Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Suburbs on Flame with Un-Rock N' Roll

The Michigan Theatre in Detroit

For my latest Difference Engine column on PopMatters, I wrote about the ways the blighted landscape of Detroit in the 1970s and 1980s influenced Detroit Techno and why the new post-crash ruins not only lack the ability to inspire, but make today's music feel more trapped in the past than ever.

I'm admittedly quite amateur when it comes to talking about architecture and (sub)urban planning. In fact, I've never even read a book on it (though I'd be open to suggested readings), but as an outsider it's interesting to observe the ways in which territorialization has been used a process of division in the past. Now, it seems, division is secondary to conquest- the entire great American panorama is a putrid vista of marked territory from trendy compact starter homes to maladroit retail outlets. What remains after the razing of constant development is not even a palimpsest of the modernism or even New Deal functionalism that came before, but rather a snapshot of the Roman Empire at its last drunken orgy.

Interesting too how Kevin Boyle's study of Detroit (referenced in the above piece) reveals tensions that were escalated by the UAW, revealing how the union itself, long championed as a bastion of Fordism's racial equalization, excluded non-whites and females, and how their struggle for living wages resulted in a trade-off that left negotiating power at the superstructural level completely off the table.

Reminds me a bit of Paul Schraeder's Blue Collar, which I watched recently, and explores the tensions of auto workers driven apart by a union too closely in collaboration with the managers and owners. In the film, Zeke (a never-better Richard Pryor), Jerry (Harvey Keital), and Smokey (Homicide: Life on the Steet's Yaphet Kotto) conspire to rob a union safe only to find it empty. Instead, they uncover some mob-related criminal activity, but any conspiratorial notions that the film may lend it to are undercut by the fact that it was the auto company's legal tyrannies that really caused the brunt of the group's miseries.

Liberal film critics at the time dismissed it as anti-union, while ever-libertarian Schraeder himself said he was surprised at how decidedly Marxist it turned out to be while he was writing it. While it probably falls a bit short of turning out a pointed critiques, the ambivalence and impotence of its protagonists makes it a sharper film than Schraeder may have even intended. Interesting to contrast how Norma Rae, a film in which the good guys win and, presumably, life just goes on getting better, won the oscar the same year Blue Collar came out. It was perhaps because the unions thought they were in such great shape that they were allowed to be gutted, along with their corresponding cities, by Reagan and company in the next few years.

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