Over half a century into Frederick Wiseman’s storied career, the legendary documentarian’s interest in systems — that is, how they function in relation to the persons and spaces that constitute them — is an accepted truism. Following Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, possibly the director’s most utopian film to date, Wiseman turns his eye to the eponymous locale of Monrovia, Indiana, population 1,440. Postcard-ready images of fields, farmlands, and traditional American homes alternate with shots surveying local institutions both expected (church services, restaurants) and not (a tattoo parlor, a mattress sale in a high school gymnasium). Given that Monrovia, Indiana arrives alongside state of the nation reports (of a kind) from Roberto Minervini, Errol Morris, and Michael Moore, it’s difficult not to view the film as a topical missive that attempts to “understand” the primary demographic (predominantly rural, white, and Christian) that brought Trump into power. And such a reading — a critique-by-omission that highlights the seclusion of Monrovian community by exploring its workings — is certainly not without merit. (A lengthy dog tail docking scene in a veterinary clinic — a somewhat backward practice — seems to tip Wiseman’s hand.) Yet the film is ultimately more compelling as an existentialist time capsule of rural, small-town Americana. Through a deceptively off-hand approach and pointedly underpopulated frames, Wiseman surveys a way of life whose sense of normalcy has long since waned into moribund ritual. And the closing funeral service augurs the years to come.
Published as part of Toronto International Film Festival 2018 | Dispatch 3.