Review> Set Designer Harnesses Nostalgia for Detroit in AMC’s New Series, “Low Winter Sun”

National, Newsletter
Wednesday, September 25, 2013
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(Courtesy AMC)

(Courtesy AMC)

Nostalgia (nóstos), meaning “homecoming”, a Homeric word, and (álgos), meaning “pain, ache”, and was coined by a 17th-century medical student to describe the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home. Ruth Ammon, set designer for the AMC television series, Low Winter Sun, used this word to describe the series in its most honorable sense. This tale of morality uses the architecture of Detroit’s heyday, to embody the pride of the city which elevated middle working class life.

It is poignant that the city’s decline is also apparent in every frame, rather than pimping these noble structures like urban porn. Whether featuring Albert Kahn’s Packard Automotive Plant, 1903-11 (the production offices were next door to this location, one of the largest parcels of unoccupied real estate in the Western hemisphere); Kahn’s Detroit Police Headquarters at 1300 Beaubien St., 1923 (given the same role in the series, but now under threat since the PDP moved out); the art deco David Stott Building of 1929 by Donaldson and Meier; St. Hyacinth Roman Catholic Church, 1924 by Donaldson and Meier; or the Venetian Gothic Ransom Gillis House, 1876-78 (documented extensively by photographer Camilo Jose Vergara), these were deliberate choices.

(Courtesy AMC)

(Courtesy AMC)

The tale centers on the murder investigation of a deeply corrupt cop. We know from the opening scene who did it—two of his fellow officers. One is an honest cop, Frank Agnew (Mark Strong), who agrees to participate after being fed misleading information by another cop, whose motives are more ambiguous. When Frank is assigned to solve the case, he must find a way to investigate without revealing his own guilt.

The visual language reflects these moral ambiguities: the lone figure in a landscape usually backlit, which could almost be in a Western, but the vast expanses are downtown, a hallmark of contemporary Detroit. Buildings are often sited next to these open fields dotted with wildflowers among the debris, like the remaining few teeth in a withered mouth, but we always see a child on a bicycle, a man walking (who has money for gas?) or a dog (one has a rat in its mouth). These silhouetted figures are in wide shots, a rare luxury in an urban context; when you shoot in New York or Los Angeles, the picture has to be carefully cropped to eliminate unwanted surroundings. The visual vocabulary has pronounced darks and lights, and is often shot with available light, or motivated with a single light source indoors. In addition, mirrored surfaces and shots looking through glass partitions all contribute to the dark mood.

The most modern location is the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, originally called the City-County Building, 1954, an international style building designed by Harley, Ellington and Day featuring white marble facing with black marble spandrels. It is here that the series will come to a head, with a faceoff among the protagonists as they enter this courthouse. Unusually for Cold Winter Sun, the building is wedged into a cityscape with the 3-mile long Detroit People Mover elevated train snaking its way across the screen. We’ve seen this public transit system before in other scenes where the Ren Cen and other downtown sites can be seen in the backdrop.

On a up-note, Campus Martius Park (from the Latin for Field of Mars, where Roman heroes walked), which is the point of origin in the Detroit coordinate system—8 Mile Road is 8 miles from this point—is a revitalized green space with new stages, sculptures, an ice-skating rink, mini sand beach, and restaurants. It is filled with lunch-time workers, and is the site of a meeting of two warring gangsters, chosen as neutral territory in the midst of a vibrant public space.

Many films have been shot in Detroit from 8 Mile, Beverly Hills Cop, Gran Torino, Robocop and the recent documentaries Searching for Sugarman and Detropia (one of its characters is Tommy Stephens, proprietor of the Raven Lounge, a location used in Low Winter Sun). But Low Winter Sun uses the city differently. We frequent Brush Park, Greektown, Boston-Edison, Indian Village, Klenk Island, Cass Corridor, MorningSide as well as downtown. It’s almost a cliche to say that the city plays a character in the series, but (not having seen the British original) it feels that this story could only have been set in this American city at this point in its history. That’s nostalgia.

Low Winter Sun, AMC, Sundays 10/9 PM and on demand. 10 episodes (season started 8.11.13).

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