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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Death and Life of a Great American City
by Donald Levit

The last of Exit Art’s once weekly “Remaking the American City,” Detroit Wild City/Detroit ville sauvage (in English) is for its final half-hour the most upbeat of the four concise current studies--eighty minutes here, with the longest only thirteen more -- as well as the most detached. While all play down narration, director-writer-cameraman-editor Florent Tillon chooses to have none whatsoever; what at first seem disembodied voices turn out to be nicely integrated opening lines from one participant or another who is soon onscreen. Furthermore, these are not the usual purported experts but, instead, residents who have not joined the exodus stampede, and, no subtitles anywhere, they remain unidentified apart from a couple names dropped in easy conversation.

There are three main figures, although some half-dozen others do get in sometimes-wry remarks. The first is an African-American in his apartment, deserted by those who left for Texas oilrig work and better climate or for California and better climate. The last are self-identified black blues pianist George Higgins and black Larry Mongo, who likes the upscale white youth who frequent his club and presage brighter (yuppie) days to come.

They, and others like them, have their moment but do not reappear, interspersed with sporadic highways crammed or empty, deserted center city streets whose signs form a recurring motif, decayed empty single-family dwellings, abandoned factory and warehouse spaces strewn with junk and window glass. Not overplayed but brief and random, archival footage is counterpoint illustration of the heyday of the first half of last century, Henry Ford’s assembly lines affording jobs for thousands while Westbrook Van Voorhis’ “The March of Time” God-tones blazoned the American work ethic, ingenuity, pluck and way of life.

Causes for the failure and fall are hinted but neither pinpointed nor really the focus, and the monotone score (broken only by a blues guitar and piano) is careful to avoid a facile Motown sound (“Yeah, don’t forget the Motor City”).

The first recurring speaker (Geoff George, unidentified) recalls sneaking with friends into the gutted razor-wired railroad station as an adolescent test of courage. Pointing out physical objects without moralizing, he leads the camera down cracked sidewalks, up cluttered staircases, into debris-cluttered courtyards and a vast room with “We Built the City” on a support column and littered with thousands of burnt copies of a single paperback whose page one describes the apocalyptic city.

More philosophical is a robust white male. Seated in a small comfortable space, he covers various old and new “myths,” capitalism, settlers as against pioneers, and dismisses the idea of separate little communities lumped together to form a true city.

He is referring to the back-to-the-earth organic mini-farms spring up amongst derelict buildings, using barter but not money and raising their own food and animals. In the background are the science-fiction-movie remains of the city here compared with, but claimed to be worse than, fire-bombed Dresden or 1945 Berlin, which is not to say that Bombsvilles are found only in the city of this film.

Another is a loner handyman who dropped out of corporate life, happy to have been made redundant by downsizing, now his own boss, fixing people’s gadgets, machines, plumbing and wiring. Group- and recovery-minded is the founder and twenty-one-year veteran of Motor City Blight Busters, Inc., who between coughing from rubble dust instructs bright-eyed teens in pulling down houses to salvage material for re-use.

Unlike the worthy cinema considerations preceding it in the series -- The Battle for Brooklyn, Foreign Parts and The Pruitt-Igoe Myth -- this one points no fingers in its chilling but fascinating images of a moribund metropolis. The only “mistake” is mentioned by a guide in front of Henry Ford II’s seventy-three-storey Renaissance Center, a hermetic complex divorced from its surroundings.

A crowd not all that big watches downtown fireworks but quickly dissipates and leaves its litter. Deer, squirrels, rabbits, robins, stray (sometimes dangerous) dogs repopulate, while falcons use high-rises as flight cliffs. With globalization and manufacturing moving to different places or different forms, can once-robust industrial centers be reclaimed, or will they be future archaeologists’ Babylon, Mycenae or Angkor?

(From Ego Productions; not rated by MPAA.)

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