Curiously, Jane Jacobs doesn’t appear that often in Citizen Jane; the subtitle, Battle for the City, is far more appropriate. Director Matt Tyrnauer actually presents a study of urban development over the 20th century, using Jacobs’ influential theories as his guide.
Rather than a specific document of a highly interesting activist-theorist, Citizen Jane attempts to itself enact debate, using well-chosen talking heads to lend structure and weight to Tyrnauer’s treasure trove of archive footage. Manhattan is presented wonderfully here, with both its aesthetic romance and its oppressive horror on full display. The extraordinary range of material from throughout the last century make this an urban fetishist’s dream. But this is all mere distraction from thematic disunity.
Unlike the faceless city planning of Robert Moses, presented throughout as the inhuman yin to Jacobs’ compassionate yang, Tyrnauer’s structure doesn’t hold up. It is gloriously humanist, but simply lacks in critical heft. This would be less noticeable – and less problematic – were Citizen Jane a biographical film, but in reaching for a 90-minute critical-theoretical tract (about nothing less than the simultaneous creation and destruction of the modern world), Tyrnauer fails to conclude many inquisitional loose ends. That this issue is apparent shows the thought is there; but many questions are unanswered, which here is unforgivable.
The endless montages provide much to chew on, but given Tyrnauer’s lack of editorial care regarding soundbite choice and argument construction (plus an ultra-repetitive score), this attempt at rigorous visual essaying pales in comparison to recent high-points 13th and Amy.
Citizen Jane: Battle for the City is marked by a surplus of interesting ideas nicely expressed, with the city itself providing visceral visual rhetoric where the conversation frequently underwhelms. Building only anticlimactically, what it needed (ironically) was better planning. This film’s message is vital; sadly the film itself isn’t.
DIRECTOR: Matt Tyrnauer
SYNOPSIS: A study of urban theorist and activist Jane Jacobs, and her numerous entanglements with city planner Robert Moses.