Saturday, September 15, 2012

Detropia: a review

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Detropia, which opened Friday in Metro Detroit, is less politically confrontational than I was expecting and more a picture of sober second thought. It’s yet another film about Detroit’s massive fall from its status as arguably the world’s greatest industrial city of invention and mass production to its contemporary beleaguered, blighted, and bankrupt state, the poster child for the rusted post-industrial age. Those of us who live in and around Detroit are well familiar with the genre, having been brought up on Detroit “ruin porn” for almost a couple of decades now, originating in books like Camilo José Vergara’s 1999 American Ruins, to Florent Tillon’s 2010 film Detroit Wild City. In fact Detropia is remarkably like Detroit Wild City in its slow, meditative, images of the depths of the D’s urban wasteland. But whereas Tillon’s film is more poetry – with long studied shots sometimes accompanied by someone’s introspective thoughts about the city – “there’s lots of fascination with the apocalypse, if you want an example you can come here and really see it” – Ewing and Grady’s film is more sociologically or politically edged. Whereas Tillon’s film simply portrays Detroit’s bleakness as a canvas outside much context as to why it got that way, Detropia not only probes the reasons for the city’s astounding decay but takes us to recent current events, through which we’re still living: the 2009 recession and GM and Chrysler’s bankruptcy, the City of Detroit’s financial implosion and bankruptcy as Mayor Dave Bing tries to salvage what city services he can under a tidal wave of debt. In the film, Detropia follows several individuals including a video artist, a blues bar owner, and a UAW local union president, who are exposed to the declining fortunes of the city on a day-to-day basis, especially during the recent economic crisis. Meanwhile there are occasional stark screen texts about how many people and jobs the city has lost, or the very limited options the city council has for saving civic services. I thought I’d get tired of the Motor City’s blighted images because this kind of film or book has been done so often now. Even the name Detropia seems rather clichéd. Haven’t we been calling the city something like that for ages? Yet the film didn’t seem tiring to watch. Facts are facts and in Detroit the facts are pretty stark. Nor do I have a great many problems with the characters that the filmmakers follow around, though they’re rather predictable for this genre of film. Raven Lounge owner Tommy Stephens (above left) is the most interesting. He keeps his humour despite the mess he sees all around him. Stephens’ occasional critiques are not so much in anger as in resignation, such as when he says “we’re moving to a have and have not society, he who controls the gold runs the show” or “capitalism is a great system, I love it, but it exploits the weak, always does.” Like many films by liberal filmmakers the economic analysis tends to be one-sided. The movie hints at what caused Detroit’s decline – foreign competition and “greed.” But whose greed? One character says everyone is to blame, yet we’re still left feeling it’s capitalist bosses who are responsible for this mess by willy nilly moving production offshore. What about the decades of wealth these same firms gave the city? What about the historically high wages? What about the fact that it just might be possible that companies have no choice but to slash wages, move, or go belly up? It’s a lesson the liberal-left doesn’t like to learn. Images of a union hall meeting rejecting contract concessions, and a town hall where citizens attack Mayor Bing’s plan to ration services, reinforce this. But, says the mayor in what might be the film’s best line, “The city is broke, I don’t know how many times I have to say that.” Detropia also doesn’t give many solutions to how Detroit can nurture itself back to health. There are references to building new electric cars like the Chevy Volt, or young artists and creative class types moving into the city’s cheap lofts. But the Volt has had teething problems and the creative class hasn’t gained enough critical mass. For once, what about interviewing some businesspeople - yes, business people - like Quicken Loans’ founder Dan Gilbert, who is renovating numerous downtown properties and bringing thousands of workers to the city’s core? Another problem with the film is that it leaves out the wider context of life in Detroit. The city, despite much physical decay, culturally is hardly a wasteland. Just go downtown on a Saturday night when Comerica Park, the Fox Theatre and several other large entertainment venues, are in full swing. Moreover, at 5.2 million people, the larger metropolitan area with its myriad and much intact suburbs is still one of the most vibrant U. S. urban regions, and a far more interesting place than numerous other burgs with better press. To focus solely on Detroit’s inner city woes, while important, leaves out this huge overarching dimension.  Someone who has never set foot in Detroit, watching films like these, would only exude pity without knowing the larger story.

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