Zipporah Films (2018), 143 minutes
When the title of 88-year-old documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s newest movie, Monrovia, Indiana, was announced earlier this year, it was greeted with some predictable assumptions on the part of his admirers in the world of film. After spending this decade shooting movies in cities that double as bastions of art, politics, and culture—Paris, New York, London, Berkeley—it seemed that Wiseman, in turning his attention to the American heartland, was now ready to take on one of his most overtly political subjects yet. In other words, many thought, this was going to be Wiseman’s movie about Trump’s America.
In reality, the subject of Wiseman’s latest film is the same one that has preoccupied him since he started making movies 50 years ago: human behavior, in all of its forms, and the institutions that place limitations on it wherever two or three or three thousand of us are gathered. It was to my great relief to read after Monrovia’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival this fall that not once does Wiseman’s movie make reference to Trump, or whether or not anyone in the film would call themselves a Trump supporter. There’s a brief cutaway shot to a comely Morgan County Republican Party booth at a street festival, and that’s all you get.
As Wiseman tells it, Monrovia became the object of his fascination much more serendipitously. A friend introduced him to a University of Indiana law professor with six generations of history in Monrovia. Wiseman, interested in the idea of making a movie about the Midwest and already in the area to screen some of his movies in Bloomington, met the professor’s cousin—an undertaker who knew everybody in Monrovia, as “everybody was a potential client”—and soon after got to work.
Monrovia, like all of Wiseman’s movies, is constructed from observational shots of people and places more or less as Wiseman found them. Wiseman adheres to a rigorous filmmaking ethic. Recognizing that his perspective as a filmmaker while on location will necessarily be subjective, he assembles scenes in the editing room to preserve as best he can what he judges to be the atmosphere of the place he was filming. Since he conducts no scripted interviews and uses no B-roll footage that was not filmed during the shoot, Wiseman’s editorializing only emerges in edits and juxtapositions between scenes.
Starting with a series of establishing shots of saturated blue skies over tranquil pastures and a sound mix of gentle interruptions—squealing livestock, wind rustling the grass, a distant car—Wiseman cuts to a Bible study at one of the town’s two churches (more on the second one later). The leader of this class of a half-dozen middle-aged participants is talking about tribulation. “God provides for our care in tribulations,” he says before asking, “is [tribulation] a single event in time and space, or something that will be with us our entire lives?” An odd question to pose of a place that seems, on the surface, quite placid.
If there’s much tribulation besetting Monrovia, Wiseman prefers to imply it indirectly, showing us as much of the caregivers and institutions that are trying to sustain this community through its collective ills as the ills themselves. A few signs of brokenness and pain stand out, like the population’s trend toward obesity and a local cuisine that’s uncomfortably far removed from its supply chain, given how easily one might expect a community of this size (1,036 people as of the 2010 U.S. census) to be able to feed itself on local farming practices. Some poor dog is subject to a rather excruciating tail surgery at the local veterinary clinic; an audience of parents and friends is subject to the differently painful trial of enduring a mediocre high school band performance of a medley of television sitcom theme songs. There’s a brief cutaway to a shot of a polluted waterway; seems like somebody might want to do something about that.
As for the structures that are sustaining the community through its trials both petty and grievous, we visit a main street diner where seniors citizens gather to chat about their health ailments and recent medical procedures over coffee and unappetizing fare. We pay a quick visit to a Crossfit session at a makeshift gym that someone has set up in their garage. We even get to pull back the curtain on the local chapter of the Freemasons, who are performing (with some uncertainty and much fumbling of lines) a rite to honor one of the elders of their community for 50 years of service.
Wiseman returns most frequently to a town hall meeting with representatives of local government and a small audience of community members. These are the architects of the community (when convening their meeting, they invoke the “grand architect of the universe”), and they struggle to reach a consensus on the future of Monrovia. One contingent thinks the town ought to prioritize population growth: build more housing, more people will move in, and business will follow. Another counters that business should come first to attract anyone to move to Monrovia in the first place. And then there’s the holdout, the woman who opposes increasing the town’s population at all. You wouldn’t want to change the character of Monrovia by inviting outsiders in, now would you?
The obvious implication of this attitude is that getting comfortable with the status quo in Monrovia will lead to nothing except the community’s eventual demise. (One critic on social media pointed out that Wiseman cuts from this woman’s pitch for not doing anything at all to the embers of a dying fire.) Yet it isn’t so much the lack of young blood or fresh ideas that poses a threat to Monrovia’s future as the decaying understanding across the community of why it has the traditions it does, and how to maintain them. Or, in some cases, what the point of passing on tradition is in the first place.
An earlier scene takes us to a high school classroom where a teacher is droning on about how basketball player Branch McCracken, born in Monrovia, would dedicate high school gymnasiums around the county after achieving hoops stardom in the NCAA (we get a cutaway to the Branch McCracken Memorial Gymnasium some 20 minutes later). I’m all for knowing the history of your community, but an English classroom—where, as Wiseman clarified to an audience member at the New York Film Festival, this scene was shot—seems like the wrong time and place for telling this particular history. (To judge by the stares of the bored onlookers Wiseman cuts to across the room, the students would agree.)
In Monrovia’s houses of worship, too, those in charge seem to be losing the thread. The movie ends on a prolonged funeral at the larger of Monrovia’s two churches. The pastor delivers a gratingly sunny sermon, heaping praise upon praise on the deceased in remembrance of all the good she did in life. As the preacher rattled on, I started to wonder if he wasn’t actually trying to assuage his own fears of the unknown. In any case, he seems so preoccupied with whitewashing suffering and the inevitability of death through the power of positivity that he doesn’t leave much room for God to factor into death and the hope of life to come.
Should this be Wiseman’s final film, as some have suggested, this funeral scene—topped off by a burial, a teary round of “Amazing Grace,” and an abrupt sequence of shots of dirt getting dumptrucked over the grave—would complete a circle that Wiseman began in his first, 1967’s Titicut Follies. Toward the end of that film, inmates from Bridgewater State Hospital in Massachusetts attend the burial of a fellow patient who died, the film’s editing leads us to assume, after a horrifically routinized episode of torture by feeding tube. The priest presiding is the opposite of Monrovia’s resident preacher: once the casket has been lowered his only words, brusque and grim, are, “remember, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return. That’s all.”
Titicut Follies, like Monrovia, Indiana, depicts a system operating more or less as it always has, with most of its constituents going about their lives without asking questions of or thinking too hard about the established order of the community. The unethical treatment of patients in Titicut Follies was obvious (“you’d have to be an absolute idiot to make a film about Bridgewater as it was in 1966 and not show how horrible it is,” Wiseman says in an interview this year), but Wiseman doesn’t consider that film or any of his others to be intentional exposés.
For many viewers, the urge to treat Monrovia, Indiana as documentation of a certain kind of American voter’s way of life will be strong, but it should be resisted. If the folly and imperfect attempts at governance, education, town planning, farming, and spiritual care on display in this movie reveal anything about the residents of Monrovia, they do so insofar as they are human, not insofar as they are Monrovians. We would do well to use this movie to reflect on our own failings and not to judge the lives of others. Wiseman’s consistent, ethical, and provocative filmmaking enjoins us to do precisely that.