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  1. #16
    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    MONROVIA, INDIANA (Frederick Wiseman 2018)


    What is happening here?

    The 88-year-old master of meticulous observation turns his attention to a farming town of under 1,500 - and planning meetings show, they don't want it to grow much. There is an undercurrent of deep irony that for all Wiseman's traditional, sometimes thrilling dedication to the quotidian, let's you see this as, well, dullsville. But this may be over-reading. Mostly Wiseman simply shows life in this red state place to be low-keyed.

    If there is anything exciting going on here, it takes a while for it to appear. (That is always part of Wiseman's art, of course.) The film begins with a sequence of quick near-silent shots of houses, church, road, grass, field. All seems placid, which apparently is the dominant impression the filmmaker wants us to take away. It is almost dormant.There is o conflict. Thus begins one of the filmmaker's less interesting and less penetrating portraits of a place or an institution, a long way from his recent Ex Libris or At Berkeley, where the Boston native gradually built up a portrait of humanism and cutting edge thought. A thought that comes early here, from a local minister speaking to a group of weary middle-aged faces, is that God gives men a hard time, but makes things right in the end.

    Wiseman does not focus on what may be for some of us Monrovia's telling political characteristic - this area voted 76% for Trump. Trump's name never comes up. Instead we get discussions of whether houses or businesses ought to be favored, and where to place a new bench in front of the library. Things get more exciting when a board meeting discusses the lack of a water system that provides fire protection - a bar to development (which many don't want anyway).

    We see an eighty-year-old man honored in a long and tedious ceremony, in an unimpressive room and dressed in ordinary clothes, for serving as a Mason for half a century. An overweight man lectures a high school class on how outstanding Monrovia has been in basketball. The pizza place is called Dawg House. An Italian might not be best pleased by what is being turned out here.

    It doesn't require selectiveness to reveal that there are vey few people here who are anything but native white Americans (there are a couple of African Americans at a high school band concert, and that's about it). Nor is unfair but only factual to point out that many people here are overweight, at all age levels.

    Where things look more energetic is in agriculture. There are repeated glimpses of a hog farm that appears large scale. How large, we don't see, but the truck they are herded into at one point is ver long indeed. At an auction of used or nearly new agricultural equipment, a combine is sold for $110,000 - a bargain if you see what these things normally cost (up to $50,000).

    More dispiriting is a supermarket where the camera ruthlessly surveys the goods on display and shows it to be monotonous and unhealthy. Not that people don't enjoy eating here, or that there is no good food. But there is a woman customer, bulging and shapeless. An exercise class has people of all shapes, including some chubby woman and a couple of young in-shape men, which suggests it's the only game in town.

    Again the film returns to still shots of the town and its environs, silent and still. We don't even see cars driving around till half way through, though we do see cars sold second hand at a country fair where a trio plays country music. This is a quiet place, but Wiseman chooses to heighten the quiet rather than to seek out noise, or drama of even a mundane kind.

    It is hard under the circumstances to guess what A.O. Scott meant by his remarks about this film in a NYFF preview the New York Times, to begin with his call it "patient and sublime." He wrote that in watching it one is "feeling assumptions gently and insistently undermined and replaced by an understanding that is all the more powerful for being nearly impossible to articulate." "Every cliché and talking point I’ve absorbed about the American heartland since the last presidential election was challenged," he goes on, "by Mr. Wiseman’s observations of democracy at work in a rural Midwestern town, though the name of the man who won that election is never mentioned." The observations of democracy at work are inconclusive. Those scenes are like any mundane city council or planning meeting in any American town, just a little more mundane and not perceptibly significant.

    Yes, Wiseman is patient. "Sublime" seems a stretch.

    Monrovia, Indiana, 143 mins., debuted at Venice, showing at five other festivals including Toronto, London, and the New York Film Festival. Watched in an online screener 10 Oct., its US theatrical release starts 26 Oct. 2018. Metascore 82.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 10-10-2018 at 05:58 PM.


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