Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Tue Sep 11, 2012 4:42 pm 
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Winter scene in Detroit from Detropia

The life-in-death of an American city

What does it mean, "Detropia"? That Detroit has become some strange reverse back-door utopia by turning into one big vegetable garden when not a city for young artists to live spectacularly on the cheap? Or does it mean dystopia, a spectacular reversal of fortune, a grim emblem of widespread coming urban devolution marked by shrinking population, empty buildings, wealth mindlessly signed over to China, labor and unions sentenced by America's own captains of former industry to humiliation and defeat? Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's documentary encompasses all these things. It leaves one hanging and says little that is new, but it is also rich in emotion and intelligence and satisfyingly punctuated with stunning photo images of urban decay. Certainly Detroit is America's most spectacularly decomposing big city. It seemed moldy and crumbling around the edges even in the late Fifties, when Cobo Hall was a shiny new city center. The outer rims were already then a mixture of enclaves of the rich and sprawling ghettos of the working poor.

Detropia, whose clearly talented directors made The Boys of Baraka, Jesus Camp, and 12th and Delaware, also puntuates its elegiac ramble with facts it throws at you: first of all, in 1930 Detroit was America's fastest growing city; now it's the fastest shrinking. Millions have left, millions are unemployed. The real unemployment rate may be around 30%. The 139 square mile area of the city is too large. Mayor Dave Bing is shown discussing a plan to move the population into a much smaller functioning unit to consolidate failing city services. He frankly admits there is no reward for this, that the city has no money and really no solutions.

The film has an elegant eye, strong music composed by Dial.81, and also is dominated by certain recurrant figures. First to appear is Crystal Starr, a young Detroit video blogger fascinated by history who roams the decaying city puffing on joints and wondering in expletive-laced language at the vanished grandeur of it all. In one resonant scnene she wanders the once heroic train station with an opera singer who sings an Italian ara that echoes off the high walls. A presiding spirit is UAW chapter president George McGregor, who sees his members and his union lose its last few jobs as, after the US government bailout of Ford and Chrysler, these companies in turn send them to China, leaving the once rambling Cadillac plant an empty hulk where dumpsters are stored.

Another voice is that of the former schoolteacher Tommy Stevens, who runs the the Raven Lounge, the kind of place that makes us wonder: What has happened to Motown? Why, the soul of soul music once lived here. Where has that gone? Detroia doesn't tell us, but Stevens has some perceptive things to say about the cruelty of capitalism, the way it crushes the weak. These are black voices. But Detroit, as anyone well knows who has lived there, is also white, rich and poor. Such are the men who run a demolition brigade charged with the plum job of tearing down thousands of houses in a great hurry; and The Clean Up Crew, as they call themselves, an enterprising group of young white men who collect abandoned metal, stell and copper, which is sold for scrap, more of it to China than anywhere else, to be converted into products that will be sold back to us, as Crew members tell us. And the young artists and other improvisational small business people who move into downtown Detroit to take advantage of the rock-bottom costs of property, these too are white.

Detropia's a title that's deliberately vague, one has to conclude. Ewing and Grady assemble a rough symphony and let us listen to a chorus of disparate voices. A lot of different things are happening, and we don't really know what they are, but there's something Hegelian, creation coming out of destruction but destruction still possibly triumphing, or metastasizing, if this is what is happening to the American economy, and China is winning the game. Tommy Stevens gives us an in-a-nutshell course in contemporary economics. He describes the way Detroit, and America, flourished with war industries and that led straight on to the prosperity of the Fifties. "We used to make everything." Strong labor unions allowed a middle class to flourish. Their decline accompanies the vanishing of the middle class, and with it the disappearance of that buffer between the very rich and the poor. We can't remain dominant with an economy of service industries, Stevens says: China's power goes hand-in-hand with its triumphs in manufacturing. We could be ripe for revolution, Tommy tells us.

In Tommy Stevens and George Macgregor the filmmakers have found two powerful voices. It would be enough to listen to them and Crystal Starr and the others. But the film is also a feast for the eye. The hauntingly beautiful images of cameramen Tony Hardmon and Craig Atkinson provide a visual counterpoint that suggests it may all be over -- supporting Variety reviewer Dennis Harvey's assessment (written at the film's January 2012 Sundance debut) that this handsomely made film, surely one of the year's best documentaries, even if it does no bring surprising news, is, in the end, more elegiac than analytic. It might have been nice if Tommy's and George's declarations were tempered with assessments and descriptions by city planners and economists as well as historians of labor, but that would be a different film. And there have been several other documentaries, including the French-made Detroit: Wild City, which I reviewed as part of the 2011 San Francisco film festival, that focus on other things and provide different points of view.

Screened for this review at IFC Center, where the film opened theatrically September 7, 2012.

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┬ęChris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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