fb-pixel Skip to main content

In life, things just happen. In art, nothing just happens. Frederick Wiseman’s phenomenal achievement as a filmmaker has been to straddle those two sentences longer and better than any director in the history of the medium. Contingency (life) is here. Design (art) is there. For half a century, Wiseman has planted himself right in the middle.

With his 42d documentary, “Monrovia, Indiana,” he’s planted — appropriate word — in a rural farming town almost in the exact center of that state. The film begins a run of screenings at the Museum of Fine Arts on Sunday that ends Nov. 24. For information, go to www.mfa.org/programs/series/monrovia-indiana .


Monrovia is a long way from the subjects of Wiseman’s most recent films: “At Berkeley” (2013), about California’s flagship public university; “National Gallery” (2014), about the London museum; “In Jackson Heights” (2015), about an outer-borough neighborhood in New York; and “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library” (2017). Monrovia is even more distant in spirit than geography. Few filmmakers savor the mundane as Wiseman does, and Monrovia is big on mundane.

It should also be noted that the new film departs from recent Wiseman documentaries by clocking in at 143 minutes. That’s practically a short by late-Wiseman standards.

Although Wiseman turns 89 on New Year’s Day, there’s no sense of energy dimming here or of summing up. That said, one of the pleasures “Monrovia, Indiana” offers is how various moments can recall earlier Wiseman films. A couple of town council meetings summon memories of one of his finest, and most-overlooked films, “State Legislature” (2007). A sequence set at Monrovia High School, home of the Bulldogs, recalls Wiseman’s two films on secondary public education (1968, 1994). Livestock show up a lot, shades of “Meat” (1976).

The biggest similarity, at least conceptually, is with Wiseman’s “Aspen” (1991), about the Colorado resort, and “Belfast, Maine” (1999). That’s not necessarily a good thing. What has brought out the best in Wiseman has tended to be process, technique, and institutions. He loves seeing how things are done and how the way those things are done shape both people and administrative bodies — not just a university or museum, but also within the performing arts (“Ballet,” 1995; “La Comédie-Française ou L’amour joué,” 1996; “La Danse,” 2009) or even sports (“Racetrack,” 1986; “Boxing Gym,” 2010). Given enough time, Wiseman would conceivably want to make documentaries about everything. That’s amazing. What’s even more amazing: If anyone could actually do it, it’s Wiseman


Towns encompass all three of those Wiseman specialities, but in a jumbled sort of way. Maybe that’s why “Monrovia,” like “Aspen” and “Belfast, Maine,” occupies a lower shelf in the filmography. There are many splendid things here, but “Monrovia” is the rare Wiseman documentary that feels longer than its actual length. People who’ve never seen one of his films likely think, “Oh, how boring they must be!” Anyone who’s experienced Wiseman’s mastery of rhythm and the textures of dailiness knows how wrong that is. The mastery is very much in evidence in the latest film. Even so, “Monrovia” can get a bit boring sometimes. The flatness of the landscape — and, boy, is it ever flat — reaches beyond the visual to the experiential.

Throughout “Monrovia,” there’s the sense of a place that’s been passed by. “We could use a little bit of a population boost in Morgan County,” a recently hired municipal planner says at a council meeting. He sounds more wistful than can-do. And passed by doesn’t necessarily mean better. Norman Rockwell didn’t paint tattoo parlors on Main Street. Passed by does definitely mean different: going in an other direction, maybe even backward. The first person of color isn’t seen until the 24-minute mark. Over the next two hours maybe another eight or nine are seen.


Wiseman shows the sorts of small-town things one might expect: farmland, a cafe, meetings of Masons and the Lions Club, a cemetery, churches. He also shows things that you’d find anywhere in America: a supermarket, a hair salon, a liquor store, a pizza place, a gun shop (which may sound more small-town, until you stop to think about it).

There’s no voice-over. There’s no explaining. No one is ID’d. Wiseman’s fundamental faith is in the viewer. That’s what makes his films inherently democratic. He trusts us to figure things out for ourselves, to understand without being told. This can be maddening. So can democracy.

People never talk to the camera, just to each other, and once in a while quite gloriously. Toward the end of the movie, a man in a small restaurant reminisces with show-stopper gusto about his first car, a ’63 Chevy Impala. The documentary ends with a funeral and burial, and the minister delivering the eulogy speaks both crisply and movingly (not an easy combination to pull off), and you understand why Wiseman makes it one of the longest sequences in the documentary.


So consistently calm and uninflected is Wiseman’s style it’s easy to miss what a distinctive style it is. The camera hardly ever moves. Cutting is how he makes scenes work. Also hearing: Audio is a great strength. Wiseman lists himself in the closing credits as “Director-Producer-Editor-Sound.” That about covers it. Which is not to overlook the superb contribution of John Davey, who’s been Wiseman’s cameraman for more than 30 years. Perhaps the highest compliment one can pay Davey is to note that the clean, forthright look of every shot is so consistent the viewer very soon comes to take it for granted.

Within those shots of the commonplace uncommon details slip in. At a band concert the slightly familiar tune being played is . . . no, it can’t be . . . yup, it’s the theme from “The Simpsons” (followed by a creditable “Pink Panther”). Some of the people in the crowd at an auction of farm equipment sure look to be Amish. On the altar behind the minister delivering that eulogy is a drum kit. At a council meeting, someone alludes to Shakespeare, though he may not know that that’s where “a rose by any other name” comes from. Along with funnel cake and kettle corn at the annual town festival, you can also buy a strawberry shortcake smoothie. That’s right, a strawberry shortcake smoothie. Cuisine has been one aspect of contemporary life Wiseman hasn’t investigated. Perhaps that should change.


★ ★ ½

Directed by Frederick Wiseman. At Museum of Fine Arts, various dates Nov. 4-24. 143 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: a sanguinary scene of veterinary intervention — don’t worry, the dog is fine).

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.