Location Theory

I’m still processing much of the discussion that took place at this week’s American Democracy Project eCitizenship conference.  The conference, which brought together representatives from approximately universities, was a welcome opportunity to engage with others on how social media tools could be used to help foster democratic engagement among our students.  I’ll be working with several of my colleagues and students over the next few weeks to generate some ideas for our campus, but what I really want to talk about is…Red Dawn.

More specifically, I had the fascinating experience of spending a few minutes on the set of Red Dawn, a remake of the classic 1984 film directed by John Milius and starring Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, and Lea Thompson.  The remake, according to IMDB, reworks the original film’s post-apocalyptic plot slightly, by depicting a group of teens seeking to save their city from an invasion by Russian and Chinese soldiers.

Observing the activity on set–something I haven’t had an opportunity to do as often as I would like–was pretty cool.  Perhaps the most compelling prop was a giant tank sitting in the middle of a downtown intersection, but we also saw soldiers jogging past, and propaganda posters subtly dotted the sometimes crumbling facades of nearby buildings.  We could see crew members setting up shots, laying down dolly tracks, and preparing lights for a nighttime shoot.  Later, after we left the set, the sound of a tank firing shook the building briefly.  And we learned from a chat with a crew member that a scene featuring a stunt man falling from the twelfth floor of our hotel had been filmed a few days earlier.

As I ate a gyro at a downtown Coney Island restaurant that actually constituted part of the set, I began thinking about the intersections between the film’s (reported) plot and the location where it is being filmed, downtown Detroit, which has become a symbol of the current unemployment and economic crisis.  While we were on set, we fell into conversation with one of the below-the-line crew members, discussing his work and the tax incentives that led to Detroit becoming a popular and inexpensive location for filming movies.  I also took note of the number of derelict, abandoned spaces in the downtown area surrounding the hotel and mentally maped that onto more familiar depictions of Michigan and Detroit in recent films, naemly Michael Moore’s portrayal of his hometown of Flint in many of his documentaries.    In looking at the post-apocalyptic iconography on the film set, I began thinking about how Moore’s films create the sense that his community–and the state in general–have been abandoned by General Motors and by the government, making it easier, perhaps, to imagine Detroit as a post-apocalyptic city.  A quick glance at the skyline with its glass tower depicting the GM logo only cofirmed such a perception.

Of course these images of Detroit, whether Red Dawn’s fictional invasion narrative or Michael Moore’s post-industrial dystopia, aren’t “real,” but are both narratives that help us to make sense of ourselves and of the horizons of our economic possibilities.  There are other parts of Detroit that are full of energy.  I enjoyed several delicious microbrews and found some restaurants featuring delicious Mediterranean food.  But I’m also convinced that both Red Dawn and Michael Moore films offer sense-making activities that should be taken seriously and that the location shoot of Red Dawn in downtown Detroit might provide some way of thinking about how “location” matters when we talk about the production of movies.  It would be easy to treat the Red Dawn reboot as just another Hollywood film, and in some ways, it is the product of movie production in the age of media congolmerates: take a familiar media franchise, reimagine it slightly, add exposions, throw in some ancillary materials, and (boom!), you have the recipe for box office success.

But in many ways, Red Dawn will “belong” to Detroit and to others who witnessed or participated in its production.  A number of local workers, whether below-the-line crew or extras who happened past, contribute to the making of the film.  Others, including my cab driver to the airport (and my colleagues and I), spend time gawking at the set, taking pictures or looking for familiar actors.  The streetscapes will be familiar.  We will know something about the film’s production.  The closest I can come to a critical-theory model for thinking about this experience is John Caldwell’s discussion of the inustry practices of self-theorizing, but I think another useful line of thought might invite us to consider how location might tell us something about a film’s meaning, about how we think about movies and our investment in them.  Just stepping into the set of the movie, I found myself talking about the economics of film production, about the collapse of Michigan’s industrial economy, and even about the changing histories that allow the original Red Dawn’s Cold War paranoia to be reworked for new audiences.  Without this happy accident, I likely never would have thought about an action film remake alongside of Michael Moore’s documentary critiques of capitalism, but now I’m convinced that this relationship–based almost entirely on a shared shooting location–is far from accidental.

Update: FYI, here is a video of the “explosion” that I heard the other night via a Detroit discussion board.  Scroll down for a discussion of complaints about the fact that local/downtown residents weren’t alerted to the fact that there would be some loud noises coming from the film set sometime after 11 PM.


  1. Erik Said,

    November 15, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

    The Island was also shot in partly in Detroit, and, again, it had that post-apocalyptic vibe, although I think it was supposed to be Los Angeles. Clint Eastwood’s movie “Gran Torino” also depcits, and was shot in and around, Detroit. But so was “Whip It,” which I haven’t seen, but I doubt it has the same sort of feel. Also interesting are movies set in Detroit, even it they weren’t filmed here. From the 80s and 90s, “Robocop” comes to mind, as does “The Crow”. This city has long had a reputation for being run down, racially divided, dangerous, and a remnant of a golden industrial area. A lot of this is true to some extent, but, as you note, it’s not the whole story. The hotel you stayed in was a vacant building for decades. The Renaissance Center, built in the early 70s and bought by GM in 2004, was supposed to be a symbol of Detroit’s rebirth, but as we can see from media representations over the last several decades, and clearly continuing now with “Red Dawn”, the city continues to serve as a symbol of decay, and perhaps a litmus test of or warning to the rest of the country.

  2. Chuck Said,

    November 22, 2009 @ 11:24 am

    Missed these comments before. I’m actually curious to see Whip It, but haven’t had time to get to the theater in weeks. Interesting to see how Detroit is functioning both as a physical and ideological location in so many recent films.

  3. The Chutry Experiment » Selling (to) China Said,

    June 13, 2012 @ 12:27 pm

    […] first identifying the alien invaders. Others are more substantial. The remake of Red Dawn (which seems to have been in process for ages) was re-edited to change the U.S. invaders from Chinese to North Korean, while Chinese […]

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