Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 27, 2010

Middletown

Filed under: economics,Film,religion,workers — louisproyect @ 3:40 pm

Since I was familiar with Peter Davis’s “Hearts and Minds”, the definitive documentary about the war in Vietnam, I was anxious to view the Icarus Film’s rerelease of “Middletown”, a PBS documentary series that aired in 1982. As producer of the series and director of the episode “Second Time Around”, about a downwardly mobile couple about to be married, Davis sought to create a film analogue of the classic sociological study conducted by Robert and Helen Lynd in 1929. I had always assumed that the name Middletown referred to the Ohio city, but as it turns out the subject of their study and Davis’s PBS series is Muncie, Indiana. The Lynds were the parents of long-time radical scholar and activist Staughton Lynd, who shared Davis’s passionate opposition to the war in Vietnam as well as his parents’ socialist beliefs. In a PBS interview, Staughton described how his parents went about the project:

I don’t want to present myself as an expert on Middletown, but I will add this fact to the stew. The most powerful employers in Muncie, Indiana at the town were the Ball family, who made glass jars for putting up preserves. And my father, in conducting the original Middletown study, kind of went everywhere and met everyone. He talked to the Rotary Club. He sang in church. He shot the breeze with the local socialists, or one of them. And he had a cordial relationship with the Ball family. And again the kitchen table story is that after the second book appeared the Ball family stopped sending Christmas cards. So there came a time when I suppose you would say my dad had to pick sides or at least was perceived by others as picking sides. And certainly his choice was with those who worked, who did manual work in Muncie rather than with the owning class.

Davis clearly was just the sort of person who could adapt the original material to the film medium. In the booklet that accompanies the Icarus package, he writes:

Looking at the Middletown films a generation after their completion, I find it striking – embarrassing really – that a single word not only binds but flows like a rushing stream through all six films. It is a peculiarly American word that seems to apply to us as it would not if a similar study were made in Italy, China or even among our cultural progenitors in the British Isles. The word is wanting…

My embarrassment is that I didn‟t see the wanting much earlier. When the academic advisors and I formed the Middletown Film Project in 1976, my own aim was to look at a single American community for what it could tell us about our society. Writers and observers as far apart as Alexis de Tocqueville, Saul Bellow, and Robert and Helen Merrell Lynd have looked at America and seen the wanting. “The Indian,” de Tocqueville wrote, “knew how to live without wants,” while the new American man was “constantly on the move” trying to improve his lot, “and you will always find him preoccupied with fresh plans to increase his comfort.” In Henderson The Rain King, Bellow‟s protagonist is assailed by the refrain, “I want, I want, I want,” which also haunts the main character in his late novel Ravelstein. The reprise is neither lazy nor accidental; it was Bellow, born a Canadian, on American yearners.

While all six films in the series are powerful statements about the American psyche, I want to single out “Community of Praise”, which was directed by Richard Leacock. Leacock, now 89, is one of the giants of documentary film-making, serving as cameraman with Robert Flaherty on “The Louisiana Story” in 1946. Leacock, like Davis and all the other directors, used a cinéma vérité style to show how a family’s life revolved around their Christian fundamentalist beliefs. Although Indiana is a northern state, it has many features in common with Bible Belt states like Texas and Oklahoma. Indeed, in “Seventeen”, another episode in the series (PBS refused to air it because it was deemed too controversial), we see an interracial couple being persecuted for breaking taboos. A cross is burned on the white girl’s front-yard.

In the Staughton Lynd interview alluded to above, he stresses that his parents’ intention was to focus on the role that religion plays in Muncie, something that “Community of Praise” lays bare. The main thing that comes across is the sheer desperation that drives ordinary people to the church, much like a drowning person clings to a life-preserver. The husband tells Leacock that he always had a bottle at his side when he was in the barn working on drag racers. He might not have gone to taverns like other men, but he got drunk every night just like them. His wife confesses that she went through a bad period when she was getting drunk, taking valium and suffering from insomnia and depression. She got involved with a local church first and then convinced him to come along. The church, which appears to be Pentecostal, has members and pastors speaking in tongue and rolling around on the floor in divine inspiration. There is very little talk about spirituality or social justice. The main preoccupation appears to be getting rid of demons inside the body that can manifest themselves along a spectrum, from alcoholism to the scoliosis that afflicts a teen-age girl. How will they know that a demon has been expelled? You might experience it either as a sneeze or a passing of wind, the veterinarian faith-healer advises.

A while back when I was studying the controversy around Napoleon Chagnon’s “fierce people” hypothesis on the Yanomami, I imagined a scenario in which a couple of Indians would come to the United States and begin knocking doors in a New Jersey suburban bedroom community to ask people about the most intimate details of their private lives. “Community of Praise” might have been the documentary that embodies this spirit of inquiry into one very superstitious and backward group of people.

The Middletown films, a 4 disk DVD package, can be purchased from amazon.com for $29.99 and is worth every penny. For people trying to understand the stresses of American society that are generating phenomena like the Tea Party, Peter Davis’s series are eye-opening reminders that the process has been deepening every since Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, the very year that these documentary films were being filmed. As the hammer blows of a post-prosperity economy rain down on the working class families of Muncie, they turn to either a faith in the marketplace or the god in the sky to help them see things through. Now that we are in an economic downfall that makes the early 80s look tame by comparison, it should not come as a surprise that all sorts of bizarre religious beliefs are embraced by those who have been hammered the worst.

While Davis, Leacock and the other obviously progressive-minded film-makers who worked on this project could find no answer to these contradictions within Muncie itself, it is good that they embarked on this project because it gives scholars and activists an accurate picture of the state of the American mind, one that Peter Davis characterized as wanting. Our job is to persuade them that a radical transformation of the economy is the only thing that can address their hunger for security and well-being.

1 Comment »

  1. […] CULTURAL DISSENT Alan Brunton and the dream of a revolutionary art http://readingthemaps.blogspot.com/ Book Review: The Life and Death of Percy Brookfield 1875 – 1921 (Australian socialist MP) http://leftfocus.blogspot.com/2010/09/book-review-life-and-death-of-percy.html Peace on earth so Marxist science may save the sick and those oppressed by criminal yankee capitalism by Frida Kahlo http://tinyurl.com/2fwpjje Movie: The Persecution and Assassination of Jean Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates at the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade by Peter Weiss – Performed by the Royal Shakespeare http://wobblytimes.blogspot.com/ The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief, By VS Naipaul Reviewed by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/the-masque-of-africa-glimpses-of-african-belief-by-vs-naipaul-2075063.html “Inside Job” is to the financial crisis as “No End in Sight” is to the war in Iraq. https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2010/09/24/inside-job/ `A force which is truly for good’ — John Coltrane and the jazz revolution http://links.org.au/node/1906 “The United States of America Has Gone Mad” By UK author John le Carré http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article26427.htm Middletown: Since I was familiar with Peter Davis’s “Hearts and Minds”, the definitive documentary about the war in Vietnam, I was anxious to view the Icarus Film’s rerelease of “Middletown”, a PBS documentary series that aired in 1982. As producer of the series and director of the episode “Second Time Around”, about a downwardly mobile couple about to be married, Davis sought to create a film analogue of the classic sociological study conducted by Robert and Helen Lynd in 1929. I had always assumed that the name Middletown referred to the Ohio city, but as it turns out the subject of their study and Davis’s PBS series is Muncie, Indiana. The Lynds were the parents of long-time radical scholar and activist Staughton Lynd, who shared Davis?s passionate opposition to the war in Vietnam as well as his parents? socialist beliefs. https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2010/09/27/middletown/ […]

    Pingback by #349: Thurs: Cuban ambassador, Jane Kelsey & Keith Locke speak on “Cuban 5″ « GPJA's Blog — September 27, 2010 @ 10:05 pm


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: