Movies We Like
Recently I had to re-watch Michael Moore's muckraking sort-of masterpiece Roger & Me (1989) a film that would mark the start of Moore's ascendency to deified portly prince of the Left. Roger & Me was effective as a scathing satire of Reaganomics but also full of fabrications and inaccuracies, which were entirely unnecessary. He had a great story but, much like his lardy lad appetite for tasty sweets, he could not help himself and had to greedily embellish details to make his story that much more shocking. It was a dumb thing to do because it distracted from the important stuff his film addresses.
Still, no one doubts that Moore shined a light on important issues for an audience that could never be reached by The Nation or Mother Jones. He is probably right that professional jealousy accounts for at least some of the sour grapes that his adversaries on the left have been sucking on for some time. But I submit to you that they have a point. (Check out Manufacturing Dissent – a leftist critique of Moore – available illegally, I think, on YouTube.) For all his success it is true that he has dumbed down the discourse surrounding issues of systemic inequality embedded in a classist, white privilege-based society such as ours. He makes his films all about him and like a Leftist Charles Foster Kane he sounds paranoid and overly reactionary about anyone who dares criticize him or his methods.
So as important as Roger & Me is in the history of documentary film, social satire, and muckraking, I was much more impressed with the other film I had to watch for class this week, which is a documentary called Detropia (2012). Detropia is Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s hauntingly atmospheric film essay on the ghosts of Detroit’s past lingering through the wreckage of its present. Though it deals less with the raw data of Detroit’s downfall than does a film like Roger & Me in its depiction of Flint I found Detropia both strangely beautiful and yet utterly political. It’s a cinematic tone poem about the tarnished soul of a great American city. Which is not to say that the politics of the film are overshadowed by the aesthetics but rather that both work in tandem to create something profound and elegiac like a hymn that also serves as a warning. It is encouraging that the filmmakers rejected an approach similar to Moore’s the way so many documentary filmmakers now do. There is nothing hackier at this point than a documentary made by a “relatable” regular dude full of faux-sincerity about some obvious political point they’re trying to make. It all stems from Moore.
Detropia follows several residents of contemporary Detroit including a Black video blogger and cafe manager who excavates the ruins of her once proud metropolis, sifting through the leftover detritus of buildings left to rot. Some of her footage of crumbling theaters looks straight out of a Guy Maddin film. One day while at her coffee shop she meets some tourists from Switzerland who, wanting to experience something other than the antiseptic orderliness of their home country environment, have come to see the "decay" of Detroit. She reacts to them as if she is used to the tourists coming to gawk at the way the people of Detroit live. It’s an awkward, kind of offensive moment but the filmmakers don’t intrude, they let the people of Detroit narrate their own story and we make our own observations about the way issues of race and class have everything to do with what we’re watching.
Others profiled include a blues club owner who has been around long enough to remember the factories that once raised so many people up with decent wages and good benefits. There are also a couple of bohemian types looking for cheap rent and lots of space to make their art. They find a low-risk opportunity in Detroit where rent is so cheap “it doesn’t matter if we fail” as one of them puts it.
I liked Detropia for all the ways it was different from Roger & Me and that school of filmmaking. Political filmmaking doesn’t have to be done only in a polemical, solipsistic fashion with ironic music cues and 1950’s stock footage. I liked the way the filmmakers chose a representation of Detroit’s citizens to tell their stories in their own words without interfering. One could argue the artist couple is helping Detroit recover by moving there to carve out a space for themselves among the ruins. But one could just as easily argue that their privileged ideas about colonizing deserted urban spaces is not what Detroit needs if it’s going to ever come back from oblivion. Considering the city filed for bankruptcy last week that time is probably a long way off. Detropia deftly chronicles the people left behind by Capitalism’s grim march “forward.”