September 5, 2012

Autopocalypse Now

by Vadim Rizov


Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's state-of-Detroit portrait Detropia isn't a collage of stand-alone YouTube clips, though perhaps it should be. One lesser sequence has already been presented in The New York Times as an op-ed statement, and all of Detropia could be similarly scrapped into orderly, thesis-driven shorts. The Times-chosen segment follows young men dismantling metal from abandoned sites at night while speculating about where it'll go. China, they guess (correctly, title card statistics confirm). The images are vivid but predictable in their presentation of urban decay and nightmarish, seemingly unsolvable social disorder. Unsurprisingly given the titular riff on "dystopia," Detropia offers up the city as an example/casualty of the American Experiment gone wrong. Interviewee voices argue Detroit's decline isn't just a victim of a post-industrial sea change, but an example of the U.S.'s future if capitalism doesn't man up and reboot itself.

Three iconographic Detroit films focus on boomtime glory and attendant racial tensions. 1978's Blue Collar shows three auto plant workers turned against each other by cold-blooded management. In 2002's 8 Mile, Eminem struggles to be a rapper while slaving in a car parts factory alongside a multi-racial group of discontented drones (filmed in reality at a defunct GM building). Six years later, Gran Torino featured Clint Eastwood as a disenfranchised retiree staring down the "gooks" in his neighborhood, only to conclude they were more relatable than his more privileged, moved-away, ungrateful children. In all these films, quality of life frays in direct proportion to economic dysfunction and demographic change. (Tellingly, both Eminem and Eastwood have made car commercials touting the inseparability of optimistic patriotism and buying American.)


Gran Torino's Walt Kowalski decides his neighbors are OK because the same punks bother them. Their solidarity stems from their abandonment by institutional forces: Eastwood's industrial Americana a distant memory, the Hmong immigrants adrift and terrorized in a barely policed area decimated by that loss. The old man is as outdated as his former blue-collar security, a narrative Detropia continues. Grady and Ewell record United Auto Workers meetings in which employee outrage at the wage cuts they're being forced to accept becomes a purely class issue, sans Kowalski's racial epithets. Race relations are a subliminal undercurrent never fully delved into.

Detropia's most revelatory moment follows Tommy Stevens, teacher-turned-bartender, as he attends a car expo, observing as his outrage crystallizes in real time. The hybrid electric Chevy Volt mildly impresses him, but then he crosses the floor to the booth of Chinese competitor BYD, which offers a more fuel efficient, lower-cost product. The promotional video is cheesy, but their pitch is literally unbeatable. Stevens walks back to confront the Chevy representative. Apples and oranges, says the rep: the Volt is more luxurious and pleasant, a natural default choice for the American consumer. "Can I just remind you of a little company called Honda?" Stevens fumes. "I was here in the seventies when you called Honda junk. You remember that?" Outraged that Chevy's car is laughably uncompetitive, he concludes the auto manufacturers can't be trusted to take effective steps to save themselves, and that Detroit is attendantly doomed.


The UAW and car show sequences are the detail-heavy highlights of a movie which otherwise confirms the expected. Though Detropia opens with a conductor raising his baton and plunges into a dreamy city symphony, it soon settles down into fleshing out the backstory behind every initially unexplained image: the difficulties of funding Detroit opera, an incensed blogger's urban spelunking of left-behind buildings, performance artists new to the city understandably but tactlessly thrilled at the cheapness of the real estate. They come off a little doofus-y, but not as much as the tourists who announce, in a coffee shop, that they're thrilled to be in a place so visually exciting in its dilapidation. (The barista is not amused.)

There's a sense of outrage at the obliviousness of those tasked with managing the city. Mayor Dave Bing announces a plan to "downsize" Detroit, using tax breaks to force people to move out of their neighborhoods and consolidate themselves into large clusters. It's either that or discontinuing basic social services, he warns, but the residents in question give him an earful at municipal meetings. Behind their indignation about destroying local histories is disbelief that the city is now abandoning them as decisively as the car manufacturers already have. Ewing and Grady want to avoid urban-blight poverty porn but give in to the spectacular, gargantuan abandoned city structures and voices of sadly familiar complaints without delving deeply enough into either the lives or the institutions that (don't) govern them.

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Posted by ahillis at September 5, 2012 7:52 AM