Poking around in the wreckage of a ruined city, Detropia seems to be looking for answers, but the ones it finds are too close to the surface to be satisfying, mostly focused through the prism of the city’s beaten but unbowed populace. Where a film like The Pruitt-Igoe Myth successfully parses history through a precise, meticulous rendering of facts, images, and testimonial accounts, this one subsists on vague feelings of nostalgia and loss, calculating the emotional and physical toll of Detroit’s economic collapse, but never digging beneath the standard talking points.
The city certainly provides ample fodder for this kind of aestheticized surface treatment of its issues. Studded with faded gems like the imposing Michigan Central Station, Detroit’s decayed infrastructure proves almost too easy of an analogue for post-empire America. All these images of mid-century grandeur given over to seed provide their own perverse lure, and flow visually to the grand towers of the auto companies, which are struggling but still intact, buoyed by huge government bailouts. Meanwhile, remaining residents cling to a shrinking job base, viewing titans like GM as modern-day Fisher Kings, broken rulers whose renewal will restore prosperity to the land.
Unfortunately, the car manufacturers seem concerned with little beyond their bottom lines, outsourcing as many jobs as possible without completely abandoning their home base, and conditions only seem to be getting worse. The city is bankrupt, and plans for renewal sound far-fetched; incredulous locals mock the mayor’s grand scheme to forcibly move remaining citizens to the city and reconstitute empty land for “urban farming.” The best scene here follows a local bar owner, his business diminished by the decreased flow of workers from the auto plant, as he wanders the floor at an auto trade show, looking for hope, instead finding troubling omens about the industry’s future.
Yet for all the current significance of Detroit as an economic and cultural symbol, directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady never push beyond the obvious, simply connecting these images of decay to the pathos of the city’s forsaken populace to tell its story. Hope is represented aurally by snatches of opera music and visually by a recent influx of artists, lured by low rents and the antiquely crumbling environs. But what else do these creative types see here besides huge canvases for boring street art involving rehashed Occupy imagery, and what does all this say about the future of America, a country that has gone from industriously producing things to desperately selling junk metal to China, hopelessly dependent on foreign service economies? Detropia doesn’t dare take on these scary questions, intent to sulk over the spectacle of the vanished past, ally itself emotionally with the common people, and look toward the future through clasped fingers.