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Apocalypse Now: Redux

There are 10 reasons not to miss Apocalypse Now: Redux at the theater —Richard Sharp (review...)

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What’s on display in the documentary 45365 is not America nor Americans, but “Americana.”

Filmmakers Bill and Turner Ross unleashed two cameras on Sidney, Ohio, (ZIP code 45365) for 9 months. Without narrating, they capture several slices of life in this Ohio valley town. The film leaves me with the impression that it was mostly shot in the late summer and fall. There is an applefest, a county fair, an election, and the high school football home opener.

The Ross brothers curate Americana in Ohio
The Ross brothers curate Americana in Ohio

It’s a portrait of we Americans, and all the more so because the setting is the heartland. Kids play at the fair and dare each other to try the scary rides. High school girls talk about boys and conduct relationships on cell phones. Men and boys hang out at the barber shop and talk football and politics.

The documentary is made in the hands-off style of Frederick Wiseman. There is no narrator. The cameras get great, intimate access to people going about their business. There is structure to the film, but no story arc. Wiseman usually finds some shot or activity to return to as a bass line in his composition. The Ross brothers do the same, coming back to the radio station, not just as a location but as auditory glue to blend scenes together in the illusion (or maybe even the fact) of simultaneity.

I am a fan of Wiseman’s work, and I’m glad to see a documentary that adopts his style. But I found 45365 to be too long by ten or twenty minutes. After 50 or 60 minutes, I started recognizing the same faces and characters and I was ready for them all to take the next dramatic step. But it’s not until 70 or 80 minutes that you start to see an end coming.

Near the end, it seems like the film will climax with the homecoming football game of the Yellowjackets, which I anticipated being a disappointment, since 45365 is not really about football, nor even high school. Luckily, the film proved me wrong in a pleasantly jarring jump cut to an empty football stadium covered in snow. The film then proceeds to wrap up its other threads and characters by seeing them off into the winter night.

45365 won best documentary at SXSW, but I’ve seen better documentaries this year. At the same time, I enjoyed its rhythm (maybe it deserves awards for best documentary editing?) and its seemingly wholesome view of American life — even if that view includes a mother scoring drugs for her son, and a couple of our characters going to jail. It’s all 100% genuine Americana.