Documentarian Sarah Price is best known for assisting Chris Smith on 1999’s remarkable “American Movie,” Smith’s portrait of struggling Wisconsin filmmaker Mark Borchardt, his working class family, and his motley crew of associates, all of whom banded together to produce the now-notorious horror short “Coven.” In “Cæsar’s Park,” Price (with Smith’s assistance) explores similar territory as she totes her cameras around the titular Milwaukee neighborhood in an effort to meet and get to know the people who live around her.
In the broadest terms, “Cæsar’s Park” is an effort to rediscover the classic American neighborhood, which seems to have been lost over the past several decades with the advent of planned communities and endless suburban sprawl. Price’s most remarkable achievement may be her ability to talk her way into the homes and backyards of people who, for the most part, couldn’t be bothered with their neighbors. The most extreme case is Jeannie, a Polish immigrant who married an American soldier during World War II. Jeannie’s life doesn’t extend beyond her garden and the Jerry Springer show, yet she insists her days are busy and filled to bursting with activity. She is also a surprisingly foulmouthed pessimist, providing hilarious counterpoint to Tillie, Lois and Diane, the chipper mother/daughters team next door. Then there’s Richard who, with his collection of thousands of photographs depicting his mundane surroundings, comes off as a cross between Mark Borchardt and the obsessive brother in “Crumb.” And Charles, a dumpster-diving musician who speaks in a bizarre Venusian dialect. These misfits may share a physical space, but their lives barely intersect. It is only the demolition of a white elephant of a building on the block that finally draws them all together, however briefly.
The same critics who found “American Movie” to be condescending toward its subjects will likely feel the same way about “Cæsar’s Park.” It’s the sort of knee-jerk reaction typical of educated, upper middle-class city-dwellers who feel uncomfortable seeing real working-class people onscreen. The inhabitants of Cæsar’s Park are simply themselves, no more and no less, and Sarah Price captures a small slice of their lives with compassion and dignity.