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In City World, producer/director Brent Chesanek makes a movie in Orlando, Florida, (population: 2 million) without any people.

The boundary between the natural and the manmade lies in Orlando
The boundary between the natural and the manmade lies in Orlando

Whether he digitally erased the cars and people, or whether he shot abandoned parts of town, or whether he just knows when everyone is away at work, the images are uncanny. They look like a modern-day ghost town. They seem to accuse humankind of folly — houses, parking lots, and freeways, built and then abandoned. If there were no narrator you might ask whether it was an economic meltdown, or a dirty bomb, or just time itself that made the people disappear while leaving our domestic and suburban architecture to rot.

But there is a narrator — a boy (Sean Kaufman) who tells us a story about how he came to Orlando with his father, but not his mother. He speaks slowly, often poetically. He rambles about the history of Orlando; his story doesn’t start to gel until well into the running time. He eventually acknowledges the human-less landscape. What he says on the soundtrack doesn’t always match, or explain, what we see on the screen.

Frankly, City World might have been a stronger movie without a narrator — not that simply removing the narrator would leave a better film intact. Without the narrator, City World would have needed a stronger spine — some sort of structure, perhaps like those that support Koyaanisqatsi and Samsara.

I also think it was a mistake to have the narrator acknowledge the humanless landscape. If the haunted images were purely a metaphor for the inner state of a child of divorce, they might have been more powerful than the musings of a child trying to understand his father.

Also, the narration and the acknowledgement of the empty landscape raises some distracting questions, like: If the imagery is literally true, then what is this footage we are looking at? Did the narrator shoot it, or is it the narrator’s reality? The technical production raises similarly distracting questions: When the photography changes from solidly grounded to handheld, or from static to zoom, who is manipulating the camera? And when the editing moves from a slow pace, to a fast pace, who is doing the editing?

City World does pack some power in its imagery. There are shots of the natural world, and of the most artificial-seeming manmade architecture, and landscapes and details at every level in-between. It even includes a shot of — I kid you not — concrete drying that is fascinating to watch. The water seems to disappear where slight traces of moss have begun to grow on the side of the pillar. The shot comes just after a “rainstorm” that turned out to be automatic sprinklers switching on, and now we are thinking about the boundaries between the natural and the artificial. Water being absorbed into the moss growing on a concrete pillar is relevant and poetic.

Dollar for dollar, City World is an impressive one-man film. But the power is almost exclusively in its imagery. Unfortunately the story layered on top add much to the film.