Frederick Wiseman’s latest film is a bit of a departure from the epic sweep of At Berkeley, In Jackson Heights and Ex Libris. Taken collectively, those three films now feel like a trilogy, since they are all preoccupied with the ways in which education and information is incompletely staggered throughout the public sphere in urban America. By contrast, Monrovia, Indiana turns its attention to the American heartland, immersing us in the daily routines of Monrovia, a town of about a thousand people in Monroe County, Indiana. Monrovia is one of those names that crops up in a lot of American states, so this often feels like Wiseman’s vision of American small town life more broadly, as this particular town becomes a synecdoche for the way in which the heartland operates as a whole. While this is Monrovia, then, it’s only Monrovia in the same way that “Boxing Gym” was about a specific boxing gym, or “High School” was about a specific high school. As with most of his films, however, Wiseman offsets this sense of generalizability by honing in on the small details of his subject matter, while also focusing on the images and situations that have preoccupied him from the start of his career. Much of the documentary revolves around public meetings and council meetings, while the rural backdrop allows Wiseman to luxuriate in his taste for establishing shots, as well as his love of signage, nomenclature, publically displayed language and, ultimately, the visual, oral and written languages of America’s public sphere.
Rather than focusing on one institution, as occurs in many of Wiseman’s others films, Monrovia takes us through a number of spaces and situations that are found in most American towns and suburbs. Anchored in a series of council meetings, the film moves through the local bottle shop, pizza restaurant, veterinary clinic, barber, tattoo parlour and supermarket, while also moving outside the town to show us the agricultural processes that sustain the local economy. Since there are only a thousand people living in Monrovia, this creates a pretty comprehensive cross-section of the town and its activities, especially since Wiseman opts for faster editing than usual, setting the pace of his film against the decelerating pace and declining population of the town to bring a new sense of urgency into his typically relaxed mise-en-scenes. Many of the best scenes involve food, partly because the small size of the town means that the connection between agriculture and the point of sale is much more compressed than it would be in a big city. In one particularly memorable sequence, Wiseman moves between the management of livestock on the outskirts of town and the way in which meat is stored and processed in the local restaurant and pizza parlour, while also focusing on the small quirks in how meat is eaten and enjoyed in this community.
In another director’s hands these small-town touches could turn into an exercise in small-town eccentricity, but Wiseman handles this aspect of the film well. While most of his subject matter has focused on the inner city, Monrovia never plays like an urban director turning a condescending or bemused eye upon small-town life. Whereas Errol Morris started his career with Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida, Wiseman seems to have saved small-town life for the last stage of his career, as if to be sure that he could avoid all the pitfalls that come with trying to represent these kinds of communities. Rather than focusing on quirk, Wiseman captures both the warmth of the community, but also the broader factors that are threatening it from without and within. Both of these registers are encapsulated in a brilliant sequence that takes place at the local veterinary clinic. By all accounts, this scene should be twee, retreading the same quirky space between owners and their pets that was mined in Gates of Heaven, along with mockumentaries like Best in Show. Instead, Wiseman opts for emotional, authentic depictions of the love between people and pets, while also undercutting any unearned sentimentality with frank and visceral depictions of surgery, creating a tone that is somehow affective and clinical in the very same moment.
This combination of warmth and detachment makes Monrovia a real immersion experience. In part, that’s because Wiseman reserves a lot of his warmth, but also a lot of his detachment, for people who are immersed in their own passion projects, or immersed as other people expound upon their passion projects. While we might be in the Midwest, Wiseman films people in Monrovia in the same way he films students at Berkeley, and the same way he films people attending events at the New York Public Library – as interested, attentive, and always invested, even when they doze off, or when their attention lapses. This awareness of an invested public lurking beneath the veneer of public apathy is one of the main concerns of Wiseman’s cinema, whose central aesthetic gesture is to wait and watch, from one situation or space to another, until this more residual public investment becomes clear. In Monrovia, as in so many of his other films, this aesthetic patience is particularly pronounced around grassroots politics, public forums, and city council meetings, which take up about half the film’s running time, and anchor its more rapid, fleeting scenes.
While these city council meetings initially encompass a wide variety of topics, they gradually converge on the question of “Homestead,” a community that has been built on the outskirts of Monrovia. This is about the only part of Monrovia that we never see, although it is, in some sense, the real subject matter of the film. Early in the council meetings, the councillors discuss whether or not to facilitate a new housing project along the lines of Homestead, as well as the implications of Homestead for the foreclosure of older homes in the area. Later, they discuss the pros and cons of Homestead, which has brought a water treatment plant and a state football championship to the town, and encouraged ex-Marines to settle in Monrovia, but has also led to more police raids, along with concerns about deteroriating fire hydrants and public amenities. Gradually, Homestead starts to feel like a cipher for Indianapolis, which is less than half an hour by road, although you would never know it from the film. For while Monrovia seems to be sequestered in a notional heartland, it is effectively an outer suburb of Indianapolis, functioning as a commuter town for the capital.
This connection between Monrovia and Indianapolis is, in some sense, the twist of Monrovia, Indiana, although this connection is never stated directly or visually. Instead, the dialogue between small town life and city life, and between Monrovia and Wiseman’s earlier features, is expressed through the gradual reminder that we are in a Republican community. While the city council meetings are never aligned with a specific political party, or even a discernible party position, small details start to emerge in the broader texture of the town to indicate that we are in Donald Trump’s heartland. One of the pivotal scenes takes us into a gun store, and inflects Wiseman’s love for signage through all the pro-gun stickers on the wall, while signage itself starts to be more associated with Republican insignia as the film proceeds. These tendencies peak with the Monrovia Festival, which both culminates and ruptures the public sphere of the film, presenting all the diverse situations and spaces that we have seen as forms of Republican affect, and Republican world-building.
During these later scenes, Wiseman seems to be striving for a way to represent the Trumpian heartland without condescending to it, but also without sentimentalizing it. His solution, if it can be called a solution, is to dissociate the public sphere from the way that Trump has exploited it, and to suggest that the same forms of community that he has depicted throughout his career still subsist, somewhere, beneath the violence that the Republican Party has done to them. Just as his earlier films are patient enough to discern a public engagement lingering beneath the appearance of apathy, so Monrovia, Indiana is patient enough to discern a public engagement that lingers beneath the Trumpian effort to destroy the public, or to make the public destroy itself. In that sense, Monrovia, Indiana is one of the most patient films of Wiseman’s career, but also one of the most restless, anchored in some of the most beautiful vistas of his career, but never quite settling into a pastoral mode. And, Monrovia never quite settles into Monrovia either, instead immersing us in its public sphere, while dissociating its public sphere from the public that elected Trump, in one of the most open, poised and passionate outings in Wiseman’s body of work.