One of Frederick Wiseman’s many talents as a filmmaker is his ability to achieve poetic abstraction by scrutinizing concrete activity. The passages in Meat (1976) detailing the corralling and slaughter of steers inspire one to meditate on human beings’ relationship to animals. The opening 25 minutes of Canal Zone (1977), which show the intricate workings of the Panama Canal, lead viewers to think about the maintenance of society as a whole. The portraits of bodies in movement in Ballet (1995), La Danse (2009), and Boxing Gym (2010) encourage reflection on our corporeality, and so on. Wiseman is fascinated by how things work, but he often eschews linear sequences depicting one step of a process after another; instead, he likes to edit around a procedure, fostering a sense of rumination through the collection of diffuse details.
So it goes in Monrovia, Indiana, Wiseman’s documentary feature about a small town and its surrounding rural environs. The film teems with passages of people and machines at work, from line cooks at a bar and grill to crop dusters and tractors in operation. Wiseman is so interested in how things get done, in fact, that he devotes little time to interpersonal relationships. There’s little conversation in the movie, and when it occurs it tends to revolve around community rituals and the responsibilities of local government. The overall tone is contemplative, if not serene. Throughout Monrovia, Wiseman returns to painterly (and notably depopulated) shots of fields and crops, suggesting that the beauty of rural America has little to do with people and everything to do with landscapes. To the extent that people factor into these landscapes, it’s as stewards of the environment or local traditions. Very few of the human subjects emerge as individuals with motivations of their own.
Needless to say, anyone expecting a social analysis of rural America in the age of Donald Trump will be greatly disappointed. There are next to no invocations in Monrovia of the resentment, anger, and nativism that the news media has emphasized in the past few years when covering this part of the country. Wiseman still alludes to these feelings during scenes of town committee meetings—first, when a member raises concern about newcomers moving into a new housing development, and later, when another member expresses distrust of the federal government in its ability to provide frequent inspections of the town’s fire hydrants. (The most topical moment may be when one committee member chastises another for using the word “collusion” to describe the relationship between property developers and the state housing board.) Yet the larger political significance of these discussions is obscured by the immediacy of the concerns. The committee members seem justified in their frustration; after all, they just want their town to function smoothly.
Perhaps the most unsettling scene of Monrovia takes place in a gun shop, which Wiseman presents almost identically to the local supermarket, cutting between browsing customers, neatly organized displays, and the person working the counter. The director may be commenting on the normalization of guns (and, by implication, gun violence) in America, but then again, he just might be illustrating another aspect of how the people of this town work and shop. As usual, Wiseman maintains the illusion of being unbiased, presenting the facts of a situation and letting audiences decide how they feel about them. In any case, most viewers will likely agree that the gun shop sequence is far less dynamic than the one that follows, which shows farmers harvesting corn and delivering it to a silo. The juxtaposition of these two sequences suggests, somewhat eerily, that the people of Monrovia aren’t as interesting as the machines they operate.
The corn-harvesting sequence speaks to another peculiar quality of Monrovia, which is the way Wiseman makes routine activities seem significant and milestones seem trivial. A short sequence of a butcher preparing hamburger patties generates an unaccountable sense of wonder (or at least Zen-like fixation), yet a longer sequence depicting a citizen celebrating his 50th year of membership at the local Masonic lodge feels oddly flat. Like Abbas Kiarostami’s 24 Frames, which played here earlier this year, Monrovia develops a fascinating internal tension between momentum and tedium, and like Kiarostami’s film, it’s at its most commanding when people don’t factor into the action. Even the succession of portraits at a barber shop and a beauty salon come across as impersonal (Wiseman has rarely seemed so uninterested in faces as he does in this movie); the focus isn’t on the heads in close-up, but rather what’s being done to them.
Moreover, people don’t seem to engage in conversation in the film. The talk in Monrovia generally proceeds as monologues: a high school teacher delivering a lecture on local sports history, a mattress salesman giving a spiel about a stain-resistant fiber, a vintage car buff regaling his acquaintances (who don’t appear especially interested) about the various vehicles he’s owned. Some of the speakers praise the value of dedication, like when the high school teacher invokes some of Monrovia’s star athletes or when the Masonic lodge leader praises the commitment of the honoree. Yet Wiseman barely delves into what these people have been dedicated to—effort, for these subjects, seems like an end in itself. There’s no greater sense of achievement; the words ring hollow, especially when compared with Wiseman’s vibrant landscape imagery.
Monrovia climaxes with a reverend’s oration at a funeral for one of the town’s citizens, and it’s got to be one of the least interesting speeches Wiseman has ever included in a film. Again, we hear talk of dedication (to such old standbys as work, commitments, and faith), but the dedicated woman in question remains a stranger. The reverend seems more fatuous than earnest, relying on bromides rather than a genuine consideration of the woman he’s honoring; also, his suggestion that the woman has gone to heaven so she can clean God’s house is condescending and a little gross. The film ends, pointedly, not with his oration, but with the woman’s burial. Wiseman concludes by reminding us how much he loves seeing people and machines at work—this time, the work involves a dump truck filling a grave with earth and a gravedigger placing flowers on the site. These are lovely images, but they leave a disturbing aftertaste. The final take away from Monrovia, Indiana, is that the town is a great place to be an inanimate object. v