Documentary Review: The Great Frederick Wiseman loses himself in “Monrovia, Indiana”

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“Brevity is the soul of wit,” the Immortal Bard wrote.

Frederick Wiseman, the grand old man of documentary cinema and founding father of cinema verite, doesn’t go for wit, or brevity.

His classic fly-on-the-wall documentaries — “Titicut Follies,” shot at a mental hospital, “Boxing Gym,” “High School,” “Belfast, Maine” — often run on and on, patience-testing at well over two hours. He found almost three hours worth of images he couldn’t bear to pare down in “Central Park.”

You don’t mind when the camera captures something fascinating. But the films can be mesmerizing or maddening, depending on the subject.

With “Monrovia, Indiana,” he gives us another slice of his version of “slow cinema,” eschewing graphics, voice-over narration or interviews that focus what people talk about in attempting a portrait of a small town America that is withering away as I type.

Conversations are overheard, extreme close-ups show us the work of hair dressers and veterinarians, pizza makers and butchers; tractors rake fields, pigs are sorted via spray cans and cattle stare forlornly from the feed lot into the camera.

Wiseman shows us repeated visits to what I take to be a town council (or planning board) meeting, tedious discussions of fire hydrants and what they look like in the big city some miles to the north and east — Indianapolis.

The Lions Club debates adding a second bus bench ad to boost membership for an eternity of screen time.

There’s a ceremony at Freemasons Monrovia Lodge 654, with natural stumbling, scripted platitudes, a scene that goes on well beyond any point it may have.

Wiseman takes us into a high school classroom where a teacher whom I suppose is also a coach tries to inspire the kids with the story of the community’s connection to basketball greatness. Two-time NCAA title-winning Indiana U. coach Branch McCraken came from there.

We glimpse the show choir rehearsing, see a dance team at a street fair and drop in on collectible car shows (all US makes, as indeed the town seems to drive Detroit by default), eavesdrop on a couple mattress shopping and see the wedding of two local 20somethings.

But the long funeral oration in the third act is more representative of the movie Wiseman put together. He’s 88 now, so its natural that he’d focus on the elderly — weathered, freckled balding men grousing about their latest surgery, cranking up an ancient steam-powered tractor for a public event, knowingly talking about the most pedestrian “collectible” old cars among one other.

It’s an overlong old man’s movie, an elegy to a vanishing way of life and a town whose population Wiseman seems to see as reflections of himself or just of America in general.

The demographics presented here don’t accurately reflect the town. Yes, Monrovia is almost comically monochromatic (over 97% white). We rarely see a black face — one, singing at a wedding, another the NBA’s Steph Curry caught on TV. Monrovia is mostly female, even if the movie settles on men far more often. “Monrovia” is an old people film, for the most part. That isn’t borne out by the census.

Little old ladies sit and listen to the preacher’s after-hours sermon at Women’s Circle, men 40, 50-and up get buzz cuts at Hot Rod’s Barber Shop, the aged proprietor of Guns & Ordnance talks about the gall bladder concerns of one customer to another customer.

Wiseman paints a picture of the small town pace of life, rural Americana concerns (No drugs, no crime, not in the movie, anyway.) and those left behind there. Will these teens we see trying to stay awake as they hear how “dominant” the school was in basketball in the ’20s and 30s want to stick around to work with cattle, pigs or at the lone market in town, the Cafe on the Corner or Main Street Bar & Grill?

Wiseman immerses us in the banality of life’s details — close-ups of a dog’s tail being removed, the first-stage water at the sewage treatment plant, cooking pizzas and pepperoni-stuffed breadsticks, the generally small and old wood frame houses, most in decent repair but nothing special, overgrown shrubbery.

You can muse about a nation disconnected from this recent past, several steps removed from those who supply its food. You can ponder how many dead-end towns just like this one have developed opioid or meth problems. You can guess how they voted.

If you’ve ever sat through a government meeting in a small town, or tried to stay awake covering the Borough Council in Kodiak, Alaska or an arts board in small town Florida (I have), you know that accurately capturing the moment (moments) isn’t going to produce anything entertaining or even that interesting.

Two films are worth considering for comparison here — the classic, eccentric Errol Morris visit to “Vernon, Florida” (less than half as long) and Alexander Payne’s old-man-on-a-deluded-quest dramedy “Nebraska.”

Not interviewing anybody dulls down the dialogue to the point of sleep-inducing. Morris had the good sense to chat and get stories out of the folks of “Vernon, Florida.”

I wonder, as we wander through a farm implement auction (the camera is usually planted, static) if Wiseman wouldn’t have been better served making a shorter, more pointed film about say, the gun shop. If you haven’t been in one lately, the sea change evident here, even in small towns — hunting weapons losing shelf space to mass mayhem “hobby” and self-defense firearms — is striking and seems like a movie.

He’s already done two documentaries on “High School,” but the kids here, facing a future that might entail most of them leaving, would have been more interesting to follow.

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It’s very late in the game to be second-guessing one of our greatest filmmakers, but Wiseman’s long-ago assertion that if he stuck around long enough, people would forget the camera and be themselves, seems dubious as we watch Masons and preachers stumble with nerves while performing ceremonies they’ve been repeating for decades.

And what do you do when getting everybody to “be themselves” has them turn out to be as boring as most of us are in real life?

It starts well enough, shots held just a tad too long establishing the cattle, pig and grain farming nature of the land, the tiny block or so that constitutes Main Street.

But Wiseman has filmed and under-edited what amounts to a public record of a sliver of a village captured at one moment in time, playing up the boredom, celebrating the pace of life yet never noting its problems or discovering its charms.

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MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: The people of Monrovia, Indiana

Credits:Directed by Frederick Wiseman. A Zipporah release.

Running time: 2:23

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One Response to Documentary Review: The Great Frederick Wiseman loses himself in “Monrovia, Indiana”

  1. Frank DeNiro says:

    Why were most of the women in Monrovia morbidly obese?
    That couldn’t have been a deliberate (directorial) choice, could it?

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