Attempts to isolate & chronicle the lives of average, everyday Americans are always potentially offensive, simply because they presuppose that there’s such a thing as average, everyday Americans—or average, everyday people of any country. Middletown, a series of six documentaries for Public Television about life in Muncie, Indiana at the end of the ‘70s & the beginning of the ‘80s, is impressive precisely because none of its subjects seem ordinary or average.
Released on DVD from Icarus Films last month—it took me a while to work my way through all six films—Middletown was created by Peter Davis, famous for such incendiary docs as Hearts and Minds & The Selling of the Pentagon. Davis took his inspiration from the famous “Middletown Studies” conducted in the 1920s by husband-&-wife sociologists Robert & Helen Lynd. The categories for observation developed by the Lynds were (broadly) Work, Play, Family, Religion, Community, Education. Davis built one film apiece around each of these themes, & the result is a overarching but never reductive view of the town & the time.
The series begins with The Campaign, directed by Tom Cohen. It profiles both candidates in Muncie’s mayoral race: Jim Carey, an old-school, glad-handing Irish Democrat (Broderick Crawford could have played him in a fiction version) with a history of corruption charges (& acquittals) & Alan Wilson, a reserved, milquetoast Republican who seems miserable over the possibility he might win.
Part Two is E. J. Vaughn’s The Big Game, an account of the coaches & players in a basketball game between high school rivals Muncie Central & Anderson High. Part Three is Community of Praise, directed by Richard Leacock & the very young Marisa Silver, about a troubled family’s religious life in a tiny fundamentalist group headed by a veterinarian, who performs exorcisms in the back of his clinic.
Part Four is Family Business, also directed by Cohen, about the struggle of a retired marine officer, his wife & their children to keep a Shakey’s Pizza franchise afloat. Part Five, directed by Davis himself, is Second Time Around, in which two divorcees in their thirties plan their wedding & attempt to negotiate the terms of the marriage that will follow it.
The last & longest segment, Seventeen, was also the most controversial. Directed by Joel DeMott & Jeff Kreines, it depicts the efforts of a few well-meaning, ineffectual teachers at Southside High to drill a bit of knowledge & responsibility into the heads of their seniors, intercut with the off-campus lives of the students themselves—drinking, partying, making out & generally stirring up unnecessary drama. PBS declined to air this chapter, owing to all the swearing, pot-smoking & boozing, & also possibly to pressure from southern affiliates over scenes of interracial dating.
Some of the films are stronger than others—my own favorite was the riveting Family Business, with its jabbering, maddening, magnetic characters, who seem like a theatrical clan forced into pizzamaking. But The Campaign is also a jaw-dropper, not least because of the civility & decency that both of the (clearly imperfect) candidates demonstrate, toward each other & the process. You may well find yourself wishing that current campaigns were more like this.
Each of Middletown’s six slices of life will appeal to different tastes, but all six are worthwhile. The Icarus boxed set has a Special Feature—a short interview with Peter Davis—& a booklet that includes Where-Are-They-Now information.