‘Monrovia, Indiana,’ while close to home, seems worlds away
Jim Moster | Wednesday, November 7, 2018
If you were to hop in a car and drive south for the length of a Notre Dame football game, you’d find yourself in Monrovia, Indiana. An outsider might mistake the small farming community for a ghost town, but veteran filmmaker Frederick Wiseman assures you that its residents are alive and kicking — if only barely.
“Monrovia, Indiana,” Wiseman’s 44th documentary, depicts the town’s population of 1,443 trudging through the motions of rural life — sitting in the barber shop, drifting under the fluorescent lights of the supermarket, engaging in “who-died-when” banter at the coffee house and so on. These somnolent scenes of normalcy are interrupted only by brief shots of corn rustling in the wind, cars staggering down roads littered with pebbles and mountains of grain being loaded into trucks. Wiseman strategically places these scenes as if to remind the viewer that moments like a heated debate over defunct fire hydrants are merely brief specks of intrigue in a sea of otherwise constant monotony.
The only Monrovian constant beyond the presence of corn is the prevalence of rituals. Wiseman sits in on the commemoration ceremony of an elderly man for fifty years of service to Monrovia Lodge No. 654, a local Masonic lodge chartered in 1904. As Master Masons stutter their way through dusty scripts held in trembling hands for an audience of all-male members and their relatives, one can’t help but feel that Monrovia is clinging to a dead tradition that once boasted members such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.
Later in the documentary, Wiseman films a wedding at the Monrovian Christian Church. Prior to the presider’s declaration of the couple’s eternal union, he presents a two-pieced “unity cross” as a symbol of the dynamic between husband and wife. The sharp-edged outer frame of the cross represents the man’s protection of his wife and family, and the petite and elegant cross placed inside of the outer frame represents the wife’s tender love. The couple exchanges wide smiles as the presider elaborates on the meaning of the unity cross and ensures that the order of the universe is not disrupted.
In an era where the demands of rural Americans have been made impossible to ignore, one might be misled into thinking that Wiseman delves into the motivations behind local support of red-state politics. Beyond depicting a misogynistic culture and one humorous reference to Russian meddling (a local business owner corrects an accusation of collusion with the town’s zoning commissioner as mere “cooperation”), the viewer is left yearning for the political context that would allow for a greater understanding of small-town America. One wonders how Wiseman managed to avoid addressing political controversy when many of us can’t go an entire day without running into it.
Wiseman, known for his “fly-on-the-wall” style of documenting his subjects, provokes raw fascination through his unadulterated observations of the townsfolk. But one can’t shake the feeling that Wiseman missed the wall and flew out the window, leaving the audience squinting to view the house’s inhabitants from afar. While the message that towns like Monrovia are in the midst of an irreversible decline is made clear through recurrent footage of a silent cemetery and a seemingly endless debate over whether the public library needs a second new bench, no depth of insight emerges on this depressing state of affairs.
Perhaps the most unforgettable aspect of the documentary is its slow pace, which serves as both a strength and a flaw. Lengthy back-and-forth discussions about the drawbacks of constructing new homes in the community and the funding of public works project add little excitement in between lingering shots of long lines at the liquor store and the preparation of meat at a deli — and rightfully so, as the viewer should have a visceral sense of the tedious reality of Monrovia.
On the other hand, the snores of the friend who sat to my right in the theater send their own message. While “Monrovia, Indiana” provides a sufficient gaze into the lives of rural Americans, a Notre Dame student might better spend their time driving down to Monrovia and interviewing the residents themselves.