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Video: Back Home in Indiana

6 minute read
Gerald Clarke

MIDDLETOWN

PBS, Wednesdays beginning March 24, 9 p.m. E.S. T.

Poor Muncie, Ind. A small city in that mythical region called the heartland, it has been probed, inspected and all but dissected for more than half a century, labeled by teams of social scientists as typically American. The husband-and-wife team of Robert and Helen Lynd led off in 1929 with their famous book Middletown: A Study in American Culture, following up eight years later with Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts. A research team of university scholars is about to release the first part of a third look, conducted in the mid-’70s. Still another survey will be unveiled on TV this week, a six-part PBS series simply titled Middletown. And this time Muncie—not to mention PBS—may never be the same.

The series was produced by Peter Davis, who won both praise and condemnation for two previous documentaries: The Selling of the Pentagon, a 1971 CBS special describing the methods by which the military promotes itself within the U.S.; and Hearts and Minds, a 1975 film examining the origins and consequences of the American involvement in Viet Nam. The Selling of the Pentagon won an Emmy, Hearts and Minds an Oscar, but both were also criticized as simplistic, distorted and unfair to some of the people they depicted. Middletown is likely to become just as controversial. Indeed, Xerox, which provided $600,000 of the program’s $3 million budget, has already disassociated itself, disturbed by the sometimes foul language. Larry Grossman, the president of PBS, has denounced one 4-min. 7-sec. scene in which a teen-age boy graphically recounts his sexual exploits as “tasteless, exploitative and devastating.” PBS will provide its stations with two versions of the show, one omitting that scene.

Davis has modeled his series after the Lynds’ original work, which also had six major divisions, ranging from how people in Muncie made a living to the ways in which they worshiped. The opening episode chronicles the race between two mayoral candidates. Later episodes will focus on, among others, a family of Christian Fundamentalists, the Tobeys, and two divorcees who decide, despite many qualms, to give marriage a second chance.

Unlike the Lynds, however, who tried to paint a complete picture, a giant mural with statistics, footnotes and 24 pages of tables, Davis has sought to present only representative portraits, concentrating on a very few people who opened up their lives to an omnipresent camera eye. Davis’ crews followed their subjects around for weeks at a time; eventually, he says, they forgot that they were being watched. “Sure, they might be put off for a day or two,” he says, “but very soon they would stop thinking about us and get on with their lives. Our crews became like wallpaper, sentient wallpaper.”

Most of the footage wound up on the cutting-room floor, of course—in some episodes 80 times as much was shot as was used—but what remains is often extraordinarily revealing. Like the 1973 PBS series An American Family, about the William Louds of Santa Barbara, Calif., Middletown does away with any kind of narration that might distance the subject from the viewer, and the camera records such private and intimate moments that even wallpaper might blush.

One of the most effective episodes details the struggle of the Snider family to keep their Shakey’s pizza franchise from going bankrupt. Howard Snider, a former Marine lieutenant colonel, pleads with a creditor with one hand and tries to lure customers with the other, strumming, not very well, on a banjo. His large family loyally helps out, but some of his children clearly hope that, for his sake, he will fail. In an emotional scene at the dinner table, one of the boys tearfully tells his father that he no longer has the dignity he once had. “I don’t see the pride you had when you were a Marine,” he says. Observes his father: “If this business fails, your dad is going to be really hurting psychologically and emotionally for a long while.” No playwright could have written lines at once so banal and so true, and no actors could have made them believable.

Not all of the episodes—not even all of that episode—are so interesting, however. True to the techniques of cinema verite, Davis shows the trivial as well as the important, the boring moments in people’s lives as well as the dramatic. In some cases, this is necessary: the climactic scene in the Snider dining room is meaningless if it is not preceded by the humdrum activities of the pizza parlor. In other cases, boredom merely breeds boredom. A more serious complaint is the absence of narration. Effective as this device often is, it nonetheless deprives viewers of a perspective, a knowledge of who these people are and where they fit in—the very thing the Lynds did so well. Viewers may get a clear image of individual families, but their vision of Muncie is bound to be confused and distorted.

It is the last episode, “Seventeen,” that raises questions about Davis’ basic judgment, however. To illustrate his chapter about learning in Muncie, he has concentrated on Lynn Massie and several other seniors at Southside High School, which apparently (we are never told) draws from a working-class neighborhood. Learning is definitely not what goes on in front of the cameras; it almost appears that in some perverse gesture of reverse sentimentality, Davis searched not for the best or even typical students, but for the most crudely narrow and foulmouthed ones he could find. They smoke pot in the lavatory, carouse at lowdown beer busts and verbally abuse one of their teachers. What point Davis was trying to make in this disagreeable episode is hard to fathom, but a number of Muncie citizens, who saw an advance screening at the local PBS station, were concerned enough to fly to Washington last week and register protests with PBS’s management. Even before they arrived, PBS, following its usual practice with controversial material, had scheduled a follow-up discussion program on Middletown for broadcast May 3—an examination of Davis’ own reexamination.

That may be one study too many. As Davis presents it, Middletown is occasionally fascinating, but it is doubtful that many viewers will want to live there very long.

—By Gerald Clarke

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