Robert Todd, 2012, USA, 16mm, 62 min, color, sound
Master Plan (2012) is a feature length documentary about home ownership and housing in America, yet on a deeper level it serves as an allegory of how a domestic space exists as an inspirational blueprint for our everyday life.
Aesthetically, the film is an interesting hybrid between experimental documentary and academic essay documentary. In his own way, Robert Todd sets out asking: (1) What are the building blocks of a vibrant society? (2) How are the needs of a single human spirit met within the structures we create? and (3) How do we consider the role of incarceration in our “social architecture?” The film successfully addresses these questions, leaving the answer open for a viewer’s own conclusion.
The film is veritable Americana and travels across the country, and much like Todd’s thesis states, the film serves as a panoply of the American housing strata, with the film examining three versions of an individual household, a co-housing development, a master-plan community (RanchoSahuarita, Sahuarita, AZ), a company town (Kohler Faucets Village, WI), an army base (Fort Devens, MA), some public housing developments, and a prison.
Perhaps the most tragically American component of the film are the communities with amenities, mostly because they promise so much upon inception, yet seemingly it’s inevitable that funds for these amenities will dry up someday. Case and point: the contrast between the newer community of Racho Sahuarita and the older military base of Devens, MA. Both at a time offered a glut of amenities; however, the overgrown and abandoned tennis court of Fort Devens, MA, is enough visual information to explain that these amenities will eventually become neglected and forgotten, or perhaps residential interest will desiccate with time. Amenities don’t have to be insular; communities don’t have to be insular; yet master-plan communities are developed on the basis of insularity, kind of like disney world, where you can live in a bubble and never have to leave. The film makes a point that one of the freedoms of living in America is our freedom of choice, albeit that choice sometimes is continent upon money.
Perhaps the most uplifting component of the film is one of the success stories involving a man’s incarceration and how the pedagogy of his prison transformed him into a career driven man, who earned a college degree inside of prison, which led to an eventual assistant director position for him in the outside world. Now this man’s job is to mentor younger people on the the streets — act as a guide for former versions of himself — and help preclude younger ones from any mishaps that might happen when one drifts across the streets. (A similar relationship is featured more in-depth in Steve James’ documentary The Interrupters, 2011).
Experimental components of the film include Todd’s method for interviewing: practically all of the interviewed subjects are featured offscreen, captured on somewhat lo-fi, crackly audio with a tape hiss, with their words present in form of voice-over threaded with poetic visuals of the homes. This leaves room for the film to visually wander off from time-to-time, most notably during a hallucinatory sequence of long pans across the slanting lines of a yellow house. It’s disappointing that there aren’t more of these sequences, because the film can afford many more of these moments and would make for a more fun, interesting, and recherché academic film.
The film houses some latent philosophical questions about our own sense of place and that of others. What is home? Is it a place, a concept, a feeling, or is it just current circumstance that we may or may not have control over? Master Plan doesn’t quite evince answers to these questions, nor does it quite articulate these questions in such a direct fashion, but it does get us ruminating about our own idea of home and if we’ve realized our idyll, our place in the sun.
Humans are dwellers, and wherever we dwell becomes an extension of ourselves — part of our inner life and our outer life — past, present, and future. Robert Todd has found an interesting way to investigate the circumstances surrounding our domestic lives and document the lives of others; however, Master Plan might best fit in an academic setting with a supplementary study guide. Home is where the heart is; where and what do you call home?
Master Plan played at the 19th annual Chicago Underground Film Festival.