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Frederick Wiseman's ‘Beating Heart’ of Rural Americana

Monrovia, Indiana, a folksy, novelistic tale of white America, plays somewhere between documentary, cliché and ghost story

Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary, Monrovia, Indiana (2018) opens with a series of bucolic shots of rural Americana before moving inside to a meeting of a small church group. ‘Remember,’ a middle-aged man wearing a cross tells those gathered, ‘when He started this whole thing, everything was perfect. We messed it up. We brought the tribulations.’

Wiseman, here on his 42nd feature documentary, visits a handful of establishments in this predominantly white town, transmitting conversations and images from the gun shop, the pizza parlour, a baby shower, the supermarket and the beauty salon, amongst other main street staples. The film is a document of the present tense, but one told almost completely through the language and imagery of the past. In an early scene in a high school classroom, a teacher lectures on Monrovia’s historic glories in basketball, his recounting of their ‘dominance’ in the sport during the 1920s failing to inspire the near-comatose students. A ceremony awarding a Freemason a 50-year membership award is a bleak affair, the men stuttering and stumbling through the creaky formal language. Even one of the film’s most excitable conversations, between a group of men seated in lawn chairs at a vintage car show, circles around how far a dollar used to stretch.

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Frederick Wiseman, Monrovia, Indiana, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Zipporah Films

The film’s location and subject-hopping approach most directly recalls Wiseman’s film In Jackson Heights (2015), about the diverse neighbourhood in Queens, New York; Monrovia, Indiana is that earlier film’s lily-white negative. The overwhelmingly white enclaves of Indiana have long been used as stand-ins for what’s going on in America, and Monrovia, Indiana also brings to mind the ‘Middletown’ (1982) films, a series of six slice-of-life documentaries helmed by Peter Davis and shot just down the highway in Muncie, Indiana beginning in 1976, the year of America’s Bicentennial. ‘Middletown’ aired on American public television, and was a follow up to the famous ‘Middletown Studies’ (1929, 1937) a Depression-era set of sociological investigations into the white population in a small town. The town of Muncie – anonymous in the studies – was chosen as typical and representative, used by sociologists Helen and Robert Lynd ‘to study synchronously the interwoven trends that are the life of a small American city’. The best known of the ‘Middletown’ films, Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines’ cult favourite Seventeen, is an intimate look at the sex life of a white high school student Lynn Massie, that also reveals the blatant and toxic racism of Muncie. If we take Middletown as an accounting of the health of the nation, it’s telling that Seventeen was censored by PBS and never broadcast.

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Frederick Wiseman, Monrovia, Indiana, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Zipporah Films

By now, the coastal reporter parachuting in to the mom-and-pops of Middle America to take stock of the beating heart of the nation is as well-trod and hoary an American political reporting cliché as ‚‘mom-and-pops’, middle America’ and, indeed, ‘the beating hearts’. The diner, the barber shop, the church. Parades and crops, trucks and waffles, weddings and Elks Lodges. This maddening game of Mad Libs reportage reached a fever pitch in the equally feverish years following Donald Trump’s election and in this post-truth environment, there’s a collective exhaustion at the faux authenticity of the form and a resistance to the idea that you can read the main street tea leaves to uncover the roots of our political moment. (Not to mention the resistance to the now outdated idea that this kind of community should be used as a stand-in for the diverse nation.) In Monrovia, Indiana, there’s a total absence of statistical information about the town or its residents, neither provided conversationally by any of the films subjects, nor by Wiseman himself via text cards (such a sign-posting intervention would be as out of place in a Wiseman film as an alien invasion). Throughout its runtime, the film returns to a town council meeting where there’s a series of debates over how Monrovia should expand demographically, how to provide necessary services to a housing development called Homestead, and whether the development should have even been built in the first place; these scenes are the closest the film gets to the explicit addressing of ‘issues’. This may very well be Trump country, but that’s to be reckoned with elsewhere.

Wiseman, who has long described his artistic approach as being ‘more novelistic than journalistic’, is not after political evaluations and there is tremendous value to be found in his revisiting these clichés and surveying them anew. Here, as in Wiseman’s other films, there’s an alchemy to his editing, an accumulation of meaning that builds slowly. Many of the film’s scenes are stifling and wearisome in their dullness, which seems to be a feature, not a bug. Monrovia, Indiana is permeated by the sense of people who are just going through the motions of living – not even the wedding of a young couple is a vivacious affair. It wasn’t until an enterprising salesman hawking mattress covers shows off jars filled with an accretion of bodily fluids, skin, and hair that I realized with complete certainty that this film was going to end in a cemetery. What Wiseman documents and constructs here is an indelible record of decline; he checks in with the institutions that comprise the folksy story of white America, and finds a place reenacting a ghost story.

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Frederick Wiseman, Monrovia, Indiana, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Zipporah Films

In Monrovia, Indiana, the landscape itself retains the purity the American Dream – all blue skies and golden waves of grain. In the sermon at the funeral that comprises the film’s final scenes, the pastor invokes the pleasures of the after-life to provide reassurance to the grieving, but it is a symbolic message that seems also to be reassuring Monrovia’s residents, the living dead: ‘Heaven is a place of no sorrow, no crying. No compromised bodies, no wheelchairs. No beds of affliction. Unspeakable joy. The pains of life not permitted. The failures of life affect us no longer.’ Wiseman is often referred to as the premier portraitist of American institutions, but what he’s also been doing over all these decades is taking the collective pulse. And here, those ‘beating hearts’ of America have flatlined.

Main image: Frederick Wiseman, Monrovia, Indiana, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Zipporah Films

Sierra Pettengill is a New York-based filmmaker. She is currently a Sundance Institute Art of Nonfiction Fellow.

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