One of the more memorable documentaries of the 2009 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival was 45365, Bill and Turner Ross’s lyrical, impressionistic portrait of small-town Midwestern life. Now, thanks to a one-week special screening on SnagFilms, I’ve had a chance to take a second look, and after seeing the film again, I was more prepared to embrace its impressionistic, observational approach to depicting Sidney, Ohio, a small town not far from Dayton.
When I first reviewed the film back in April, I expressed some ambivalence about the film, stating my concern that the film sentimentalized small-town life, depicting Sidney in nostalgic terms that evoked a lost or receding past. Watching the film a second time, I was impressed by the use of long takes that allowed the events–high school football practices, banter in the local barbershop, local political campaigns, and police patrolling the streets–to unfold organically. In some ways, it is an unlikely complement to the city symphony films of the 1930s, such as Berlin: Symphony of a City and Man With a Movie Camera, in its attempt to compose a portrait of a specific location at a specific moment in time. However, unlike the manic energy of these films, the Rosses–who are longtime residents of Sidney–offer something more laconic and introspective, even while capably moving between the various social classes and age groups that help to define the city.
This portrait of a small town is punctuated by several key motifs: a local radio station that plays all the hits (a DJ patiently argiung with a caller over a very strange interpretation of The Who’s “Squeeze Box” is hilarious); residents who struggle to stay out of jail; coaches who talk about the local high school football team. But the film resists placing too much emphasis on any of these narratives, which would have distracted us from the ebbs and flows of daily life that the Rosses sought to capture. I do have some reservations about treating a single town as “a microcosm of American life,” as the film’s description on Snag suggests, given the diversity of cultures and lifestyles and settings where people live, but 45365 is a compelling document of a specific place and time.
It’s worth noting, too, the discussion of 45365’s distribution strategy on A.J. Schnack’s blog. A.J. asks some useful questions about the implications for distributing such a critically-acclaimed documentary for free (at least temporarily) on Snag, with the Rosses concluding that “Growing up out of sight line of an urban environment we learned well that not everyone has access to certain kinds of artwork. We spent much time and funds as kids trying to track down certain films that we wanted to see. If the technology is there, why shouldn’t we embrace it and have our work available to all who want to experience it?”