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Home arrow Geography arrow Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline

Cool Survivalism: City Films, Music, and Theatre Bizarre

A growing number of city films and documentaries about Detroit offer detailed views of the metropolis, its storied histories and cultural complexities^7 Unlike photography, such films are better able to produce narratives that attempt to account for the processes of ruination. Because they approach their subjects with compassion and sorrow, an elegiac quality often pervades documentaries about the rise and fall of the city, conveying a sense of mourn-

Detropia, directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, 2012, film still

FIG. 31 Detropia, directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, 2012, film still.

ful resignation and commemoration even while searching the city for signs of resurrection and conveying the determined pride of city residents who tenaciously endure. Films such as Detropia; Detroit: Requiem for a City?; and Deforce offer historical insights, though they usually end, perhaps inevitably, with indeterminate conclusions.

The documentary Detropia by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady earned an editing award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and has played the national circuit, making it one of the more popular recent films about Detroit (figure 31). A quiet meditation on Detroit’s decline, the film touches on issues of class, deindustrialization, the cutbacks of city services, right-sizing, the continuing inability of Detroit car companies to adapt to foreign competition, and artists moving downtown, though it does not explore any of these issues in depth. Instead, Detropia weaves together the observations of a variety of interview subjects, from a young black female blogger to a union local president to a black bar owner, but lacks an authoritative voiceover, sometimes compensating for this by providing on-screen texts with statistics. The camera often dwells on the haunting decay of the city. The most wrenching part of the narrative occurs early in the film at a meeting of Local 22 of the UAW, which is held in response to the demand of the American Axle company that workers submit to large pay cuts under threat of a plant shutdown. The stunned workers refuse, as much in opposition to the humiliation and denigration of the value of their work as to the economic blackmail. A screen text informs us that the plant was closed shortly afterward.

Exorbitant salaries at the top of such corporations exacerbate the disgrace of this form of economic blackmail. An AFL-CIO data report on 350 companies shows that “the CEO to worker pay ratio was 331:1 and the CEO to minimum wage worker pay ratio was 774:1,” with CEOs earning, on average, $11.7 million in total compensation.28 “Even as companies argue that they can’t afford to raise wages,” notes a reporter, “the nation’s largest companies are earning higher profits per employee than they did five years ago. In 2013, the S&P 500 Index companies earned $41,249 in profits per employee, a 38% increase.’^9 These profits per employee are greater than the average employee’s take-home pay of $35,239.3° Profits take precedence not just over employees’ wages but also over consumer safety. Both Toyota and Ford have been fined for “hiding safety defects,” while GM recalled a whopping thirty-nine million cars in 2014 after willfully concealing design flaws that caused at least thirteen deaths and numerous severe injuries in crashes.

Another telling moment in Detropia is offered by Tommy Stevens, the owner of the Raven Lounge, the last black-owned blues bar in the Detroit area, which is barely hanging on after nearby factories have been shuttered. Stevens attends the annual Detroit Auto Show where he is impressed by a new Chinese electric car, called “Build Your Dream,” that sells for $20,000. Speaking with sales reps for GM’s Volt, an electric car with a price tag of $40,000, he questions the huge difference in price and is told that the Volt has many more “luxury options” and is “better made.” Stevens reminds them that this is what Detroit automakers said when Japanese cars first entered the American market and that it seems to him that American automakers still have their “heads in the sand” when it comes to overseas competitors. Toward the end of the film he muses that the continuing destruction of the middle class may lead to revolution.

For the most part, the film’s poetic, collage-like quality induces a kind of melancholia and severs emotional connection as we jump from one thread to another, from a town hall meeting where residents emotionally convey the devastating effects of cuts in bus service that prevent them from getting to work, to young dudes on their front porch joking about the effects of right-sizing and imagining a fight over tomatoes in a city garden. For those who are unaware of the desperate conditions of the poor in Detroit, however, the film provides an odd awakening, prompting David Denby, a critic for New Yorker, for example, to call it “the most moving documentary I’ve seen in years.” Charmed by the African American Detroit Opera tenor Noah Stewart’s sonorous singing of Puccini in the cavernous Michigan Central Station, Denby declares that “the filmmakers’ aestheticism turns into an explicit promise of renewal.’^1 This is more wishful thinking than evidence-based, despite the colorful gestures and determined loyalty to the city of the subjects we follow. Thus another reviewer observes, “To a one, those subjects are an admirable lot, standing strong and proud—and in stark contrast to the city crumbling around them. But they are not experts—they are anecdotes.’^ While the tone of poetic melancholy may render the film, as a third reviewer observes, “all but a eulogy for Detroit,”

Detropia mediates the fear of urban decline through the tenacious endurance of its selected spokespersons and its beautifully shot scenes of the city.33

At a showing at the Main Theater in Royal Oak on September 14, 2013, Ewing and Grady, who were present for discussion following the film, responded to audience frustration about the lack of proposed political solutions by asserting that the film was only meant to be “a meditation,” and noting that the deliberately indeterminate title Detropia was meant to incorporate the possibilities of both dystopia and utopia. More dystopic than otherwise, the film nonetheless points to a paradoxical structure of feeling which suggests that even in a dystopian setting, the utopian impulse flickers to life. Yet the signs of resurrection, mainly represented as artistic initiatives in the city, are tentative and necessarily limited in nature; the enduring form of existence most of the film’s subjects display is a combination of frustration, tenuous hope, and cool survivalism.

Other films are more self-consciously political and historical. Daniel Falconer’s documentary Deforce: A History of Tyranny in the Heart of America (2010) reviews Detroit’s modern history, often using archival material, and shows how it grew as a city and became the “Arsenal of Democracy” during World War II, the industrial machine that produced the Allies’ military hardware. It discusses the racist housing policies and redlining that enforced segregated housing, cop terror, and the 1967 riots; the failed racist “war on drugs” that incarcerates such a high percentage of young black men; and the high rate of early deaths among them.34 It also focuses on corruption in the city government and racist state and federal policies. Deforce, though far less subdued than Detropia, concludes with urgent but vague calls for community solidarity.

A third example is Julien Temple’s Requiem for Detroit? Although the question mark leaves room for the possibility of a future resurrection, one can already hear the funeral dirge the film title suggests^5 In his Guardian essay, “Detroit: The Last Days,” which accompanied the release of his film, Temple displays a certain thrill at witnessing the decay of the city:

Approaching the derelict shell of downtown Detroit, we see full-grown trees sprouting from the tops of deserted skyscrapers. In their shadows, the glazed eyes of the street zombies slide into view, stumbling in front of the car. Our excitement at driving into what feels like a man-made hurricane Katrina is matched only by sheer disbelief that what was once the fourth-largest city in the US could actually be in the process of disappearing from the face of the earth. The statistics are staggering—40 square miles of the 139-square-mile inner city have already been reclaimed by nature^6

This excited amazement and view of residents as stumbling “street zombies” is redolent of a kind of schadenfreude and sense of the city as alien and other, even as it conveys post-apocalyptic anxieties. Such rhetoric contributes to the local resentment of voyeuristic outsiders who seem insensitive to the effects of decline on the lives of real people. As critic John Patrick Leary ruefully observes, “the exuberant connoisseurship of dereliction; the unembarrassed rejoicing at the ‘excitement’ of it all” leaves a sour taste.37

This sense of excitement also pervades the film, which juxtaposes archival footage of better times with burned-out cars, crumbling buildings, fire, and devastation, providing a rapid-fire but shocking ruin tour of the city as Temple narrates a voiceover, in addition to talking heads such as Lowell Boileau, Grace Lee Boggs, Tyree Guyton, auto executive Paul Thal, and others. Temple glibly illustrates the “end of the line” for auto manufacturing in Detroit with footage of a test car smashing into a wall. He employs Martha and the Vandellas’ upbeat Motown song “Dancing in the Streets” for scenes of the 1967 riot, as if it were a party. Characterizing the city as a “slow-motion Katrina,” “war zone,” and landscape similar to “the last days of the Maya,” Temple presents Detroit as a cautionary tale for the industrialized world but overdraws the lesson by suggesting that we have “traveled a thousand years into the future.” The film attempts a redemptive moment by concluding with the assertion that “even in the worst environment, life takes hold.” This observation is illustrated by greenery among the ruins as Temple lamely suggests that the city will be revitalized through urban farms and gardens. The narrative arc of Requiem for Detroit? constructs a trajectory that may be understood, ironically, as similar to that of the Chrysler ads: a return to a vanished preindustrial past as a vision for the future, a hope based on the resurrection of nature and its implied promise of plenitude.

Dan Georgakis, a longtime Detroit leftist, film reviewer, and author of more than twenty books, including, most famously, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution (with Marvin Surkin and Manning Marable), aptly articulates the larger problem with this crop of films as a failure of political perspective: “The makers of Detropia, Deforce, and Requiem for Detroit? ultimately seem to be as bewildered and dazed by what they have observed as the Detroiters with whom they interact.’^8 Perhaps the films’ primary contribution, and others like them, is the warning they represent, the exposure of the empty myth of class mobility that informs hundreds of other cities across America. While it may be tempting to see Detroit as existing in its own parallel universe of time and space, in July 2013 RealtyTrac reported that the five states with the highest home foreclosure rates, for example, did not even include the state of Michigan. It was outranked by Florida, Maryland, Ohio, Connecticut, and New Mexico. Evoking the deindustrial sublime, the pleasure these films offer is the domestication of terror through the safety and distance of representation. Yet even as they contain the anxiety that ruination produces and make it belong to someone else, such films demonstrate the devastating effects of deindustrialization and the evaporation of jobs and opportunities for the impoverished and unemployed everywhere.

Fictional representations of the city also play upon the sense of a regressive downward spiral. Low Winter Sun (2013), for example, the subdued title of an AMC police drama set in Detroit, grapples with the complexities of the struggle between good and evil. Unlike AMC’s Breaking Bad, which is set in sunny Albuquerque and tempers its violence with a quirky humor, Low Winter Sun is muted, restrained, and relentlessly dark. It focuses on two Detroit homicide cops who murder one of their own and struggle to cover it up, as well as drug lords, informants, prostitutes, and small-time hoods in the business of drugs, sex, and murder in Greektown and surrounding Detroit neighborhoods. The city itself becomes a character in the downbeat show, which had a large temporary production facility on East Grand Boulevard next to the Packard Plant. The activities of scrappers, the high death rate of young black men, the loss of union jobs, and the closing of plants are themes threaded into the story lines of the first three episodes, along with the deindustrialized landscape, trash- strewn alleys, and broken-down houses.

And yet, as with most Detroit stories, a counternarrative of gritty resilience and survival at all costs is reflected in the endurance of the characters within their depressed environment. Low Winter Sun was adapted for AMC by Chris Mundy, who notes, “The whole show is about second chances and what the characters are willing to do to get a second chance. The people who are here will not give up on Detroit, and as part of that, they have sort of doubled down on the pride of being from here.”39 But the Detroit of Low Winter Sun is too demoralized and alienated a place to make watching it feel good. The struggle to survive and keep despair at bay becomes the overriding theme as its leading characters seem to hang on by their fingernails, persisting through sheer stubbornness, habit, luck, and, occasionally, flashes of hope for a new beginning. The season ended, not surprisingly, with a major drop in viewers and bad reviews. As one reviewer dourly notes, “In case we were wondering about the dire state of the Motor City, at one point a stray dog trots by with a rat in its mouth.”40 A Michigan resident perhaps best captures the conflicted nature and cool survivalism of the Detroit story with his blog comment, “Great acting and I watched every episode but this show is tough to watch and one of the bigger bummers on TV. But I like itT1

In music, the hot, soulful sounds of Motown, the American record company founded in Detroit by Berry Gordy in 1959, generated vast pride in the city. The “Motown Sound,” which often used a call-and-response singing style that originated in gospel music, shaped the sound of a generation and helped achieve the racial integration of popular music. Motown had more than a hundred top ten hits by groups and singers such as The Miracles, with Smoky Robinson; The Marvelettes; Mary Wells; Gladys Knight & the Pips; Diana

Ross & the Supremes; The Jackson 5; The Four Tops; Stevie Wonder; and Marvin Gaye. The Hitsville, U.S.A. Motown building on West Grand Boulevard, which served as Motown’s headquarters from 1959 until 1968, became the Motown Historical Museum in 1985.42

The quintessential example of cool survivalism, however, is techno music, an early 1980s Detroit invention that embodies in musical form a way of existing in a landscape of decline. Techno was a product of its dystopian environment in the deindustrialized landscape following a period of recession and layoffs in the auto industry in the late 1970s. The first wave of techno producers and DJs, including Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson, were the sons of unionized black auto workers and observed how robotics and automation replaced humans on the line, producing in them an ambivalent relationship with technology^3 Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner (1981), which problematized the issue of telling the difference between robots and humans, was also important to the retrofuturistc nature of techno and a favorite film of its producers and DJs.

Techno was characterized by its robotic repetitiveness, 4/4 beat, lack of lyrics, and use of alarm bells, sirens, and sonar. Its production used retrofitted, antiquated, and accidental tools and equipment appropriate to a dystopian environment. Both in its production and its continuous sound, as critic Richard Pope asserts, techno projected an ethos of cool survivalism in a hopeless, dystopian environment, one not easily appropriated by mainstream culture because it was not properly a “subculture,” having no uniform, no lyrics, no focus on seeing and being seen. Indeed, the renowned techno parties in the Packard Plant in the early to mid-1990s, where second-wave techno DJs played their music to growing crowds, took place in near-total darkness, defying visual representation.44 Pope argues that techno survivalism goes further than punk in accepting the end of history: “Where punk rails against the end of history, techno blips, bleeps and grooves.’^5

Nonvocal techno-rock with a 4/4 beat has become the music of a contemporary phenomenon known as Detroit Jit, a largely African American male dance form conducted as successive duels and dance battles. Based on intense body movement, high energy, and rapid footwork yet highly individual, the dance form traces its roots through Motown and the Detroit dance group Jitterbugs that started in the 1970s and won national fame. Alistair Macaulay, New York Times dance critic, describes Jit as a form of “throbbing speed and vitality and prideT6

One of the most remarkable annual events produced in Detroit is Theatre Bizarre, described as “part carney side show, part burlesque theater, and part performance art” and “a bloody imaginative fantasy party” with some Grand Guignol and Weimar cabaret thrown inT It originated as a carnivalesque Halloween masquerade in a decaying residential neighborhood near the old

Theater Bizarre, with John Dunivant in front of Main Stage, West State Fair Road, Detroit, 2009. Photo

FIG. 32 Theater Bizarre, with John Dunivant in front of Main Stage, West State Fair Road, Detroit, 2009. Photo: Brett Carson/Courtesy John Dunivant.

Michigan State Fairgrounds in the northern part of Detroit. Begun by commercial illustrator and multimedia artist John Dunivant with Ken Poirer in 1999, Theatre Bizarre for one night turned a half-block area of houses, alleys, and vacant lots surrounded by burned-out houses into a replica of an abandoned amusement park and wicked wonderland for a couple thousand people. It was produced by dozens of volunteers who came from all over the country in the weeks leading up to the event to construct the stages and attractions, including a Ferris wheel and haunted house featuring more than 150 performers. In 2010 the City of Detroit shut down the project, citing various zoning and code violations, but Theatre Bizarre moved briefly to the Fillmore Theater before finding a permanent home at Detroit’s Masonic Temple—the largest Masonic Temple in the world—drawing over four thousand partygoers from around the globe in 2012 and 2013 to “the greatest masquerade on earth” (figure 32). With mandatory costumes and masks and featuring live musical performances, fire-eaters, burlesque performers, freaks, and side shows in a festival atmosphere of debauched anonymity, Theatre Bizarre richly embodies the funky decadence, communal hedonism, and hallucinatory fantasies that feed the vitality of Detroit. This, too, becomes a way of surviving in a depressed environment.

 
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