Last week's election results set off another round of hand-wringing over the nation's red-blue divide. “Monrovia, Indiana,” a documentary filmed in the small Morgan County farming community, serves only to reinforce that deep schism.
“A real-life American horror story,” the New Yorker calls it.
“A narrow slice of contemporary American life that manages to be both admiring, yet capable of polite skepticism,” writes Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post.
A “respectfully observed album of Americana,” according to Variety.
Matthew Carey, writing for Deadline Hollywood, observes that some critics would have preferred filmmaker Frederick Wiseman address the “red state mentalities” head on.
“That's the film they want to make. That's not the film I want to make,” Wiseman responds. “I don't like to make obvious films.”
Yet obvious is just what Wiseman delivered – complete validation for those who dismiss Indiana and other Midwestern states as backward and uninformed. The one-dimensionalperspective of his film subjects is every bit as wrong as a Midwesterner dismissing all East Coast residents as elitist.
The reviewers swoon over the documentary's spare style, but Wiseman's signature approach is at best condescending and at worst dishonest. Yes, the filmmaker allows his subjects to speak for themselves, with no narration and no one posing questions. But the technique serves to misdirect the audience as surely as any leading questions. His choice of subjects and film-editing are heavy-handed.
In a classroom scene, for example, a teacher droning on about Monrovia native Branch McCracken and other hometown sports legends is clearly seizing an unusual opportunity to highlight the community's small claim to fame. The Freemasons proudly participating in a 50-year service ceremony undoubtedly didn't realize how odd their ritual would look to a film audience.
While focusing on the minister's vapid message at a funeral, Wiseman gives no voice to the family and friends who would have shared a picture of the deceased as more than obedient housewife. There's a suggestion some young residents have returned to Monrovia to raise families, but we're never introduced to them.
The documentary is mean-spirited – cemetery scenes suggest a dying community and population.
But it gets worse.
At one point the camera dwells on the gurgling brown mess at the community's sewage treatment plant. Not a subtle message at all.
The 1,300 residents of Monrovia opened their community to Wiseman and he produced a film that will only satisfy those whose biases are reinforced by the tired stereotypes he presents.
Karen Francisco is editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette.