Motor City

My first introduction to Detroit would have been in the film The Crow, a film more noted for the death of Brandon Lee during filming than for its portrayal of Detroit. Sure the Devil’s Night events are from Detroit, but really, the city simply stood as a metaphor for the underworld. It could have been any comic book city, Gotham, Metropolis. The city itself didn’t serve as a third character in that sense. I admit I’ve never visited, and unlike NYC or Chicago, which I also haven’t seen, I don’t have any expectations for what a city so thoroughly identified with one industry would be like. I have a mental image of NYC and Chicago, bearings, if you will, gleaned from books and film. Those bearings help you navigate a place. The first time I visited London I felt like I knew what I was seeing because I had read so many things set there. Setting matters, when it’s done right. Detroit, however, I don’t have bearings for. What I’ve seen from most films I’ve ended up rejecting as mere caricature. It doesn’t ring true, much like many of the film impressions of Dallas I’ve seen don’t ring true. (Nope, the t.v. series Dallas isn’t anything like the city.)

Like most people, however, I’ve been watching Detroit’s plight with a keen eye. The auto industry and Detroit are inextricably linked, and it’s fate is in some ways Detroit’s fate. It’s a interlinking that doesn’t make sense to most in the south. We minimize industry, sweeping it outside of our cities. Never mind that most of Arkansas works for a factory of some sort, it’s not how the state is perceived because it’s identity isn’t linked to the making of consumer goods. Plus, Tyson’s packages chicken and not car parts; we treat the food industry differently than other industries. (There’s probably a larger argument in here about cities and identity.) Still, it’s surprising that Chrysler would choose to explicitly align itself with the city in its Super Bowl commercial. Or perhaps not. Chrysler’s rebuilding has been about Detroit rebuilding, about a specific brand of American manufacturing rebuilding, a kind of industry that does, can, and perhaps will again, support a thriving city.

It’s a brilliant blend of narrative, cityscape, aggressiveness, gospel, and Eminem. It’s both luxurious in its movement and in your face brash. I particularly like the closing line–imported from Detroit. It’s a beautiful play on the idea of luxury being not American, and Detroit being perhaps not American in the readymade identity so often used as political short hand. It’s an industrial city, not a rural space. It’s a ethnically and racially diverse city, not the white, American as apple pie culture so often invoked. And I imaging the city is tried of being told it’s plight isn’t an American plight. That because it doesn’t fit a certain cultural identity, it’s problems don’t matter. (Truth be told, Detroit’s fate is our fate. We still have to make things.) I also think it speaks to Detroit’s sense of isolation from the rest of the nation, a facet of the city that almost all the reporting I’ve read keys into. (There was some really good investigative reporting from the New York Times in early 2009 about Detroit, from people actually in Detroit. I’ll try to dig it up.)

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One thought on “Motor City

  1. This is so appropriate! I just watched that commercial today, and while it did nothing to make me want to buy the Chrysler 200, it did a fantastic job of selling the mythology of American industrial might. Made me feel downright nostalgic.

    Strangely, today I also found an article online about Detroit’s mayor rejecting a proposal to build a statue of Robocop (http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/41466006/ns/today-entertainment/?gt1=43001). Seems that city is on people’s brains lately….

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