Partway through Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s observational documentary Detropia, the film transitions from tense union meetings and lyrical images of abandoned buildings to an artist couple who have migrated to the declining city in search of low rent and inspiration. As other major metropolitan centers skyrocket in their cost of living while wages remain stagnant, it’s easy to understand why Detroit could be an appealing site of work for these artists. Yet at the same time, as Detropia’s surrounding stories of struggle makes evident, this couple’s artistic opportunities are only made possible in the wake of a harsh history of economic stagnation and urban sprawl amidst a gradual evaporation of domestic manufacturing. As socially aware as their art may be (the couple’s photographs made up Detropia’s poster), the artistic utopia these artists project upon the city – the possibility that Detroit could be to the 21st century what downtown NYC was in the late-70s and early-80s – emerges from a palpably naïve sense of opportunism, a privileged sense that one person’s metropolitan dystopia is another’s artistic playground.
Detroit has grown into something of a shorthand for the price paid of an increasingly globalized postindustrial economy, due not only in part to the enormous difficulties the city and its residents have suffered from these past few decades, but because Detroit itself has been a regular subject for capturing what American economic decay looks like.
According to Dora Apel, a professor of art history and visual culture, in capturing urban decay,
“no city is pictured in books, exhibitions, web sites, films, and popular media more than Detroit. Although deindustrial landscapes are scattered across the world, most notably in the former leading manufacturing centers, Detroit has become the preeminent example of urban decay, the global metaphor for capitalist decline, and the epicenter of a photographic genre: deindustrial ruin imagery.”
Such “deindustrial ruin imagery” is prevalent far beyond documentaries like Detropia or the photographs at the center of Apel’s study. Several recent works of American independent filmmaking have set their focus on the city as a site for affordable location shooting that also happens to hold heavy artistic and thematic potential. But the end result can create ambivalence: does location shooting in Detroit allow these films to become documents, time capsules, and commentaries on the city’s continuing problems, or does it serve an outsized benefit for the filmmakers themselves as resource-deprived artists in search of a vast, photogenic backdrop?
In last year’s Only Lovers Left Alive, Detroit is the home of Adam (Tom Hiddleston) a vampire masquerading as a reclusive musician. Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch (who, decades ago, started his career amongst No Wave factions who used a crumbling Manhattan as their film set) highlights certain haunting potentials of the city by the narrative necessity of this genre retooling’s nighttime setting, giving Adam’s relationship to the place in which he resides a sense of alienated removal not unlike his relationship to humanity writ large. Adam is centuries-old, and thus imbues his routine travels through Detroit with a grand-scope historical perspective – he sees a hollowed-out, seemingly abandoned Detroit as part of the great narrative of empires risen and fallen.
In a potent sign of what it means to make films today, Only Lovers Left Alive was produced entirely without US money, its filmmaker having long abandoned the means of financing that formerly supported a flourishing American independent filmmaking scene. Only Lovers Left Alive’s very financing is not at all separate from the setting its first half depicts: products of a globalized economy have variously affected both the manufacturing and creative sectors.
Yet other, younger filmmakers have managed to produce smaller-scale independent works shot in Detroit.
Another horror-themed film with Detroit as its setting, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows takes place initially within the suburban neighborhoods around the city (indistinguishable from suburbia elsewhere for non-Michiganders like myself) before entering the city proper in its third act, with its climax staged at an abandoned indoor swimming pool.
It Follows has a deliberately enigmatic relationship to time. Its characters and settings exist in a world that resonates as both contemporary and vaguely retro. A kindle-like device introduced early in the film occupies the same cinematic world as VHS tapes and antennae’d television sets. It Follows is also frank about its debt to ’80s horror, attended by a rogues’ gallery of possible metaphors that follows its sex-themed plotline. As such, It Follows is doing so much with the horror genre that there seems little room (or interest) in using the city of Detroit for thematic purposes beyond contributing to the maliciously spacious milieu of the film’s many deep focus shots and the characters’ briefly articulated nostalgia for a formerly-frequented, now-abandoned public swimming pool.
Joel Portykus’s unsettling Buzzard is more direct in its intended uses of Detroit. Marty (Joshua Burge) is a small-scale flim-flammer who lives his life from one inartful scam to another, with little consideration for the short-term future (consequences or otherwise) in mind. After getting caught forging checks, Marty and his Frankensteinian Nintendo Powerglove (upon which he’s forged Freddie Krueger-esque knives) hop a bus to Detroit where his paranoid enterprise continues.
While Marty’s scamming is the film’s source of bleak humor, Buzzard empathizes with his increasingly desperate but ever-latent economic panic. This is a character who simply has no other options. As Scott Tobias insightfully observed in his review, “Potrykus never gets didactic about the class commentary in Buzzard…But nothing that happens in the film would be necessary if Marty had two dimes to rub together.” At one point, Marty patronizes a sparsely attended Detroit movie theater, peering at the screen through the fingers of his monstrous Powerglove like Travis Bickle at a porn house in Taxi Driver. As the setting of Bickle’s insanity was the relentless and unforgiving decrepitude of ’70s New York, Potrykus’s intended use of Detroit as the setting of this character study becomes abundantly clear.
Where Buzzard’s site-specific economic commentary was delivered with coldly comic nuance, Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, Lost River, turns economic deprivation into a wild dystopic fantasia indebted to the hallucinatory regional nightmares of Harmony Korine and David Lynch. Against the backdrop of a single mother’s (Christina Hendricks) attempts to keep her house afloat, Gosling’s Detroit is a space replete with elaborate dangers, from neon burlesques to rat-killing bullies, all made available within sharp but dreamlike photography.
Gosling’s film struggles to manifest a consistent or unique perspective upon the backdrop it so heavily relies on to exhibit his directorial eye. No matter Gosling’s laudable determinations against convention, there is a pervasive sense throughout Lost River that Detroit provides an opportune setting for him to define himself as a filmmaker, rather than possessing a vision that contributes insight to the dystopia he so evocatively seeks to depict. Still, Lost River is consistent with a tradition of using the ruins of a city to stage haunting personal crises, stretching back to the Philadelphia of Lynch’s Eraserhead.
For politicians, location shooting has recently proven an attractive means of purportedly developing jobs and enriching a state’s economy, as Michigan has attempted. While promoted by states and cities as an economic opportunity, location shooting provides an aesthetic one as well. Location shooting “frames” the city, giving it a look and character and feel, and thus constitutes a sort of exchange between filmmakers and the city itself. More evidently than any direct economic benefit, location shooting circulates images and ideas of a place. And with the rising profile of Detroit in cinema, an important question continues to be what filmmakers actually do with the city as their stage, and for whom their projects serve to benefit most. Is Detroit simply an affordable opportunity for filmmakers and artists, or is it a space that allows us to confront the ills of a postindustrial economy that have left an iconic American city in struggle?