Making documentaries in 2012-13, after the template for what a documentary looks like and how it unfolds has been beaten into the ground for decades, has got to be something of a challenge. The documentarian just can't brainlessly do the talking head/narration/talking head thing without coming off as derivative. Since the 1990s so many documentaries have been made, and since the dawn of digital technology so many thousands more, that I wonder just how hard people are scraping for topics to cover these days. The subject matter of so many documentaries is as esoteric and long-tail as it comes, but in the hands of an auteur, even offbeat and long-tail stories can be extremely captivating ("Capturing the Friedmans"; "Dig!"; "Ballplayer (Pelotero)"; "My Perestroika" and so many others). Unfortunately, "DETROPIA" is not one of those films.
Capping off a big month of Detroit exploration for me, my viewing of this film was meant to be the visual complement to Monday's book review. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady directed the film, and while they've made a very eye-grabbing film about the city of Detroit as it exists in all its splendor and failure today, they haven't made a good film. In their zeal to not conform to documentary form, they instead go for what I'm sure they were hoping would be called "meditative" (sure enough, I just Googled it and it was). I call it a less-than-complete 90 minutes of images from Detroit, assembled in a suggestive manner to make you think you've just seen something profound. They dispatch with narration – no problems there – yet sink into that hoary cliché of overlaying "shocking" statistics and commentary on top of bleak or blurry imagery and sad, manipulative music. You're supposed to gasp, and gather a tear in the corner of your eye, when you learn the stunning truth that many manufacturing jobs have moved from Detroit to other places.
There's also a disjointed, unexplained and rather pointless set of imagery centered around the Detroit Opera House, culminating in an absurd trip through the ruins of the once-magisterial train station in which one of the baritones sings his ascending scales off the echoing walls. The two centers of the film are middle-aged African-American men who've been in Detroit their entire lives; one is a bar owner who had to start cooking all the bar/restaurant's food himself when the recession hit; another is a union head who's one of the most jovial, convivial human beings I've ever seen. His sermon on "the middle class" was so awesome I had to rewind and watch it two more times. More of that guy, less of the "haunting, meditative" cliché garbage!
We get none of Detroit's crime problem nor its dysfunctional government, save for some contentious meetings with Mayor Dave Bing's office and the people at large. We do see white hipster artists buying beautiful houses for $25,000 and Swiss tourists out to tour the ruins. So in many ways, it IS an excellent visual complement for "Detroit City is the Place To Be", but at the end of the day, it's really just not a very good film.