(Photo of Hugo Perez and Peter Davis)

image Last night, STF hosted a tribute to Peter Davis, a filmmaker and a gentleman, a scholar and writer best known in documentary circles for his classic HEARTS AND MINDS that earned him the 1975 Oscar for Best Documentary.  Much less known today is his landmark television series MIDDLETOWN, a series of six verité documentaries which aspired to create a portrait of life in America by telling stories that reflected 6 different aspects of American life: Getting a Living; Making a Home; Training the Young; Using Leisure; Engaging in Religious Practice; and Engaging in Community Activities.  The series was shot entirely in Muncie, Indiana from 1979 to 1982 with a team that included Peter Davis as Executive Producer and Director, Ricky Leacock as a Director, now A-List Hollywood DP John Lindley, editor Tom Haneke and others.  Originally aired in 1982, the MIDDLETOWN series has become increasingly hard to see.** Doc geeks like myself have only had the chance to see the films from the series on blurry VHS copies passed around from doc enthusiast to doc enthusiast like Russian Samizdat literature.  (One hopes that a company like Criterion might someday step in to make the films available as a DVD box-set.)

All of this is a long way of saying that those who attended the Peter Davis Tribute last night were lucky to have a truly rare chance to see Davis film “Second Time Around” on the big screen.  An intimate portrait of divorcees David and Elaine, “Second Time Around” follows the couple in the weeks before they marry each other, an emotional rollercoaster as they face the pragmatic, financial, and personal hurdles they’ll have to clear to make a true partnership work.  Masterfully shot by John Lindley and edited by Tom Haneke, Davis film is a textbook example of how to make a great verité film.

image L to R: Members of the MIDDLETOWN series team: Susan Baum, Terry Simon, Peter Davis, Hugo Perez (guest host of STF), and E.J. Vaughn

The screening led to a lively discussion between Davis and an audience that included filmmakers Nick Broomfield, Susan Meiselas, Bill Jersey, and members of the MIDDLETOWN team Tom Haneke, Terry Simon, Susan Baum, and E.J. Vaughn.  Davis discussed the production of MIDDLETOWN for most of the Q&A; the challenges he faced not just in funding and producing the series, but also in shepherding the films (5 of the 6 anyway) to their broadcast on a nervous PBS.  Just as our time at the IFC was running out, Davis threw down the proverbial gauntlet by voicing the opinion that many filmmakers today are relying too heavily on the artifice of re-enacting or recreating scenes.  To paraphrase Davis, some filmmakers today are taking real people and turning them into actors, a process that he feels diminishes the power of the stories told.  In the last few minutes before we were forced to give up the theater, the Q&A became a genuine debate about the limits to how much a documentary filmmaker could or should “stage-manage” reality for their film. The discussion ended before we could go very far down the road of answering this question, but all of those present are certainly better off for Peter Davis’ visit with us.

For those with educational or institutional budgets, the MIDDLETOWN series is distributed by Icarus Films.

image L to R: STF regulars Alejandro Martinez, Erin Marie Osner, and Evan Schlossberg at the post-film reception at 99 Below.

 

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PETER DAVIS TRIBUTE

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