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Now and Then: In Must-See 'Detropia,' the Many Lives of an American City

Photo of Matt Brennan By Matt Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood! January 14, 2013 at 12:55PM

It is a story we think we know already. Unions weaken. Corporations outsource. Politicians waver. The economy collapses. Public resources shrivel. A city dies. But that's only the bird's-eye view: in Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's powerful document of an age of grief, "Detropia" is the way we live now.

Against Crystal's spare, full-frontal declamation, the marketing of "pure luxury" through interpretive dance, in the unveiling of a new car at the North American International Auto Show, seems ridiculous and shallow and more than a little cruel. American Axle offers its workers steep wage cuts or else unemployment; the U.S. government's auto bailout requires unions to accept a 50% decrease in salary for new hires; the "downsizing" city promises first to limit bus routes and relocate residents. If Grady and Ewing hold out hope for opportunity in the crisis, they never relinquish their skepticism of corporate and bureaucratic policy, of the bed made by decades of neglect. Detroit, they tacitly assure us, will not come back only on the back of auto company profits, and neither will the country.  

Maybe that's why I viewed "Detropia" (in spite of its dedication to the Detroiters who continue to rebuild the city even as I write) as a still-sad tale, in which tragedy hasn't become triumph quite yet. So, too, with this remarkable documentary's most indelible image, a wavering, crumbling façade — a single, many-storied wall — bending and twisting in the night wind. It's shaken out, burned, and full of holes, the flag of a forgotten country.

"Detropia" is available January 14 on iTunes, Amazon Video, YouTube, and other VOD platforms, and January 15 on DVD.

This article is related to: Now and Then, Awards, Genres, Documentaries, Reviews

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.