There was a time when photographs taken of disintegrating industrial technology and vast industrial centers were regarded as oddities - tied to the quirky tastes of high-profile personalities, such as David Lynch, and his obsession with large boilers - but the artistry of more committed photographers has shown the immense beauty and mystique that resides in the composed images of technological decay.
The once fertile grounds that housed advanced industrial complexes for refining ore, manufacturing steel, or harnessing raw elements into powerful energy for local townships and emerging cities have been cast aside over time - either replaced by more advanced centers, or abandoned by the mini-civilizations that lived and worked within them after downsizing, economic hardships - and the few that remain standing are often hidden behind natural barriers, sometimes within tricky valleys, or are mere background structures, eroding in the distance from the boundaries of busy commuting arteries.
Scribble Media's debut release is a special primer; an introduction to a still world that most have never acknowledged or noticed, even after a local demolition company effectively reduces a concrete hulk or sky-bound smokestacks into organized rubble on the evening news.
The main feature on the DVD is the documentary, which focuses on some of Toronto 's best-known and a few hidden locales that were once major components in the city's industrial growth. Following self-titled urban archeologists and photographers through each location, the filmmakers successfully create a blend of still moments and tracking camera movements that capture nature's elements as they illuminate and cast artful shadows within the rusting, perforated structures. The narrative bridges offer some rudimentary background on the buildings, and mix brief, self-reflective comments from the photographers and explorers.
Also intercut are views on urban decay by a handful of urban historians. These sections are oddly presented via a lonely, flickering TV set, placed in a vacant loft, and while some salient points are addressed, the comments have a truncated feel; they never quite form an accurate view on a dilemma that's much older than we realize.
The doc makes good on presenting the locations as the organic effects of human industrial evolution - not too dissimilar from the Roman, Egyptian or Polynesian rock quarries that are vestiges of engineering feats as civilizations flourished, contracted, and morphed into their more modern centers - and the filmmakers include some short glimpses as urban archeologists venture into weird, subterranean areas.
For fans wanting greater filmic detail and specific histories of each locale, though, the production comes off a bit short. It's a dilemma that's arguably inherent when attempting to create a lasting impression through video; the stills in the DVD's superb photo gallery by renowned artists allow one to freeze and examine each image like a painting, sharing the emotions that led each photographer to capture segments of decay, industrial might, and the bulk of some enormous centers. The doc comes close, through a moody music score and some beautifully rendered videography, but one wishes the filmmakers might have includes extended segments that could be played as background patterns - either on one's conventional TV, or through a large wall projector, expanding and enhancing the artist's images to a more tactile, and interactive creation.
As a bonus, the DVD also includes a pre-WWII industrial short that follows the mining, distribution, refining, and creation of various grades of steel. Made in 1936, the well-worn but fascinating film functions as a kind of crude peephole into the once-thriving environments that are now in decay. The short's strength lies in showing the puny size of men handling the behemoth ladles, spouts, and motorized contraptions that ultimately produced stainless steel, hollow piping, and steel girders. Filled with euphoric optimism - "Hazardous? Frightful danger in these mills? Not at all!" - the short is a testament to our society's industrial baby steps.
A pity the feature doc wasn't longer, but this is an otherwise highly recommended release.
© 2005 Mark R. Hasan