“I don’t think I’m beautiful. When I look in the mirror, I just see me — and I’m pretty used to me.” -actress Melanie Griffith
There’s an old story in my family that my mother often tells. She’s always been dissatisfied with the way she looks in photographs, and this used to annoy my father. There would be a family gathering or a holiday, and then the photos would come back. “That’s a terrible shot of me,” she would say. “Why do you even bother to take my picture?”
One day, my father finally had enough of this and said to her, “Did it ever occur to you that maybe that’s the way you really look?”
When Mass MoCA screened Downside Up, the new documentary movie by North Adams native Nancy Kelly, the audience saw themselves in the mirror, and the reaction was predictable. They laughed uncomfortably when the opening sequence showed a dramatized incident where a Mohawk Trail tourist reverses course at the Hairpin Turn in order to avoid North Adams. This was Kelly’s way of pointing out an unflattering comment about our city that appeared in a travel column in the New York Times a few years ago.
Further on in the movie, we witness sarcastic comments about contemporary art from members of Kelly’s family, as they tour the museum for the first time. One man points to an exhibit and exclaims, “That’s beyond weird!” Once again, the audience laughed uncomfortably. Perhaps many were reminded of their own similar comments.
During the movie, I overheard some grumbling that there were too many scenes that showed boarded up houses and broken windows in factory buildings. Of course, Kelly was exaggerating a bit in order to make a case for how much the city has recovered since Mass MoCA opened. She touched on that during the question and answer session immediately following the movie. Still, like my mother, viewers were faced with contemplating my father’s question, “Did it ever occur to you that maybe that’s the way you really look?” Well, in parts of town, that is the way we really look.
A few weeks ago, I visited several of Deborah Bullett’s seventh-grade social studies classes at Conte Middle School. I conduct a workshop there every year to prepare them for a program in which they tape interviews with elder relatives. In addition, I take them on a walk downtown, so I can point out some of the city’s familiar and not-so-familiar landmarks.
Ms. Bullett mentioned that her classes saw a special screening of Downside Up, after which Kelly visited the students and discussed the movie. The students were anxious to hear what I thought of the film, but I said I wanted to hear from them first. I was struck by how upset most of them were.
Many voiced a familiar complaint. “They should’ve shown the library and those nice houses on Church Street instead of the ratty ones.” One student observed: “All they showed was Mass MoCA and The Porches Inn. There’s more to North Adams than that.” Others expressed dissatisfaction with the director’s choice to feature her family prominently. “Why didn’t she interview some people on the street?” one girl asked. Another added, “She should’ve talked to some of the kids, too.”
After listening patiently to all of their comments, I told the students that I liked the film, and then I challenged them with a few questions. Pointing out that Kelly was forced to edit the length to 56 minutes so that it would be suitable for showing on public television, I asked, “If she adds the additional material you are suggesting, what would you choose to cut?” That proved to be a difficult question.
I explained that it was my opinion that Kelly concentrated on her family members, because she recognized that their initial negative feelings about the museum, and their eventual cautious appreciation of its positive effects were typical of most of the city’s population. I added that a documentary filmmaker must walk a thin line between informing the audience and entertaining the audience, and that her family gave the film a personal touch that was essential to keep viewers interested.
Finally, I asked them, “What’s the most important thing that the movie accomplished?” When there was no immediate response, I advised, “It got you talking about your hometown, didn’t it?” They nodded in agreement. “I get the feeling that you are defending North Adams,” I said playfully. “I never thought I would hear that from you. Kids are always talking about how BOOOOORING the city is. When we go on our walking tour, look for things that you would have wanted to put in the movie.”
When artists show their work, the worst reaction they can receive is indifference – no reaction at all. Thankfully, that was not the case with Downside Up. We laughed, we complained, we were a little embarrassed, and we were also proud that our beautiful city is the subject of a film that may soon be shown nationwide. Most importantly, Nancy Kelly held us up to the mirror and got us talking about ourselves.