Thursday 8 August 2019

Melbourne International Film Festival - Tom Ryan reviews MONROVIA, INDIANA (Frederick Wiseman, USA, 2018)

Frederick Wiseman
“My job is, as I define it, to make a movie about an aspect of contemporary experience and to organise it in a dramatic form. So I’m not simply observing, or not onlyobserving. I’m there to try to think about what the experience that I’m watching means to me, and then ultimately, in the editing stage, organise it in a dramatic form and in a way that fairly presents the experience I had in making the film. So it’s not in any way a passive role, because you’re constantly having to make choices. Choices about the subject matter, choices about what to shoot, how to shoot it, how to edit the material in relation to other sequences, how to impose a form on the film: all of those things represent choices that have to be quite consciously made.”
(Frederick Wiseman) (1)
 If you live in Melbourne, as I do, just about the only way you can get to see a Frederick Wiseman film these days is at the Melbourne International Film Festival. It’s been that way for almost 20 years. You could buy DVD versions via his website –Zipporah Films– but, given that they all sell (to individuals) for around $US30, that would be a very expensive exercise. Worth it, perhaps, in order to keep up with the work of, arguably, the greatest of all documentary filmmakers, but a costly proposition nonetheless.

His 44th film, Monrovia, Indiana (2019, 140 minutes), screened to a packed house at the Kino Cinemas last weekend at MIFF 2019. It’s screening again  (Sunday, August 18, 10.45am at the Forum). 

A portrait of a small town in the American mid-West shot over a period of ten weeks, it quietly goes about its business along the same lines as the rest of his work. Seemingly simply content to observe, his camera watches unassumingly, his subjects never seeming to notice its presence. Wiseman says that he doesn’t interfere with what happens in front of it, although, if ever anyone happens to look at it, he keeps shooting but cuts away from them in the editing room. 

And there are no interviews. People talk to each other in his films, but never to the camera, to him or to his surrogates. If they pontificate at length – as several do in Monrovia, Indiana– he lets them, leaving it to the editing process to call matters to a halt when he deems it appropriate. 

Wiseman doesn’t suffer gladly anyone who might want to describe his methods – and the documentary form in general – as somehow objective. He regards his work as closer to fiction than anything else, pointing to the fact that he makes choices about how to shoot and shape what he films as a clear indication of his intervention in the process. 

In one way or another, all his films focus on what makes places tick, like businesses and other institutions (as in The Store or Boxing Gym) or the communities that flower in big cities (Central ParkIn Jackson Heights) or towns (Belfast, MaineAspen). He says he chose Monrovia as the setting for and the subject of his latest film because he hadn’t turned his camera on the American heartland before. Of course, the fact that he happened to choose this place at this particular moment in time had nothing to do with the fact that its inhabitants represent exactly those voters who placed their trust in Donald Trump. More than three quarters of its population supported Trump at the 2016 presidential election.

As it happens, nobody mentions POTUS in the film, which was, Wiseman says, their own choice. In fact, there’s barely a single reference in the film to the world beyond Monrovia. The only suggestions of a link to somewhere else are a recurring image of a yard filled with satellite dishes and a Republican Party stall spied in the background of a single shot during the sequence set at the Monrovia festival. Interviewed by Matt Prigge for Filmmaker magazine, Wiseman explains that it wasn’t just when the camera was rolling that the citizenry of Monravia avoided the issue. “There was no political talk when we were shooting or when we were hanging around,” he recalled. “There was local talk at the town council, some of which was in the film, but there was no national political talk at all. I found that fascinating. And I don’t think it was because I was around. There was a considerable lack of curiosity about the external world.” (2) Nevertheless, politics is a defining presence in the film and Monrovia’s essential and unbending conservatism is everywhere felt.

In his excellent Mise En Scene and Film Style, Adrian Martin draws creatively on previous theorists, including Umberto Eco and filmmaker Jean-Louis Comolli, to introduce the idea of a “social mise en scene”. Central to this are the ways in which a film, deliberately or inadvertently, allows us to see how its social world is “relatively strictly organised, codified, subject to a multitude of rule-sets that govern (or at least regulate) behaviour, posture, gesture, level of emotion (contained or released), where and how one will sit, stand, walk, run, be active or passive, hushed or loud…” (3)

Monrovia, Indiana and Wiseman’s work as a whole provide a perfect illustration of the concept. In fact, to make sense of the details of his films, it’s essential that we engage with them, a point that’s true of all films but is rarely as crucial as it is with Wiseman. He doesn’t tell; he shows. To make sense of his work, we have to reflect on the places and the patterns of behaviour that it presents to us. 

Like his other films,Monrovia, Indiana begins with a series of what are conventionally known as establishing shots: empty farmland stretching out to the horizon, corn rustling in the breeze, a late-Victorian style house sitting magisterially alone at the top of a hill (above), a silo alongside a group of sheds, a country road (allowed speed 45mph), a railway crossing with a flashing orange light and a couple of houses in the background, a town sign, a mostly deserted street with a few shop fronts, a church with a steeple, a cemetery alongside… 

This is the kind of place city folks might generally regard as paradise, or else as one of the most boring places in the world. Its character remains seemingly untouched by the modern world, going its own way in its own time. It’s not by chance that a key sequence soon afterwards finds a group of councillors gathered around a table (below) pondering the wisdom of allowing the establishment of a new allotment of homes that would increase the population by at least a thousand and require expansion of the local infrastructure. Several of those in attendance at the meeting are female, which mightn’t have been the case for previous generations, but a general murmur of approval accompanies the observation that “change” should not be mistaken for “progress”.

The past is important in Monrovia. The mostly Victorian architecture of the stand-alone homes with their large, sweeping lawns and trimly groomed gardens speak of an earlier time, as do the conversations of the grey-haired folks who meet at the local diner or sit in deck chairs at a vintage-car meet to chew the fat, remember contemporaries who’ve died, and recall how it used to be back in the day. The minister at the funeral that takes place at the end of the film delivers an extended eulogy that is as much a celebration of the old-fashioned values of home and hearth as it is of the deceased whom his congregation have come to farewell.

Monrovia’s history is written into its buildings and their arrangement as well as into the routines followed by the population, what is sometimes known as everyday or ordinary life. The school with its classrooms and gymnasium, the hairdressing salon, the church where, during the course of the film, people come together for a wedding and a funeral, the diner where everybody seems to know everybody, the roads that bind together the people of the town and the places they visit… 

Intriguingly, while there are many shots of the exteriors of the citizens’ homes, Wiseman never takes us inside any of them. The weight of history is embodied in their exteriors and his focus is on the community and the communal rather than individual families and domestic spaces. He takes us behind the scenes at the pizza place, but not into domestic kitchens.

He is showing us a way of life and the community that has gathered in its embrace, or its shadow. It depends how we interpret what we’re seeing. In an early sequence, in the stockyards outside town, the cattle huddle together as cattle do, numbered tags attached to their ears as they await their fates. Is the sequence to be taken as providing an abrasive metaphor for the citizens of Monrovia herded together in their workplaces, residences and routines? Or is it simply there to indicate that farming in Monrovia and its surrounds isn’t just about corn? 

Everyone in the film – the town councillors, the students and teachers at the school, the gathered congregations, the visitors to the town festival and the vintage car rally, everyone – is Caucasian. With one exception, an African-American woman manning a water-bottle stall at the festival. This is, effectively, a gated community, cut off from the parts of America that have been enveloped by change (or “progress”).

It’s not by chance that the film’s final sequence is a funeral (above), complete with the mourners singing “Amazing Grace”, or that there are recurrent shots throughout of the cemetery. But how we interpret these details relates to how we see the film is a whole. Certainly the sequence and the shots function as a reminder that everything that Monrovia, Indiana stands for is transient. However, are they also implying more than that? Perhaps to do with a dying way of life? Perhaps, given the film’s suggestion that what occurs in the film’s present tense is an ongoing mimicry of the past, the proposal is that to die is human but the body of the social world is intact?

It is possible – just – to see Monrovia, Indiana as an affectionate embrace of ordinary people and the everyday. The people who gather in front of Wiseman’s camera are decent and likeable – perhaps aside from the man holding forth at great length about his life success at the vintage car rally – and they certainly don’t seem to be at all dangerous (unlike the man they helped to vote into the Oval Office). On the other hand, it’s also possible to see the place as trapped in the past, its population inward-looking, blinkered, backward and insufferably smug.

1.                interviewed by the author, July 2002
2.                Matt Prigge, “‘It’s Impossible to Predict [an Audience’s] Reactions, and I Make No Effort To Do It’: Frederick Wiseman on Monrovia, Indiana and His 51-Year Career”, Filmmaker, October 26, 2018

3.                Adrian Martin, Mise En Scene and Film Style, Palgrave, Macmillan, London, 2013, p. 131

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