In my recent adventures about New York with a collaborator from omnivorous geographies, we decided to take in the new film by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, “Detropia.”
The first thing that struck us – as several reviewers have mentioned – is the beauty of the film. Images of Detroit as well as other US cities we consider ‘fallen’ to the ills of de-industrialization and the numerous social and economic dis-investments that come along with it, tend to always be striking: Emanating some form of beauty out of the ruins that is profoundly intimate, especially for Americans, yet cold and distant. The landscape is uncannily stirring because it feels so perfectly unreal while horribly familiar and mundane. The filmmakers work in this tradition while giving the motor city their own aesthetic: Deeply saturated hues of orange, yellow, and blue light linger on the screen just long enough to draw you in, but not exhaust your attention. There is something about the richness of the film’s scenic shots that transports you into the empty lots, freeway exchanges, and deteriorating buildings. The city pulls you in and expands around you, radiating its rather uneasy atmosphere.
We felt as if we were watching a painting but instead of standing in a room full of tourists, school kids, and docents on tour, we were lucky enough to see the film at the IFC, sitting in a small theater on what was more or less a leather love seat. A setting that is impeccably conducive to the atmosphere of this film.
I begin with the look and feel of the film because this is the bulk of its narrative structure. One of the most interesting things about this film is it silence: long-shots of the city, the stories of a few Detroiters the filmmakers followed, and a small collection of one to two-sentence factoids about the city’s history (historic decline). That is all. The film is moved by image and people, not by the artists or overly-didactic statistics about urban decline and decay. In this sense, Detroit ceases to be a trope of itself or fodder for the ‘creative class’ that seek to capitalize on the city’s hard times by piloting a project for turning the city into a zombie amusement park. Instead it urban tapestry, woven by image, personal saga, and operatic sound – another narrative subplot of the film – that sounds this city upon you.
“Detropia” is sincere in form and content. Tracking the stalwart pluck, love, disillusionment, and imaginings of several Detroiters – a union president, a teacher/blues bar owner, an urban blogger – refusing to settle upon a simple agenda of hope and despair but, in exchange, enters into the worlds of those that move through the city, remembering the good old days of ample factory work and union wages, thriving neighborhood life with people and music pouring out onto the streets, and musing about the city that used to be through the rummage of decaying urban architecture. We see through these characters how relationships to place forged through boom and bust times are never straightforward or easy to understand, but a complex intermingling of memory, economic struggle, and dreaming. Several of the main characters struggle themselves as amateur economists and social theorists in coming up with stories that will enable them to explain what they see around them and keep living in a city that feels like all but a memory haunting the future of Detroit. The filmmakers follow these Detroiters, letting them narrate, philosophize, and sigh, as viewers do, as they move simultaneously through a city they imagine and remember, and a reality that stubbornly refuses to match.
The film offers little comment on race, which I found strange at first, considering that it is very difficult to tell the story of a city like Detroit solely through the perspective of economic boom and decline without mentioning how much the history of race in America intersects the story of de-industrialization and economic decline in cities like Detroit. But perhaps that is not on the minds of Detroiters in 2012, or at least the ones the filmmakers decided to engage. If the film is about the struggles of the middle class in Detroit, it seems to be a story told by mostly middle-aged men of color, with the occasional nod to working-class white men and, of course, the films’ young female urban archeologist and imaginative force, Chrystal. With no heavy-handed criticism – for the film is innovative and provocative on a number of levels, as I have indicated – I am a little dubious about the fact that economic decline is depicted in such particular terms: I’m left wondering about families at home and the other outlets and phenomenon that make a city run, that make its residents feel at home and alive in their city. This is much to ask of a feature-length film, and I’m not so much asking for it as much as I am noting these absences. My fear is that somehow audiences might take away that Detroit’s decline is the sole result of foreign outsourcing of jobs or the 2008 economic recession, and that would be just too simple of an explanation.
This is a film worth watching on the big screen and thinking about. It will make you want to go to Detroit. It might even make you go through your old record collection and give those old Motown tracks a good listen and begin to imagine the place that used to be. I would not be so bold as to assert, as one of the main Detoriters in the film does, that this is the direction America is heading in and that your city might be next, but it seems important to take the time to consider, as this film does, what might compel a Detroiter to deliver such a message to the rest of us.