‘Paris of the Midwest’

05.15.14

Can Hollywood Rejuvenate Detroit and America’s Bankrupt Cities?

The city of Detroit is trying to reboot its film industry by offering large incentives. But despite movies like ‘Batman vs. Superman,’ is the once grand metropolis beyond saving?

Countrysides, cityscapes, and failing economies. When it comes to shooting locations, the bankrupt cities of America have a lot to offer filmmakers. But so many of these cities will only ever appear on screen as cheaper stand-ins for the director’s true love. Not so for Detroit, it seems.

The Motor City’s two most famous film roles, arguably, are in the RoboCop movies and 8 Mile. Eminem’s acting debut played off the dirty, gritty nature of Detroit, while the city was a crime-riddled metropolis in the dystopian flick. For the largest city in Michigan, decline was nothing new. Detroit native and novelist Elmore Leonard introduced a 1985 book of Balthazar Korab’s photos by saying, “It’s never been the kind of city people visit and fall in love with because of its charm or think, gee, wouldn’t this be a nice place to live.”

After years of searching for money, Only Lovers Left Alive, a study of human ineptitude through the lens of a world-weary and nihilist Nosferatu, was released this year with help from the Michigan Film Office’s new incentives program. Writer and director Jim Jarmusch, who once described Detroit as the “Paris of the Midwest,” always wanted to create a love letter to the city, even before it went bankrupt.  In his latest movie Detroit was to become an active figure the way Victor Hugo made Notre Dame, Woody Allen made New York, or David Simon made Baltimore in The Wire.

The city of Detroit is now trying to rejuvenate its film industry by offering large incentives: reimbursements of between 15 and 32 percent are offered on production and personnel costs. Only Lovers Left Alive was reimbursed $365,904 of its $1,304,605 budget. In exchange the film generated 82 Michigan hires with an equivalent of six full-time jobs. In the wake of this, many other movies are conjuring worlds out of the once grand metropolis—including the ever-nebulous Batman vs. Superman. The DC blockbuster will create 712 hires for an equivalent of 212 full-time jobs. Lord knows how much they’ll make back on reimbursements. But there’s one big difference: Batman vs. Superman is probably not using Detroit as anything more than a proxy for Metropolis or Gotham.

Meanwhile, Only Lovers Left Alive uses the city as a character as undead and ghostly as its human leads. Adam (Tom Hiddleston), the vampire composer, seeks solitude and people willing to trade him his blood fix. (Detroit, apparently, offers both.) When his wife, Eve (Tilda Swinton) visits from Tangiers, he gives her a tour of the city. She proclaims Detroit his “wilderness,” and she’s right: here there are few people, everything occurs during the vampire-friendly night, and bad behavior can easily go unpunished.

The body is easily disposed of in a river of acid in a parking lot. Why? Because it’s Detroit, that’s why.

When Eva (Mia Wasikowska) visits and kills Adam’s assistant (Anton Yelchin), the body is easily disposed of in a river of acid in a parking lot. Why? Because it’s Detroit, that’s why. The same city that minutes ago was portrayed as the phoenix ready to rise from the ashes, home of Jack White and Iggy and the Stooges. Eve’s surprise at the availability of acid in a public space is countered by Adam’s flippancy. To him, this is just another of the many haunts he has assimilated into his personal version of Detroit. It is these moments of consequenceless nefariousness that build a second image of the city. To Adam and Eve the buildings are symbols of human failure to maintain, yet their quick collapse is but a blink in their extended lifespans. They will return, Eve says, and in the meanwhile they have an ethereal beauty. 

What does all this mean for a city like Detroit? When the film was shot in 2012, Detroit was in decline but had not actually filed for bankruptcy. Only Lovers Left Alive had been in development since 2010, when Detroit had already lost 60 percent of its population, so the city was far from in good shape. Yet it’s interesting to consider how big a role Detroit might have played had it not been partially financed by the incentives program or, indeed, if it had been made a few years earlier. Perhaps, say, before the big car manufacturers abandoned the city?  Only Lovers Left Alive brings Detroit back into the national discourse, but when it does so as a city of crime it runs a risk of exoticizing it, placing it in a vacuum of unchangeable gloom.

Jarmusch isn’t the only artist to explore a city they love through dark and clandestine imagery. The Wire, considered by some to be one of the best shows ever made, brings in a whole microcosm of characters to capture the city it is so closely connected to. While, Only Lovers Left Alive is deliberately insular, purposefully absent in supporting actors or representative ensembles, David Simon’s masterpiece is a convenient, though not perfect, comparison of the media’s impact on geographical reputation: it portrays a city Simon knows well, warts and all. This is not always best for luring visitors to the real city.

The Wire has already spawned a trade in tourism from fans. The Independent’s Andy Lynes did an unofficial tour of the show’s sites in 2008 and an unofficial driving tour (not unlike Adam and Eve’s of Detroit) has been posted to WikiTours, which Lewis Lehes recounted online. There is an interesting conflict in those who write about touring the Baltimore of The Wire: How do you not feel like privileged suburbanites making a safari of urban cityscapes and real human problems? Lehes mentions memories of searching for his retainer in bin bags when he watches a family trawling through the rubbish before realizing the disparity in situation. Lynes is reminded “don't take photographs of the people and be streetwise” by his guide.

These are, luckily, writers aware that outsiders touring a televised version of a city’s drug trade can’t help but seem somewhat eroticizing. What they find is their Baltimore is slightly pixilated—core locales for the drug trade in the TV show are sometimes just aesthetically pleasing city landmarks. Drug trades shown to occur during daylight hours actually would happen later in the day, according to their guides. The Baltimore of The Wire was not inaccurate, but merely a fantasized, heightened version of activities that happen every day and everywhere. This aesthetic amplification of these issues is probably partially responsible for making The Wire not just relevant to Maryland, but the United States as a whole. It became less of a geography lesson and more of a debate. This is something Jarmusch does not do in Only Lovers Left Alive. He specifies exact examples in Detroit to talk about: the Motown museum, Jack White’s house, the bars and car parks and hospitals.

In both The Wire and Only Lovers Left Alive, what some might see as a love song to a city these writers know becomes a lament for what it is. It’s difficult to know what impact this side might have on Jarmusch’s film, but in the years since The Wire aired tourism has declined significantly in Baltimore. Even if people are taking a day to drive around and see familiar locations, tourist spending and hotel vacancy are little touched by these fan experiences. Statistics from Baltimore show that from 2005 to 2009 hotel occupancy fell from 71 percent to 57 percent, which was below the national average and not much higher than Detroit’s numbers. (By the end of 2013 a booming tourism industry had suffered badly and hotel occupancy was only 46 percent, though this was still better than half the states in the U.S.)

Only Lovers Left Alive does tackle something about the future of Detroit, if perhaps accidentally. The city has offered free housing to artists in exchange for engaging in the community and other stipulations. In the film, as with much of Jarmusch’s work, the characters are often art lovers or unappreciated artists themselves: Adam composes, Eva is such a bibliophile she only brings books on her flights. Here is a city of artists and art aficionados who only leave the house to talk about the Motown museum, go to theaters-cum-parking lots, pretend to be Faust or go see a band at a local dive bar. It’s a discussion Jarmusch’s bohemian creatures raise: Will artists truly revive a city with a cultural history as rich as its automotive one?

Michelle Grinnell of the Michigan Film Office thinks films like Only Lovers Left Alive are necessary. “Having high profile films in Detroit, talking about Detroit helps to provide a different story about the city and a more positive story,” Grinnell tells me through email. “There has been a huge surge in creative talent and entrepreneurs coming back to the city in recent years. Having these projects in Detroit helps draw some light to this comeback story.”

In a sense, yes. choosing to film in Detroit opens up a great deal of work. Industry is being created, and having artists working in and from the scenes of Detroit—both in cinema and in other art forms—could keep portraying the city as a gritty new artistic haven as Isherwood did Berlin or Larson did Alphabet City in Rent. But it could also show the Motor City’s spectrum of colors, its variety, and its relevance to the entire American dialogue. After all, Detroit is a city, not an antique.