The people of 'Middletown' decades later: is this a true picture?
If you feel resentment toward the basic morality on display in a new PBS series titled ''Middletown,'' you may wonder if your reaction is based upon an unwillingness to face the reality of the 1980s. But don't judge yourself too harshly.Skip to next paragraph
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Robert and Helen Lynd's classic book -- a sociological study of the structure of life in Muncie, Ind., in the 1920s and 1930s -- has been updated to the 1980s and turned into a sometimes revealing but mainly disagreeable six-part documentary series: ''Middletown,'' (PBS, Wednesday and five succeeding Wednesdays, 9 p.m., check local listings for day and time).
Because of the importance of the original book and what appears to be a serious attempt to bring it up to date, the series cannot be ignored. Many viewers may interpret what they see as typical of Middle America, and it is therefore important to analyze the series' apparent lack of perspective.
Produced and partially directed by Peabody, Emmy, and Academy Award winning documentarian Peter Davis (''The Selling of the Pentagon'' and ''Hearts and Minds''), ''Middletown'' was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities with some underwriting money from Xerox. In a growing furor of publicity, Xerox has indicated that it does not want its name associated with the series. What some advance viewers have termed ''objectionable'' portions of the final segment , ''Seventeen,'' have already been excised by PBS.
I viewed these scenes and agree completely that they are offensively explicit as well as exploitive of the youngsters who took part. In fact I wonder why certain additional parts of the series were not also expunged.
''Middletown'' examines certain segments of the Muncie population through a kind of phony ''cinema verite'' examination of specific persons. I say phony because it is obvious the subjects knew they were being photographed and often put on self-conscious ''shows'' for the camera. The obvious intrusiveness of the camera as well as the light-and-sound persons in some instances, turned the series into a group of portraits of Muncie exhibitionists, some of whom may very well be representative of special groups. But mostly ''Middletown'' is a show rather than a study.
In some cases, it is a good show, especially in the initial episode that follows the campaign and election of Muncie's new mayor. But viewers must be prepared to hear street language as it spoken by many characters in all of the episodes - a horrifying impression of what some people have done to English. Is the fact that some people speak this way enough reason to put it on national television?
In addition to the mayoral candidates, the series follows some daily lives which appear to be in transition -- a local high school basketball team, an extreme fundamentalist religious group, a family that operates a pizza business, two previously married people who become married to each other, a group of high school students. I was able to view all except the marriage sequence, which I was told was still being edited at press time.
Most disturbing to me was the 90-minute high school sequence which airs on April 28. A group of marijuana-smoking, beer-drinking, foul-mouthed youngsters seem to have been induced to reveal what appears to be the worst side of their character. Teachers are portrayed as ineffective objects of derision, parents are overly permissive and provide poor examples for the children. The issue of race relations, including interracial dating in an integrated school, are investigated, but this legitimate documentary subject is handled in a sometimes disgustingly intrusive style. Some of what is depicted in the series is undoubtedly true.
Muncie has every right to object to the obviously unbalanced, perhaps even grotesque nature of Mr. Davis's coverage. While it is probable that most of what is depicted constitutes a candid picture of some aspects of the chosen subjects -- the basketball coach's emphasis on winning, for example -- certainly there is a more balanced tale to be told. In addition to language, the social habits and morality in many cases will be objectionable to most viewers, who can count themselves fortunate that the constant mumbling on the sound track is so often incomprehensible.
The Lynds may have managed to find some of the real pulse of Muncie in their original study. But I believe it will take contemporary sociologists, in the sound and balanced medium of the printed page, to bring Muncie to life now. Meantime, ''Middletown'' as a documentary entertainment will probably continue to shock and dismay millions of Americans, some of whom may watch it partially because of its X-rated publicity.
There are some segments of ''Middletown'' which honestly help to perform the function of explaining us to ourselves. Readers of the original sociological work will be amazed to see the major changes in social mores depicted in the films and videotapes comprising this series. But valid as some of it seems to be , one is left with the lingering feeling that ''Middletown'' is basically exploitive entertainment masquerading as a sociological document.