2018, NR, 143 min. Directed by Frederick Wiseman.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Nov. 16, 2018
Paradoxically, the impersonality of Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries is what makes watching them such an intensely personal experience. Wiseman’s camera observes, without commentary or context or even many angle changes, the quotidian rhythms of such wildly varied institutions as a state mental hospital (1967’s Titicut Follies), Lord’s Gym in Austin (2010’s Boxing Gym), and a hallowed American cultural space (2017’s Ex Libris: The New York Public Library). The typical takeaway from a Wiseman doc – in which long minutes are spent simply watching people go about their business, leaving lots of time for the mind to roam to surprising places – isn’t "I learned this.” It’s "I learned this about myself.”
What I learned from Monrovia, Indiana is that I – personally – am bored by mattress shopping, City Council arguments over fire hydrants, and high school band concerts I am not obligated by shared DNA to attend. The film is a string of vignettes just like these, snapshots of small-town America at once specific and generic. Some of these vignettes reminded me of my own childhood experiences in rural Texas, the close-knit community and centrality of the church, and in the faces – this film is a monument to lived-in faces – I saw the ghosts of my grandmother Velma, my great-uncle Boyd. Other vignettes, I surmised points Wiseman was (maybe?) trying to make: A sound edit linking the buzz of barbershop clippers, a tattoo artist at work, and cicadas; a visual connection of dots between pigs on a farm being herded onto an 18-wheeler and the cellophane-wrapped raw meat that later arrives at a chain grocery store’s butcher counter. One of these vignettes utterly transfixed me – a pastor delivering a eulogy for a woman named Shirley that was surely sincerely felt but also mesmerizes as a piece of narrative performance. And another vignette flat-out repulsed me, wherein Wiseman documents a veterinarian’s graphic amputation of a dog’s tail. A medically necessary procedure, or a cosmetic one? There’s no telling. Or rather, Wiseman’s not telling. He never does. And for the first time in a career I’ve long admired, that really bothered me.
A Skype Q&A with Frederick Wiseman will follow the Nov. 17 screening at AFS Cinema.