Monrovia, Indiana, the location of Frederick Wiseman’s latest institutional case study, is the sort of township that’s hard to remember by name unless you’ve heard it a couple of times. Those who pass through this Midwestern enclave are likely to forge through without much thought, its flatland, sights, and sounds uniformly demonstrating an active disinterest in capturing a tourist’s attention. But as Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest utters “but hey, I’m living here every day.” And so, Wiseman’s Monrovia, Indiana examines this township of a little over a thousand, a community that, like so many like it, serves as a sort of cautionary reminder of what it means to live, actually live and subsequently die, in America.
As is Wiseman’s wont, fragmented shots of Monrovia’s acres of farmland give us a sense of the town’s roots. Early into the film, we observe a high school sports coach masquerading as an educator, providing an oral history of how dominant the state’s basketball and football teams once were. He recalls his childhood, a fond memory of when his father would take him to watch the local team practice in the morning. The young woman at the front of the class releases a yawn as Wiseman pulls away, opening his shot to include the rest of the class, all glassy-eyed as they struggle to stay awake in a class that holds onto only the most vestigial notions of local “history”. We steer away from this car crash into another, where a Mason Lodge ceremony takes place. The ceremony, absurd in its austerity, ridiculous in its execution, highlights the town’s continued observance, perhaps obsession, with ritual.
The implication of these two moments signal something broader, something more culturally significant, than what they may initially let on. Wiseman, undoubtedly one of the greatest filmmakers on the planet today, contextualizes these incidents within a framework of conditional isolationism. The people of Monrovia remain tethered to their way of life, suspicious of any feasible interlopers looking to complicate their way of living. Wiseman, mercifully, doesn’t offer us imagery of red MAGA hats or any outright mention of that butterscotch goblin. Instead, he observes the tact in which a bureaucrat attempts to prevent a new housing development from being afforded appropriate fire safety, going so far as to suggest that the new development will open Monrovians to a deluge of criminality. Let it burn, as it were.
Things aren’t all dire in Monrovia, however. Like all of Wiseman’s films, there’s tenderness in many of his evocations. The sight of a pizza place, a booming sports bar, or a woman peddling holistic cures bring about a luminosity that’s vital in providing a dimension to this understandably unimpressive community. The school orchestra’s renditions of The Simpsons and Pink Panther themes are comical, if not a little condescending. And the diner sequences where we observe a cadre of elderly men discuss their ailing health and mourning the loss of a friend are woefully clear-eyed in their sentiments. Even a lengthy debate about getting a park bench approved offers one of the more head-clutchingly funny moments in Wiseman’s oeuvre.
But the tiny observations, whether it be the signage that ornates the local gun shop, the hodgepodge of conservative bumper stickers made available at the town fair, or the sight of half the population donning “USA” t-shirts as an emblem of pride contributes to some of the subtler, more isolating, and xenophobic rhetoric that pervades Monrovia, Indiana. I’m not blind to it. It’s a persistent obstacle even in Chicago, where the neighborhood commission that governs Jefferson Park, a largely white population, has actively resisted vital growth by veiling their ethnocentrism with the suggestion that it’ll offset crime. But given that it’s just an enclave of the city, it’s easy to tune them out: I don’t live there, so their concerns don’t pertain to me. But that kind of isolationism is precisely why these dangerous communities are capable of spreading like a pandemic. Monrovia ends with a funeral and a grave being filled. That kind of finality speaks to something pretty profound about where we’re at, and where we need to be. No use relitigating the past lest you be a corpse dreaming of life.