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The Plague Years | The Nation

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The Plague Years

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Welcome to Detropia. For the next ninety minutes, your principal guides to the reversion of America’s greatest industrial city to prairie grass and ruins will be George McGregor, the beleaguered but ever genial president of UAW Local 22; Crystal Starr, a young self-made urban archaeologist and smartphone blogger; Tommy Stephens, a retired schoolteacher who is now the proprietor of the Raven Lounge; and by proxy, through a performance recorded at Michigan Opera Theatre, Giuseppe Verdi.

About the Author

Stuart Klawans
The Nation's film critic Stuart Klawans is author of the books Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (a finalist for...

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The documentary team of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady ( Jesus Camp, 12th & Delaware) has recruited these commentators to reflect on both the sensuous texture and the human costs of the hollowing out of Detroit. You may have read the statistics: the disappearance, despite a recent uptick, of about 50 percent of Detroit’s manufacturing jobs over the past decade, accompanied by a 25 percent loss in population and a catastrophic increase in the number of abandoned homes and vacant lots. (There are approximately 100,000 of the latter, equivalent in area to 20 to 30 percent of the city’s land.) You may also have seen the photo collections about buildings that once were monumental, beautiful and impressive and are now empty and derelict. (Some people who love Detroit—and who are suspicious of the enthusiasm for such images—refer to these pictures as “decay porn.”) Ewing and Grady give you the numbers in Detropia. They give you the ruins, too—richly photographed by Tony Hardmon and Craig Atkinson and astonishingly well edited by Enat Sidi—but their main interest, despite a pronounced sensualism, is far from prurient.

They are more concerned with the minimum-wage worker who can no longer get to her job because her bus line has been discontinued; the young woman who struggles almost romantically to imagine what her city had been like when it was bangin’; the three guys sitting on a front porch, laughing incredulously over the mayor’s proposal that they relocate to a more populated area of Detroit and take up urban farming. And the filmmakers, being artists, are interested in artists as well: the young white ones who are starting to move into downtown Detroit (where bohemianism remains affordable and picturesque), and the ones at Michigan Opera Theatre, who might be called established if they didn’t have to struggle so hard to maintain Detroit as a city where you can still catch a professional Rigoletto.

Above all, Ewing and Grady are interested in Tommy Stephens, a figure with the sad and courtly air of the world’s last reasonable man. At perhaps his most characteristic moment, Stephens visits the Auto Show with his wife and tries to summon his optimism, yet winds up quietly appalled when he learns that GM’s car of the future, the Volt, has been undersold by China before it even reaches the showrooms.

“This is coming to you,” Stephens muses toward the end of the film, sitting alone at the bar of the Raven Lounge and speaking to America at large about deindustrialization and its sorrows. “That’s just my opinion,”he adds, reasonably. But he’s unquestionably right in one way at least: Detropia, with its terrible sense of loss and dreamlike beauty, is coming to theaters around the country for short engagements throughout autumn 2012. Check your calendar.

* * *

If you missed David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis in the theaters this summer but think you might enjoy watching a big-time money manager fall to pieces before your eyes, I can recommend writer-director Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage as a respectable if distant second choice.

Cronenberg’s movie, based on a novel by Don DeLillo, has the advantage of a gleefully insolent premise: a 28-year-old billionaire in his white stretch limo traverses Manhattan at a snail’s pace, contemplating the meaninglessness of his self-willed downfall while on the way to get a haircut. Jarecki’s story, on the other hand, is a complex but largely mundane procedural that follows a 60-year-old Manhattan billionaire as he tries to bluff his way through interconnected cover-ups involving financial fraud, negligent homicide and familial betrayal, while being dogged by auditors, cops and an increasingly outraged adult daughter.

Richard Gere plays Jarecki’s immaculately groomed bad guy, calling on the reserves of physical poise and cocksure resilience that have carried the actor through past adventures in desperation. The voice is still youthful, but the eyes (at least for this role) have crinkled into wary slits, and the once-lithe body now has trouble absorbing the punishment it takes from collisions with heavy objects and a young lover’s displeasure. It’s an ample performance (Gere is almost never off the screen) and a convincing one, too, calling up the smoothness that’s the preferred mode of this operator, the loud self-righteousness that he resorts to whenever smoothness fails, and an undercurrent of unseemly neediness that surfaces around the hot French girlfriend.

But I can’t call this a compelling performance: not when the requirements of the role are so obviously those of gaslight melodrama (Arbitrage all but begs a leftish audience to hiss), and not when Gere has no real characters to play against. Doing the best they can with very little to go on, Tim Roth plays the slouching detective, Susan Sarandon the ticking time bomb of a wife and Nate Parker the noble young black man caught in a jam: the usual lineup. The one performer other than Gere who makes an impression, however inadvertently, is the non-actor Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair. Enlisted to play a banker, he sticks out like a strip of wallpaper collaged into a painting.

As someone who is susceptible to melodrama, I enjoyed much of Arbitrage; it’s always a pleasure to see one of those guys sweat it out. I just happen to get a lot more pleasure from Cronenberg than from Jarecki. One turns every camera placement into a surgical incision; the other plunks his main subject into the middle of the frame as if it were a well-furnished waiting room where the doctor will never call.

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