Monrovia Indiana: Not much to see here

C documentary
Directed by Frederick Wiseman

Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary studies life in a small, agricultural town in what we might call Trump country. We see people at work. We see people exercising. We see people joking around and telling funny stories. We see people in church and in town meetings. And when we don’t see people, we see crops.

Wiseman is an extremely prolific documentarian with a recent series at the BAMPFA. This was my first experience with his work. I’m sorry to report that it disappointed me.

In Monrovia Indiana, Wiseman uses a cinéma vérité (truthful cinema) style. There’s no narration, no interviews, and no one talking to the camera. Theoretically, the filmmaker is just recording real life. Of course, it’s not that simple. People act differently when a camera is on them. And, of course, someone chose what footage should be seen.

In this case, Wiseman made the wrong choices in the editing room. This might have been a very good film at 90 minutes. At 143, it’s a slog. There are too many scenes that go on way too long. There’s a Mason ritual that’s fascinating for about five minutes; I think it went on for at least 15. The film ends with a funeral of epic length. The preacher just keeps talking, pointing out multiple times that the deceased is now with Jesus because she died a Christian.

Evangelical Christianity is clearly an important part of this town. We see several churches, with ministers saying pretty much the same thing. There’s not much diversity here. The film only occasionally shows a black or brown face. Judging from what we see, there’s no open bigotry.

Aside from church services and Mason rituals, we see people working, whether it’s herding pigs, cooking fast food, fixing cars, or selling guns. In one very gross scene, we watch veterinarians bob an anesthetized dog’s tail.

Among the most interesting scenes are the ones with the town council. We get to know individuals’ opinions. For the most part, they argue over whether they should build more housing. Anyone in the Bay Area can sympathize.

By avoiding narration and interviews, Monrovia Indiana often leaves us in the dark. For instance, there’s a scene in a mattress store that appears to be in a basketball court. No explanation.

Outside of the town council meetings, we never really get to know anyone. We learn nothing about how these people feel about their jobs, their families, or their political views (except their views on housing).

Much of what is shown would look completely normal in the Bay Area. You can find plenty of men with beards and tattoos. A booth at the town festival sells tie dye; another cannabis medicinals. On the other hand, another booth sells pro-gun tee-shirts.

Strangely, the town appears stuck in the year 2000 – at least when it comes to technology. I saw no smartphones in the film, and only one flat-screen monitor.

Between the main scenes Wiseman shows us montages of farmland, barns, the downtown street, and churches. After a while, I often felt I’d seen that shot before, but I probably just saw one just like it.

Monrovia Indiana needed to go either deeper, or shorter. Better yet, it should have done both. It opens Friday at the Opera Plaza and the Shattuck.

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