More incendiary personal essay than journalistic documentary, Su Friedrich’s Gut Renovation solipsistically observes the uncommonly rapid change of Williamsburg from ordinary, industrial neighborhood to high-end condominium wonderland. A resident of the neighborhood since 1989 (and don’t you forget it, even if you’ll constantly be reminded), Friedrich documents the four-year period following May 2005 when the City Council passed a rezoning law allowing commercial spaces to be demolished and made residential. Perspective is important when discussing the inherently controversial dilemma of the dreaded G word (gentrification), and Gut Renovation has exactly one in which it frames the transformation of Williamsburg: Change is bad, and opportunistic business is worse. Due to the one-minded construction of the documentary, there’s little to parse beyond impassioned harrumphs. Either a sympathetic audience will gasp along to the horrors of crass commercialism, or the initially unconvinced will grow further irritated by Friedrich’s constant kvetching and scapegoating; in both situations, however, you will glean little constructive commentary concerning how social fluctuation relates to the death of Williamsburg.
Despite cursory mentions of the American steel industry (and this is hardly Detroit), Friedrich further digs an insular personal hole of grief and unhelpful, sustained disillusionment—making for an ostensibly dogged, if antithetically defeatist and repetitive, 81-minute battle cry. Only one scene captures a community board meeting, with Friedrich spending a majority of the doc sneering at construction sites and residents walking into condos—or merely walking their “fancy” dogs. Throughout the film, Friedrich inserts passive-aggressive subtitles over montages, and conversations, to underline her annoyance. Friedrich is a professor and artist, and Gut Renovation feels didactic without artistic finesse—save the early promise of clever editing and sounds synched to the movement of demolition machines. Even as a project of activism (without much historical context), the documentary feels hopelessly past its expiration date.
Friedrich is occasionally self-effacing: She jokes that her partner claims the title of the documentary should be I Hate Rich People, and she has a cheeky self-awareness in soundtrack choices, such as “Kommt Zusammen” (“Come Together”) and “Auld Lang Syne,” even if her thematic explanations of many songs are over-explicit. One segment focuses closely on the destruction of the building across the street from Friedrich’s loft, which housed a forklift repair company. After the exterior is demolished, one large rock remains unbreakable, and Friedrich begins to adore it—even playing a buoyant composition by Vivaldi as the camera observes baffled construction workers unable to chip away at it. This is the scene of a Jacques Tati-esque absurdist comedy (not to mention the ridiculous advertisement campaigns or garish parties thrown for every condo), and Friedrich finally takes a moment to stop blowing hot air at haughty real estate developers.
Other than this brief, wry reprieve from the onslaught of lamentations, however, Friedrich scrambles for hard evidence to attempt to prove why this unfortunate evolutionary pattern, which consequently displaced many artists, is legally so unjust. Her passion and anger are duly noted, but she allows her own frustrations to bleed into the documentary rather than energize it, resulting in an obnoxious, imperious portrait of what the neighborhood was and what it’s become. Even as a supporter of Friedrich’s ideology, it’s difficult to find Gut Renovation anything more than a doomed match of shrill versus shill.