In 1929 and 1937, sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd published the books Middletown: A Study In Modern American Culture and Middletown In Transition: A Study In Cultural Conflicts, detailing the core organizing principles and concerns of one mid-sized American town, later revealed to be Muncie, Indiana. A few decades later, Academy Award-winning documentarian Peter Davis (director of the searing Vietnam/homefront doc Hearts And Minds) headed to Muncie with a team of filmmakers for the Middletown project, a series of six documentaries about the state of work, politics, education, religion, recreation, and family life in the American heartland in the early ’80s. Middletown ran on PBS in 1982, winning acclaim and awards, and also stirring up some controversy among those who felt that Davis’ people set out to make Muncie look bad, and thus misled their subjects. (PBS actually declined to air the final film, “Seventeen,” because it showed teens engaging in typical teen behavior.) At the time, Middletown was considered groundbreaking and historic, but since there wasn’t a lot of demand for despairing six-part vérité documentaries about Middle America in the then-new home-video market, the series more or less disappeared into university libraries and sociology classes.
Now collected at last on a three-DVD set, Middletown is every bit as powerful and painful as it must’ve been in 1982, even though 28 years of slice-of-life docs and reality TV have rendered it less fresh. While episodes like “The Campaign” (which follows two candidates for Muncie mayor from stump speech to concession speech) and “The Big Game” (which tracks the preparation, play, and aftermath of a basketball game between rival high schools) are gripping and vivid in their fly-on-the-wall depictions of cultural rituals, there have been plenty of documentaries before and since about campaigns and sporting events. The smaller, more character-driven Middletown episodes are the ones that really resonate: “Second Time Around,” about two divorced people preparing for their wedding day and slowly realizing that their individual values and collective financial needs may be incompatible; “Community Of Praise,” about a family of fire-and-brimstone Christians struggling to live their faith in their daily lives; and “Family Business,” about a local Shakey’s Pizza owner facing bankruptcy and potentially the sad end to what he’d hoped would be his legacy for his children.
As for “Seventeen,” it should ring excruciatingly true for anyone who’s spent any time hanging around teenagers, or remembers being one. The way these high-school kids spend their days—desultorily picking on each other, acting hyper-sensitive about meaningless slights, making life hell for the weaker teachers, and just generally giving new meaning to the phrase “too cool for school”—is at times tough to watch. The tediousness of the school assignments and the attitude of the kids (halfway between knee-jerk contempt and light-headed exhaustion) makes the whole prospect of high school seem like a waste of time for all concerned. But as a small circle of friends and their taboo-testing interracial romances come into focus, these little dramas become increasingly poignant. Everything that’s happening seems so important, so epic, and yet the people involved lack the perspective to know how little any of it will matter in just a few years.
The Middletown project could’ve stood a little perspective too. Davis and his cohorts clearly came to Muncie with an agenda, and though they couldn’t have predicted the way the individual stories would go, the films have been edited to emphasize sadness and strife, to the exclusion of joy or hope. Still, there are so many indelible moments in these Middletown episodes: a disgraced mayoral candidate crying about his past in front of a group of students who think he’s being insincere; a prayer group encouraging new members to vomit so they can purge their demons; a businessman realizing that the only people making money off his establishment are the bankers and franchisers, both of whom want to pull the plug; a couple struggling to understand how they could be living just fine as dating singles, but at the brink of financial ruin as newlyweds; and many more. “Seventeen” alone is as vivid and intense a vision of America as the documentary medium has ever produced, full of rage, pain, birth, death, and chemically induced euphoria. It’s this place and time reduced to its rawest essence, expressing the persistent dissatisfaction at the heart of the American dream.
Key features: A 30-minute interview with Davis and a 16-page booklet packed with vital info and reflections.