My friend David and I are driving through downtown Phoenix on a Tuesday afternoon. I point to a gorgeous, frescoed façade as we whiz past and say, "I wish someone would repair the plaster on the Luhrs building." David, who moved here from Cleveland in the 1970s, shoots me a look. "Why do you know the names of buildings?" he asks.
Two nights later, my spouse and I are out on our nightly walk. "Do it," he says, simultaneously poking me in the side and waving his arm at the houses just ahead. "Come on, do it."
I sigh and start pointing to houses as we pass them, offering a description of each. "Nineteen-twenties California Craftsman, plaster over brick construction, based on a Josias Joesler design. Cotswold Cottage, one of three in downtown Phoenix, original windows and full basement, probably with a separate entrance out back. Pre-war '40s modified ranch, clapboard and brick, 1964 Miss America, Vonda Kaye Van Dyke, used to live there."
He laughs, just as he always does. "You are so weird," he assures me.
To most people, the city where they live is a big place full of buildings and people. That's why I'm always thrilled when I meet someone who feels, as I do, that our landscape tells a story, and that our buildings are our history — all that's left from the last generation (or, in cities older than ours where structures aren't routinely leveled, the last several generations). Filmmaker Perry Allen is one of those people. And his new movie, Phoenix, Appropriated, makes me feel less alone in my strange love of Phoenix's topography.
Born in New York, Allen was raised here. "I always wanted to move away, from the time I got to Phoenix as a little kid," he recalls. He did finally escape, moving back to New York to study filmmaking at Bard College. "And then I started to miss Phoenix, in a filmic sense," he says. "There's something going on there, tonally and aesthetically, that hasn't been documented on film."
Allen started what he calls "a landscape film," but began to want to explore Phoenix's aesthetic history and how it came to look and feel the way it does. The finished work covers the evolution of the city over a 43-year period, from 1914 to 1957, although Allen doesn't attempt to analyze or document these eras in a general way. Instead, he focuses not on our architecture but on our general infrastructure — the roads, the skyscrapers, the tucked-away, "hidden" suburban neighborhoods. His inquiry isn't so much "Why does Phoenix look the way it does?" as it is "How did this schizophrenic landscape evolve?"
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The film, which debuts July 15 at the Trunk Space, combines ancient footage of the Sonoran desert with facile images from propaganda films of the '50s and '60s, shown simultaneously in split screen: a cartoon cloud and raindrop duking it out over our dry skies; diagrams of the female reproductive organs; tiny cockroaches wiggling their way out of a shiny egg sac. And then, all at once, footage that looks like it could have been shot yesterday, of our desert, tan and pale green and lit by an over-bright sky. From there, Allen leaps to the building of Boulder Dam and on into the evolution of Phoenix's urban sprawl, from citrus farming to cattle ranching to superhighways. It's a frantic montage that is, Allen says, "more about experience and associative reasoning" than about documenting our history.
And yet Allen's film reveals how ours is a city that was born of and controlled by big business, not from a deep desire to live in the desert. "I named the movie Phoenix, Appropriated because it's always felt like a borrowed place that's historically not been controlled by its people, but by its industry," Allen says. "And now, Phoenix is starting to feel more like a city of its people, who are finally starting to design the place they want to live in, not the place that local business has made possible for them."
Allen hasn't avoided the cliché of the rising phoenix to depict what he sees as our "constant rebirth," but his images of Phoenix rising up out of nothing, overlapped with visual commentary from old filmstrips about insects and childbirth, hint at the evolution of our visual landscape.
Maybe I'll take my friend David to see the movie, and he'll stop thinking I'm the only one who thinks old buildings have something to say.