Frederick Wiseman‘s Monrovia, Indiana opens with establishing shots of the town, its green pastures, blue skies, cows, and pigs. It takes 3 minutes before we see a human on screen, spraying red paint on these swine, presumably ones ready for slaughter. It’s a rural land where sound travels, the knock of a hammer, the squeal of a pig, the cars whistling past the green fields.
Monrovia is also a God-fearing town with one high school. The high school still celebrates its distant sporting glory, so distant that as a teacher explains the school’s basketball history, a female student squirms from boredom in her seat. Who knows who Branch McCraken was/is, but this small town? And that is the magic of Wiseman. He’s not trying to solve a political problem or raise awareness. He’s just observing, taking the tiniest moments and finding drama in them. Not the drama that we would colloquially know, but the very definition of the feeling, a push-pull as it were.
The school and town still find pride in their high school football team. But it’s a town of the past. The majority of the documentary, with few exceptions, have shots of an older generation, one holding on to what’s left. It has shots of spiritual meetings, the barbershop, the corner cafe, the auto-repair shop, and County Council meetings.
Anchoring the documentary is an oscillation between the happenings of the town and its impending and needed growth, often both are occurring at once and in conflict with another. We watch as the local Freemason chapter celebrates the Golden Anniversary of Brother Bower. He’s one of the few individuals in the documentary that we can attach a name to. Any viewer previously initiated with Wiseman’s work, with films like Central Park or Belfast, Maine, or Ex Libris: New York Public Library, knows that he’s not a talking head or a voice-over driven documentarian. Instead, he shoots over 100 hours of film and pieces it together to make a nonfiction narrative. The Freemason segment is one of the longer ones, capturing the reliance on old traditions, ceremonies, and God’s role within the town.
In-between shots of Dawg House Pizza, the supermarket, and an auction of farming equipment, one would mistake this town with boredom. That’s an obvious trap, which reveals more about the viewer than the subject. Wiseman, astutely, is concerned with how the happenings of this town makes it normal. Yes, the supermarket is boring. But what supermarket isn’t boring? In fact, these events aren’t tedious. There’s a natural drama in life, an organic meditation in the preparation of ground beef or the cutting of pork chops, the sharpening of a knife. They’re the tiny bits of life that Wiseman’s film clings to.
The most compelling portions of Monrovia, Indiana are the county meetings. Like anything in rural Indiana, they’re opened with the Pledge of the Allegiance and a prayer. The question concerning these meetings is assessing how to define “progress.” The town has seen little growth and knows that to help businesses they have to attract new residents. As is this one, previous generations have been reticent to change. The volleying back-and-forth of whether to add 151 homes is a tussle between the “way things are” and the way they could be. Some are afraid of losing their community, others know that at some point sacrifices have to be made.
The Monrovia Lions Club is another “governing” body within the town. They’re deciding whether to donate $500 for two benches to be added to the library and bank. It’s a cordial debate, but a debate nonetheless. Wiseman finds the drama in the discussion over a bench, but within it he also discovers another conversation about the past, current, and future needs of the community.
The film curiously ends with death, concluding with a funeral. Death peaks around through much of Monrovia, Indiana. Wiseman, intersperses shots of graves and the elderly speaking about their ailments, reminiscing to when they had younger bodies to match their still sharp minds. The sermon surrounding the funeral is probably the longest segment of the film, as a priest speaks about heaven and one’s relationship to God. Wiseman then transitions to a casket lowering into the ground and dirt dumped on top of it. The ending is odd because it feels out of place, as if Wiseman is personally exploring something internal. Whatever it may be, it’s an eerie conclusion to an enveloping and stunning documentary.