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Detropia (DVD Review)

18 Feb, 2013 By: Mike Clark

Box Office $0.38 million
$29.95 DVD
Not rated.

I briefly worked in Detroit at the end of the 1970s and left it full of no little affection, though one could feel the city’s down-sliding even then and sense that it was time to make an exit while the getting was good. It’s easy to imagine a documentary filmmaker fashioning a conventional lament filled full of talking-heads economists and sociologists discussing the city’s tragedy — and, to be sure, we'd learn about Motown nuts and bolts that led to what one visiting foreign tourist here refers to its "decay." But the team of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have elected to make what at least one reviewer called a "tone poem" on the subject, and we do come out of it with a limited sense (vintage auto-industry promotional films help) of what was then and what was now — though this is a subject that really does merit marathon Ken Burns treatment.

The Detroit we see here is understandably short on the likes of that posh, downtown, highest-tech office building we’re bizarrely treated to Summit Entertainment’s recent home release of Alex Cross, a multiplex expendable from last year that cast Tyler Perry as a somewhat different version of the homicide detective Morgan Freeman played in Along Came a Spider and Kiss the Girls. Whereas Alex is serial-killer trash that doesn't even cut it as a portrait of Detroit on some kidding-themselves fantasy level, Detropia does indeed convey decay — though in an unpredictably haunting manner by sometimes managing to (emphasizing sometimes) turn the visuals into a thing of beauty. Emotionally dominated by older-folk interviewees who still remember when Detroit was an industry-driven city where someone without a formal education could land comfortably in the middle class — but also prominently featuring a female blogger barely into her third decade who couldn't possibly have witnessed those glory days — this is a saga without many answers.

We see former Detroit Pistons star Dave Bing — now the city's mayor and likely longing for the comparably good old days when he was taking opponent fouls in the NBA — suggest having outlying residents move a little closer to downtown or planting "urban gardens." It all comes off as a band-aid jumpstart given the city’s evaporated tax base — but before casting the first stone, do you have any better ideas? One of the creepiest aspects here is the surprising condition of certain abandoned houses and apartments. Many are, of course, gutted, yet others are in remarkably sturdy shape — nothing like that dumpy building with tape over the windows in which  Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo exercised squatting rights in Midnight Cowboy. Late in the documentary, there’s hint that younger folks with at least more funds that that duo are doing just that — not squatting, but gambling by buying at fire-sale prices, trying to get a residential big bang for relatively few bucks. I couldn’t tell if this is happening to any degree or just a way for the filmmakers to fashion a hopeful ending. But this is going to be an interesting story to follow.

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