Salvos Call of the Wild

Detroit on screen

Will Boisvert

Film still from Detroitopia.

After so many decades spent languishing in the shadows of depopulation and deindustrialization, Detroit is finally ready for its close-up. It’s become one of the most filmed places on earth, a tableau, in the words of a Time magazine photo essay, of “beautiful, horrible decline.” Empty skyscrapers cling to their elegance; ruined mansions gaze forlornly through burnt-out windows; the iconic slab of the Michigan Central train station, where mutating automobiles battled at the climax of Transformers, rears up like a giant tombstone. No film documentarian with a camera and a theory about the direction that civilization is heading can bear to pass this up—or afford to, since it offers for free the kind of striking postapocalyptic visuals that would normally require a CGI shop. Detroit has become a mythic landscape to the filmmakers who have flocked to the city, and they’ve invested it with the most potent of American mythologies, positing the city as the new frontier.

The myth thrives, as in the French documentary Detroit: Ville Sauvage, on images of the city’s urban prairies, the fields of waist-high grass where neighborhoods once stood—a terrain much like the plains that pioneers traversed on their treks out West. And as with any frontier, Detroit seems to offer limitless freedom to reinvent society and self and recapture imaginary pasts. The eruption of prairie has struck Green ideologues as an antidote to industrial blight and a path back to agrarian values; so it is in Grown in Detroit, a Dutch film that celebrates the city’s oft-toasted urban farming movement by following students at a school for pregnant teens as they are taught to raise crops, tend goats, and reclaim their souls from fast food. Detroit Bike City, a Critical Mass manifesto, pedals an in-your-face victory lap around the Motor City’s crestfallen car culture. Countless docs chronicle the artists and bohemians who have flocked to the city as a tabula rasa for installations and scenes, with lofts so cheap as to be almost literally free. Stoking their heady sense of liberation are the shuttered, crumbling factories that lie all about, Ozymandian remnants of once-mighty industries now withered and impotent, smashed idols testifying mutely to the overthrow of the old order. The city has therefore attracted no less an anarchist than Jackass star Johnny Knoxville; in Detroit Lives he surveys the city’s cool underground night spots and hangs out with hipsters, savoring the cultural provocations as he would an exploding latrine.

Even filmmakers who see past Detroit’s bleak-chic blank spaces to its perpetual hardship and threadbare public services can get in on the frontier spirit. So it is with Burn, a helmet-cam vérité-style doc that follows the city’s firefighters in their rattletrap engines as they fight an arson plague. Indeed, with joblessness, derelict housing, and gnawing insecurity the new normal, the country that so long shunned Detroit has embraced it as America’s Ruin, symbol of a now-universal embattled grittiness that never gives up despite never succeeding. The ennoblement was made official by Clint Eastwood in his celebrated “Halftime in America” ad for Chrysler during this year’s Super Bowl. “The people of Detroit know a little something about this,” Eastwood rasped of the high unemployment that his audience had forgotten about during game time. “But we all pulled together. Now Motor City is fighting again. . . . The world’s going to hear the roar of our engines.” Eastwood got the ad because of his 2008 movie Gran Torino, in which he played retired Polish-American autoworker Walt Kowalski, the last white man in Detroit, defending his lawn against black, Latino, and Hmong gangbangers. It’s an oddly fitting contemporary coda for Hollywood’s last Western star, letting him wave his guns on an urban frontier where a dwindling police presence opens the way for direct action. Walt ends up crucifying himself and passing the titular cherry-red Ford muscle car on like a blazing torch of Americanism to the next generation of immigrant strivers.

A new documentary, Detropia, surveys these strands of Detroit mythology with a critical eye, an absorbing visual style, and a salutary attention to the vicious economics behind the city’s sublime disrepair. Directed by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, a native of suburban Detroit, and benefitting from the fine cinematography of Tony Hardmon and Craig Atkinson, the film regales viewers with images that are by now clichés of the ruins-porn genre, but invests them with an unabashed aesthetic intensity that feels fresh. We see a tenor singing arias in the echoing, vine-covered interior of the train station, a wrecking claw shredding a house that seems as flimsy as cardboard, a rippling urban meadow complete with pheasant and coyote. We spelunk through the dark, debris-choked halls of a grand apartment building until a window suddenly opens out on the gorgeous vista of downtown looming above the prairie. We happen upon men “scrapping” copper from a derelict factory at night, blowtorches lighting their tense faces as if in a Caravaggio painting. We take in a carnival parade of mainly white hipsters draped in Goth and retro finery, apparently on their way to New Orleans. And we take in an avant-garde performance piece consisting of two models standing in front of vacant mansions wearing gold gas masks and holding up a sign that reads “Give Us Your Money.”

But Detropia cuts its artiness with prosaic and powerful lessons in the brutality of capitalism, as seen through the eyes of the mainly black working- and middle-class protagonists who bear the brunt of the economic collapse. We watch as the UAW workers at an American Axle plant debate the choice between acceding to wage givebacks—biggest at the bottom of the scale, which would shrink from $14.35 an hour to $11—or losing their jobs. (They fought the pay cuts, and the company duly closed the plant and sent their jobs to Mexico.) We meet restaurateur Tommy Stevens, who recalls how the nearby Poletown factory, before the GM bankruptcy, used to send customers streaming into his Raven Lounge after every shift. We listen to a woman plead with cash-strapped city officials not to eliminate the bus line she rides to work. “I’m trying to improve myself,” she explains, but gumption alone can’t get her to her job.

The film casts a jaundiced look at the nostrums floated by planners and dreamers to remedy Detroit’s woes. Urban farming raises a round of derisive laughter from Detroiters who want to shop for food, not grow it. Mayor Dave Bing’s “Detroit Works” proposal, a scheme to triage the city by demolishing dicier neighborhoods and providing city services only to the more viable ones, has a town hall hearing up in arms; residents parse it as more of the same arson and segregation that wrecked Detroit in the first place. “It’s the arts that can help revitalize the city,” insists an official of the Michigan Opera Theatre, but its audience of wealthy white suburbanites barely keeps MOT afloat.

Work hard and innovate, intone the radio pundits who pronounce in voiceover, but not even this foundational creed of the marketplace seems like it will save the city. We follow Stevens to the Detroit Auto Show, where the new Chevy Volt is all the rage; the forward-looking electric car is to be the salvation of the Poletown plant and catapult Detroit back to high-tech preeminence. Alas, nearby is the display of a Chinese company that’s selling its own electric car—at half the price of a Volt. “How can China do this?” Stevens asks the evasive Volt spokesman, but the answer needs no elaboration: Chinese auto workers earn in a day what Poletown workers earn in an hour.

With its deft counterpoint between the apparent freedom of Detroit’s wide-open fields and the cocoon of the Raven Lounge, aglow with bluesy conviviality, Detropia is a compelling meditation on the Detroit frontier. But it also explodes that myth, explaining quite explicitly that a frontier is really just a projection of the civilization behind it. In between the ruins ogling, Grady and Ewing take time to see that Detroit isn’t an artist’s blank canvas or a patriot’s testing ground; it’s a very poor and straitened town that lacks the indispensable means—money—to support either freedom or community.

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Unfortunately, Detropia shares the failing that compromises every Detroit movie, as it restricts itself to Detroit; it never crosses the border to decipher the larger pattern of which the city is but a part. There are plenty of arresting visuals out there. My favorite is the nameless edge city sprawling to the northwest of Detroit along the Lodge Freeway. Here one finds what amounts to a second downtown, full of sleek skyscrapers sheathed in reflective tinted glass—a new race of parvenu gods disdainfully aloof from the desolate Art-Deco Olympus of old downtown. Sporting marquee logos like IBM, Sprint, Siemens, and General Electric, these buildings and their surrounding office parks house the economic base that could have sustained a postindustrial Detroit but which fled beyond the city limits to liberate itself from the city’s black citizens and the taxes required to provision them with public services. Strewn with gleaming monuments surrounded by unwalkable, unbusable expanses of parking lot, this is a landscape as alienating as any of Detroit’s ruins. It’s a perfect vision of soulless wealth, of contemptuous disregard for the claims that communities make on moneyed interests, and it brings to mind an ethos that can best be summed up in two words: Bain Capital.

So a really trenchant Detroit movie wouldn’t be about Detroit at all, but about Detroit’s purest son—Mitt Romney. Romney lived in Detroit until the age of five, after which his family decamped to the posh suburb of Bloomfield Hills. (His childhood house was bulldozed in 2010 after falling derelict.) He left Michigan, he likes to say, so he could make it on his own without the influence of his father, George, the American Motors CEO and Michigan governor who called in federal troops to put down the 1967 Detroit riot. Like many sons of towering fathers, he essentially lit out for the frontier—only his was the frontier of extreme finance. For while Romney projects a front of all-American rectitude, it’s simply astonishing how anarchic Bain Capital’s deal-making has been. Sometimes Bain saved the companies it invested in. Sometimes it shut them down and offshored their jobs. And sometimes it bought into solvent companies with little money down, borrowed wildly against the company’s assets, distributed the funds to murky investor accounts in offshore tax havens, and walked away when the debt-burdened cash cow collapsed into bankruptcy. Romney insists he never broke any rules, yet he is also clearly a man for whom rules pose only slight obstacles.

A Romney movie would be a delocalized montage featuring a mansion in Massachusetts, a New Hampshire summer home, a Utah ski chalet, a La Jolla oceanfront property, and a beach in the Cayman Islands. But Detroit still maintains a hold over him. He never lived down his 2008 “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” op-ed for the New York Times, perhaps unfairly: by bankruptcy he didn’t intend a going-out-of-business sale, just a chance to “restructure” the auto industry by breaking union contracts and slashing wages and benefits. Nothing against Detroit, just a reprise of what Romney has done all his life—seek out opportunities for profitable restructuring—and not too different from the gutting and restructuring of the city that other visionaries have contemplated. Nevertheless, he felt sufficiently tarnished to invite Mr. Detroit himself, Clint Eastwood, up to the convention podium to bless his candidacy. Eastwood happily obliged, even though his Chrysler commercial made him a material beneficiary of the Detroit automakers’ bailout that Romney opposed. Referring to Obama as his “employee,” he reminded his Republican audience that “we own this country . . . when somebody does not do the job, we got to let them go.” It was quite a performance: the pickled Hollywood essence of autoworker endorsing the high-handed prerogatives of the CEOs.

The movie should end with Romney returning to make his peace with Detroit. He would see that it is no longer the quagmire of organized labor and restrictive work rules and negotiated pay scales and expansive government he knew as a child. Instead he would find a place as freewheeling and go-getting as he is, a place where “with a little bit of motivation, you can make anything happen,” in the words of a graffiti artist dazzlingly profiled by Mother Jones. He would find a desperate, pliant place with no rules, or at least no one to enforce them, a place where subsistence agriculture is aspirational, where even the bohemians spout self-help slogans, where a whole lot of money buys a whole lot of restructuring. Prick up your ears, Mitt—the frontier is calling.