At 88 and with an honorary Oscar under his belt, Frederick Wiseman has spent so long exploring the intricacies of American institutions via documentary film that he himself has become an institution. But as usual, there is no trace but style of Wiseman in his latest effort, “Monrovia, Indiana,” which turns his lens on a small town in the American heartland in his usual self-effacing manner, free of any editorial comment or subtitles, merely presenting his subjects and letting them speak for themselves.
Like many American small towns, Monrovia (population 1,083) is facing a sense of decline, primarily in population, but also a gradual loosening of the bonds that traditionally held the townspeople together. As such, it’s impossible not to view the film through the prism of age. The film’s first scene shows a coach making a desperate plea to disinterested high school students to remember local athletic heroes from as far back as the 1920s, a reminder of a time of greater national relevance. As the coach details the sports traditions that have fallen by the wayside, it becomes clear he’s pining less for the athletes themselves than for the town camaraderie the athletes were at the center of. Some of the most emotionally potent moments are subjects reflecting on loss, such as a friend from the first grade, or the wife and mother whose eulogy and burial ends the film.
Parts of “Monrovia, Indiana” are undeniably dull, and Wiseman even highlights that tedium at times, showing Monrovians nodding off in the audiences of a high school band concert and a farm equipment auction. The sense of boredom accompanies a sense of discontinuity, a sense of having lost the plot of tradition, even if the right words are being spoken. This feeling is given perfect expression in a scene showing a ceremony marking a Freemason’s fifty years with the organization, where the men peek at note cards and stumble over the elevated diction.
Yet the boredom is also suggestive of the messy work of democracy at its most local and mundane level. One of the relatively “narrative” threads of the film comprises trips to the town council, where the council haggles over matters as hyper-local (but no less important) as fire hydrants and a new exit for a subdivision. Over the course of several council meetings, the audience gets the sense of a long pattern of behavior – bringing in outside experts to advise on growing the town’s population and business community, only to meet resistance from locals who don’t really want change.
While Wiseman offers a geographically thorough portrait of the town, one senses that he didn’t fully penetrate the locals’ remove to capture the full diversity of opinion in the town. For one, while it may be appropriate to prioritize older voices in this particular community, Wiseman does his viewers a disservice by showing no curiosity at all about younger generations, never even allowing anyone under 30 to speak at length. This conspicuous lack of youth is glaring in a film partly about generational change and denotes a greater absence of meaningful debate, in contrast to the spirited arguments of other Wiseman films. The greatest argument in the film concerns the effect on the town of a new housing development that some council members imply is bringing a more “negative” element, but missing is any larger discussions of ideology or values, suggesting Wiseman shied away from national politics. Although Wiseman’s style suggests that every small piece he shows is part of the greater whole, viewers may question the necessity of certain scenes such as a mattress shopping interlude that almost feels like sponsored content and an extremely graphic trip to the veterinarian. In light of these drawbacks, “Monrovia, Indiana” may not be Wiseman’s best work, but it’s still a meaningful and thoughtful elegy for a specific era of American rural life and a needed counterweight to Wiseman’s examinations of coastal cities. [B]