directed by Frederick Wiseman
by Angelo Muredda To anyone who might still be labouring under the delusion that Frederick Wiseman's method is simply to point a camera at a bunch of bureaucrats and watch the policy talk and human foibles fly, there's now Monrovia, Indiana, one of the nonfiction master's fleetest, funniest, and most conspicuously structured films in some time. Though you could read it as a purposefully timely attempt to dig deep into the earth of a so-called flyover state that the so-called coastal elites attending slam-poetry readings at the New York Public Library might deride, the film more accurately suggests a minor B-side to the loftier work of its predecessor, Ex Libris, which, among other things, considered the library as a necessary and all-too-vulnerable point of contact between the working poor and a wider world that grows increasingly out of their reach. Monrovia, Indiana revels instead in the earthier pleasures of local institutions like Hot Rod's Barber Shop, where everyone gets the same military-grade haircut, and the surreal space of a grocery store that stocks Donald Duck's orange juice and lights its lemons, limes, and tomatoes like pop art.
Wiseman's cutting is at its most conspicuous here, lending the film a punchy aura that sometimes risks hitting the target--a conservative-majority white town without the best taste--a bit too squarely on the nose. A master of comic deferral, Wiseman allows some set-pieces, like a shabby Freemasons' ceremony, replete with binders out of which the elders blunder through a highfalutin' text the honouree nearly sleeps through, to go on and on until we look past the content of the episode to the more idiosyncratic gestures of the people running the show. This humanism-by-duration stands in contrast to the efficient smash cuts to and from the countryside and Main Street that break up these vignettes, or the suggestive way the film walks us into new spaces--from a brief establishing shot to a longer hallway survey to a much longer settlement into ugly boardrooms, where people dramatically lower their glasses down onto a scribble-filled notepad while airing their grievances. If there's something a bit dead in the eyes compared to Wiseman's best work, it's in the way the film seems a bit too keen to score rimshots off of goofy people. We see this especially in scenes like a quick montage of a Monrovia town fair that makes time for a shot of one of those aforementioned boardroom complainers, unhappy about the prospect of new people settling in her town, holding down the fort at the Republican Party's tent, because of course she is. Wiseman is clearly too enchanted by the unique rhythms of how these people talk and circle around a point to caricature them outright--but in moments like these, one does wonder if he isn't also feeling a bit bored by his hosts for a change. Programme: TIFF Docs