Julien Temple's Requiem for Detroit? serves both as a warning and inspiration
As Temple examines the collapse of America's Motor City, should Glasgow and Edinburgh take note?
Serving both as a warning and inspiration, Julien Temple’s Requiem for Detroit? documents how a thriving city can be brought to its knees. Neil Cooper wonders if we will ever learn.
It's all too fitting that Julien Temple's Requiem for Detroit? is being screened at The Arches during the Glasgow Film Festival. Later on that same evening, a club night is hosted there by Pressure featuring Detroit techno legend Carl Craig, reflecting the two cities' mutual interest in club culture. While this takes place in a once derelict space beneath Central Station that has since become a Glasgow institution, this in no way compares with the near apocalyptic collapse of Detroit's once thriving industrial epicentre. That economic and social catastrophe is depicted via Temple’s trademark cut and paste fashion which he forged while filming the Sex Pistols.
Yet, as other filmmakers have recognised, there are clear similarities. Detroit's success was built on the automobile industry, a gas-guzzling personification dubbed 'Autogeddon' by poet Heathcote Williams. Glasgow's fortune was founded on shipbuilding. The industrial ebb and flow that gave both cities their rhythm in turn drove their musical cultures, from Motown to techno in Detroit, and from the 1960s dance halls to the sort of club nights that fill The Arches today in Glasgow. Pressure in particular has hosted guests from Detroit, including Craig, Jeff Mills and a myriad of others.
Yet, with auto manufacturing crashed and burnt-out in Detroit, and shipbuilding a rusting hulk in Glasgow, the responses have been starkly different. Where Glasgow's post-industrial reinvention has been built on a glossy façade of large-scale cultural events married to high-end consumerism, Detroit (as Temple's remarkable film shows) is getting back to its roots and building from the ground up.
The scenes of devastation in Temple's film look not unlike Britain's abandoned factories of the 1970s, where Derek Jarman made his own recession-riven collage, The Last of England. Here too, 'metal-bashing' provocateurs like Test Department used remnants of the collapsed buildings as instruments, before dance culture created temporary autonomous zones to go beyond their surroundings and towards something transcendent and utopian.
So it is in Detroit, where artists are reclaiming abandoned spaces and urban farmers are getting back to the land as post-capitalist pioneers finding new ways of being. Closer to home, Requiem for Detroit? has proved to be both a warning and inspiration. As a warning, it points to the impending collapse of capitalism, a notion which until recently would have been dismissed as the fanciful preserve of pop-eyed Trots.
As inspiration, one need only look to another film made by activists living in Glasgow. After watching Temple’s doc, American ex-pat Don MacKeen recognised similarities between Detroit and Glasgow in terms of social deprivation, falling populations and staggeringly bad urban planning. MacKeen visited Detroit, where he filmed the city's thriving urban farming communities. The result, Glasgow2Detroit, is a 70-minute study of self-determination and survival on both sides of the Atlantic.
So, as austerity is preached on the one hand, billions are spent on the circuses and bread of international sporting events while, along the motorway, a commerce-driven Babel called Caltongate is being built. As with Detroit, there can't be many more car crashes left to come.
Requiem for Detroit? and Pressure are at The Arches, Glasgow, Fri 28 Feb.