Frederick Wiseman has made his dullest documentary. But a dull blade can still cut deep. It just takes longer. And Monrovia, Indiana, like many of Wiseman’s films, runs more than two hours in length. By its end, the point is felt. It’s a point that comes together in your mind as you’ve been bored by everyday small-town life in the eponymous Midwestern stand-in. If anything has ever reminded me that “to bore” can also mean to penetrate, it’s this.
In his usual manner, Wiseman has visited a place, captured hours and hours of his observations there (shot over nine weeks accompanied by longtime cinematographer John Davey), and then whittled that footage down to a reflection of his personal experience. Monrovia, Indiana is Wiseman’s take on Monrovia, Indiana, and its population of 1,063, and if this is the stuff he found most interesting, we can be glad we weren’t tasked with the job of sifting through all that he got on tape and logging it ahead of the editing process — Wiseman does all that himself anyway, I believe.
There are montages of farm landscapes and residential neighborhoods, scenes inside small businesses and classrooms and churches and Freemason lodges. Regardless of the amount of time we spend with each, most of it is as humdrum as a sequence of supermarket shoppers or as monotonous as a farm equipment auction, where shots of elderly people who’ve dozed off might be contagious. But don’t fall asleep, you’re only 40 minutes in!
Almost everything in Monrovia, Indiana is local. Or so it seems. There are no shots of any McDonald’s or Walmarts. And all the scenes and discussions pertain to these provincial people’s provincial lives — their meals, their haircuts, their baby showers, weddings, and funerals, their shopping for groceries, liquor, and guns, their farming jobs, their kids’ band concerts, their choice of mattress, and their town’s placement of benches and fellow citizens’ complaints about fire hydrants. No TV reveals the outside world save for a basketball game on at a bar. There are two brief mentions of the greater Morgan County, but otherwise, we see only a limited scope directed at Americans who seem themselves to have limited scope.
Within the bubble of small-town American life, though, are individuals with iPhones, and those static shots of produce and the mattresses being hawked inside a community center and the baby sneakers gifted to a mother-to-be, they all came from beyond the borders of Monrovia. And that corn and livestock aren’t just grown for internal Monrovian consumption. But these people may not think about any of that. When a woman selling CBD oil at a street fair mentions that proceeds go toward helping “the babies who are malnourished” in Haiti, the idea of foreign people is still broad and indirect, worthy of charity but not genuine concern.
The more we see the people of Monrovia not thinking nationally let alone globally, however, the more that we might be. We ask, to ourselves: What do they think about issues in Washington or in Ferguson? What about the problems of racism and sexual misconduct? Are they paying attention to Syria or the refugee crisis or human trafficking or Russian influence or climate change? Are they oblivious or just intentionally ignorantly content in their isolated bucolic existence? Does this make them negligent? Well, what are we doing with our lives?
Watching what amounts to a superficially uninteresting film about life, death, and supermarkets can have us thinking about any number of things. Maybe all we’re wondering is similarly limited to our own lives, what we’ll have for dinner tonight or whether we need to drop off dry cleaning today or if it can wait until tomorrow. Maybe during the predictable, on-the-nose funeral sequence concluding the film we just consider the one that got away or the hobbies we still want to pursue before our own death comes. Or maybe we’re thinking more existentially or politically about life’s meaning. Should we be doing more, or does it matter?
The Rorschach test of an ostensibly ambiguous documentary can be problematic in its own neutrality. The people of Monrovia watching themselves might not get how their town is being subtly purposed for a political reading of their small-town needs, concerns, beliefs, and lifestyle. Wiseman can also, in turn, be viewed as complicit in whatever he might be saying about Monrovians because his film isn’t prodding of its subjects. How irresponsible, and so pertinently so with the film released right before the midterm elections! But the intention of Monrovia, Indiana is to provoke the viewer — who is more likely of the relatively cosmopolitan liberal PBS audience that Wiseman typically appeals to — not those being viewed.
There are more blatant reminders sprinkled throughout Monrovia, Indiana that the film wants to make us uncomfortable, such as a bloody scene in a veterinarian’s operation room where the doctor clips a dog’s tail and a bit where a mattress salesman presents the amount of human sweat and other body fluids and excreted skin wind up in our beds (one of the few moments in the film where you can learn something, as gross as it is). Wiseman even turns his lens to the local sewage plant for a literal look at Monrovia’s shit. Everybody poops.
Clearer political reminders come about in anything from a straight shot of the Morgan County Republican Party booth at the street fair to multiple addresses during town council meetings about the desire to keep Monrovia small and the aversion towards the expansion of housing developments and population growth, which presumably brings with it more problems. Not only do Monrovians seem to not want to leave their bubble in thought or travel, but a number of them also want to keep people and influences outside the town’s membrane.
The documentary is most enjoyable during these few government meetings and conversations of matters that might not be quite so indicative of an everyday sameness of Monrovia life. At least they’re distinct small-town issues and contain a mix of different viewpoints colliding. Drama! But the importance of the conversations is relative. For the guy recovering from surgery, talking about that is the most important thing right now. For the supermarket shoppers, the deal on Kraft cheese that day might be the most important thing.
Anyway, this isn’t a film to be enjoyed. No more than a documentary showing children dying in the Syrian Civil War is to be enjoyed. No more than a documentary about corruption in the New York Police Department is to be enjoyed. No more than a documentary exposing the poor treatment of the criminally insane in a state hospital is to be enjoyed. For Monrovia, Indiana to be one of Wiseman’s hardest films to sit through is to be one of his most telling.