Detroit’s looking more than a little Blade Runner–ish in Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s spellbinding documentary about the Motor City’s ongoing economic woes. The directors follow a diversified selection of subjects—a homegrown video blogger dedicated to exploring decaying urban edifices, a performance-artist couple that settled in town for the low rents, beleaguered mayor Dave Bing—and almost never in the expected ways. Even mundane talking-head scenes have an unearthly charge, because of the ways in which Ewing and Grady use televisions and computer screens to suggest a larger, blighted world beyond the person who’s speaking.
Imagine if Frederick Wiseman and David Lynch had a bastard child, and you’ll get a sense of the movie’s off-kilter aesthetic, a potent and pointed mix of firsthand observation and surreal flights of fancy. Detropia moves with dreamlike fluidity between union halls and nightclubs, from abandoned factories to the Detroit opera house—where we’re treated to a hilarious performance of “I’ve Got a Little List” from The Mikado, its lyrics altered to implicate the Big Three auto makers in the current downturn. Ewing and Grady find vibrant signs of life everywhere they look (Raven Lounge owner Tommy Stevens, always ready with a candid opinion, is the doc’s impassioned heart and soul), which doesn’t alter the sense that we’re watching a requiem. Though people somehow persist, the film seems to say that America is well past halftime.
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