June 15, 2009

Joel Demott and Jeff Kreines' 'Seventeen'

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

I first saw Seventeen almost 20 years ago, and it took me that many years to find it again. It was my sophomore year of college; I was studying filmmaking in a program at Harvard that exposed me to a wide array of seminal, if obscure documentary films. Seventeen was the one that changed my entire appreciation and understanding of movies. Call it “direct cinema,” call it “cinema vérité” —whatever the label, this is a powerful form of storytelling that contains more truth than any fact-filled historical documentary and more human drama than any Hollywood blockbuster I had ever seen.

This incredible film unfortunately fell victim to a distribution disaster that the filmmakers bitterly resent to this day. It was one of a six-part PBS series slated to air in 1982 called Middletown, inspired by a famous anthropological study of Muncie, Indiana. Things got ugly when Xerox, the corporate sponsor of the series, caught wind that the film showed interracial romance and contained vulgar language. Xerox systematically shut the film down; Seventeen was effectively censored by its corporate sponsor (a real no-no for “public” television) and to this day has never been aired. Today, you can’t find it on Netflix, you can’t rent it at your local video store; it’s a rare specimen sighted only at cinematheques and universities.

The thing that makes Seventeen worth hunting down is the incredible, delicate access that the filmmakers negotiated with the people they were filming. Joel Demott and Jeff Kreines, each armed with a one-man-band 16mm camera and tape-recorder rig (!), would split up; she filmed with the girls, he with the boys. They lived in Muncie for over a year, but unlike those of us now accustomed to burning videotape, they shot at a conservative ratio of 30-to-1. They filmed exclusively hand-held, wide and close, and rarely ever got an establishing shot; they just hung close with the working-class kids of Muncie’s Southside High School.

There are no graphics (not even one lower-third), no dramatic score, no catchy montages; there’s hardly even a credit roll. The only score is what the kids blast in their Lincoln Continentals and request on their local radio station. The film starts unassumingly, at an excruciatingly slow pace, in Ms. Hartley’s loathsome Home-Ec class, much like the start of any dreaded day in high school. The story unfolds with Zen-like patience and grows with powerful momentum into a crescendo of conflict and chaos, without ever sensationalizing.

I was lucky enough to go to one the best public high schools in the country, but even so, the painful scenes of race and class tension, sexual exploits and after-kegger tragedies in Seventeen are all too familiar. Even more than my own experience, the scenes recalled what I witnessed as my older sister, class of 1982, feathered her hair and partied with the townies when rock was really Rock and everybody drove drunk. Neither the canon of fictional teen dramas nor “Reality” TV have even a hint of Seventeen’s authenticity; this is a haunting view into the all-too-real world of working-class teenagers, numbing themselves from the ugly adult culture around them—as the filmmakers say in their own press notes, “fighting and fucking” their way through high school.

The good news is that, 25 years later, the filmmakers are working on getting this film back into the mix. And trust me, it’s worth the wait.

 

Amanda Micheli is an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker and a celebrated cinematographer. Her first film, Just for the Ride, won the IDA David L. Wolper Student Documentary Achievement Award in 1996; in December, La Corona won the IDA Award for Best Short Documentary. Her other credits include Double Dare, Thin, Cat Dancers and My Flesh and Blood.

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