Icarus Films’ release of Middletown is hands-down one of the best non-fiction DVD sets you will ever come across. No word of a lie. I hadn’t even heard of the Middletown TV series but after having just watched some of Louis Malles’ films on midwestern American life, I was totally in the mood for some more documentaries of the same nature. There’s something wonderfully fascinating about these portraits of Anytown, USA.
The idea of Middletown was inspired by the work of cultural anthropologists Robert and Helen Lynd and their landmark 1929 and study ‘Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture’. They focused on Muncie, Indiana, choosing to keep the town and the people anonymous. Peter Davis (Hearts and Minds) decided he would also set his film in Muncie, focusing on the same categories of social research as outlined in the original study: work, play, family, religion, education and politics. The crew filmed for three years and ended up capturing some fascinating and sometimes surprising stories.
It’s interesting watching Middletown as a series from beginning to end. While each episode works as a standalone film, the series is best when viewed in sequential order. The entries get progressively controversial, starting with the more mild aspects of Muncie (mayoral campaign, high school basketball game) and ending with the more challenging topics (fundamental religion, teenage interracial relationships). Middletown definitely pushed the boundaries of public television and ultimately was met with a cancellation of the final film in the series, Seventeen. But now, for the first time on DVD or home video, the entire series is available thanks to the fine folks at Icarus Films.
Directed by Tom Cohen
As soon as I read the synopsis of Family Business I knew immediately I would love it. The film follows the Snider family as they work together to keep their Father’s franchise pizza restaurant, Shakey’s Pizza Parlour, from going bankrupt. Our first look at the family business reveals a vibrant, friendly atmosphere as brothers and sisters joyfully pull pizzas from the oven and interact with their loyal clientele. Moments later, Howie (Dad) is in the back room making phone calls to the Shakey’s head office in a desperate attempt to convince them to help him out. With his wife crying in the corner, Howie’s mention of a second mortgage is a sign he’s clearly in trouble.
In a way, Family Business is ahead of its time as a sort of pre-reality programming program. It’s pretty easy to draw comparisons between the Snider family’s story and such popular shows as Restaurant Makeover and Kitchen Nightmares, made popular by cable channels like The Food Network and TLC. Although the general synopsis might be ripe for reality television (apparently the family were approached about starring in their own show in the years after the release of this film) the drama that we see on screen aims much higher than your typical television fare. The climax of the film sees Howie calling for a family dinner in which he reveals some news about the state of Shakey’s. As he pleads his case, his sons slowly break down as they try to subtly convince their Father to abandon the sinking ship and spend the rest of his years enjoying his time with his wife and kids. In one moment a son suggests his Father has lost the pride he once had when serving in the Marines. A truly dramatic revelation that caps off an otherwise inspiring and entertaining look at the workplace dynamics of a family run pizza joint in Muncie, Indiana.
Richard Leacock and Marisa Silver’s Community of Praise focuses on religion, chronicling the life of a fundamentalist family and their every day issues. Everything from the daily routines on the family farm to their daughter’s severe scoliosis are examined through the lens of religion. It’s a family of born again Christians, embracing religion as a response to some sort of life crisis, be it poor health or addiction. The father, who married into the family after a divorce, has trouble adjusting to his step-kids undisciplined work ethics and overall attitudes. He expresses his urge to beat them, insisting that when he was a kid he didn’t think twice about doing his chores on the farm. This new generation of kids simply don’t appreciate hard work and responsibility! If there wasn’t a date on this film, you’d be hard pressed to pinpoint the decade in which this film is set based on some of the primitive perspectives.
While it might be easy to portray fundamentalists as crazy, it’s still interesting to spend some time with people who allow their beliefs to dictate every element of their lives. In one scene, the family brings their daughter to the local veterinarian, who apparently spends his off hours as a minister of sorts. When he’s not healing animals, he’s attempting to drive scoliosis out of a child by simply laying his hands on her and speaking in tongues. It’s a decision that seems rooted in desperation rather than ignorance, but there’s no questioning that the treatment is obviously misguided and the people involved are delusional. It’s a strange and even humorous scene but the overall earnestness of the piece manages to curb any real sense of sensationalism or exploitation. All of these people have issues and the easiest way for them to deal with life is to look above for inspiration. They push forward, continually existing on the verge of a complete breakdown, trusting that their religion will keep their family together.
Directed by Tom Cohen
The series starts with director Tom Cohen’s look at Muncie’s mayoral race between very different candidates with contrasting campaign strategies. Jim Carrey (Democrat) is the affable joker whose confidence and ability to schmooze with the townspeople has made him a strong forerunner. That’s not to say he doesn’t have his detractors. It turns out Carrey has a criminal record in his past involving gambling and accepting bribes. In the eyes of some, he’s nothing but a crook. Oddly enough, he was also at one time the town sheriff, making him a truly complex individual. His opponent, Alan Wilson (Republican), is the soft spoken upper class criminal lawyer who hasn’t completely won over the working class vote. He seems to spend more time at fundraising functions and taking advice from a team of media consultants. Still, he’s a family man who simply wants to do what’s best for Muncie, even if he’s the underdog.
It makes sense that The Campaign is the opening entry in Middletown as it’s definitely one of the more conventional entries in the series. The story is inherently engaging and dramatic — like many of the ‘tournament’ style documentaries that are popular nowadays — and both candidates are likeable in one way or another. It’s interesting watching each candidate approach their campaign in their own style, giving us a sort of microcosmic representation of national politics. With one man clearly favoured over the other, it’s a tense and suspenseful race right to the end.
THE BIG GAME
Directed by E.J. Vaughn
Like The Campaign, director E.J. Vaughn presents an inherently engaging and dramatic look at the rival between two high school basketball teams: Muncie Central and Anderson High. There have been so many basketball documentaries that it almost seems to be a sub-genre in itself, but The Big Game is definitely one of the earlier examples of obsessive coaches pushing their players to the limit in hopes to give them an academic future via their love of the sport. We get to meet both teams and their coaches, giving us the opportunity to either choose sides or struggle to pick a favourite. While this film is certainly the most conventional of the bunch, it still benefits from some motivational moments between student and coach and you can’t help but be caught up in the excitement of the sport. Interestingly, one moment catches a glimpse of both Jim Carrey and Alan Wilson (featured in The Campaign) sitting in the bleachers, giving the viewer a true sense of the community of Muncie, all gathered to support their team and their love of basketball. Note: this is the only film in the series to be partially shot on video.
SECOND TIME AROUND
Directed by Peter Davis
Second Time Around follows two divorcees as they prepare themselves for their second shot at marriage. While the film does focus on some of the banal details of organizing a wedding, the most interesting aspects explored are those of class and marital expectations. Seeing as David and Elaine have been through both the process of marrying and divorcing before, they want to make sure they get things right. Their search for a new home finds Elaine growing attached to high priced houses that are way beyond their budget range, especially considering she doesn’t seem willing to work to support her share of the bills. Once they find something more reasonable — a run down bungalow in a bad neighbourhood — depression sets in. Maybe they’re jumping in to things too quickly?
This uncertainty permeates throughout the film, adding a sort of unsure sense of suspense. Will they go through with the wedding? Each argument suddenly feels like it could be their last. In one scene in which the two attempt to cut back on monthly expenses, Elaine breaks out into hysterics as David tries to explain his monthly subscription to a stamp collecting club. Clearly this wasn’t something he brought up on their first date. Meanwhile, David’s Mother hovers around in the background, commenting on every detail of the wedding, including the choice of black for the brides maid’s dresses. Elaine thinks it’s modern while Mother says it reminds her of her husband’s funeral. I tend to agree. This is 1982 and at this point, black isn’t the new anything, it’s just black. It all adds up to an interesting, intimate look at love a second time around in Muncie, Indiana.
For a video clip of Seventeen, click here.
Out of the entire Middletown series, Seventeen is definitely my favourite (just above Family Business) and will likely make its way onto my personal list of favourite documentaries. Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines’ look at a group of teens Muncie teens is by far the most controversial and revealing film of the bunch. It tackles interracial dating, sex, drugs and all of the emotional ups and downs this group of friends experience when facing the end of their senior year of high school. The result is a truly scandalous and shockingly honest piece of work that immediately reminded me of the films of Harmony Korine and Larry Clark.
Seventeen begins in a home economics class as a desperate teacher in her late sixties (at least) attempts to hold together a group of rambunctious teens who refuse her every order. It’s here that we’re introduced to Lynn, a mouthy and energetic girl who eventually becomes the main focus of the film. We learn that she’s engaged in an interracial relationship that results in some strong emotional responses from the other kids in the school. At one point, Lynn’s mother finds a burnt cross on their front yard. When Lynn confronts one of kids on the phone she warns her that her mom has a gun and isn’t afraid to use it. It’s a moment that could be chalked up to teenage bravado if it wasn’t backed by the equally irresponsible mother indulging in the drama and letting it all happen.
One extended sequence captures an all night party at Lynn’s house as her friends (and parents) get wasted — including a kid who can’t be more than twelve years old. It’s here that we’re introduced to Keith, who’s friend ‘Church Mouse’ is in critical condition after a car accident. He wanders around the house drinking everything in site and struggling to contain his rage. He appears again later on in the film when the neighbourhood kids gather for a fight; retaliation for a friend who was jumped. I don’t know if it’s scary or hilarious that each kid brings a weapon, and Keith decides his best line of defence is his trusty bull whip! Truly amazing. Of course, some parents show up in a pick up truck with a case of beer, waiting for the showdown to take place. Unfortunately for them, the rival gang is a no-show.
I guess it’s not surprising that the film proved to be too controversial for PBS. Seventeen’s national broadcast was cancelled and eventually the filmmaker’s decided to release it theatrically, going on to win the 1985 Sundance Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary. Apparently the subjects in the film weren’t too thrilled about the final product either. Some of the kids — and many of the parents — felt that the filmmakers took advantage of their situation and misrepresented their story. Some even claimed the kids were acting out merely due to the presence of a camera. Either way, Seventeen is an amazing piece of documentary filmmaking that must be seen by all fans non-fiction.