By Armond White
Detroit’s old magnificent Michigan Theater was one of the country’s finest cinema edifices. A palace of dreams, its vaulted ceiling rose up nine stories–as high as one’s imagination could rise. It had a grand staircase that one ascended on the way into the auditorium, surrounded by polished marble columns, gilt-edged mirrors and with dazzling chandeliers hanging overhead. No matter what movie you saw there (the first time I went I saw dreck like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) the theater itself was a show. A place of luxury, it was built in 1924 by the Rapp & Rapp architectural firm at the orders of movie exhibitor John H. Kunsky during a period when movies were considered a luxurious past time.
Now, the Michigan Theater’s supporting role in the movie Alex Cross overwhelms the film’s formulaic story and characters as a fascinating, if ramshackle, example of urban decay. It remains a freaky ruin of Detroit’s past, a relic shamelessly displaying the city’s catastrophic present.
Several decades ago The Michigan Theater was razed, gutted and turned into a multilevel parking structure. Its gilded accoutrements were trashed but its peeled-plaster ceiling walls left to haunt, like hieroglyphs of urban blight. The only thing weirder are a few disturbingly improbable rows of foul, rotted upholstered seats–apparently for the ghosts of Detroit‘s industrial past as they laugh at the gallows joke of the once-proud automotive city’s decline. (The theater was built on the site where Henry Ford developed the original Model T.)
A parking structure! In a town drained of its car industry jobs! It’s an unexpectedly grim backdrop for the film’s climactic battle between police detective Alex Cross (Tyler Perry) and an assassin profiled as a “rogue, stimulus-seeking sociopathic narcissist” who reigns terror on the city.
Like the morbid, decadent portrait of post-WWII Vienna in The Third Man, this ghostly Michigan Theater setting suggests film noir pessimism, but director Rob Cohen doesn’t utilize the dystopic atmosphere as much as he could. Instead, Cohen merely puts the plot pieces together with his usual deftness (Fast and Furious, XXX) but fails to make them cohere emotionally. Cross and his partner Tommy Kane (Edward Burns) show no relationship to their ruined city; they ride through Detroit the way TV cops ride through L.A., Miami, Manhattan–connected only to their SAG contracts. This rootlessness (no doubt to bring a little production money into Motown) turns Alex Cross into junk. Who cares whether Tyler Perry can make the transition to dramatic actor outside of vanity projects if the movie he appears in, set in a city more noted for its cultural heritage and history of civil rights progress than Atlanta, never bothers to acknowledge the apparent deprivation that faces America’s urban peoples?
A great movie theater could be a museum of dreams–something the Netflix generation will never know. In Alex Cross the Michigan Theater building is not merely a parking structure but a mausoleum of hopes.
Alex Cross lacks the social consciousness of great noir; that hyper-expressive style is out of order in the recent documentary Detropia. This doc is suffused in misery; the filmmakers visit Detroit and concentrate pictorially on the decay of American industry and the frustrations of black urban community. It’s more arty than political. A recurring theme for directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady is the pathos of theater and performance. They glimpse several productions at the Michigan Opera Theater, a different, newer venue than the old movie citadel. It’s arty irony when the film’s subject needs clear sociological information. Ewing and Grady are too fond of blasted urban imagery, as if to turn Detroit’s empty lots, dilapidated buildings, burnt-out homes into Edward Hopper landscapes.
Ewing and Grady’s elliptical style surveys union meetings and city council meetings with Mayor Dave Bing through drifting, unfocussed camerawork. Detropia has a hipster title and unfortunately demonstrates a hipster’s indifference–as if they were waiting for gentrification to begin. Ewing and Grady mostly feature bored, affectless faces–Detroiters who are politically zombiefied, or not far from Alex Cross’ “rogue, stimulus-seeking sociopaths.” When urban crisis is ignored and exploited as in these two movies, we can profile the filmmakers as narcissists.
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair