Two Documentaries Ask: Who Really Lives in Middle America?
The films October Country and 45365 look at the people living in the middle of the country, not just the statistics and political punchlines they represent.American politicians, our current President included, have long been fond of invoking the residents of the country's vast midsection to push their agendas. The national media is just as fond of fetishizing Middle America, especially since the onset of the recession, which has hit Middle American strongholds like Michigan and Ohio particularly hard. In these tellings, Middle Americans aren't actual people; instead, they're rhetorical constructs meant to communicate abstract ideas about pluck, generosity, and scrappy virtue.So who really lives in Middle America? The new documentaries October Country and 45365 both seek to put a human face on this quasi-mystical land. Both are the work of native sons who returned home, and had unique access to their subjects. Both are portraits of places, made around the same time, which have gained unexpected resonance in light of the recession: October Country was shot in 2006 and 2007 and chronicles 12 months in the life of the Mohawk Valley region of New York State, while 45365, shot entirely in 2007, captures nine months in the life of Sidney, Ohio, a town about 40 miles north of Dayton. Both are authentic and intimate, eschewing narration and linear narrative in an effort to capture life as it's lived. And, despite all those similarities, they're completely different films, defying the idea of a single, monolithic Middle America.October Country, which just began a national theatrical release, is the cinematic outgrowth of the writing and still photography Donal Mosher has done about his family for many years. With co-director Michael Palmieri, a veteran of commercials and music videos, Mosher visited his family four times over the course of a year, charting the disappointments, frustrations, and small triumphs of four generations of Moshers. He does not appear in the film, but his presence is implied by the on-screen comfort of his kin, who've clearly become inured to the camera after many years of having their pictures taken. Mosher and Palmieri gave the film the tag line "Every family has its ghosts," and in the year they document the Mosher clan, appropriately bookended by two Halloweens, they find plenty.There are the ghosts that Don, a retired cop and the family patriarch, still carries from Vietnam, and the ones that his estranged sister Denise, a Wicca practitioner, tries to summon in cemeteries. Then there are the ghosts that torment Don's daughter Donna, and her daughter Daneal, which lead each generation of Mosher women to repeat a near-identical cycle of early pregancy, poverty, and abuse by men-a pattern from which the precocious 11-year-old Desi, Daneal's younger sister, hopes to break free. And there are the ghosts that follow Chris, a juvenile delinquent who Don and his wife Dottie have adopted, who repeatedly makes decisions that conflict with his own self-interest. The Moshers reflect on their trials and tribulations with a mix of gallows humor and surprising self-awareness.Though the camera never strays far from the Moshers' kitchen table, the family's ghosts are clearly connected to the ghosts of the region-the same region, incidentally, where Spiritualism and seances first became popular in the mid-19th century. The only significant industry that remains in the Mohawk Valley today is a Remington firearms factory, whose continued operation represents a choice between "a thousand people's jobs and supporting the war, to make more guns, and we're caught in the middle," as Donna puts it. That point is hammered home on the Fourth of July. Townsfolk gather in the parking lot of the local Wal-Mart-"the only place we've got left to shop," Donna remarks ruefully-to watch fireworks, but Don can't cope with the bombs bursting in air, thanks to his PTSD.The filmmakers say they got a ton of great interviews on that Fourth of July with other residents of the Mohawk Valley area, but ultimately chose to leave those scenes out. "The farther we got away from the inner dynamics of the family, the weaker the film got," Mosher explains. "The story demanded we stay close."By contrast, in 45365, the Best Documentary winner at last year's South by Southwest film festival and part of the Museum of Modern Art's upcoming Documentary Fortnight, the broader community is the story. Directed by brothers Bill and Turner Ross, 45365 (which some have begun referring to as "the zip-code movie") presents a kaleidescopic view of the rhythms of small-town life, at once hallucinatory and banal. Using the broadcasts of the local radio station as a loose framing device, the film follows the air waves from the studio out into bars and barbershops, cop cars and courtrooms, visiting teenage football players roughhousing in a family den, and elderly ladies discussing the nuances of QVC in a nursing-home cafeteria.Here too, people gather in a parking lot to watch fireworks and kids in costumes go door to door on Halloween. At times, the film offers hints of Norman Rockwell's idealized small-town America, particularly in the loving attention it pays to the high-school football team. But the cycles of despair chronicled by October Country surface here as well, as when a police officer on the night shift comments on how he started out his career arresting the parents, and now he's arresting their kids.Even though one of 45365's main threads is a local judge's re-election campaign, the closest the film gets to a political statement is when one local, wearing a sweatshirt that says "Walking with God in Tough Times," declares, "I don't vote Democrat or Republican. I vote for the right person." Like October Country, the politics here are implicit, not stated-it's a portrait, not an "issue film." October Country co-director Palmieri could be speaking for either film when he says, "It's not ‘here are three things you can do.' It's more about bearing witness."Jesse Ashlock is a writer living in Brooklyn.
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