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Off-Ramp host John Rabe and contributors share thoughts on arts, culture, and life in L.A.

1965's 'Detroit: City on the Move,' a bittersweet paean to a dying metropolis

Detroit on Thursday became the largest city in U.S. history to file for bankruptcy, as the state-appointed emergency manager filed for Chapter 9 protection.
Detroit on Thursday became the largest city in U.S. history to file for bankruptcy, as the state-appointed emergency manager filed for Chapter 9 protection. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Off-Ramp contributor R.H. Greene is a documentarian with a passion for archival projects. In light of Detroit's bankruptcy declaration, he sent us this strange and compromised film artifact from a better time.

"You are about to witness the very exciting story of a city and its people...."

Back in 1965, the then flourishing city of Detroit made an unsuccessful bid to host the 1968 Olympics. As part of that effort, the city funded a 20 minute paean to itself, produced by the great Jam Handy, one of the pioneers of industrial filmmaking and of what has come to be called the "pop luxe" advertising genre. The brassy energy of the best Jam Handy titles is largely absent here.

"Detroit: City on the Move" is a bittersweet viewing experience today.

Like so much popular culture of the period, it depicts an alternate reality governed by wise Caucasian heads--a world through which a person of color may occasionally wander in front of a camera, but where all the decisive action will be epitomized by white men and their carefully adorned and trophy-esque women. This is especially ironic for a film produced in 1965, when the African American energy of Motown Records was arguably Detroit's primary cultural export.

Opera, art museums, and other aspirational emblems of Middle Class "cultural significance" occupy the space where Smokey Robinson and the Miracles ought to be, and there is a vaguely worded pitch for urban renewal ("places where once lay the ugliness, the poverty and the sickness of slums have been condemned and cleared") that is not only belied by subsequent history but which raises chills when one contemplates what population is most likely being discussed and relocated in coded form here.

The massive Detroit race riots of 1967 would prove how callow and inaccurate this vision turned out to be.

It's also deeply ironic to see a now shrunken and bankrupted metropolis pitching itself as a "city of the future," its skyline dotted with cranes and construction, as new skyscrapers haul themselves into the clouds.

Still, a great deal of what's important and identifiable about America's culture originated in the Motor City, from finned cars to "Fingertips Pt. 1."

And flawed as it is, "Detroit: City on the Move" offers a rare glimpse of  a vanished time and a vanished set of assumptions in the life of what is still one of America's greatest places.

 

 

 

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