The Middletown Film Project was formed in 1976 by Peter Davis and three Ball State University professors to research and conceive a series of documentaries in Muncie, Indiana. In 1979 and 1980, Davis assembled filmmakers for the six films. Having begun making films at CBS News in the 1960s, Davis received an Academy Award in 1975 for his documentary about the Vietnam War, Hearts and Minds. Inspired by the pioneering work of cultural anthropologists Robert and Helen Lynd, who had used Muncie as their own base, Davis wanted to present portraits of life in middle America. The Lynds' seminal work, Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture, published in 1929, was an exhaustive report on social trends and behaviors in the Muncie of the 1920s, Muncie having been chosen as a presumably representative American community.
The Lynds oriented their research around six "main trunk" activities: earning a living, making a home, training the young, using leisure time, engaging in religious practices, and participating in community activities. Accordingly, the Middletown Film Project set out to make one documentary in each of these categories. The six films in the series were scheduled to be shown on PBS in the spring of 1982. The final film, Seventeen, proved too controversial for PBS and was never broadcast; it was released theatrically to critical acclaim three years later. Today, Middletown has taken a place comparable to that of An American Family (1973): an indelible, expansive and irreplaceable look at life in the United States. – David Pendleton
Special thanks: Icarus Films
Film descriptions by Brittany Gravely and David Pendleton
PLEASE NOTE: PETER DAVIS WILL APPEAR AT EVERY SCREENING, SCHEDULE PENDING.
Directed by Tom Cohen.
US 1982, digital video, color, 77 min.
A depiction of the two-party system in American politics,The Campaign follows a mayoral race in Muncie and its near-archetypal candidates. Jim Carey is an Irish Democrat, a lifelong politician and an avid campaigner. Alan Wilson is a buttoned-down WASP, who is a criminal lawyer and a soft-spoken family man. We watch as the two make a series of campaign appearances and strategize. The result is a cross between Robert Drew’s direct-cinema classic Primary (1960) and, in its awareness of the pageantry of American politics, a down-to-earth, real-life version of Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975).
Directed by E.J. Vaughn.
US 1982, digital video, color, 58 min.
The Middletown Film Project chose high school athletics as the subject matter to illustrate the section of the Lynds’ work dealing with leisure. The “big game” of the title is the annual basketball game between rival schools Muncie Central and Anderson High. As the film makes clear, more is at stake than bragging rights; athletics is seen as a road to a college scholarship. The documentary derives its structure from the contrast between the prominent athletes on each team. The white Rick Rowray is being recruited by universities; Andre Morgan, African American, views athletics as “my ticket out.” It is the only title in the series to be shot largely on video.
Directed by Peter Davis, Co-directed by John Lindley.
USA 1982, digital video, color, 58 min.
Two divorcees decide to marry and must come to terms with their differences and finances in this charmingly unassuming portrait of the changing face of the middle American family circa early 1980s. As the date comes closer, their intimate conversations acquire an awkward tension as they negotiate compromises and emotional baggage like business partners. At a time when gender roles were still shifting, the economy was down, and divorce rates were on the rise, Second Time Around is a simply-arranged window into the private lives of a reorganized family giving the American Dream another go.
Directed by Richard Leacock and Marisa Silver.
USA 1982, digital video, color, 59 min.
Phyllis and Phil Tobey tell how they turned their lives around when they found religion through a branch of conservative Christian fundamentalism. Their staunch faith pervades every aspect of the small community’s days, and their young son is already questioning his willingness to submit. From the exorcisms performed in the back of a veterinarian’s clinic to hands-on healings at a convention, they strive to rid themselves of all kinds of illnesses and demons. Co-directed by the late Richard Leacock, Community of Praise is a peculiarly American take on religious belief and fervor that reveals a heartfelt longing for community and wholeness.
Directed by Tom Cohen.
USA 1982, digital video, color 87 min.
Shakey’s is a miraculous breed of pizza parlor – one which features old time live musical entertainment and a familiar repartee with its customers when the mood strikes Howie Snider, the patriarch of the struggling family enterprise. Harkening back to numerous bygone phenomena, the documentary is a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the layered dynamics of family and restaurant life. As the tensions and emotions pile up, the endearing cast of characters muddle through with their own brand of drama and comedy. It is as much a sweet slice of 1970s America as it is a look into the freedoms and hazards of keeping a small business in the family.
Directed by Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines.
US 1982, 16mm, color, 118 min.
Seventeen went from being banned from broadcast by PBS to success on the festival circuit and a theatrical release. Even today, it is easy to see why the film was controversial. The portrait of a group of working-class high school seniors, it casts an unflinching eye at profanity and delinquency, teen pregnancy, drug use, interracial romance and, ultimately, betrayal, heartbreak and mortality. The two documentarians each shot with separate cameras, DeMott filming the women and Kreines the men. The finished product both reveals the workings of high school as an institution and displays the extraordinary intimacy between filmmakers and subjects.