The Middletown Film Project a the HFA

With all of the new documentaries in town this week for the Independent Film Festival Boston (don’t miss the LEF-sponsored panel “When Does a Story Become a FIlm? From Idea to Documentary”), it’s also good to remember some older nonfiction films that have been screening at the Harvard Film Archive – the Middletown Film Project, which conclude this Sunday with SEVENTEEN.

These films about Muncie, Indiana in the early 1980s capture tensions between hard work and financial reward, romantic love and the logistics of marriage, religious meaning and day-to-day difficulty, in films like SECOND TIME AROUND, FAMILY BUSINESS and COMMUNITY OF PRAISE (the latter directed by Marisa Silver and the late Richard Leacock).

Verite-style and shot mostly on film – at shooting ratios that are unimaginably low to today’s digital filmmakers – the segments are amazing documents and well-crafted, hilarious and heartbreaking movies. SEVENTEEN, the most controversial film in the series screens on Sunday, with Peter Davis, the Emmy- and Academy-Award winnning creator of the series there to talk about the films.

From Dwight W. Hoover’s book about the series and Peter Davis’ Q&A I got a slight sense of the huge effort that went into funding and producing the films, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Ford Foundation, the Indiana Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Xerox corporation. It’s interesting to read about the exhaustive and frustrating grant application process and complex political considerations that went into 1970s NEH funding, but Davis and his collaborators pulled off the series despite hurdles.

As its premise, the Middletown Film Project revisits the Muncie studied in Robert and Helen Lynd’s MIDDLETOWN; A STUDY IN CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN CULTURE, published in 1929. Middletown is a sociolgical classic – Dwight Hoover attributes part of the study’s success as a book, quoting a critic, to the Lynd’s “subtle irony, their unobtrusive methods, thier modesty and their narrative power,” and I was interested to learn a little bit about the origins of the initial Muncie project. Funded by an institute that John D. Rockefeller had set up to study religion in America, the study went through different permutations, and different sociologists, before settling on Robert Lynd, a minister with strong opinions and a can-do approach to sociological survey

I liked the reason the institute gave for removing Lynd’s predecessor:
“while he was a diligent soul he did not have the makings of a personable, insighful participant observer”

Despite any problems the original funders (who didn’t end up publishing the book, which was put out by Harcourt Brace), might have had with the final Middletown product, wtih its criticisms of Middletown values, they had wanted someone personable, insightful and participant to do the job. With those qualities comes a certain level of unpredictability. 50 years later not all of Peter Davis’ funders knew quite what would happen with the series, either, but in allowing him and his team to do something new and exciting, they got more than they bargained for – a compelling set of films that endures way beyond the original context. Isn’t that what most open-minded funders would hope for?

There’s a box set of the DVDs  avaliable from Icarus Films!

– Nellie

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