Watching Henry Skate:
The Films of the Ford Motor

Lee Grieveson

Loyola University Chicago


Archival fragments are central to Michael Chanan and George Steinmetz’s essayistic documentary Detroit: Ruin of a City. In one, for example, Henry Ford skates across ice, away from the movie camera and back; in the background, beyond some trees, is what appears to be a factory or perhaps even the city of Detroit itself, risen high in part as a consequence of Ford and the auto industry. In these images, repeated three times by Chanan and Steinmetz, the juxtaposition of Ford himself, the childlike innocence of ice skating, and the looming distant factory or cityscape seems to speak to some of the contradictions that surround the figure of Ford. Associated on the one hand with the establishment of new modes of industrial production – labeled “Fordism” by the Marxist political theorist Antonio Gramsci – Ford also demonstrated a nostalgic pastoralism, an urge to memorialise the past that was perhaps most clearly visible in the building of Greenfield Village in Dearborn, on the outskirts of the city of Detroit, a space celebrating the American village before it was transformed by, in part, the automobile. In this sense Ford was ambiguously positioned on the cusp of American modernity, looking back to a time of agrarian stability whilst simultaneously ushering in a time of mass production, consumption, and intensified urbanization.

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