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Meet 'Middletown': Ordinary Americans at Extraordinary Moments

By Cynthia Close

From Seventeen, part of the six-film series 'Middletown' that aired on PBS in 1982. Courtesy of Icarus Films

The artifice of filmmaking all but disappears in Middletown, Peter Davis' grand-scale, yet compellingly intimate inquiry into American life. The six-part film series, conceived and produced by Davis for PBS broadcast in 1982, was inspired by the influential Depression-era sociological studies by Robert and Helen Lynd, Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture (1929) and Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts (1937). In the producer's statement, Davis says, "Middletown [a.k.a. Muncie, Indiana] was an attempt to search for continuity and change in American life, as embodied in the people, institutions and core values of a single community." Davis makes reference to American anthropologist Margaret Mead and her work in Samoa, and Claude Levi-Strauss' approach to studying communities in the Amazon as a comparison to the Lynds' work in Muncie.

The Lynds wrote that the aim of their field investigation was "to study the interwoven trends that are the life of a small American city." They examined the following areas: "Getting a Living," "Making a Home," "Training the Young," "Using Leisure," "Engaging in Religious Practice" and "Engaging in Community Activities." The work of the Lynds, cited in the opening credits to each of the films, engendered an ongoing series of articles, books and documentaries, making Muncie one of the most studied communities in America. "Middletown III" was a research project funded by the National Science Foundation from 1976 to 1981, which resulted in two books: All Faithful People and Middletown Families. An additional project, "Middletown IV," was undertaken in 1999-2000, yielding a PBS documentary, The First Measured Century, and a companion book. The Center for Middletown Studies was established in 1980 to collect materials and support research on Muncie. It came under the auspices of Muncie-based Ball State University in 1984.

Davis goes on to state, "This is neither a survey nor a slice-of-life series of films; it is instead a nonfiction exploration of critical events in the lives of our subjects. We were dealing with ordinary Americans at extraordinary moments, at turning points. Each film is an individual entity, yet each contributes to the comprehensive structure of the series as a humanist inquiry into American life. Middletown is not only a series of films, but also, I hoped then and continue to hope, a mirror in which we, as Americans, might see our own reflection."

Middletown harkens back to an earlier groundbreaking series--the 12-part An American Family, filmed in 1971 and aired on PBS in 1973. Those of us who were around to watch the series were mesmerized by the first true "reality show," which captured the death throes of a typical American nuclear family.

Each of the five films in the Middletown series conveys a similar feeling--such a strong sense of what the pioneering cinema vérité documentary filmmaker Richard Leacock called "being there." We can almost smell the ubiquitous cigarette smoke that seems to be enshrouding the good citizens of Muncie, like a portent of their future.

I watched the films in the order in which they were originally broadcast and that correspond to the Lynds' areas of research: politics (The Campaign), play (The Big Game), religion (Community of Praise), work (Family Business), marriage (Second Time Around) and education (Seventeen). While each of the films had a different crew and director (except The Campaign and Family Business, both directed by Tom Cohen), together they feel like a stylistic whole, where the camera has become an invisible part of the fabric of the environment. When one of the central characters has a set-up interview, it is more like a conversation with us, the audience, than what we have come to expect as the norm for typical PBS-style documentaries today.

Issues of race and class course through the series like an undertow, until they burst like a geyser in the last and most controversial film of the series, Seventeen, by Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines. Race also features overtly in E.J. Vaughan's The Big Game, where in basketball-mad Indiana, two high school teams are pitted against each other--one whose star player is white, the other black. How well they do will determine their future: college for the white kid, and a possible "ticket out" of Muncie, and out of his poor "shedtown" neighborhood, for the black kid.

Four of the six films have a natural story arc that helps to drive the momentum, keeping the audience focused on the characters and leading to an open-ended but satisfying climax. The Campaign examines the sharply contrasting styles and backgrounds of the Democratic and Republican candidates for Muncie's mayor, and ends with the election and its immediate aftermath. The Big Game is charged with the spirit of a long-established rivalry between the basketball teams of Muncie Central and Anderson High as they prepare to face off against each other. The game itself, in the final chapters of the film, unfolds seemingly in real time, and does not disappoint.

In Second Time Around, which Davis directed, we follow the pre-wedding arrangements of David and Elaine, each of whom had had a prior marriage and divorce. Economics looms large in this segment, and we are reminded that at one time, interest rates for home mortgages were as high as 16 percent. At several points we wonder if the wedding will actually move forward as planned, but we are somehow relieved when we see Elaine finally walking down the aisle.

As the marriage is finalized, one story ends and another begins. Seventeen showcases a group of seniors in their final year at Muncie's Southside High School as they catapult themselves into the future. This film had a raw quality that I found haunting long after the kids' graduation. It felt like I remembered high school to be, shown from the teenagers' POV. Evidently the top brass at PBS found this level of "reality" too tough to take. They considered it objectionable in at least five ways: It contained an interracial romance (lots of sex talk, deep kissing, etc.); pot smoking; drinking and drunkenness; kids being disrespectful to their teachers; and frequent sprinkling of the F-word throughout their conversations. The film was scheduled to air on April 28, 1982; that broadcast never happened. Despite PBS' cowardly reaction (I doubt that decision would be much different today), the film went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, a theatrical release and enthusiastic reviews.

The remaining two films, Community of Praise and Family Business, were somewhat hampered by the lack of a natural story arc, although Howie Snider, the charismatic father in Family Business, holds the whole film together by sheer force of will. Surprisingly, given that this film was made by the legendary documentarian Richard Leacock and Marisa Silver, I found Community of Praise to be the weakest film in the series from both a structural and aesthetic viewpoint. It had a meandering, almost unfinished quality about it that left me feeling unsatisfied. Perhaps this is due in part to my own lack of empathy with the evangelical community, but all the characters seemed blurred. There was no single strong thread, no central emotional core to hold this story together.

As a whole, however, this series has the rich texture, emotional depth and sociological breadth to make it relevant for generations to come. While the box set, with all its finished packaging, was not yet available at the time of this writing, we have to thank Peter Davis and the distributor, Icarus Films, for making Middletown accessible once again.

The Middletown DVD box set includes four discs, with a total running time of 457 minutes, plus a 16-page booklet and a bonus filmed interview with Peter Davis. The set will be released September 21 through Icarus Films.


Cynthia Close is executive director of Documentary Educational Resources.