Director Julien Temple isn’t unfamiliar with volatile situations. This is a man who made no less than three documentaries about the Sex Pistols. You’d think he’s the kind of person who’d have at least a nodding acquaintance with Detroit as America’s most emblematic representation of urban decay.
But, in a shockingly naive essay in the Guardian, Temple says that until he arrived in Detroit at another filmmaker’s invitation to make a documentary on the city (the forthcoming “Requiem For Detroit?”), he had no idea! “I knew it as the Motor City, one of the great epicentres of 20th-century music, and home of the American automobile,” he says. So he found Detroit a little surprising.
My producer, George Hencken, and I drove around recce-ing our film, getting out of the car and photographing extraordinary places to film with mad-dog enthusiasm – everywhere demands to be filmed – but were greeted with appalled concern by Bradley, our friendly manager, on our return to the hotel. “Never get out of the car in that area – people have been car-jacked and shot.”
It’s not like there’s a lack of representations of Detroit on screen as, essentially, a post-apocalyptic city. There are more depictions of Detroit as a mess than Detroit in its America’s-leading-light phase. 1973, for example, brought us “Detroit 9000,” which invited us to (per the tagline) “Visit the murder capital of the world — where the honkies are the minority!”
In recent years, Detroit has made a number of return visits associated with hopelessness. There was Eminem’s not-so-affectionate “8 Mile” (which, seeing as Temple is the UK’s leading musical documentarian, you’d really think he would have seen), but also the “Assault on Precinct 13” remake (which, tellingly, updated the location from the original’s South Central LA setting) and, of course, “Gran Torino” — a movie which, in its conflation of racial tensions about assimilation and despair over economic entropy seems more and more prescient about the atmosphere leading up to the Obama inauguration by the year.
Detroit isn’t necessarily the most violent city in America. Last year, the violent crime capital of the US was the little-loved Camden, NJ, which boasted 2,333 violent crimes for every 100,000 people. Until recently, Tampa, FL was also a dangerous place to be. But neither of those cities have the on-screen allure of Detroit, because they don’t have the implicit rise-and-fall narrative. Detroit is where American film goes to scourge itself; Camden’s just another tough town.
[Photos: “Gran Torino,” Warner Bros., 2008; “8 Mile,” Universal, 2002]