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Director Joe Beshenkovsky and producer Jason Bitner literally stumbled upon a great story. In a small cafe in northern Indiana, they found box after box full of portraits taken by photographer Frank Pease of the residents of LaPorte, a bucolic small town near the shores of Lake Michigan between Gary and South Bend.
If they had simply turned the tale of those 18,000 photos into a documentary about a trove of found art, they would have had a good movie on their hands. But Beshenkovsky goes several steps further, tracking down the subjects of some of these obscure photos, of course, but also interviewing young people who appreciate where they live but can’t wait to leave it.
It’s a touching and full-bodied cinematic portrait of an entire small city, told through the individual faces and stories of the people who lived there mid-century.
There’s John Pappas, owner of B&J’s American Cafe and the building that used to house Pease’s studio. He nearly threw the boxes of photos away, but decided people might looking through them to find themselves or their parents.
The photographs themselves are iconic emblems of the 1930s through ’70s, women with big horn-rim glasses and men with slicked-back hair. The portraits tend to be of important moments in their lives — graduation, engagements, going off to war — and their expressions reflect enthusiasm and dread.
There’s Carol Wakeman Benson, who remembers the day she had her picture taken because her mother tied her braids so tight she got a migraine. Today she’s a weary but wise woman of late middle years who embraces her role as caretaker — to her father stricken with Alzheimer’s, and to her grandchildren abandoned by two parents in prison.
Or Kathy and Hugh Tongel, together as a couple for 40 years. She first fell for him because he had a blazing ’68 Barracuda (which they’re afraid to admit to their children they occasionally drag raced). Their somewhat stilted photograph, facing each other in a formal engagement photo while wearing decidedly informal early 1970s clothes, contrasts with the easy comfort between them now.
Perhaps the most colorful character is Jeff Dunk, owner of Ye Olde Pipe Shoppe, which is a local bar and hangout that hasn’t sold a pipe in 35 years: Beer and conversation are his true trade. A Vietnam vet and man about town, Jeff collects knickknacks and his motto is “It’s fun to have fun.” His father was the high school principal, which explains a few things. Jeff Dunk’s carefree manner hides his pain at the death of his teen son, who (perhaps inevitably) was nicknamed Slam.
The film explores how LaPorte was settled by a panoply of immigrants, thrived as a booming manufacturing town but lost a lot of its economic might over the last couple of decades as the business of making things left for places less expensive. People even still debate the spelling of the city’s name — the name means “the door” in French, and some like Pappas get riled when (most) people crowd the words together.
The editing is spectacular — not surprising, since Beshenkovsky is an Emmy Award-winning television editor. I loved how as he allowed modern people to tell their stories, his camera wanders back to the photographs as a touchstone. For example, when he’s talking to modern teenagers in love, we see a montage of couples photographed through the ages.
Standing apart from LaPorte physically, and yet in some ways representing the city’s very heart, is Gary Wedow. A gay man and conductor at The Juilliard School of music, Wedow hasn’t actually lived in his hometown in decades. But he waxes poetically about how the spirit of his adopted home of New York is much the same as LaPorte. His analogy about towns being like rivers — they look the same, even though actual water we see is constantly changing and moving on — is just lovely.
“LaPorte, Indiana” is simply one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in recent years. It’s moving yet restrained, elegant but simple. It’s the life of a city, writ large in small photographs.