We went out to AS220 on Tuesday night to catch a screening of I Pity the Fool, a film that explores the ruins of the city of Detroit. For as long as I can remember, Detroit has been like a car accident to me, I know that something horrible has happened but I can't take my eyes off of it. I didn't have really high hopes for the film, but I knew that I had to go see it.
Brent Coughenor, the director, was on hand to introduce the film and presumably answer questions after the screening. I say presumably because we left about 10-15 minutes before it ended. After reading this interview with Coughenor, I feel like we share a similar connection to and fascination with Detroit. We both grew up in the suburbs of Detroit in the 1980s, arguably the nadir of Detroit's long and continuing decline. Unfortunately, the movie didn't really strike a chord with me. It's neither a documentary nor a conventional narrative film. There's almost no dialog and no real characters. It's really more of a filmmakers film, though I have my doubts as to how compelling the cinematography really was.
Even though this film was shot on what I can only assume was a minuscule budget, there was a certain laziness about it that bothered me. There are a number of scenes that take place on sidewalks that were filmed from the other side of the street so passing cars go in and out of the frame throughout the scene. I realize that this project didn't have the kind of money or connections that it takes to get streets cordoned off, but I think that if I were a filmmaker working on a shoestring budget, I would have found a better way to get that shot. There's a sequence about half of the way through the film where one of the "characters" is suddenly at Cedar Point (an amusement park in Ohio, in case you weren't aware). As a once frequent visitor to Cedar Point, that scene had a lot of sentimental value for me, but I don't know how it was supposed to fit in to the film.
If it had only been a visual homage to the ruins of Detroit, I still would have enjoyed it, but it really wasn't all that interesting from a visual or architectural standpoint. The only scene that I really enjoyed is the one that is pictured in the Sifflbog interview. In that scene, a man leaves his house and begins riding his bike down the street. The camera follows him in profile as he rides along what starts out as a pretty nice looking neighborhood by Detroit standards. Soon, the neat row of houses fades away into a more typical Detroit scene of abandoned residential and industrial lots and empty streets. Finally, the man reaches the Michigan Central Station. As he rides around this gigantic hulk of building that is completely devoid of life and activity, you can really feel the isolation and decay that is so pervasive in Detroit.
I can only recommend this film to people like me who obsess over Detroit or people who have never seen the ruins of Detroit first-hand. It's hard for people who have never seen Detroit to fathom the scale of urban decay that has gone on nearly unchecked for the past half century. I had the opposite problem; it wasn't until I had a chance to visit some other big cities as a young man that I realized that not all urban centers were in a state of constant decay. If you want an introduction to Detroit and can't make it there for a visit, I think 8 Mile is a better choice, but if you want to support independent film, you may learn something about Detroit from I Pity The Fool.