Crumbling city without cliches
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, September 14, 2012
There’s a particular genre of film and photography that has become associated with Detroit in recent years -- called “rubble porn” or “ruin porn,” it dwells on aestheticized images of urban decay and hopelessness that have become glib visual signifiers, not just of Detroit but of post-industrial America itself.
“Detropia” trafficks in its share of those images, most strikingly the ghostly, tattered facade of a once-splendid skyscraper, teetering precariously on a blighted skyline. But in the hands of filmmakers Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, “Detropia” largely sidesteps the cliches and facile false choices that have beset so many Detroit movies. As they have proven in such films as “The Boys of Baraka” and “Jesus Camp,” Grady and Ewing are exceptionally skilled and sensitive visual storytellers, adroit at recognizing decisive moments and smart enough to let viewers make of them what they will.
That “Detropia” won’t be just another well-reported urban obituary is clear from the film’s arresting opening moments, when Grady and Ewing build a densely layered visual and aural collage of the city, building into a symphony of street sounds, soap-box preaching, nighttime neon and a vagrant plastic bag. “Detropia” doesn’t stint on the city’s history or its current economic implosion -- statistics appear by way of sober on-screen titles -- but the filmmakers are far more interested in threading viewers through an immersive experience of what it feels like to live in Detroit at the turn of the 21st century.
They do that by following a few highly charismatic tour guides -- including a passionate blogger and urban archeologist named Crystal Starr and Tommy Stephens, proprietor of a tavern called the Raven Lounge, where much of “Detropia” takes place. Once a bustling watering hole for autoworkers celebrating the end of their work week, the lounge is now part of Detroit’s larger identity as a place where strong-willed citizens navigate new civic, political, economic and global realities that threaten to tear their once-invincible communities apart.
Grady and Ewing document those realities with discretion, even during painful confrontations, such as when a local union contemplates a corporation’s demand that they take yet another pay cut, or when a plan is floated to consolidate the city, a scheme that would entail relocating scores of people from their homes. Unlike so many stories touting the urban pioneers and plucky artists who are moving to Detroit in droves to take advantage of cheap real estate, “Detropia” steadfastly avoids that narrative, even when Ewing and Grady discover a couple who don gold-paint-sprayed gas masks, bling and a mink coat to comment on, as one of them explains, “redefining the value of things.”
Instead, the filmmakers focus on Detroit’s working- and middle-class African American neighborhoods, whose longtime residents have historically slipped through the cracks of the Desolation Angel/Urban Pioneer narratives. Grady and Ewing tell this story through indelible images and sequences, from a young boy carefully sweeping a street curb (only to throw the brush away) to a staged but still effective scene of opera singer Noah Stewart delivering a soaring aria in Detroit’s abandoned Michigan Central Train Depot.
Used before in so many films, the train station borders on the very ruin porn that “Detropia” otherwise seeks to avoid. But Ewing and Grady’s imaginative re-purposing of the architectural icon dovetails neatly with an operatic motif that runs through the film and that largely represents the upper-class city fathers who are trying, on their end, to shore up Detroit’s shaky fate. (Another cliche that “Detropia” avoids is musical: Apart from one or two Motown riffs, the soundtrack is dominated either by opera or Dial.81’s ethereal electronic score.)
Grady and Ewing punctuate “Detropia” with several shots of meadows and rampant fields, suggesting that the city that once symbolized prosperity and mechanized progress is in danger of being swallowed up by the very nature it so brashly grew out of. The upshot, the filmmakers suggest, is that America at large is just as vulnerable to the forces that have capsized Detroit’s once-thriving middle class. Inviting viewers to meditate on this larger reality, “Detropia” becomes a haunting portrait of a society desperately trying to create a viable future, even while it searches for a usable past.