Dust to Dust: Frederick Wiseman’s “Monrovia, Indiana”
Frederick Wiseman goes west — the Midwest that is. In a career that spans over 50 years, the 88-year-old filmmaker has made 45 films at this time. Each movie contains the slightest variations in an aesthetic refined by Wiseman: simple, direct shots with no captions, no voiceovers, and no talking heads. For Wiseman, these are simply accoutrements cluttering the drama inherent in the footage recorded. His films concentrate on specific socio-cultural environments — anything from a boxing gym to a hospital, from a neighborhood to a small city, from a race track to a public library. Wherever the place, Wiseman thoroughly covers it by the accumulation of details from everyday life. Such a general observation could apply to any number of filmmakers, let alone documentarians. For Wiseman, however, it is most certainly true — and then some. His films evoke an essence of cinema in which the medium is stripped to its essentials. He captures moments fraught with action, selects the hundreds of hours of footage to use, and edits them together to make a film. These are fundamental decisions a director makes, and Wiseman does so — and still makes singular movies. As with Hong Sang-soo or Yasujirō Ozu, you know what you’re going to “get” when you watch a Wiseman film. He isn’t simply repeating himself. Rather, his recognizable aesthetic makes his body of work cohesive. So then, film by film, it’s a matter of tracking the aesthetic’s subtle alterations and developments. What makes the protracted sequence shots of speakers presenting masterworks to museumgoers in National Gallery (2014) electrifying, while those seen of celebrities like Elvis Costello speaking to audiences in Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (2017) relatively dull? Your milage may vary with each film depending on their subject matter. Perhaps it’s a matter of finding the right form to inform the content. On this latter point, with Monrovia, Indiana (2018), Wiseman hits a “sweet spot,” making a great work with consummate pacing and scope, touching on themes of tedium, health, and mortality, for a film nominally about a central Indiana town with 1,348 citizens.
Speaking as a former Hoosier, albeit from the city of South Bend with a population of 102,245, Wiseman captures the duel energies of a Midwest town. Boredom intermingles with the sublime in Monrovia. The endless fields, filled with crops, the wind gently nudging the leaves, conveys a peace of mind. The lone farmer at dawn, lost in his work, bales hay with his tractor. This tranquility, seen here and there in the documentary, in the short interstitial shots as well the longer sequences, can shade into niggling torpor. At an auction for farm equipment, people — many possessing the stoic Midwestern demeanor — sit on bleachers in a barn, watching the heavyduty vehicles drive on by. Wiseman cuts to one of them asleep. At meetings in which the town’s council members discuss the placement of fire hydrants, zoning ordinances, and the possiblity of growing and welcoming businesses to Monrovia — the assembly becomes gridlocked. The members don’t decide on a plan, and nothing seems to get settled. Meanwhile, time drip, drip, drips.
The people live with the land; they live amidst pastoral beauty. However, those vast fields, the simple main street running through the town, the houses, churches, and schools located among vast space — all convey a sense of isolation.
This implicit stagnation, a perpetual tempts mort in middle America, overlaps with another thread woven into the documentary: health risk and obesity. According to The State of Obesity, “Indiana has the 12th highest adult obesity rate in the nation.” Wiseman often contrasts body types: an overweight girl stands out among cheerleaders; for his slender students, a heavyset teacher lectures on Monrovia high school football during English class. Later in the film, we’ll see a trainer instructing a group on leg lifts and stretches in a barn turned fitness studio.
Juxtaposing with the corn and soybeans growing in the fields, the main foods seen in the film are fatty and rich in carbs. One of the nodes of activity in Monrovia is a pizza joint. We see a worker preparing an order of breadsticks by kneading and rolling the thick dough, putting it in the oven, boxing them up, and then applying a thick coat of butter. In another restaurant, this one a popular bar and grill, Wiseman once more concentrates on the food preparation. A chef grips a piece of cooked steak with his bare hands before putting the sliced bits into a salad — one loaded with chedder cheese. In another moment, a waitress places an order number between her lips, grabs the prepared dish, then sticks the piece of paper on the order of food before serving the meal.
Looming over these aspects of health and boredom is the sense of approaching mortality. Although he has said that he doesn’t know what his films will be about when shooting them, Wiseman has made a work that sits with death. At a café, older men engage in a post-meal chat, discussing the death of an aquiantance in town. At a gun shop, of all places, a regular customer chats with the owner about someone they know who had surgery to remove their gall stones. And by the end, someone has in fact died. In an extended sequence, one of the great moments in Wiseman’s cinema, a preacher delivers a passionate eulogy for the dearly departed.
Monrovia, Indiana is Wiseman detailing small-town public life. The people here have a stony visage. They attain emotional support from their close-knit community. As seen in the doc, the citizens of Monrovia, who’re overwhelmingly white, are modest people. And life just trickles on, as day transitions into night, as these Hoosiers eat, sleep, and work, maintaining the routine of these basic everyday actions before inevitable death.
Frederick Wiseman’s Monrovia, Indiana opens at Manhattan’s Film Forum on October 26.