Film Critic takes the director's
chair in Moving Midway
By Allan Maurer
Cheshire's "Moving Midway," documents the hoisting of his ancestral
family Plantation mansion in Knightsdale, North Carolina onto
dollies for transport to a new location away from shopping malls
and urban sprawl encroaching on it.
it's much more than that.
the right: Midway Mansion's Plantation House)
documentary examines Cheshire's personal Southern family drama-a
venerable literary genre that not infrequently finds its way onto
film-but also the way it connects to larger issues ranging from
slavery and racism to the movie mythology surrounding the Antebellum
Plantation South. Although the film premiered at this year's Full
Frame documentary festival in Durham in April, we saw it at the
Charlotte Film Festival in September with Raleigh native Cheshire
Midway," which the director and much-published film critic says
goes next to the Woodstock Film Festival in New York, has its
share of both Southern charm and Southern eccentrics. The film
starts with slowly developing exposition that lets us get to know
Cheshire's family and its history.
cousin, Charlie Hinton Silver, who inherited the 1848 mansion,
and began living in it with his wife Dana in 2000, has decided
to move it to a more secluded lot. "Every Southern boy needs a
mobile home," Silver quips when the house is finally ready for
a giant yellow moving machine to tow it off the lot. Once the
family mansion is hoisted onto dollies and begins its trek overland
to its new location, the film even acquires a bit of suspense
as the filmmaker's crew follows its progress via a helicopter
in the blistering August heat.
Midway mansion's trek to its new location miles away supplies
the most visually compelling part of the narrative, the layers
of family history supply its depth. After the film we mentioned
to Cheshire that it reminded us a bit of Ross McElwee's "Bright
Leaves," in the way it combines a personal family drama with larger
issues (tobacco and the McElwee family's involvement with the
Bull Durham brand in "Bright Leaves.")
was afraid people might thing this was just a knock-off of McElwee,"
Cheshire admitted after the show at Charlotte Film Festival. No
danger of that. "Moving Midway," is more drama than satire, and
Cheshire never assumes the satirical personal voice so common
to McElwee's work. Cheshire treats his cast of characters with
great respect, even those he quite obviously disagrees with in
some fundamental ways.
Midway" has its humorous moments, but they occur without Cheshire's
narrative voice changing tone from his gentle, occasionally bemused,
but always polite manner. Talking with him in person, it's obvious
this is part of his personality. He's sharp, and curiosity always
plays in his eyes, but he listens intently and never raises his
film, like many of the best documentaries, has an almost novelistic
feel. Its roots shoot back through generations of Southern earth.
For the first half, it examines the effects that the Midway's
Plantation mansion and myth had on the Hinton's-Cheshire's family
name on his mother's side-both white and black. Like many antebellum
slave owners, one of the Hinton forbearers had relations with
a black slave woman, in this case his cook, fathering a son and
a whole family of black "kinfolk."
the course of shooting the documentary, this entire side of the
family-the black Hinton's, forgotten by their white cousins for
generations-emerged as a vibrant and numerous clan. Some of the
most moving scenes of the film involve Cheshire's mother, who
surely missed her calling as an actress, and her newly discovered
cousin, the 80-odd year-old patriarch of the black Hinton clan.
whole story has a Southern Gothic subtext, complete with ghosts
and cleaning ladies who swear the spirit of Miss Mary expresses
her displeasure with events at the Mansion by knocking pictures
off the walls and other poltergeist-like disruptions.
the second half, Cheshire brings his considerable sense of what
movies mean in our lives to bear. He examines the whole idea of
the Southern Plantation, which films largely implanted in our
imaginations. From D.W. Griffith's groundbreaking, if racist,
"Birth of A Nation," to "Gone with the Wind," movies inspired
our concept of the Antebellum Plantation society that preceded
the Civil War. Yet, when the producers of "Gone with the Wind"
sent minions searching for actual Georgia plantations that might
serve as an appropriate set, they discovered such mansions were
actually few and far between. They eventually used a painting
and a Hollywood set to represent Tara, the most famous of movie
Plantation homes, despite its illusory nature.
This meshes in "Moving Midway" with the thoughts of black professor
Robert Hinton, one of only several coincidental but seemingly
magical connections the film brought about. Cheshire, who lives
in New York City, discovered Robert, who also lives in New York,
through a letter Hinton wrote to the NY Times. Robert, who wrote
his Ph.D. dissertation on Southern Plantation culture, became
virtually a spokesman for the black side of Midway's history.
believes that his grandfather, Dempsey Hinton, was born a slave
at Midway Plantation around 1860 He shocked Cheshire at one point
by noting that he found it quite appropriate to see the original
Midway Plantation land paved over and made into a shopping center.
Robert's slave ancestors are still buried in a protected wooded
and gnarled cemetery behind the original site, now home to a shopping
center called The Shoppes at Midway Plantation.
Cheshire, who says he understands his cousin's point of view,
noted after the showing that he was still reeling from the cutting
of the plantations huge, 200-year-old shade trees when Robert
made his statement. Seeing those trees fall, he said, moved him
as much as anything involved with moving the mansion.
of the pleasures of watching films at festivals is the questions
and answers with filmmakers afterward. Cheshire and his "Moving
Midway" director of photography and photographer, Jay Spain, discussed
myriad technical details that went into making this film. Spain
said seven cameras followed the eventual moving of the old mansion-overland,
not on highways-to its new location, which took more than a month
in blazing North Carolina July and August heat.
(below, Cheshire (left) and Spain answer
questions after showing the film at the Charlotte Film Festival.)
truly a monumental journey. "It was originally supposed to take
two days," Spain said. Instead, it stretched to over a month.
"It totally blew our budget." He also admitted that he was lucky
to be watching from a helicopter with the air cooling his face.
also noted there was a good deal more to the ghost story that
plays a charming but minor role in the film, but they didn't have
room to include it all. The folks who work at the big box retailers
that now occupy the original mansion site, for instance, complain
of stuff leaping from shelves and other alleged evidence of hauntings.
Cheshire said he plans to include a lot of additional footage
in the DVD release, which will most likely follow a run in theaters
for "Moving Midway" next year. Just as an aside,
joins a distinguished group of other film critics who themselves
became filmmakers, including Francois Truffaut, J.L.Godard, and
Peter Bogdanovich, among others. He contributes regularly to the
alternative weekly, "The Independent," in the Triangle and was
a founder of the former Raleigh weekly, "The Spectator," which
The Independent purchased. He also contributes to "Sight and Sound"
and many another journal of film criticism. He currently lives
in New York City.
Next the film goes to: Nov. 1-4: The Virginia Film Festival (Charlottesville,
VA) *Nov. 7-10: The Cucalorus Film Festival (Wilmington, NC) *Dec.
1-8: The Common Ground Film Festival (Washington, DC)