this later.

The film seems to want to make a statement about urban decline - as its website states - though the only city discussed is St. Louis. There is an archival graphic (that might appear more than once) that cites population decline for three cities, but that is as far as it goes in being about urban in a way more than St. Louis. There is brief mention of a St. Louis suburb, with some good archival footage about why a white family has left "the black city", but the analysis doesn't go beyond the statement. Further, in taking us to the suburbs, the film (again) reuses a piece of footage of traffic on an interstate (the source of which is uncredited) the suggestion, of course, is a mass exodus from The City, but it feels trite - and its reuse doubly confounding. There might have been an argument in the narration or from one of the Talking Head historians on the decline of cities, but if there was it was nothing that seemed so compelling as to stick with me.

Which leads into PRUITT-IGOE's expert interviews. I think there were three expert interviews coming from two historians and one sociologist, while two of these experts were good, one of the historians added very little. This third historian made several sweeping generalizations, not backed with argument, sometimes on controversial claims - I simply didn't believe much of what he was saying, and some of what he was saying seemed so vacuous as to be inconsequential - much of his narrative reminded me of bad encyclopedia writing adding no substantive context or detail. With increased attention on public housing from historians it would have been easy to get better, and more varied, perspectives on Pruitt-Igoe.

Interviews with former residents. Aside the aesthetics of the interviewees placed in front of a glaring-white back-drop, the fact that there were only four or five former resident interviews used seems negligent. Apparently, in one of the post-screening Q&As, the director stated eight former residents were actually interviewed.  Not only does it seem cursory that only eight former residents were interviewed in the first place - and four or five ultimately used in the film - but it seems even more egregious when one of them reflects on what a testament it is to the community of Pruitt-Igoe that so many have kept in touch over the years. If resident voices were going to be leaned on so heavily for film content, texture, and narrative arc, it seems obvious that a sample of more than eight would be necessary. If the filmmakers had included a wider variety of voices, they could have depicted a much richer community picture without rendering their subjects overly precious and at times meandering.

On the topic of narrative arc, aside the roughly third given to resident voice, and third given to expert voice, a final third of the narrative was driven by not-very-good narration. Much of the narration, like the overly broad statements of the third historian, was presented as a story in wide strokes and generalizations backed by little to no quantification or context. Worse were the faux-insights such as 'history does not [emphasis in film] repeat itself' or the equally inane closing along the lines of 'we need to understand Pruitt-Igoe so we know what to do later'. I know how hard it is to write narration, but this is so cloying it distances the viewer.

Pruitt-Igoe is not explained in context of the larger public housing history of St. Louis, what's more, the contextualizing of Pruitt-Igoe as public housing in the US is also non-existent. The film briefly notes the Fair Housing Act of 1949 as bringing the project into being, with the other smidgeon of context delivered being the suggestion that Brown v Board is what caused the white-flight out of St. Louis and Pruitt-Igoe. Beyond this, the filmmakers have failed to include any quantitative data for any of the history they are telling - including, maddeningly, the omission of dates throughout the film. Further, the most prominent myth the film seems to want to dispel is that residents caused the deterioration of the buildings, claiming instead this decline was due to a lack of maintenance. While this is certainly believable, it would have made sense to do some research regarding what upkeep investments were made as well as what would have been necessary, perhaps even making comparisons to other public and private housing.

Another significant problem is the mess of archival footage that litters the film. As the film sets out to dispel misconceptions about public housing, it would seem that using archival footage of a black, dark-alley hoodlum with a gun, probably general stock footage from a fiction film rather than from an archive of Pruitt-Igoe material, would have been a good trope to avoid. But it wasn't.  While much of the material specific to Pruitt-Igoe seems quite interesting, we also get a fair amount of unidentified general footage that fails to interestingly or organically interact with the Pruitt-Igoe material. Worse, many times footage that is most likely not of Pruitt-Igoe is used in a manner to suggest that it is Pruitt-Igoe, or will reasonably be read as representing Pruitt-Igoe. There is rarely a sense of what or when the archival footage is depicting. There are several occasions that a glimmer of hope is produced by an image, e.g., a children's Pruitt-Igoe betterment society, that I had hoped would finally offer a story that was significant and interesting. Yet again the filmmakers show and fail to explore a piece of the story that could have offered richness and depth.

Marketing for the film repeatedly frames this project, in part, about modernism and its discontents. Invoked by both filmmaker-provided press materials and film festival blurbs, Pruitt-Igoe is "a modernist exercise in utopian habitats" [from True/False] and "that iconoclastic 'failure' of modernism" [from Full Frame]. The film delivers nothing on modernism or utopianism. It might be implied through some of the resident stories of Pruitt-Igoe that there was something utopian about the endeavor, but this is never fleshed out, nor is there much said about the design or planning of Pruitt-Igoe aside mention of green-space. Regarding modernism, I don't recall anything within the film itself about Pruitt-Igoe as modernist or its demise as an end of modernism. The Arch, as iconically St. Louis and iconically modernist, is briefly mentioned, but not framed as modernist and certainly not contextualized within any broader project of modernism.

I am also curious about the film screening Full Frame but not in Rick Prelinger's One Foot In the Archives program, which does include new works that feature archival footage. Curious to hear his thoughts on PRUITT-IGOE if he has experienced it.

I'd still love to get feedback from others who know the film and also promote conversation on issues and implications for using archival materials.


  1. Is incoherent carping your specialty or were you channeling a Busey/Rooney lovechild when you wrote the polemic above?

    I saw the film - it was excellent. I've read many reviews on the film; all but yours offered thoughtful, if not laudatory, observations about what it conveyed effectively. In short, please don't blame the producer, director, editors, scholars, interviewees, and narrator for your singular inability to understand what was going on. There is a simpler explanation for your unique viewing experience.

  2. i'm glad you thought the film was excellent, i'd love to read either why you thought it was excellent, or why you think my thoughts are off. not really interested in empty name-calling. if you re-read my post, you'll note i have questions about stylistic choices made as well as questions about film content, including content questions about what the film claims it is doing. as i wrote, i am looking forward to revisiting the film to either gain a new perspective or shore up my current thoughts, i am genuinely mystified why it is people seem to like the film. unfortunately, what you write gives me no idea why you, or anyone, would like it, aside that you, and others, do. if you cannot provide original thoughts of appreciation, you could at least link to one of these many adoring reviews you agree with that offer substantive appreciation or criticism.


  3. Fair enough on your disagreements with style and narrative choices, though I must say you've left no knit unpicked, good grief. As far as your grocery list of additional data, I'd love to see all that extra detail too, but by asking for more national context, more resident interviews, more scholars, more archival footage, and more cost analysis, you're suggesting an expanded budget and scope that would take the film from what it is to an academic dissertation.

  4. i'm still looking forward to revisiting the film, i missed it when it screened chicago several months ago so await dvd release. on that, i have another nit to pick, but no need to get into that right now. that said, spending more time with the film will allow me to not only reconsider it - especially as it has received a lot of positive recognition since i saw it - but also to add detail to my "grocery list" if need be. but keep in mind that the too many problems i point to are noted because i was bothered by the preponderance of them - i felt compelled to write my thoughts because there were so damn many of them. seriously, it isn't often a see a film that misses in so many ways.

    on your claim of expanded budget as an explanation for some of the film's faults (and is this to say you agree they are shortcomings?), while this may at times be true, i do not believe that the many things that could have been addressed would have required a larger budget. when i've done (admittedly small) film and audio projects i have not paid my subjects - did they? certainly it would have taken them more time to interview more people, but that would have certainly paid off for several reasons. it continues to boggle my mind that only eight former residents were interviewed for the film - think about that for a minute. ridiculous!

    doing additional research would not have costed anything. this would have shored-up the film's argument, but also (potentially) provided better content for the voice-over. two (significant) birds, one stone.

    again, i'm not sure if the experts were paid, but as i note above, at least one of them shouldn't have been used even if he was paid. and i'm certain better academics could have been used, but perhaps they declined participation or a limited budget precluded travel. this isn't to say there wouldn't have been ways around these potential problems, but the use of experts int he film is another liability.

    you would advocate for more archival footage? there was too much, too disorganized as it was. though this question is something i am interested in revisiting. further, i'm not sure if this is something i heard, read somewhere, or merely implied, but did the film's relationship with MHS eliminate or severely cut costs on archival material? that said, i'll repeat that in no way did the film need more material, so by your logic it might have gained budget space here.

    which brings me back to you, aaron, did you like the film? if so, what did you like about it?

  5. after this docs garnering a couple of prestigious awards and being nominated for others, these facts call into question your motivations for such a disingenuous critque of this film. can they all be wrong?

  6. dis·in·gen·u·ous/ˌdisinˈjenyo͞oəs/Adjective: Not candid or sincere, typically by pretending that one knows less about something than one really does.

    my opinion of your review.

  7. banhaternation, apparently you did not read my initial post or the follow-post replies i wrote. if you want to post here in the future and not be deleted, please engage in substantive discussion. i have no idea what it is you disagree with regarding my perspective or what you think about the film.

    just what we all want and need, another dreck reply from an internet troll. happy to see PRUITT has such articulate fans ;P

  8. Interviewing 8 people and including 4 is cherry picking but not to the extent that interviewing 8 people out of the once approx 10k people that once lived there but numbers reduced now is hardly a complete pictute. Its a cherry pickers view that's all.