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18,000 Photographs In The Back Room Of A Diner

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 29, 2010 2:20PM

2010_9_29laporteindiana.jpg Allow us to pose a silly rhetorical question. Just what exactly is America? And how does one make a film about it? You can take the Disney approach (i.e. America's Heart & Soul) and fashion a melange of "inspiring" vignettes, but the result is as syrupy as canned fruit cocktail. The Michael Moore route adds some shading and texture yet can still be just as guilty of taking a sledgehammer approach. And a movie like Koyaanisqatsi, although stuffed with eye-popping imagery, doesn't quite get at the soul of America.

LaPorte, Indiana, a new documentary screening at the Siskel on October 7, takes a different tack. It uses the story of 18,000 black & photographs as a means to examine where our country's been and where it is now. The pictures were taken by the Frank Peese Studio over the course of several decades, from the 50's to the early 70's, capturing generations of babies, schoolkids, newlyweds, and retirees. When the studio closed down, boxes of the photos were left behind; found by the owner of a diner which shared the building, they were eventually put on display. That's where Jason Bitner, co-creator of Found Magazine, saw them. He culled through the images, collected some of them into a book, and now has produced this documentary. It's a succinct, clear-eyed look at our nation's hopes and frustrations.

The movie selects a handful of the people in the photos and tracks them down to find out what they've been up to all these years. What we see is basically the story of America over the last 50 years, simultaneously tender, wistful, depressing, and inspiring. Director Joe Beshenkovsky, who edited Objectified as well as an Emmy-winning episode of This American Life, builds his portraits out of well-chosen details, both visual and autobiographical. A grandmother who finds herself caring for her son's children after he's sent to prison: we first see her as a little girl in pigtails; then, later, as a woman whose careworn face makes her prickly perseverance that much more moving. Jeremy Gould's crisp cinematography truly proves that a picture is worth a thousand words. Somehow LaPorte, Indiana is able to strip away the sentimental varnish from American symbols like red pickup trucks, parades, teenaged sweethearts, and the proverbial corner store. A hand-printed sign reading MARGE'S KEYS next to a keyring on a shelf tells us everything we need to know about Ye Old Pipe Shoppe.

LaPorte, Indiana screens Thursday October 7, 8:15 p.m., Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., $12 + fees via Ticketmaster. Director Joe Beshenkovsky and producer Jason Bitner will be present for audience discussion.