Thursday, November 15, 2018

Small-town life in the Midwest

Documentarian Frederick Wiseman travels to the Midwest for Monrovia, Indiana, a telling portrait of small-town life in Donald Trump's America. Wiseman doesn't focus on characters or politics but on activities that range from planning board meetings to conversations in local cafes. He pauses between scenes to give us views of the town and the surrounding countryside. Observing without commenting, Wiseman leaves it to the audience to reach its own conclusions, even during a visit to a local gun shop. We also see scenes of hog farmers at work, of a meeting in a Masonic lodge where one of the members is being feted for 50 years of service, and of men getting haircuts at the local barbershop. Everyone seems to be subjected to the same style, shaved sides with a bit of hair left on top as a kind of tonsorial exclamation point. Wiseman concludes with a eulogy delivered by a pastor at one of the town's churches and follows that with the burial of the woman the pastor just had been eulogizing. If you're familiar with Wiseman's work -- Ex Libris: The New York Public Library and In Jackson Heights -- you know that he specializes in revealing the quotidian rhythms that dominate whatever scene he happens to be observing. I wouldn't call Monrovia one of Wiseman's best efforts, but it exemplifies an approach in which he captures various places and institutions as if he were recording for future generations. A debate about growth involving one of the town's subdivisions emerges, but mostly we feel removed from the essential concerns of the day. Still, we get the feeling that we know how the town's residents go about filling the Midwestern emptiness that surrounds them.*

*I want to reiterate that I welcome comments, particularly those that expand our knowledge about particular films or films in general. But -- and this is the point of this footnote -- I don't publish anonymous comments. Over the years, I've found that many readers have worthwhile things to say and should in no way be reluctant to take credit for their comments. So, sign your name and chime in.

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