Convenient Truths: Detropia

A column article, Convenient Truths by: Daniel Elkin, Jason Sacks

Sometimes, the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human. Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns, and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV and delves deep into the bowels of Netflix Streaming Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.

Today he and his friend Jason Sacks found 2012's Detropia, directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady.

Sacks: The story of the first few decades of the 21st century can be seen as the rise of latter day serfdom. The world economy, combined with the power of incessant corporate greed, is creating a wider division than ever between the haves and have-nots. The rich are becoming fabulously richer, while the poor are sinking ever deeper into despair.

Detropia, directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady tells the story of the city at the epicenter of that great divide: the once-great city of Detroit, which is now literally falling apart.

Industry has abandoned this city while services are being cut ruthlessly. Families take flight from the city at a record rate at the same time that city planners work to knock down houses in order to consolidate the far-flung populace of the city in a smaller and more focused area. Houses are being foreclosed on at record rates, property values are plummeting, and unemployment is sky-high. Once-great buildings are skeletons of the places that they used to be.

Yeah, Detropia is a real downer of a movie. 

This film is also a tremendously involving portrait of a city in decline, but filled with people who are valiantly fighting to keep the soul of the place alive. People are nothing if not adaptable – something that we also learned watching Happy, I might add! – and we see that attempt at adaptability on display in this documentary. There's something heroic about the men stripping an abandoned warehouse of its steel so they can earn some salvage fees. After all, in a post-apocalyptic world, we all do what we have to in order to survive.

Detropia is a vivid portrait of America in decline. The film can be read as a parallel for our decline as a society. In one especially trenchant scene, we watch retired schoolteacher and current bar owner Tommy Stevens attend the fabled Detroit Auto Show. At first he's excited by the promise of the Chevy Volt, a new generation of car which promises to bring the auto industry back to Detroit. But Stevens is too smart to fully buy the hype; when he asks how many miles the Volt can go before running out of charge, he's shocked that the number is so low. When Stevens then goes to look at a Chinese-made car, he's impressed by the low cost and higher quality. In that moment, Stevens seems to encapsulate the decline of American industry. Are we once again delivering substandard vehicle, which will only serve to hasten our country's decline? Ewing and Grady don't draw conclusions for viewers, but they certainly ask hard questions.

Do you have any answers for these hard questions, Elkin?

Elkin: If I had any answers at all, I'd be working in urban planning, not writing for Comics Bulletin, Sacks...

Before I start talking about themes and ideas, though, I want to say that I think Detropia is a spectacular piece of film-making on just about every level. From framing to pacing, cinematography to editing, Ewing and Grady have created a documentary that sets the bar high and have created a film that really demonstrates that documentaries can be art, just as much as they can be informative.

What really struck me in terms of the making of this film was its use of music. Major kudos go to Dial. 81 and Blair French for the soundtrack. This is a movie about loss, and everyone involved in its making perpetuates this. This echoes loudest of all in Detropia’s soundtrack. It is truly the sound of decay, conveyed rhythmically (although, perhaps, decay itself has an inherent rhythm). What Dial. 81 and Blair French do, though, is punctuate their soundtrack with moments of vibrancy, enforcing a message of hope and possibility. Then each moment of uptick is once again overlapped and subsumed by the music of loss. It's emotionally powerful and works perfectly with the film maker's visions and themes.

Which leads me to the question, “What is the theme of Detropia?” Having watched the film twice now, what resonates most is that this is a documentary not only about Detroit, but about the fate of the middle-class in a Capitalist society. Like you alluded to above, Sacks, this is a story about what happens when profit becomes more important than people. The exponential growth that is the basis of Capitalism is, ultimately, anti-humanistic and eventually leaves destruction, loss, and suffering in its wake.

As the industrial corporations abandon cities in order to maximize profits, those cities become a wasteland, or, as the newsman reporting on the demolition of abandoned houses remarks, Detroit is “going back to the prairie.”

Detropia is filled with images of modern Detroit which could easily have been filmed in Dharavi or Khayelitsha. Viewing these scenes you have to ask yourself if we are slowly devolving into a third-world nation. In the film, George McGregor, a UAW representative, reminds us that at one time in America “we built everything” and now you can't even buy a washing machine or an iron built in the US. In the absence of manufacturing, we are becoming a service nation, and, by doing so, we are losing our middle-class.

You mentioned Tommy Stevens earlier, Sacks. The thing he said that struck me the most is when he talks about how the middle-class provided a buffer between the rich and the poor. He says something to the effect that history shows that without a middle-class to play this role, the only eventual outcome is revolution. Didn’t we talk about this very idea when we reviewed Greedy Lying Bastards and Occupy Love?

Are we on a course in this country where a fundamental shift has to occur? Is insurrection the only way for that to happen?

Sacks: Is Tommy Stevens accurate in his concern about a future America where the top 2% of our country is on top and the bottom 98% stares at that group on the hill, living a life that almost nobody else can possibly imagine?

Like everything else in Detropia, that question is complex and difficult to parse out. That's part of why it's so wonderful watching a good documentary and reading nonfiction: the stories presented are so unpredictable and complex that they defy the sometimes easy answers that we get in fiction. And in consuming a movie like Detropia, it's very hard to not see oneself in the same position as the people shown in this movie. Detroit, once a thoroughly vibrant American city, is now bankrupt, partially reclaimed by nature, and as filled with ruins of lost glory days as Rome or Athens.

One of the main people that this movie spends time with is Crystal Starr, a video blogger and urban explorer. We watch Starr make her way through the ruins of the city, alternately celebrating and mourning the city's past glory and lost brilliance. It's tremendously moving to see Starr's fresh reactions to this city that she doesn't know except as a lost horizon -- a series of giant, almost abstract hulks that represent a past that she can't even imagine, let alone take part in.

When she wanders into a tower and stares out the window at the vast and oddly bucolic city below her – with the old Motown Records offices just down the street from where she was standing – the complex contradictions between the city's past and present are on clear and heartbreaking display. Viewers can see the noble ideas and insights that brought Detroit its past glory, but can also see the very tensions and problems that have helped to lead to a seemingly endless vicious cycle of depopulation, white flight and eventually bankruptcy.

The most pervasive feeling of Detropia is a sense of painful loss, the frightening idea– as you’ve astutely pointed out – that Detroit can be seen as the edge of a future where America is a place nothing is manufactured, working men's wages are continually being cut, and a vibrant and ethnically diverse middle class is an endangered species. It's a sobering thought, a splash of ice cold water that is presented in a tremendously moving and thoughtful manner.

Your comment on the music on this film is adroit and very well considered, and I think ends up being a major key (that pun was unintentional) to really understanding this movie and the city in general. Music is a major recurring thread in this movie – not just the background music and soundtrack tone but also the recurring rhythm and blues and opera music that pops up in surprising and very poignant moments in the film.

We get Detroit-style rhythm and blues music presented in this movie, but it's all a bit amateurishly presented and a bit second-hand feeling. The only people who play that music are older people, perhaps as much past their prime as the city that they love. Symbolically that music feels like the soundtrack of a city that's done being impressed with itself, and a past that drifts relentlessly into society's rear view mirror.

The music that really stands out in this movie for me is the recurring opera soundtrack. The film opens and closes with opera music -- lonely, passionate voices pleading and moaning and howling in a foreign language for peace and love and a desperately needed freedom and transcendence from the pain that everyday life has to offer.

When Penny Starr and her opera singer friend wander into Detroit's long-abandoned train station, a station that was once opulent and beautiful but now is a graffiti-encrusted wasteland, the movie's most eloquent point is made. A single voice rises from the urban wasteland, a place that symbolizes a past now merely a memory. The singer transcends the painful world that he lives in and brings a moment of pure beauty in the midst of urban pain. It's a profound moment, which speaks to so many smart points that this film makes.

Elkin: Which gives me a great segue into another thought I had when watching Detropia, of how out of such destruction, great creativity can be fostered. Detroit's dismemberment makes the area undesirable which, in turn, drives down its value while giving rise to affordability. This sort of equation is the haven of the artist. Cheap housing, open space, lax policing, unfettered gloom and despair – it is here new voices respond.

And Detropia shows this. As one of the artists in the film says, “We can experiment here because if we fail, we really haven't fallen anywhere.” Artists move into places abandoned and, by making an area “cool” once more, they realign and gentrify. Perhaps this is the greatest creative act of the artistic community – they bring back places from the dead.

I was initially a bit put off by the young, white, hip invasion of crumbling Detroit as seen in Detropia (especially as evidenced by the “hipster” parade scene). I thought to myself that it was brutally typical of these kinds of people to profit and celebrate in the midst of so many people's misery. I found myself thinking about race and privilege during this section of the film, but the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that this is exactly how these things go nowadays. My anger turned to resignation which, in turn, made me understand this process from more of an intellectual than emotional stance.

Growth, decay, process, change, adaptation, regrowth – this is the story of human history, “soaring through the air in a lugubrious arc from inception to conclusion” as the poet Stephen Dobyns once wrote.

So perhaps there is hope in this film after all? Detroit will never be what it was, but that is not to say it can't be something else. As the urban environment shifts all across America, who's to say what this change will bring?

Still, getting back to my initial point earlier in this piece, one has to continue to worry about the destruction of the middle class and the reverberations this engenders. There was a recent study released that, among other things, pointed to the fact that economic status is now the greatest predictor of educational success – “the test-score gap between rich and low-income students is now nearly double the gap between blacks and whites.” Such information is startling and suggests further class struggles being built into the very system that is supposed to keep our democracy functioning.

Who profits from this? Assuredly, this is a question for a different film than Detropia, but it is one that needs to be asked all the same. And asked, and asked, and asked again.

Three are times when the observer must interact with what he or she is observing and at that point become a problem solver. Either that or nothing changes and we all just sit and watch, mouths agape, as things get progressively worse and worse and worse and.... As my father has said to me in the past, “Just how bad does it have to get before you try to change things?”

Sacks: In the best possible world, the fall of Detroit will be like a forest fire: the stuff that's decayed will be swept away with the flames, to be replaced by the deeply nourishing ashes that will provide the rich soil for new growth. And that's certainly the hope of the post-bankruptcy carmakers, that from the ashes of their worst moments will rise a phoenix-like rise from the ashes.

Unfortunately, mankind is not nearly as elegant as nature – the beauty of opera notwithstanding – and the pain that such a resurrection will bring will be slow and painful and will bring real human tragedy.

New York City nearly went bankrupt in 1975 but went on to thrive in the '80s and up to today. On the other hand, Detroit can be like Buffalo, slowly declining in population, influence and infrastructure. The brilliance of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's Detropia is that it presents all sides of Detroit's problems, giving viewers the chance to make up their own minds about where the once-great city's spiral will lead. Is your Chinese-made glass half full or half empty?

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