Less a portrait of the inventive Detroit native than an impressionistic oeuvre brimming with associations, the film’s first half features no dialog at all – just Mills’ own music and experimental imagery. The second half segues into interview quotes, laying out Mills’ utopian view of the future in a series of tantalizing fragments. After its recent premiere, Man From Tomorrow is now scheduled for further screenings at film festivals and exhibitions around the world.
We caught up with Jeff to find out more about this experimental film, his views on Detroit’s urban transformation and his rather utopian take on the city of the future.
Jeff, your new film, Man From Tomorrow, prefers an abstract visual narrative to a conventional storytelling approach. Don’t most people expect clear-cut stories or messages from a movie?
That’s because we are programmed to search for a story. If there is no storytelling, you have no choice – either you swim or you sink. But those who swim might get the opportunity to explore something wonderful and that is always the way it has been. The objective of Man From Tomorrow was to make something really representative of the psychological aspects of creating music and the type of mindset I try to reach.
The film’s changing layers and surfaces feature a lot of futuristic architecture. And while people are seen to be on the move, they stop the moment the surface changes.
This is basically a metaphor for the world that we live in and how it can change all of a sudden. Each change forces us to change as well.
Is this a statement on your native Detroit, considering the many changes and upheavals the city has experienced over the past two or three decades?
While I spent most of my youth in Detroit, I moved away in my early twenties. Back then, when I was young, I wasn’t looking at architecture or landscapes. I was doing what every 12-year-old kid was doing: playing basketball, riding a bike, you know? (laughs).
Detroit has a long automotive history and we took this kind of industry for granted. Most of your neighbors would work in the factories, but it was not something you would ever talk about. Detroit was just another middle-class city like Cleveland or Akron, Ohio – even upper middle-class until the mid-1970s. Higher education brought a better social atmosphere and more culture. You had more access to the rest of the world. And then – due to the upheavals of the automotive industry – it slowly shifted to become the Detroit of today. Yet even in its heyday, Detroit has always been a tough city. Thinking of my mother, she was used to the constant roughness around her and became almost immune to what was going on. In a way, circumstances cease to matter because you find a way to get around them. So, the abandoned buildings in this particular image don’t matter. A few blocks away, you have people in a neighborhood that isn’t going anywhere – and they are doing fine. What everybody sees now is just a snapshot of a time when Detroit was so badly managed that it literally crashed.
Has this outside perception of Detroit affected your own view of the city?
My own notion of the city has not changed. In terms of music, we – that is all my friends growing up – always knew how exceptional the city was from hearing and watching Motown stars and all the rock and funk/soul legends Detroit has spawned. In my mind, it is the US capital of music, not a post-apocalyptic landscape! No other city has been so consistently at the forefront of innovative music. It runs generations deep.
Can you imagine moving back one day?
Yes, sure. All of my relatives are still there. I moved away because of my career as a DJ and producer. The acute depression that affects Detroit only cropped up in the media over the past ten years. Before, it was already declining, but nobody really noticed until the city hit rock bottom and became international news. But what happened to Detroit is nothing new since America has a long history of abandoned and vanishing cities.
A lot of it can be traced back to the early days of the railroads and highways. Sometimes, they went straight through the desert, other times, they diverted around places for political or other reasons. And such diversions could kill off once prosperous cities. Whenever they replaced an old winding railroad route with a new straight high-speed one, some former stations were excluded and those cities would lose out.
After spells in New York and Chicago – and a stint in 1990s Berlin – you have found a new home in Paris. Against this mixed background, how do you envision the future of our cities?
The city of the future won’t look like Detroit, that’s for sure. It will probably be more like a European city, e. g. more like London. Very rich people – only rich people! – will occupy the city center, with everyone else relegated to the outskirts. I mean, this is not my ideal world, but this is what I expect to happen. Society will literally be split in half. This process won’t happen naturally, but we will intentionally divide our own society for criminal, political, and economic reasons and because of what people believe. And you can pretty much predict what is going to happen then because it has happened before. If we look a lot further into the future, however, the idea of the city per se will no longer exist. Like the idea of a territory, a street, or an address won’t exist. Those aspects will no longer matter since everything has switched to data. We are heading towards this right now. Sometime in the distant future, we won’t need to know where someone lives as we already know who they are. And once we make that giant leap – i. e. when things will happen simply because we think about them – real physical objects will start to disappear as well.
Jeff, most of your work and thoughts focus on the future. Are you reluctant to look back?
I don’t hold on to the past. The past is the past and you cannot change it. The future looks much more promising – it gives you the chance to make things much better!
You seem to be fascinated by time travel and other aspects of the remote future. In a way, one could say that your entire work is inspired by space. Where does this passion come from?
Well, how can you be a human on this planet and not look up at the sky and wonder?
Sure, people have been doing it for ages.
Right. So I think that, first of all, it is a natural attraction. And when your imagination takes over, you want to relay your impressions and feelings to other people. It is a process that has been occurring since the dawn of humanity. I find it much less natural to work from nine to five, come home, cook dinner, watch the news, and go to bed without even noticing the sky above. I take most of my inspiration from the stars. Take sound: I imagine that sound in its purest form is not necessarily heard in sequence. It is as abstract as one could ever imagine with as many different elements involved. That is what I see in terms of nature and space. Most of us believe that we are headed towards something – something that is probably not on this planet.
You are now fifty years old. Over the past few years, you have shifted your focus to fine arts and composed new soundtracks for films like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Is this your way of ageing gracefully with techno?
No, I don’t think so. Actually, it is the opposite! I see it as a way for expanding. It helps me to understand electronic music even better and to reach more people. I don’t make club music so much anymore because I want to reach people outside of the club as well. With film, for example, I can expand into storytelling by assisting the objectives of cinema to enlighten the audience in a way that might convey more emotion through a custom soundtrack. It is always a great experience to apply techno to another art form.
Interview: Jan Rödger
Header image: Stills from “Man from Tomorrow”