The Ghost of Politics: An Interview with Frederick Wiseman

The great American documentarian talks about his new film, "Monrovia, Indiana," that explores the small, rural Midwest town.
Annabel Brady-Brown

Monrovia Indiana

Monrovia is a two-block town in the rural Midwest, with a population straggling precariously above the one-thousand resident mark. The subject of Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary—his forty-second—it is a strikingly drab community, ambivalent about its own future.

That’s not to say Monrovia, Indiana lacks any of Wiseman’s wry humor or characteristic openness towards his subjects. As he tours the town—visiting sites like a café, veterinarian, gun shop, grocery store, tattoo clinic, town fair, farms, and, of course, several board meetings—he gives generous, albeit neutral, space to the people he encounters. This stream of conspicuously prosaic stops is pockmarked by brow-raising cultural oddities. Amongst them, the diabetic spectacle of butter-drowned, pepperoni-stuffed pizza crusts at a pizza parlor, and a mawkish "unity cross" used by a bride and groom to express their love contract and its compliance with parochial gender roles—the wall-hanging crucifix splits in two, with the outer section representing the groom’s protective position, and a second part that slots neatly inside stands in for the dependent bride.

Monrovia, Indiana is a turn away from Wiseman’s recent portraits of diverse urban precincts (In Jackson Heights) and arts institutions (Ex Libris: New York Public Library; National Gallery) that fizz with life. Instead, this modest, melancholic work lands as a sombre counterpoint amongst his ongoing series on contemporary American life. In place of inspiring discussions amongst industrious individuals, the film is bookended by sequences of old white men in positions of authority drawling on: a teacher drearily eulogizes the town’s former glory as a college basketball hotspot, and a minister oversees a funeral ceremony that moves from the church to the graveyard. Seen in this light, it’s hard to separate Wiseman’s choice to make a film about this unremarkable town from the unspoken political climate that hangs over it: two-thirds of Monrovia's Morgan Country voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election.

We spoke with the director following the film’s world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival.

NOTEBOOK: This is the first film you’ve made in the rural Midwest. Have you spent much time there generally?

FREDERICK WISEMAN: Well, I’ve made one movie in Chicago, but no, it was completely new territory. I’ve made movies in maybe 17 or 18 states, I’ve forgotten how many. But still, I’m reluctant to generalize because it’s such a vast country.

NOTEBOOK: Was your decision to make a portrait of a farming community in the Midwest at all motivated by Trump’s election?

WISEMAN: I suppose, some part of it. But really I just look for interesting subjects. For example, Ex Libris became a political film because of Trump. I finished the editing and the mix and the color grading—the film was done two days after Trump was elected—but it became a political film because the library represents everything that Trump doesn’t. Values of enlightenment, of learning, of education, of science, of helping people. All those values are expressed in the work of the library. And because Trump was really opposed to all of that, it became a political film.

NOTEBOOK: Perhaps it’s hard to interpret anything about America right now without seeing it through the lens of Trump.

WISEMAN: I think some people look at the film one way now, and in twenty years they will look at it another way. But certainly, Trump is on my mind. On the other hand, as you see in the film, people in Monrovia didn’t talk politics. What they were interested in is their community, their family, their farm, their machinery, and their religion.

NOTEBOOK: It’s like there’s a ghost of politics which is hovering over the film, but which is never actually spoken about.

WISEMAN: Exactly. 

NOTEBOOK: And then how did you pick Monrovia itself? There’s hundreds of small towns in the Midwest, why this one?

WISEMAN: Just by chance. I told a friend of mine who is a law professor in Boston that I wanted to make a movie about a small town in the Midwest. She told me that she had a friend who was a professor at the University of Indiana, whose family had lived in the same town for six generations. So since the beginning of the nineteenth century. And by chance, I had been invited to show some of my movies at the University of Indiana. So I called them up and I said, "I’m coming out. Can you take me to your town?" He said, "Sure, come a day or two earlier." He said, "My first cousin still lives there." And he took me, we went out there and he introduced me to his first cousin, who turned out to be the town undertaker. So she knew everybody. Everybody’s a potential customer. We had our first meeting in the cemetery, and she became my liaison to the town because she knew everybody. Before I started shooting the movie, she called up the school board and the police department and the fire department; she was very eager to help. So that when I called, they were very prepared. She had vouched for me, basically. She was extraordinarily helpful. Because I came to them through her, they trusted her judgement.

NOTEBOOK: She was your fixer.

WISEMAN: Yeah. Well, not like Michael Cohen. But in a more amicable way.

NOTEBOOK: It seems you’re often drawn to subjects through chance encounters.

WISEMAN: Very often. But in the same way you get the sequences in the films by chance. I mean, the model for my style of filmmaking is Las Vegas: you know, you roll the dice and see what happens. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

NOTEBOOK: And so you were in Monrovia for ten weeks.How many hours of rushes did you shoot?


NOTEBOOK: How do you know when to stop, when you’ve got enough?

WISEMAN: It’s just a sense. You want to go home. But, when you have 150 hours of rushes, it’s not an unreasonable assumption that you can find something to cut out of that.

NOTEBOOK: You always work with limitations—focusing on an institution or a space, and that allows you to roam—but if you compare Monrovia to something like Jackson Heights, which is the most diverse neighborhood in the U.S.—

WISEMAN: Yeah, and with 150,000 people in it. 

NOTEBOOK: Right. And then you switch to this tiny population, where the demographic is quite homogenous. As someone who films with an eye to contradiction and complication, does that homogeneity provide any extra challenge for you?

WISEMAN: Not really, because the contradictions are different. The contradiction of race and ethnicity is only one aspect of In Jackson Heights. In Monrovia, a lot of the contradictions are implicit. The fact that you see three or four black faces. So, it’s implicit. But there are other themes, the films don’t necessarily have to do with the same themes…

NOTEBOOK: I was really thinking about your approach. For example, I looked up Monrovia on Google Maps. It’s tiny, and it seems almost all the buildings of note that were marked on the map appear in the film. It’s like you exhaustively toured the town. Which is different to something like Ex Libris, where you had three boroughs, and you could explore in any direction your interest led you.

WISEMAN: Well, it’s vaster, to have choices in the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island…so there’s a somewhat wider variety of choice than there is in a population of 1,200.

NOTEBOOK: As a filmmaker, when you enter a space like Monrovia that has such distinct limits, do you ever worry you’re not going to be able to get enough material?

WISEMAN: Well, that’s true anywhere! In any case, you’re only shooting one sequence at a given moment and so every time you start shooting it’s a roll of the dice. The fact that you’re shooting a sequence in Manhattan does not mean it’s going to be a good sequence; you may have made the wrong choice. And you often make the... the wrong choice may be the wrong way of describing it, but you may make a choice that results in something you don’t want to use when you have to make the choice 6-8 months later.

NOTEBOOK: I also wanted to ask about your relationship to your subjects. The last couple of films have felt, to me, incredibly warm and celebratory. All your films uncover depth in their subjects but Ex Libris or In Jackson Heights really esteem them, too. I could easily be projecting some of my own prejudices here, but this film felt like a turn back towards your older, more critical films. I know there’s the famous Errol Morris quote about you being “the undisputed king of misanthropic cinema”...

WISEMAN: I turn that quote around toward Errol, saying it’s sheer projection.

NOTEBOOK: Well, he does have a film about Steve Bannon playing here at Venice.

WISEMAN: Yeah. [Laughs.

NOTEBOOK: But here, I perceived something more akin to sadness.

WISEMAN: I think a lot of my films are sad—and funny. But it’s a combination that goes together. I hope it’s not, I don’t try to manipulate the material to make it funny, but sometimes the events are funny. I think if I manipulated the material to make it funny I would only make a fool of myself.

NOTEBOOK: I’m thinking more in terms of the material you found. For example, some of the most heart-warming sequences were of people talking to one another in the café, but their conversations tend to focus on the ailing health of people in the community.

WISEMAN: I think I have an obligation to have the film represent what I find. Not to twist the material to any pre-conceived ideological view of my own. I also think it’s just as important to make films that show people helping other people and doing useful things. I’m not the kind of documentary filmmaker who makes exposé movies. I mean, you couldn't make a movie about Bridgewater, which is the prison where I made Titicut Follies, without showing how horrible it was. Because it was horrible! On the other hand, the New York Public Library is a place where people are dedicated to helping other people. The feeling is genuine and the work reflects that, so the movie shows that. So in each case, part of my obligation is to have a movie that reflects what I discover. To total a group of movies together shows a wide variety and range of human behavior, and that’s what interests me. I’m not interested in showing all good, all bad, I’m interested in the complexity of human behavior.

NOTEBOOK: One of the things I love about the film’s structure is its use of religious ritual—like the long funeral sequence which closes the film—which seem to orchestrate life in the town and give it its rhythms. I particularly enjoyed the 50-year anniversary in the Masonic lodge; that’s one of the scenes where the audience were laughing.

 WISEMAN: Well it’s funny! It’s funny, but it’s also sad.

NOTEBOOK: The laughter was kind, though; it wasn’t mean-spirited.

WISEMAN: No, no, and that’s an illustration of… I would only make a fool of myself if I were to mock them. I don’t show all of the ceremony, but really a good part of the ceremony—and a lot of it is done in wide shot—but I didn’t create the comedy of the situation. I recognized the comedy, and that’s the distinction.

NOTEBOOK: Is there ever material you would not include, because you felt to do so would be mocking?

WISEMAN: No, no. The "unity cross" is another example. Your reaction to that is in part dependent on the sequence and in part dependent on your values. If you agree with the sentiment that that expresses about the relationship between a man and a woman, then you think, "great!" If you don’t agree that properly describes a relationship between a man and a woman in marriage, then you might think it’s funny.   

NOTEBOOK: Have you shown the film to people in Monrovia?

WISEMAN: Just before I came here, last Tuesday, actually. I went to Monrovia and I took over a multiplex one evening and there were three screenings and about five hundred people came to see it. The feedback I got was from people who liked it. If there were people who didn’t like it, they didn't tell me.

NOTEBOOK: So they appreciated it as a portrait of their community?

WISEMAN: Yeah, the undertaker told me she liked it, for example, and the head of the Masons came up to me and thanked me and said, "I’m very glad that you showed our order."

NOTEBOOK: You’ve referred to Monrovia, Indiana as a continuation of your series on contemporary American life. 

WISEMAN: Well, I’ve done maybe three of four films outside of America, but my subject is contemporary American life. I’ve done the films outside of America primarily because the subjects were the kind of subjects that don’t exist in America. There’s no ballet company that’s existed for 300 years, there’s no theatre company that’s existed for 300 years. And with National Gallery, I wanted to do the Met in the early eighties but they wanted to get paid. I neither had the money, nor would I have done that had I had the money. I lucked out ultimately, because the National Gallery was smaller but yet a great museum; it was possible to cover it in a way that would’ve been impossible at the Met because it’s so big.

NOTEBOOK: These thriving arts institutions have such energy pouring from them, though. So when you place these films collectively within a series Monrovia, Indiana doesn’t mirror that growth. Rather, the film suggests a town in crisis. For example, in the meeting where they’re talking about the new development, Homestead, there’s a rather terse push-and-pull between this idea the town needs to grow in order to survive and residents’ fear of change.

WISEMAN: I learned about it from going to this meeting. I didn't find any overt reference to it other than in the town meeting, but it was clearly there. It’s not the same thing, but it’s thematically related to the discussion about the B.I.D. in Jackson Heights. You see the expression of different values: continuity versus growth, homogeneity versus people coming from the outside. It raises, without resolving, a lot of interesting questions.

NOTEBOOK: In that scene, someone also mentions in passing that there’s been many foreclosures in the neighborhood.

WISEMAN: It’s not clear from that reference whether it’s true or not. But it was an argument used by one of the members of the town council to express her fear of Homestead. I think it’s clear in the meeting that there’s no more crime in Homestead than anywhere else. But it’s an argument. Part of it is the outsider versus the insider. It's also complicated by the fact that somebody else says in the meeting that a lot of the people who are buying houses in Homestead are Monrovians coming back, and I don’t know to what extent those arguments are accurate or not. From the point of view of the film, they serve the purpose of raising the question.

NOTEBOOK: Would you ever research a fact like that beyond the act of making the film?

WISEMAN: No. I was in Monrovia two hours before I started shooting. The meeting with the undertaker was the only time I was there before I came back two months later, and then I started shooting right away.

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