Mize: Monrovia Comes to Hanover

Viewership entails its own set of responsibilities.

by Frances Mize | 1/24/19 2:10am


Spending my Sunday afternoon in the Hopkins Center for the Arts for a 2 1/2 hour long documentary about a small town in Indiana was a strange decision to make. I couldn’t quite pinpoint what compelled me to do it, and it felt like everyone in the theater was wondering the same about their fellow audience members: why and how did you end up here? About an hour into Frederick Wiseman’s “Monrovia, Indiana,” more than a few people had gotten up and left the theater — and the elephant in the room seemed to grow larger. 

Frederick Wiseman is widely regarded as one of the greatest working filmmakers. His documentaries are devoted to the exploration of American social institutions, from high schools to hospitals, and are distinctive in their lack of any kind of narrative or interview. He creates feature-length documentaries from what is sometimes over 100 hours of raw footage and no voice-over or graphics. Instead, Wiseman sees the creation of a dramatic structure as a product of meticulous editing of that material. In “Monrovia, Indiana,” Wiseman’s collected material is centered on the daily life of the titular town.

Due to its long length and lack of narrative, Wiseman’s work, a collection of 45 films, often spins into the obscurity of the arty, niche-centric film world. However, “Monrovia, Indiana” gained more traction than would be expected of a Wiseman film. Its depiction of small town, rural America at a time when no other American entity is so politicized and typified brought the movie to the attention of a new kind of audience. This time, those watching Wiseman’s movie had deeply rooted, preconceived notions of what Wiseman was showing them. Rather than relating to the film on an experiential level, as one would with a documentary about a high school, much of this movie’s audience met it with political theory, assumption and, in some cases, rage. Wiseman claims that his work serves as “an exploration of institutions,” and this was an institution that people couldn’t stop talking about. A glimpse of it was too hard to pass up.  

Zipporah Films, the exclusive distributors of Wiseman’s work, describes “Monrovia, Indiana” as “a complex and nuanced view of daily life in Monrovia and provides some understanding of a way of life whose influence and force have not always been recognized or understood in the big cities on the east and west coasts of America and in other countries.” The viewer was to watch this movie as a learner encountering something they never could have known themselves. Preconceived notions were supposed to be undermined. So when I heard laughing from the audience, I started thinking more seriously about my own reasons, and the reasons of the other audience members, for seeing the movie. 

There is the moment in a diner when three aging men are talking about their respective health problems, with one describing his struggles recovering after a difficult surgery. Laughter — assumedly at the trite nature of their conversation, as can be expected of three old men in a diner — followed. For me, this reaction raised questions about the nature of viewership. Wiseman’s films exist to give the viewer as unadulterated a glimpse into the complexities of human life as art can allow. When they confront that reality and laugh, viewers might not be doing their due diligence as viewers of those lives. Did the audience really want to learn about the place, or did viewers want their own notions of that place confirmed? During moments in the film that they found them to be confirmed, was their laughter then one of pleased vindication? 

Staying true to his intention to conduct an institutional study, Wiseman focuses a substantial amount of the film’s attention on the industry of Monrovia. There is a sustained “scene” (but can such a narrative-centered word be used in reference to a Wiseman documentary?) of a teenage girl making pizza at the delivery store. I had never thought about, or thought to look at, the realities of someone making delivery store pizza. The product became humanized as I watched the human processes that are required to create it. I had never really thought about what a veterinarian does. Of course I could tell you what they do, but I had never really envisioned it. Then we watched as one gently cuts a dog’s tail off, in a moment that critic A.O. Scott describes as “a warning to anyone who would try to impose a unifying interpretation on the film.”

Wishing for a unifying interpretation, film critics like Richard Brody and Mike D’Angelo are disappointed by the movie’s lack of judgment, and lamented the fact that Wiseman appeared to avoid the political. D’Angelo writes that “right now, even Frederick Wiseman shouldn’t get away with an apolitical look at small-town America,” and Brody calls the movie “nothing less than a work of mourning for the American soul.” But rather than learning about the people of Monrovia, Indiana as statistics or through brief, politically oriented soundbites, Wiseman inserts viewers into their life — and does not spare any rote, monotonous and, in its own kind of Wisemanian way, intimate detail. This is a rare gift, and should be respected as such. The question then remains: did we go into this movie ready to learn what it had to teach us, or did we let our expectations overpower what we actually got?