Sunday, October 7th, 2012

Film Review: Detropia

Trailer for Detropia. If the video doesn’t display, click here.

I was lucky to get to see Detropia, a buzz-laden documentary about Detroit, at the UMass-Boston film series, where Heidi Ewing, one of the film makers, was present for a post-screening discussion. Ewing, incidentally, grew up in suburban Detroit.

The title is an interesting word play. It’s a portmanteau of ambiguous meaning. It could be a combination of “Detroit” with either “utopia” or “dystopia,” though as the bleak civic outlook suggests, the latter is far more appropriate. The film provides a look into the lives of various Detroiters. There’s no real story here, no narrative, just a look as if through a window into a portion of the civic experience. The lack of any real relatedness between the characters fuels the sense of disconnectedness in the film. Though billed as a sort of cautionary tale about America, and explicitly intended to provoke political discussion per Ewing, it isn’t exactly clear what conclusions we are supposed to draw from it, or how it would inform any real debates or decision making as the core conflicts and issues are not addressed in sufficient depth to enable that.

The story focuses on three black principals: Tommy Stevens (the backbone character of the film), owner of a blue-colar blues bar called the Raven Lounge; George MacGregor, president of a UAW local; and Crystal Starr, a barista and video blogger. They are all thoughtful and likeable characters. A corresponding trio of white minor character groupings fill out most of the rest of the cast: an newly arrived artist couple, a group of metal scrappers, and the Michigan Opera Theater (admittedly shown in a multicultural way, but I think representing a stereotypically white endeavor and with a healthy dose of white faces).

The film has gotten good reviews, and most of them have heavily focused on the expert and stylish film making. It’s well done on many levels. I won’t repeat all those other reviews here, but suffice it to say that the film is worth seeing on an aesthetic basis alone.

However, being beautiful is only part of a film. The story you are actually telling is important too, particularly in a documentary work. Detropia, while it has some very strong points, also has a number of weaknesses that have been overlooked by the critics.

The biggest win for the film was its prescient prediction of the failure of the Chevy Volt. Stevens’ bar, the Raven Lounge, is only a few blocks from a shuttered GM plant. The plant closure naturally hurt his business. When he hears that the new electric Chevy Volt will be built there, he’s excited at the prospects. However, on checking out the Volt at the auto show, he notices serious problems, notably the short distance it can travel on a charge, and the high price tag, particularly in comparison to new Chinese competitors. He’s very clear that he thinks that dog won’t hunt – and he’s right.

Ewing uses that to great effect to show the hope springs eternal nature of Detroit’s civic thinking, in which the Big Three are perpetually just one new hit car away from being “back.” Not only is this “next big thing” thinking a failure in its own right, but the hits never quite come. That a bar owner can instantly see this while GM’s executives apparently could not is telling.

Similarly, as some New York Times commenters noted, the young men who raid abandoned buildings for scrap metal seem to have a much firmer grip on economic reality than auto company executives. They know the current market prices for their goods, and even understand how their work fits into the global supply chain. Presumably they also make a profit.

Another standout, and moving, scene was that of MacGregor’s UAW local receiving news of American Axle’s new wage proposals, ones that include big pay cuts for people who are barely earning a living wage as it is. Some workers would have seen pay drop from $14.35/hr to $11/hr. $14.35 is only about $30,000 a year – hardly the wage of a labor aristocrat. Imagine trying to support a family – housing, transportation, food, etc – on only $11/hr. Here we see the destruction of the American middle class as a real life work in progress. This a type of scene that’s been replayed far too often across America. (The UAW rejected the proposal outright and the plant closed).

However, the labor scenes also show the weakness of the film. There was a clearly one sided presentation of the facts designed to elicit maximum labor sympathy. Detropia mentions a Cadillac plant that closed and was, according to the UAW rep, moved to Mexico. However, GM also built a new state of the art Cadillac plant in Lansing in recent years that makes the CTS we see MacGregor driving. That wasn’t mentioned. The film notes the large pay cuts new UAW workers are expected to take, without showing how existing workers emerged from the bankruptcies with far less damage than other stakeholders. Delphi’s union retirees, for example, got a special pension top up from a bankrupt GM to keep them 100% whole while non-union retirees were out of luck and saw their pensions slashed 70%. The UAW came away owning a good slug of GM, and the hourly wages discussed in the American Axle example don’t fairly represent what Big Three assembly workers enjoy. The presentation was so one-sided and with an obvious political ax to grind it’s no wonder no company representatives would agree to be interviewed by these film makers.

In the Q&A, UMass-Boston film curator Chico Colvard keyed in on the role of the artists in the film (and a pair of briefly-featured Swiss tourists in town to check out “decay”) as ambivalent figures. On the one hand, they represent new blood for a city that desperately needs it. On the other, they are seen as interlopers or even parasitical, making their art and career from the wreckage of other people’s cities.

I thought this was very effectively communicated visually. The artists treat Detroit like a gigantic stage set. They seem oblivious to and disconnected from the experience of Detroit, except inasmuch as it provides them with low-rent opportunities to experiment. The scenes of them in gold gas masks, used heavily in promotional materials, reveal them as an almost literal alien presence in the city, invaders from outer space.

Ewing enthusiastically endorsed this analysis. She said that hearing the term “blank slate” used in reference to Detroit “pisses me off” as Detroit is a richly historic city. She also railed against NYT style romanticizing of the city’s new artistic arrivals.

Alas, Colvard failed to ask the obvious follow-up: What makes Ewing any different? How is her film different from the rest of the ruin porn review? She gave no indication that she’d ever considered this question.

Indeed, Ewing and co-director Rachel Grady are exactly like that young artist couple, except that those artists actually live in Detroit. They are using the raw material of that city and its residents to make their art and reputations. Colvard described Detropia as the “hottest film on the indie circuit,” so this seems to be working out for them. If their film seems less creepy than avant-garde street performances in gas masks, it’s only because they have more flair and a stronger commercial orientation.

I’m not necessarily saying that Ewing and Grady deserve to be castigated for making this film. But based on this discussion, Ewing at least seems oblivious to being a part of the very system she seems to view with ambivalence if not outright negativity.

There’s a lot of ambiguity and potential conflict in telling the stories of Detroit, to say nothing of actually turning it around. This was explored in the film but is something that deserved more attention, as solving it is the key to moving the city forward.

Ewing’s own reaction to the blank slate meme, and some of her subjects’ reaction to the idea of shrinking Detroit, bring out the “It’s our city” attitude that so many people have towards Detroit. Young upscale white knowledge workers and not-from-Michigan artists are seen as invaders. The shrinkage plan is seen as a way to turn over large tracts of the city to white investors. And there’s an element of truth in these.

Yet, unless someone from the outside sees in Detroit an opportunity for themselves, either personally or as an investor, how will the city ever come back? Ewing decries the paternalism that left the city dependent on the fortunes and good will of three major employers. But what to replace it with? Without that indigenous paternalism, it seems impossible that Detroit will ever see the investment needed to start a turn-around without a new group of stakeholders who have their own ideas about the city and what it should be. People are not just going to mail Detroit checks.

This will be a very bitter pill to swallow for many people who have stuck it out in Detroit through the decline, only to see opportunists swoop in. The high profile and racially charged debates over the Cobo Hall renovations, a state receivership, and a state takeover of Belle Isle all illustrate this. Successfully navigating this will be an enormous challenge, but is clearly of huge importance to the future of the city. Detroit needs new blood and new investors. But where is the benefit to the city if the people who live there are excluded? Cities are, after all, about people, not buildings. The people of Detroit are not wholly innocent in the matter of their city’s decline. Yet as with a Greek tragedy, the punishment is excessively disproportionate to the transgression.

Speaking of which, Ewing attempted to encourage the crowd with what to me was a startling statement. She said, “Young people in their 20s are talking about the heydays of Detroit as if they lived them. I can’t think of any city with a stronger sense of nostalgia.” She intended this as a positive but it is clearly one of the reasons the city has gone down the tubes. Nostalgia to any degree of excess is a profoundly corrosive force. It locates the apex of a civilization in an imagined past that never really was, and often inspires bitterness at the supposed forces that destroyed it. The decline of manufacturing would have been an enormous challenge to the Midwest in any event. But when it is populated with people who cling stubbornly to any lost threads of a disappearing past rather than turning forward to make a new future – and the “next hit car” and “it’s our city” ideas are both part of this – that makes success nearly impossible, as Detropia makes that all too clear for the Motor City.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Demographic Analysis, Economic Development, Globalization, Urban Culture
Cities: Detroit

5 Responses to “Film Review: Detropia”

  1. Linnaeus says:

    I’m eager to see this movie, having grown up in the area, but I’m bracing myself at the same time.

    As for this:

    Nostalgia to any degree of excess is a profoundly corrosive force. It locates the apex of a civilization in an imagined past that never really was, and often inspires bitterness at the supposed forces that destroyed it. The decline of manufacturing would have been an enormous challenge to the Midwest in any event. But when it is populated with people who cling stubbornly to any lost threads of a disappearing past rather than turning forward to make a new future – and the “next hit car” and “it’s our city” ideas are both part of this – that makes success nearly impossible, as Detropia makes that all too clear for the Motor City.

    I agree that nostalgia can go too far, but I would interpret Ewing’s statement a little more charitably. I suspect that she’s trying to make the case that young people in Detroit are increasingly aware of the city’s history and are finding some value in that. The past, to some degree, sets the parameters of successful (and unsuccessful) strategies for urban recovery, i.e., a city can’t remake itself entirely, rather it needs to build on existing strengths while trying to develop new ones. Of course, that’s a point you’ve made here frequently, and rightly so.

  2. Jeff Gillenwater says:

    You might also check out DETROIT, JE T’AIME, a documentary a year in the making that focuses on the rise of DIY culture in Detroit.

  3. JJ says:

    Thank you for the thoughtful review of Detropia. another Detroit doc currently screening is

  4. betty barcode says:

    To me, the movie’s title suggests Detroit + entropy. Add the suffix -ia and it becomes ‘place of entropy.’

  5. Alex Pearlstein says:

    I saw it as well and was disappointed. Knowing quite a bit about Detroit, I was surprised how little context the filmmakers provided on the history of Detroit and its perilous future. The stories, as you say, are so disconnected, and there’s really no narrative to speak of. It’s hard to endorse a film that thinks pretty footage of ruin porn is high cinema and important art. In many ways, the film is as hollow as much of the Detroit revitalization talk itself. Young creatives (many who probably grew up in the suburbs) feeling like triumphing Detroit makes them hip because it’s the anti-city to all that defines modern America. One day all these kids will start families and move out like everybody else.

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