Last year, after we had seen Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino (2008), my brother and I debated where it was set, until we came to the conclusion that it had to be Detroit. Why? Because it's the motor capital of the world. No, because it was. There was a time when General Motors was the biggest car company (if not even the biggest industrial company) in the world, and the Big Three (GM, Ford and Chrysler) ruled the auto-industry, around 80% of all the cars in the world were made in the Detroit area at one point, and the car workers union UAW wielded considerable influence. In the 195os Detroit was one of the riches cities in the US and it was a huge town, its area bigger than Boston, San Francisco and Manhattan combined. It was the Motor City (and home of the Motown record label, now own by Universal and with offices in New York). It could perhaps have been called Modernity City as well.
In Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954), the nurse Stella, played by Thelma Ritter, tells of a client, a boss at GM, she had had. He said he had problems with his kidneys, but she had a different diagnose. "Nerves I'd say" and then she adds "When General Motors has to go to the bathroom ten times a day, this whole country is going under." (or something like it). For the last decade, or even longer, GM has probably had plenty of days when they went to the bathroom even more often than that. This is not the place to elaborate on what went wrong, other than to say that there were a number of factors that has led to where it is now, recently on the verge of bankruptcy.
This process was already well under way when Michael Moore made his documentary Roger and Me (1989), which tells about how GM is letting staff go, and in effect killing the city of Flint, close by Detroit, despite the fact that they're making a lot of money. That at least is Moore's spin. But GM had also been in deep problem ever since the oil crises in the 1970s, so Moore's populist take doesn't really give full justice to the situation. But flawed as it is, it's still an entertaining film.
As is Gran Torino, which, in many ways, is deeply symbolic of how things have changed. The old white man, haunted by memories of the crimes he committed during the Korean War, is killed, and his car, the symbol of America and American traditions, is bequeathed to a young Asian immigrant. The future is now in his hands. The question is only what kind of life Detroit has to offer.
The fact that all of the Big Three, GM in particular, have been on life support for a couple of years has had an immense effects on the city of Detroit. It's getting poorer and poorer, and smaller and smaller, from a population of 1.9 millions in 1950 to half of that today, and some parts are turning into ghost towns. Naturally crime has been increasing for a long time. There's something very symbolic over the whole thing, the end of an era, the end of modernity? Is Detroit the flash point were modernity visibly changed in to postmodernity?
The destruction is something that you can see on YouTube. There are a number of films showing the decay of many areas in and around Detroit, especially the old Michigan Central Station, now an empty shell. Films such as this one:
There's also Julien Temple's nice, but over-edited, documentary Requiem for Detroit? (2010), which is also available on YouTube. To think Detroit was once even called "Paris of the West". (But, at least, now they have the creperie Good Girls Go to Paris.)
But perhaps Detroit is beginning to pull itself together. This recent article in The Economist sums things up. And this article in The New York Times talks about new entrepeneurs. Hopefully it won't end up is in RoboCop (1987)
Detroit was also the city of union leader Jimmy Hoffa, so Hoffa (1992) might be worth watching for those interested, and why not Paul Schrader's first film as a writer/director, Blue Collar (1978), also about the unions and the auto industry.