Premiere of “Downside Up” at Mass MOCA

by Kristin O'Connell

On February 7th Nancy Kelly's Downside Up, an hour-long documentary that examines the impact of Mass MoCA on the economy and culture of North Adams, premiered at Mass MoCA. The Foundation awarded the project $10,000 for script development and $25,000 for production. It also received major funding from the Independent Television Service (ITVS).

The screening was to begin at 8 o'clock in the Hunter Center, the auditorium in the museum complex. The museum parking lot was nearly full when Hayley and I drove in at 7:30, and the 700-seat hall was filling up quickly. Everywhere people were talking, laughing, greeting friends; the atmosphere was charged with excitement and elation, as though everyone in town had been looking forward to this evening. We were struck by the crowd’s diversity of age, class, and style, which seemed to represent a cross-section of the New North Adams: artists transplanted from New York, retired factory workers, college students, dark-suited business executives, beaming local officials, middle-class couples. We made our way to our seats high in the center section, feeling caught up in the infectious mood of celebratory anticipation.

When most of the audience was seated, a representative of the museum rose to welcome everyone and introduce the mayor, who then introduced the filmmaker, a daughter of North Adams. Clearly touched and delighted by the turnout and the audience's warm applause, Nancy spoke briefly about the making of the film and thanked by name the representatives of the organizations that had helped fund the film. Each of us rose and acknowledged the cheers of the audience.

The film is handsome, crisply edited, and informed by both wit and a spirit of respect and affection for the city's people. It tells the story of the city's economic fall and (tentative) rise through the voices of participants—the mayor, the director of the museum, artists, business owners, and members of Nancy's family. The unifying voice is Nancy's own, as narrator, interviewer, and sometime on-screen protagonist; the inquiry into what has happened in North Adams is presented as a personal investigation. The decision to frame the story in this way, rather than employing a more conventional style with academics as on-camera commentators, makes the film more lively and engaging than many documentaries. What is lost is the explicit analysis of historical context and public policy issues that would be possible with the other approach. It's a good trade-off. The humanities themes identified in the proposal—the history of deindustrialization, the role of the post-industrial economy, the nature of contemporary art in society, and class divisions in America—are addressed with varying degrees of directness and depth, but they are all present, and the film should work well as a stimulus to discussion of these topics. Equally important is that it presents a complex story of economic and cultural change in a vivid, concrete way, giving weight and dignity to the perspectives of working-class people as well as those with more privileged backgrounds.

©2002 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Published in Mass Humanities, Spring 2002