Leonard Quart | Letter From New York: Wiseman's small-town America
Letter From New York
NEW YORK — Frederick Wiseman has been making documentary films since 1967 at a pace of almost one a year without losing a step. I can remember vividly his revelatory early films, like "Welfare," "Hospital," and "High School" that explored through skillful editing devoid of narration or interviews the nature of a variety of public institutions. Now at the age of 88, he has made a film "Monrovia, Indiana" about a rural Indiana town/ It was shown at the New York Film Festival and opened in late October at New York's Film Forum..
It's a film that resists our expectations by refusing to deal directly with the pro-Trump politics of this conservative, comfortable, almost all-white Midwestern town (Morgan County, of which Monrovia is a part, voted 76 percent in favor of Trump). Wiseman neither satirizes nor judges the town's inhabitants or their way of life. And no mention of Trump or politics can be heard in this film.
What Wiseman does is observe the town go about its daily life, from auctions of farm machinery and church sermons to town fairs and council meetings. Wiseman makes no overt judgments, but views what passes before his camera without sentimentality or facile stereotyping.
It's a very low-key film, containing a number of serene montages of ranch houses, cornfields, cows grazing, boxy mom and pop businesses, and a cemetery. We sit in on city council meetings (Wiseman loves to use meetings to define an institution or a community's character), which can be monotonous, but in their discussion of issues like land use and hydrants one sees local democracy at work. Among some of the council members there is also a strong antipathy to expansion (though despite a clear need for more people to make the local economy grow), motivated by a fear of strangers and a desire for isolation.
The town, like the flat landscape it's set in, is devoid of character and drama, Most of its activities and institutions (public schools, community center, liquor store, tattoo parlor, and barbershop) seemingly exist outside the center of town. Guns (a thriving gun shop), church services, organizations like the Free Masons, and high school sports dominate the town's culture.
The talk we hear from the old-timers in the local caf concerns illness and operations for gallstones, and there are tedious stories told that go nowhere. It's not intimate talk, but the relations seem amiable and have endured for a long time. Monrovia feels like an intact community
Wiseman, who had never before shot a film in the rural Midwest, found the people "helpful, friendly and welcoming and they gave me access to all aspects of daily life." And at least the personae of the people that appear on screen are as he describes, since we gain little of their complexity. Still, there is no escaping the fact that this is an insular world and the few political signs we see are pro-gun and anti-welfare.
I know Wiseman did not intend to make a political film, but his images of ordinary small town people, many of them Trump voters, going on with their lives, brings up the same old question: what motivates them to support a man who patently only cares about himself?
Trump is a man who has made a way of life of bullying, conning, and pathologically lying, and he appeals to the worst instincts in the voting public. But even if they admire his wealth and vulgar glamor and his operating outside the rules, most of them adhere to some code of decency in their own lives.
But some of these good people (among them probably a few Monrovians) attend his rallies and chant "Lock Her Up" or "CNN Sucks," and they totally embrace his mantra that the media is the enemy. We know that people's political selves need not define the rest of their behavior. I assume there are many reasons why Trump elicits their support, but I lean towards cultural rather than economic explanations — racism, a fear of demographic change and loss of social status, as well as a resentment of elites. I'm not sure that's the whole story (economics can't be dismissed), but surely it's a good part of it. As a result, many of the decent people of Monrovia vote for a corrupt man who has no moral center or sense of shame. And who has ominously turned us into a country dominated by fierce divisiveness and toxicity.
On a very different note, I want to pay homage to Eric Hill and Kate Maguire for their adventurousness in producing a rather obscure play, "Naked" (1922), by the Nobel Prize winning Luigi Pirandello, at the Berkshire Theater Group's Unicorn Theater. The play has its problems — an excess of melodrama, and a feeling that for much of the play its characters seem more intellectual constructs than living people. But in the last half of the play Ersilia. a woman with no social status, ferociously rebels against the men who are objectifying her, men who can only see her through the prism of their needs.
This woman fiercely asserting her own identity, nearly a hundred years ago, concludes the play on a powerful and affecting note.
Leonard Quart can be reached at email@example.com
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.