Requiem for Detroit
d. Julien Temple / UK / 2010 / 75 mins
Viewed on: BBC Two (UK)
Just as Detroit led the economic boom in America, it is now leading the bust – sticking out like a sore thumb in a capitalist society hitchhiking its way to terminal decline. Using a wealth of archival footage from the city’s numerous heydays, (mostly) punk director Julien Temple provides us with a unique insight into this ‘slow-motion Katrina’.
And all in all, Requiem for Detroit is a pretty great documentary – interesting, illuminating, beautifully shot etc., but I couldn’t help thinking that something was lacking.
It’s a schizophrenic film in some ways, and as much as the history of Detroit is torn between the motor construction and music industries, it is Temple’s musical and stylistic obsessions that reign supreme, at times threatening to overwhelm this parable of people living on the very edge of post-industrial society.
Indeed, Temple’s desire to tell a very serious, dour story about the decline of western civilization (and what seems to be a bullwark for things to come), is partly impeded by his usual restless style and the desire to cram in as many visual, musical and thematic references as possible. And judging from his tendency to use archival footage in a kind of ‘free association’ manner it does seem like Temple, regardless of his own formidable track record, has taken more than a few leaves out of Adam Curtis‘ vastly underrated book of archival idiosyncrasy.
Temple’s punk aesthetic also shows through in his employment of an urban explorer guide, who takes him into many of the cavernous vacant factories and buildings in Detroit, providing a much clearer indication of the sheer decay of what was once an industrial (and therefore, financial) powerhouse, and showing us a side of Detroit that more conventional documentary filmmakers mightn’t even consider.
One of the most interesting binaries (in a film full of them) is the notion that whilst the inner city rots, it is surrounded by the clean, affluent and white suburban sprawl. The disparity between the plight of the city and the relative splendour of the suburbs is simply astounding, and it seems a shame that Temple couldn’t somehow have emphasised it more, further underlining the ever-widening social gaps in American society.
There is also something of an overreliance on talking heads from the cultural realms (beat poets, artists et al), although I would hasten to admit that it is, after all, those sorts of people who will lead a social renaissance in the wake of this increasingly inevitable capitalist decline.
And whilst it may be a fairly basic criticism, the whole film might have benefited from moving away from these cultural islands to focus its attention on one or two of the less eloquent personalities in Detroit, and by providing a much more specific central narrative thread (such as that disparity between the sheer dysfunctionality of inner-city Detroit and the privileged affluence of the non-city suburbs) rather than trying to cram so many disparate stories into one film.
Then again, it can’t be easy relating a story about the total rise and fall of an American city – and of the American dream – in one film, let alone a seventy-five minute television documentary.