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One of my favorite recent movie experiences was curling up on a hungover New Year’s Day with Frederick Wiseman’s “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library,” a soothing, 197-minute examination of the complex processes and procedures required to run the many branches of the massive, magnanimous institution. It’s difficult to express just how riveting I found this picture — a documentary devoid of agendas, gimmickry or special pleading, and instead devoted to the simple satisfaction of watching how things work.
It’s been over five decades since the Boston-born filmmaker’s “Titicut Follies” famously exposed the horrific conditions at Bridgewater State Hospital, and in his 40-something features since then Wiseman has honed his technique to a form of bare bones reportage that reaps unexpected emotional rewards. He and cameraman John Davey (with whom Wiseman has worked since 1980) tend to hole up somewhere for a few months, eschewing interviews in favor of straight observation. There’s no narration nor any identifying title cards to tell you who or what you’re looking at, and no music cues to tell you how to feel about it. Sometimes it takes a while to find your bearings, but when the films are over you feel like you’ve been somewhere.
“Monrovia, Indiana” is Wiseman’s dry-eyed portrait of shrinking small town America, filmed in a Midwestern farming community with a population of about 1,000. A movie of vast, empty spaces and contemplative, drawn-out silences, it is perhaps best appreciated as a companion piece to the director’s bustling 2015 triumph “In Jackson Heights,” which hung out in a crammed Queens neighborhood — purportedly the most diverse in the nation — with everyone living on top of one another and struggling to stay one step ahead of modern New York City’s inexorable gentrification.
You won’t find a lot of diversity in Monrovia, nor any gentrification either. In fact, early on at a city council meeting (no filmmaker loves meetings more than Wiseman) a harried local official tries to explain why everyone should be friendlier to new businesses, but a female colleague has had quite enough of any more outsiders moving into town, thank you very much. The interaction sets a tone of stagnancy that pervades throughout the picture, which feels exhausted. It’s not Wiseman’s style to overtly editorialize, but the film’s frequent visits to a local cemetery draw a line under what’s already obvious: This place is dying.
With characteristic patience and thoroughness, the filmmaker explores Monrovia’s eateries, gun shops, factories and farms. Since this a Frederick Wiseman movie, when he stops at the local pizza joint you bet you’re gonna see every last step that goes into making a batch of (nasty looking) breadsticks. “Monrovia, Indiana” might not show you how the sausage gets made, but we do watch how ground beef is ground. We also witness the rather involved process by which the Lions Club votes on putting in a new bench next to the library, as well as a free mason induction ceremony that appears to have been ported in from another century.
“Monrovia, Indiana” has been the source of some controversy for taking place deep in the heart of Trump country without a single red hat seen onscreen. (There’s even one of those diners like ones where The New York Times keeps sending reporters to interview elderly racists, but everybody at this one just talks about their gallstones.) Aside from some offensive decals sold at a county fair, there’s not a whiff of national politics at all in the film’s 143 minutes, which has led certain folks to wonder what might have been left on the cutting room floor.
But Wiseman recently told Filmmaker Magazine that he simply didn’t encounter anything of the sort. “There was a considerable lack of curiosity about the external world,” he explained. And indeed, that isolation might go a long way toward explaining the sad-eyed torpor in which the film seems to take place. I’m finding it hard to shake the bored, downcast faces of the townspeople while the high school marching band plays “The Simpsons” theme, and all the studiously polite interactions conducted through downturned, unsmiling faces.
“Monrovia, Indiana” begins with a series of strikingly beautiful, postcard-worthy vistas featuring cornfields, mailboxes, blue skies and assorted other familiar, stock images of Americana. It ends with a shot of a grave.
“Monrovia, Indiana” screens at the Museum of Fine Arts from Sunday, Nov. 4 through Saturday, Nov. 24.
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