America’s conversation about its shared economy, politics and culture doesn’t have to be divisive. The starting point for a new kind of dialogue is a truthful reckoning with our past, from thousands of years ago, through 20th century boom and sticky bust, to the present of the gas economy and service jobs, and to the wild, open-ended future. By telling the biography of a classic American town — Moundsville, WV, pop. 8,000 — that has all these important elements, in the words of the most thoughtful people we found in a year of traveling there, we hope to lay at least one brick in the foundation for this new kind of conversation.
It’s the holiday season, and I’ve just arrived at my parents in Brussels, where I lived most of my life before moving to Pittsburgh in 2011. When I came to Western Pennsylvania that year to cover steel and mining for the Wall Street Journal, I was drawn to places that explain America to me. I’m the child of expatriate classical musicians who settled in Brussels in the 1970s, and when I was young America was a distant symphony. I knew the high notes: baseball, jazz, candy. I didn’t know much about things like slavery, the turmoil of the 1960s, or post-industrial decline. In this decade, I’ve been drawn to cities and towns that explain America, like Detroit, Dayton or DC. It was that curiosity that drew me off of I-70 on a summer day in 2013 and into Moundsville. That journey led to making this movie with Dave Bernabo, a prolific Pittsburgh filmmaker. Saturday, Dec. 15 is a big day in the process. We’ll release the full version of “Moundsville” online, for renting and buying. You can even preorder, and here’s the link for that. We don’t have a distribution deal, so we’re spreading the word with screenings, online marketing and word of mouth. Please help spread the word! Thanks! John
Besides the Jan. 17 Pittsburgh premiere at the Carnegie Museum of Art, we have more screenings in the works. We’re in talks to premiere at a mid-town venue in New York City on Jan. 14., and Wheeling at two different locations early in the year. And of course, the online release is coming up on Dec. 15. It’s exciting. We’re looking forward to showing people the movie, and hearing the reactions of people outside Appalachia to this very American story.
What a great evening in Moundsville on Friday night! 170 people attended the premiere of “Moundsville” last night — at the Strand in Moundsville. It cost $5, the seats were comfortable and the lobby smelled like popcorn. And, a bit to my surprise, they seemed to really like it! We got some laughs, and, at the end, applause. “We didn’t know what to expect, because, you know, big city journalists,” one lady told us during the Q&A. “But you were balanced, and we appreciate that.” For me, this project has always been about trying to tell the story of this key drama — the American small town — in a way that spoke authentically to people who live in places like Moundsville, and was also true and journalistically sound. Along the way, thanks mostly to actual filmmaker David Bernabo, we’ve made what appears to be a pretty good movie! We have deals with the Carnegie Museum of Art (Jan. 17) and Towngate in Wheeling, and are talking to colleges, churches and other organizations. And it will be available online on Vimeo Dec. 15. You can pre-order here. Stay tuned — lots more to come!
Tonight marks a new chapter in my fascination with Moundsville, which started in 2013 when I pulled off I-70 on my way back from a coal mine. I hope the movie succeeds in its goal in illuminating the nature of small town economies, capitalism, America, Western civilization… And that it makes people think and laugh! You can buy tickets here. Doors at the Strand theatre in Moundsville open at 630pm. Movie starts at 7pm. See you there!
Al Olson has a nice write-up of “Moundsville” in the The Intelligencer. “A documentary featuring Moundsville was chosen to represent the archetypal post-industrial American town,” he writes. The best part, though is this:
Moundsville City Council began its Tuesday meeting by enthusing about the movie. Mayor Allen Hendershot expressed a desire to see those who attend the meeting in the theater during the debut.
That’s cool. I hope they like the movie!
We haven’t been sure how much media interest there’d be in the story of a post-industrial West Virginia river town. After all, there’s been so much done on the decline of Manufacturing, USA, from Michael Moore’s movie Roger&Me, to George Packer’s book The Unwinding. Why would anybody want to watch another sad story of decline? I think our story is different, and goes to places nobody else has. The mound is a unique, mystical, powerful character. The story of the Marx toy plant might deserve its own movie. We cover the nuances of the booming 50s, and of decline. And we have cool, quirky, funny, smart characters. So I’ve been beating this drum for the last few weeks, telling everybody I could about the movie, and sending out press releases. With the premiere on for this Friday, 7pm, at the Strand, in Moundsville, interest finally picked up this week. I spent part of Monday with Nora Edinger of Weelunk.com, a cool Wheeling, WV-based start-up. She wrote a very nice piece that ran his morning. The Tribune-Review pubbed its story, more of an interview. Then, by evening, it was time to click on WTOV9’s website to watch the feature on the evening news. After 20 years of journalism, it is weird to be on the other side of the fence, answering questions from reporters. I am excited that people are interested in the subject matter. I’m hoping they watch the movie and realize that we have a deeper story to tell. Just two more sleeps until the premiere! –John