45365 debuts tonight as a part of PBS' Independent Lens series. It will air at 10 p.m. Eastern/Pacific in most markets, but you should check local listings.
If nothing else, 45365 stands as an excellent advertisement for the upcoming DVD version of the full film. Like nearly all installments of PBS' Independent Lens series, this version has been condensed from a full, theatrical version, and like all installments, it's fairly easy to tell in places that the viewer isn't getting the full experience of the film. Though 45365 is an impressionistic work more than a plot-driven one, it's still easy to tell where people who were likely vital to the original film have had their roles greatly reduced or where sequences that went on longer have been unfortunately truncated. The film still mostly works in 52-minute form, but it's hard not to wonder how much more evocative it might be with the extra footage restored.
On the other hand, what's here is still incredibly effective. Brothers Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross used high-def video to turn their hometown of Sidney, Ohio, into sort of a microcosm of America the way it wishes to see itself. This is the United States of political speeches and folk art and long novels with names like Winter Comes To Evans Creek. It's, to a real degree, a portrait of the country as it was 100 years ago and the country as it still wants to be. Sure, the times have changed, but Sidney is still a fairly small, sleepy town, cut off from the modern world in a lot of ways, connected via old-timey lifelines like the railroad or the town's several radio stations. A sense of nostalgia permeates the whole thing, as if the Ross brothers are capturing a world that no longer is, even though the film was made just a few short years ago.
The overwhelming feeling a viewer gets from watching 45365 is that they've packed up and moved to Sidney, Ohio. The film doesn't establish characters so much as it lets us get to know a few people whose faces turn up here and there, like Courtney, a high school senior who's constantly on her phone with a wayward boyfriend, or a police officer who seems to spend all of his time locked in conversation with barely comprehensible men in ratty T-shirts (or no shirts at all). The seasons slip lazily into one another, summer bringing the fair and fall bringing football season and winter bringing blizzard warnings and cars fishtailing in the supermarket parking lot. Long, graceful shots cruise the streets of Sidney, taking in, say, kids trick or treating or teenagers looking for something to do. Judge Don Luce, up for re-election, pokes around the edges of the story, urging people to vote for him. In the very best way, 45365 captures just what it likely feels like to pass your life in Sidney.
The cinematography is frequently stunning. To a degree, it's easy to make a landscape look good, particularly at sunrise or sunset, but the Ross brothers capture all manner of events, from demolition derbies to football games to rock concerts, and make them look gorgeous. The two also have a talent for isolating the people we've gotten to know somewhat in the frame, to make sure that we're watching Courtney at that rock concert, even when she's surrounded by lots of other kids in wide shot. The editing is less remarkable, but its rhythms take on a sort of logic of their own. There's a point where the brothers are freely cutting among wedding preparations and football hype and that friendly police officer arresting a drunk, and the sequence doesn't build so much in terms of plot (we already know everything that will happen here) but in terms of mood. The brothers are expert at using their cuts to suggest the rhythms of life in Sidney, without hammering home the point via a voiceover or too much music on the soundtrack (though there are some lovely song choices here and there, mostly courtesy of the local radio stations).
Unfortunately, the condensed nature of the film does hurt it, somewhat. Don Luce takes up a fair amount of time at film's start, then mostly disappears until the very end, when election day rolls around. Whole intriguing venues and potential "storylines" are brought up, then quickly scuttled or resolved in ways that suggest a little more time and room to breathe might have made them play more naturalistically. And there are other places where something seems to be building and then just evaporates, like the wedding preparations that never result in an actual wedding. It's possible the actual film is like this too, since it's more of an experience-based than story-based documentary, but the often choppy moments make it too easy to dump the audience out of the picture, just as Sidney is weaving its web more thoroughly. Similarly, people will drop into the film with little to no explanation, like a father reading to his young daughter, and it's hard not to think they were a greater part of the Sidney tapestry in the original.
There's also a vague sense that Sidney is, perhaps, being a little romanticized. To a real degree, 45365 is small town porn, filled with images of happy, industrious small town life, with no sense that anyone here has ever wanted anything else or will ever want anything else. And that's fine, to a degree. The main character here is Sidney, rather than any single person, so it stands to reason that the idea of this place as a constant where only the faces change would be more consistent than any sense of people who don't like living there. But by not getting to know so many of these people, there's a definite sense of only presenting the very best that Sidney has to offer. Maybe the town really is the bestest little town in the history of the world, but it's easier to think that any non-lovely bits were excised, at least in this edit.
And yet the biggest feeling 45365 gives off is that of wanting to spend more time in Sidney, even if one loves one's own city as much as the Ross brothers obviously love Sidney. There's such care and time taken to make this town seem like something more than just a town, like a sort of emblem of American life that is slipping away in our modern age, that it's hard not to want to spend as much time as possible in Sidney. The airing of this movie is almost certainly going to sell lots and lots of DVDs for the Ross brothers, and that's great. It'll help the two take their talents to other towns, other places, other stories. But at the same time, a small part of most viewers will likely be wishing that the brothers will turn that money back into more stories of Sidney, will land a deal with PBS or Sundance or something to make a longer series about the town and its people and the way life is lived there, lazily but compellingly. I've spent just under an hour in Sidney after viewing this film, but I know that if the Ross brothers were willing, I'd spend an hour there every week, for as long as they were willing to keep making episodes.