“Middle Village is a very special place. It’s changed, but it hasn’t changed.” – John De Biase, Middle Village resident.
The familiar, with its unpretentious and enduring comforts, is the theme of David Lee Madison’s second feature, the documentary Middle Village, a sweet, unassuming look at his hometown of Middle Village Queens that luxuriates in its commonplaceness. In a world that lately seems especially unhinged, a hometown that offered the lovely, sprawling Juniper Valley Park, designed by Gilmore Clark (who also designed the Central Park Zoo and Flushing Meadow Park’s Unisphere); single-screen movie theaters that played double features of The Sentinel and Two-Minute Warning; a fantastic seafood restaurant;and a cemetery which doubled as a place to train dogs and learn parallel parking, has now become feature-film worthy. Madison detailed the making of the film in a running series here at Queens Free Press; the charming resulting film shows his love and dedication for his home town.
The area of Queens covered in the film is somewhat unique. There is a small-town community-driven feel to it not evident in much of the rest of the city. The recollections of Catholic school, stoop ball, and chicken parmigiana so soft it can be cut with a spoon will ring true for many, but also strike an effectively melancholic chord for those who don’t share such cozy memories of a stable upbringing in this otherwise teeming metropolis.
Director Madison, whose first film, the cult-horror flick Mr. Hush played theatrically around the country a few years back, is obviously sincere in his love for his hometown – there isn’t the vague air of mockery of small town life that can creep into nostalgia, nor is it flag-waving, conservative “God Bless America” patriotism either. The film makes room for a speaker who became politically active in the late 60s and who loves his memories of Middle Village but notes the resistance to his attitudes at the time; he realized Middle Village was the place he would come from, but not the place he would end up.
Otherwise, most of Middle Village is made up of laid-back musings about summer afternoons, “organized” sports in Juniper Valley Park versus “disorganized” sports, and seeing Escape from Witch Mountain and Star Wars first-run at the Arion (the first theater wired for sound in New York City) or the Drake.
Most interesting is some of the historical detail given, such as the genesis of Middle Village’s name (it is located halfway between Williamsburg and Jamaica), and that it wasn’t recognized by the Postal Service until local farms were taken away by eminent domain for the 1939’s World Fair. The historical photos and images sprinkled throughout are most welcome, and a pleasing montage at the very end of photos from different eras does make a viewer wish that the images could have been interspersed throughout the film – the “talking head” footage might have been helped by a bit more visual variety, though the interviews are attractively photographed and pleasingly framed. The film has a quirky framing structure that speaks to Madison’s genre film-making interests; he begins with a sequence featuring “the Deplorables,” a group of adventurers traipsing around a forest that seems to have no relation to the film until we learn it is a dream Madison is having while laying out in Juniper Valley Park, where Brian O’Halloran (of Clerks fame) wakes him up and gets the film going proper. Casual footage of Madison and O”Halloran walking around Metropolitan and Eliot Avenue chatting and eating food is pleasing, although curiously there is no wrap-up to this footage, no final summation made by Madison.
There is a final humorous beat for those who stay through the end credits that will leave audiences with a smile, which is what all of Middle Village does. An unhurried stroll through memory lane, with a nice score by Scott Schiafo (who was the Chewie’s gum salesman in Clerks alongside O’Halloran), Middle Village does good service in documenting the lives of working and middle class New Yorkers who rarely get this kind of media attention paid to them.
Locally bred notables such as former Fangoria editor Tony Timpone and Sopranos actor Ray Abruzzo speak their pieces alongside local business people, teachers, and residents. The film should please not only Middle Villagers, but fans of New York History, and anyone whose upbringing involved pizzerias, drinking in a park after dark, and heading out with shaving cream on Halloween will chuckle in nostalgia throughout Middle Village.
Middle Village is now available on DVD. David Lee Madison will be signing copies starting at 2 pm on Sunday, December 20th, 2015 at London Lennie’s on Woodhaven Boulevard. If you can’t make it there, visit Middle Village Movie for information about purchasing the DVD.