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Detroit is still breathing

The Last Days of Detroit: Motor Cars, Motown and the Collapse of an Industrial Giant - review.

The Last Days of Detroit: Motor Cars, Motown and the Collapse of an Industrial Giant
Mark Binelli
Bodley Head, 336pp, £20

Over the past few years the city of Detroit – once a titan of American industry and proud symbol of modernity, now teetering towards bankruptcy – has found itself the subject of a stream of articles, books, photography exhibitions, TV news exposés and documentaries. In his ambitious new book, The Last Days of Detroit, Mark Binelli sets out to investigate the “new obsession” with the Motor City and what it might foretell, from the parachuting doom-and-gloom journalists eager to pronounce the city’s death knell to the surprising migration of new arrivals – artists and other bohemian types, land speculators, “green” entrepreneurs. After all, he writes, “Who doesn’t want to see the future?”

In coverage of the book in the US, Binelli has routinely been referred to as a Detroit native, but for those of us from the area, calling someone raised in suburban Detroit (as I was) a “native” can be fighting words. The historically charged relationship between the city and its suburbs and its sharp racial divide (which is among the country’s starkest) doesn’t just undergird every local issue, it is every issue – a dynamic Binelli articulates in the book but seldom in relation to his own vantage point. Several times he comes close to suggesting that his family’s Italian heritage gives him some kind of connection to the experience of disenfranchised Detroiters. He grew up close to Detroit, yes, but the metaphorical distance between the city and its hostile suburbs is immense, treacherous.

To write the book, however, Binelli lived nearly three years in Detroit proper. Growing up in buffered proximity to Detroit’s dramatic decline and residing there intermittently to write the book seems to heighten the sense of puzzled, face-to-glass spectatorship. In reality, it’s unclear how much time he spent there, as he refers at one point to “dividing” his time between New York and Detroit. And, in a telling passage, Binelli notes that so-called “ruin porn”, fetishising the city’s glamorous decay, isn’t limited to “outsiders” – among his “friends and acquaintances” gourmet dinner parties were held in abandoned buildings, which speaks volumes about his circle during his time there.

That is not to say that only a lifelong Detroiter is capable of writing a book that seeks to consider Detroit’s status as the most dramatic example of a dead or dying city and the ways residents are trying to fashion a rebirth. But, as he surveys scheming auto execs, outhustled union reps, under-resourced firefighters, scruffy artists and agrarians, earnest school officials and guileful politicians, his analysis is consistently weighed down by an outsider’s love of symbol and a narrative journalist’s love of the Meaningful Vignette. This means the book feels like a collection of articles, never quite cohering into a larger argument. One gets the feeling that the textural details – the abandoned blocks, the bare prairies, the casual horror of crime – interest Binelli far more than the development of an overarching idea.

Inevitably, the accumulation of vignettes, however well-crafted, begin to feel repetitive and wearying. The quality of sameness proves a point – even the most earnest of efforts meets with inevitable disappointment – but, in the absence of a larger thesis, where does that point get him?

This drumbeat of dismal ironies becomes numbing and even begins to feel artificial because well into the book and into Binelli’s tenure in Detroit he continues to play the part of an ingénue in his own adventures. For instance, he talks about his surprise at arriving in a courtroom to observe a murder trial and finding no other reporters present. “Apparently the crime wasn’t quite extraordinary by Detroit standards,” he notes. “What did you have to do around here to get some ink?” At this point in the book, his surprise feels distinctly disingenuous.

And yet, perhaps with the audacity of hope that characterises the recent “gold rush” to “refound” Detroit, by the final quarter of Binelli’s book a change is afoot, a cumulative effect that sneaks up on him, almost in spite of himself. The dark sense that even the best of intentions come to naught starts to fade in the face of a kind of optimism. Indeed, the very tool – the telling vignette – that limits the book’s argumentative promise ultimately proves critical to Binelli’s own selfrevelation, making for the book’s most winning moment. “It happened gradually, on the level of anecdote,” he writes. “I caught myself noticing and relishing [anything that] in aggregate (or perhaps viewed through lenses with the proper tinting) couldn’t help but make you feel like Detroit’s luck was turning”. Indeed, what he’s realising here, it seems, are the ways in which all cities are projections, with Detroit functioning as the blank screen on which we view ourselves, our fears, our hopes – the way we view our own self-created problems, with over-optimism, denial and refusal of responsibility. At some point, he decided to embrace a kind of “magical thinking” and so the picture itself changed.

In his conclusion, Binelli has not an epiphany exactly but a delicious bit of canny self-awareness, a sort of meta-critique of the book’s weaknesses. He writes: “It would be easy to end this book on a different note. Any number of the city’s grisly headlines could be plucked and highlighted, and not unrepresentatively, either. But if I did that, it would only be to make sure you understand I’m not a soft touch. The truth is, my optimism is growing tenacious. I couldn’t say why.” One wishes he would try. Here, of course, is a ripe opportunity for Binelli to explore his own connection to place, or, more widely, to that intensely American brand of blind faith in the power of the comeback, but he refuses.

There is a certain kind of meaning to be gleaned from that refusal, however. Ultimately, Binelli is unable to answer his own questions about Detroit’s future, its meaning. Instead, there’s an almost wilful refusal to do so, to “decide”, to wrap up Detroit in a neat and tidy (and potentially foreboding) package. In the final pages, he even seems more willing to let his stories have ragged edges. The tang of authenticity that comes from not using a vignette to illustrate an idea but to let it breathe, twist, turn. To allow for the messiness of life, to permit “second acts” and untidy reversals.

You leave the book with no answers, no clear line, not even a set of possible futures. But you may feel something akin to Binelli’s eyes-half-shut optimism. It’s as if he’s saying to us, after countless tours through abandoned edifices that come to stand in for the city: “This building isn’t abandoned at all.” It’s filled with people, stories, history, confusion, disappointment, hope, aspiration, belief. It’s in the wood, the tiles, the rafters. It lives still and you can hear its heart pumping.

Megan Abbott is the author of several novels, the most recent of which to be published in the UK is “The End of Everything” (Picador, £7.99)

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The A-Z of Israel

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Do you have to look like someone to play them in a film?

Physical resemblance between an actor and the real-life figure they are portraying is highly prized, but there’s much more to a successful biopic than the right face under a good wig.

The Program is a film in search of a hero. It never really finds one. On one hand it has the crusading journalist David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, who risks the derision of his colleagues and the scorn of the cycling industry to expose Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat. On the other, it has Armstrong himself (Ben Foster), propelling himself to multiple Tour de France victories and into the hearts of his countrymen by foul means, not fair. It feels hard to root for Walsh: he’s on the side of truth, but he never comes to life as a character, and the movie hits a slump whenever we’re back in the newsroom with him. Then again, we know we shouldn’t get behind the cyclist. But if the film is conflicted over whose story it’s telling, there is at least one element about which there can be no argument: Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong.

It is not a prerequisite that an actor playing a real figure must be able to swap places with them unnoticed in an identity parade, but Foster could certainly pass that test if it were. Both men have their features crammed into the centre of their faces, lending them a concentrated intensity. And Foster has captured the intentness of Armstrong’s expressions – that taut downward curve in the mouth that looks like an exaggerated frown as drawn by a child.

For the biopic performer, there are several options when it comes to physical accuracy. There is the simple, almost effortless mimicry – a classic example being Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. (There have been occasions on which newspapers have printed pictures of Kingsley to accompany a story about the real Gandhi. Let’s blame that on the actor’s persuasive ability to inhabit the part, rather than any laziness in the media.)


Where there is no overwhelming natural similarity, this can be helped along by a recognisable accoutrement or physical characteristic. I wouldn’t swear that Robert Downey Jnr was the spit of Charlie Chaplin (in another Attenborough film, Chaplin).


Or that you couldn’t tell Salma Hayek from Frida Kahlo (in Frida) but it certainly helped that the former had that universally familiar toothbrush-moustache to trick our eyes, and the latter sported a convincing unibrow.


Even once the physical side is in the bag, there is the matter of poise and demeanour to consider. Did Helen Mirren look like Elizabeth II in The Queen (another Frears) or on stage in The Audience? Not especially. But then the bit that isn’t covered by hair, make-up, wardrobe and physiognomy is called “acting”. It should, if all goes according to plan, render cosmetic objections irrelevant. Look at Gary Oldman with the black porcupine spikes and milky-white pallor of Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. We can see that’s a fancy-dress Sid. But Oldman’s self-belief pushes him, and us, over the line. We buy it. His Joe Orton (Frears yet again: Prick Up Your Ears) is even better, perhaps because he shares with the playwright a natural knowingness that lights them both up from within.

My own favourite sorts of biopic actors are those that succeed through sheer force of will. They don’t look like the people they’re playing, and only the most cursory attempts have been made to convince us they do, but their own internal conviction overrides any complaint. Anthony Hopkins did a fine job of playing the lead in Surviving Picasso but I prefer him in two movies where he had to take more of a running jump: Nixon in Nixon and Hitchcock in Hitchcock. No one ever said about Richard Nixon and Anthony Hopkins: “Isn’t it funny how you never see them in the same room?” But there was something in the slightly delusional casting that made sense in a film about Nixon – never a man, after all, to face the truth when he thought a bald lie would do the job just as well. And by the end of Oliver Stone’s impressively controlled movie, Hopkins had done it. He had strong-armed the audience and bent the whole endeavour to his will. The same was true in Hitchcock: he expanded into a part as though it were an oversized suit he was convinced he could fill. It was a confidence trick. Doesn’t that go for most acting?

It doesn’t always work. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote? The physical disparity is so great (compare it to Toby Jones, far better-suited to the role, in Infamous, which opened around the same time) that it seems to make the effort visible. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk? Just about. The bubbly enthusiasm of the performance is very winning, just as Milk himself was; it’s a charm offensive, a campaign. Like Hopkins as Nixon, it suits the part. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film of the same name? Yes: he has the looks and the charisma. Josh Brolin as George W Bush in (Stone again) W? Remarkably, yes, even though he’s too bulky. His physicality is reduced magically by the character’s small-mindedness and inexperience. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is good but he’s too actorly and not terrifying enough – unlike Yaphet Kotto in the same role in Raid on Entebbe.

Awards season is upon us, so there will be more games of compare-and-contrast: Johnny Depp as the criminal James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. Don’t talk to me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Phillipe Petit in The Walk. Good film but why have they tinkered digitally with the actor’s imploring eyes? He looks like a motion-capture version of himself at times. But no one can seize the Complete Lack of Physical Resemblance prize from Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems not to even believe in himself as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Though with his elfin eyes and silver mane, Cumberbatch is a shoo-in if they ever make Legolas: The Later Years.

“The Program” is released 16 October.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.