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Why famed documentarian Frederick Wiseman focused on the Midwest for his latest film

Why famed documentarian Frederick Wiseman focused on the Midwest for his latest film
25 Oct
10:03

Frederick Wiseman’s last two films focused on the dense and diverse communities of New York City, but for his 41st feature film, the legendary documentarian headed west. He landed in Monrovia, Indiana, a farming community about 25 miles southwest of Indianapolis with a population of 1,443 people.

Wiseman — who turned 88 last January — has a long history of focusing on the places, organizations, and institutions that structure and govern our lives, particularly (though not exclusively) in the United States. Since 1967, he’s been a pioneering force behind the development of Direct Cinema, while observing with his camera everything from high schools and dance companies to public housing projects, modeling agencies, and welfare offices. (All of Wiseman’s films are available to stream through Kanopy to cardholders in thousands of public library systems across the country.)

In Monrovia, Indiana, Wiseman’s camera wanders around the tiny town as an observer, watching the people go about their business. We go to a grocery store and a gun shop. We listen to a school band struggle through a version of The Simpsons theme song. We hang out with old men in a diner and watch a vet treat a dog who needs part of its tail amputated. We sit in town council meetings, attend both a wedding and a funeral, watch a ceremony at the Freemasons’ Lodge, and go to the county fair, where people peddle their wares and listen to music.

What arises is an idyllic portrait of life that is nonetheless a microcosm of America, with arguments about outsiders moving into town, political slogans glimpsed on plaques, and a sense of the economic challenges that face Monrovians.

Wiseman’s hand is only visible in the editing, and the way some scenes are juxtaposed suggests they comment on one another — but it’s never heavy-handed, and we’re left to draw our own conclusions, and then think about how our perspectives shape how we see the town. It is funny, thought-provoking, and mesmerizing film.

56th New York Film Festival - NYFF Live: Frederick Wiseman
Wiseman discussing Monrovia, Indiana in October 2018.
Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

I sat down with Wiseman at New York’s historic Film Forum theater during Monrovia, Indiana’s US premiere at the New York Film Festival to discuss how he gets into so many places as an outsider, whether his films make fun of their subjects, and why he thinks he could argue his documentaries really are fiction.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Alissa Wilkinson

I imagine some people are going to see Monrovia, Indiana as a response to all those pieces in the New York Times where someone goes to a diner in middle America and talks to Trump voters. Is that what you were after?

Frederick Wiseman

Well, I haven’t read those pieces.

Alissa Wilkinson

Then what made you pick the town of Monrovia for this film?

Frederick Wiseman

It was a process totally guided by chance — I was talking with a friend of mine and I said wanted to do a movie about a small town in the Middle West, because I haven’t done much in the Middle West other than a public housing film in Chicago. She said, “Well, I have a friend who teaches at the University of Indiana in Bloomington whose family has lived in the same small town for six generations.”

By chance, I was going to Bloomington in a couple weeks to show some of my movies and give a talk. So I called this professor at the law school up and told him what I was interested in, and he said, “Come out a day early and I’ll take you to my family’s town.” Which was Monrovia.

I did that. He introduced me to his cousin, who was the town undertaker and who, by definition, knew everybody, past and present. She liked the idea of the movie and said she’d introduce me around.

Then I went back to France, where I live a good part of the year. She then contacted on my behalf a lot of people in town and sent me a list of people she contacted, along with a list of other people she thought I should contact. Well, I began calling from France, and showed up in Monrovia six or seven weeks later and started shooting.

Monrovians gather outside a shop on Main Street.
Monrovians gather outside a shop on Main Street.
Zipporah Films

Alissa Wilkinson

Was the whole reason to go to the Midwest for a film that you hadn’t done it before?

Frederick Wiseman

I thought it would be interesting. I did a film in a small town in the northeast of Maine and I did a small town in the West, in Colorado. I also did Canal Zone, which is a small American town, or was a small American town, in Panama.

Alissa Wilkinson

And even your film In Jackson Heights feels like it’s in a small town. Monrovia feels like a great contrast to Jackson Heights, which is one of the most diverse communities in America, while this one is very white.

Frederick Wiseman

It is a good contrast, exactly.

Alissa Wilkinson

And Jackson Heights is a place that’s known for its immigrants; in many of the scenes you show us in Monrovia, they’re worried about people from outside of town who are moving in.

Frederick Wiseman

Yes. I don’t know that there’s a racial or ethnic tinge to that — I think it’s just a reaction to other people from neighboring places who might come in and change the character of the town.

Alissa Wilkinson

I grew up in rural upstate New York, near Vermont. But watching this felt a lot like watching my own upbringing. A lot of what happens in those communities has to do with people having a routine of life that gets disrupted when outsiders move in.

Frederick Wiseman

It’s threatening.

Alissa Wilkinson

Yeah, and people don’t quite know what to do with that. As you were, as an outsider, trying to get access to different places, how did you decide where you wanted to shoot? Did you have specific parts of the community you were most interested in seeing?

Frederick Wiseman

Well, the place was so small that it was obvious. There wasn’t that much choice. There’re two restaurants and a pizza parlor. I went to all of them. There was a barbershop and a hair dressing salon. I went to both of them. There was a school. I went to that. I hung out with a policeman — there was absolutely no action. I hung out with the fire department and there were no fires.

Alissa Wilkinson

There’s a tattoo parlor.

Frederick Wiseman

A tattoo parlor and a supermarket.

Alissa Wilkinson

And that’s it.

Frederick Wiseman

And that’s it! Maybe one or two other places that I didn’t go into. I went into the principal places that constituted the businesses of the town. In Jackson Heights, there we had much wider choice.

Alissa Wilkinson

There are also repeated scenes in the town council meeting — did you keep going back to them for a particular reason?

Frederick Wiseman

The first time I went it was interesting! A lot of literal and abstract themes of daily life find their way to the town council. I just lucked out that they were talking about different points of view about whether the town should expand or not, and the consequences — the economic consequences, the social consequences, of adding more residents. God was on my side, because they happened to be discussing it while I was there.

The Monrovia town council meetings recur in Monrovia, Indiana.
The Monrovia town council meetings recur in Monrovia, Indiana.
Zipporah Films

Alissa Wilkinson

In those scenes, there’s even a bunch of characters who are in conflict with one another.

Frederick Wiseman

That’s always the case, if I’m lucky and ready to shoot. You stumble across sequences which ultimately become thematic. Even though I wasn’t looking for them, in the course of studying and in editing, they emerge!

Alissa Wilkinson

It’s a lot like, I think, writing nonfiction. You don’t exactly know what it is you’re going to write when you start writing it.

Frederick Wiseman

Or it’s a lot like writing fiction. The issues are exactly the same. I could make the argument that these are fiction films.

Alissa Wilkinson

In what way?

Frederick Wiseman

Well, they’re based on unstaged events, but those events are highly edited. For instance: The town council meetings go on for an hour and a half, but in the film each one is six or seven minutes, compressed. That’s not how it happened. It’s edited to appear as if it took place the way we’re watching it, but it didn’t.

And the film’s order is completely fictional — it’s just an exaggeration. I could’ve started the film with something shot on the last day and edited it with something shot on the first day. I give myself the right to present the sequences in whatever order I think is appropriate.

I never change the order within a sequence, but I quite arbitrarily change the order, the structure. The order in which the sequences appear in the film has absolutely nothing to do with the order in which they’re shot.

The tattoo parlor in Monrovia, Indiana.
The tattoo parlor in Monrovia, Indiana.
Zipporah Films

Alissa Wilkinson

So what are you looking for, then, when you construct the arc? Do you know going in?

Frederick Wiseman

Initially, my job is to deceive myself into thinking I understand what’s going on in each sequence. If I don’t understand it — or at least if I don’t think I understand it — I can’t make the choice whether or not I want to use it, and then I can’t make the choices that are involved in editing it down into a usable form and, subsequently, finding a place for it in the order of the sequences.

So I have to be able to rationalize, I have to explain to myself what’s going on in the sequence in order to choose it, in order to cut it, and then I have to be able to explain to myself what the consequences are of creating the order of the sequences, in order to find a structure.

So all that involves talking to myself and it’s all very explicit, even though sometimes I may arrive at a cut or arrive at an order because I’ve dreamt it or thought of it in the shower. But nevertheless I have to be able to rationalize it.

Alissa Wilkinson

So in this one, what’s the rationale?

Frederick Wiseman

Well that’s what you see in the film. I don’t think I should then explain it — if you want to figure it out, well, good. It’s only necessary for me to create a structure to try to make something that works as a grammatical narrative.

Alissa Wilkinson

Well, then, I have a question about the bit in the middle, where you’re in the veterinarian office as they cut off a dog’s tail. In the screening room I was in, people were either laughing during that scene or making uncomfortable noises. What’s the “grammar” of a scene like that being in there?

Frederick Wiseman

Well, it’s a small farming community. In any community, even in the city, people have animals. In a farming community people have more animals, and you need a vet to take care of them. So the literal aspect is showing the vet.

This, by chance, is an operation, somebody wanted the tail cut on their dog. But you see a variety of other activities: The dog getting its teeth cleaned. You see a cat getting a shot. You see the care and concern in which the vets treat the animals, holding them. The vet’s quite tender to the animal. Somebody wanted the tail cut off their dog, so, visually for the sequence, that’s what we get.

Alissa Wilkinson

This is also a very funny movie. The funniest scene for me was in the Lion’s Club, where a group of people are discussing whether or not to purchase a “second bench” for the community and where to put it along with all the other benches out there. I kept chuckling in that scene, as well as in the one in which a man is being very emphatic about how the hydrant across from his house isn’t the kind of hydrant he’d been led to believe. Your movies often have that kind of humor that’s just about the everyday.

Can you talk a little bit about how you think of humor in relationship to the people in your films? I can imagine some people watching a movie like Monrovia and thinking you’re making fun of the people in it.

Frederick Wiseman

Well, I hope not. I think this film’s funny in places. I think a lot of my films are funny in places. But I don’t think — this may sound self-serving, but I don’t think it’s comedy at the expense of the people. It’s comedy that arises out of the situation. If I did it at the expense of the people, then I’d be making a fool of myself. But, just as in ordinary life, things are funny. You come across funny sequences.

I don’t think I’m laughing at the people; I’m finding the situation funny. I think that’s an important distinction.

Alissa Wilkinson

Can you spot where the humor’s going to happen when you get into a room to shoot?

Frederick Wiseman

No. Because you don’t know it’s going to happen. For instance, there’s a scene with a “mattress sale” that’s a fundraiser for the school. I saw this sign on the street: “Mattress Sale.” It said it was at the high school. So, okay, mattress sale — you already think this might be interesting. But you don’t necessarily know it’s going to be funny.

And I’d never been to a mattress sale! It didn’t occur to me that people would be lying down, trying out the mattresses. But, when I got there, it was funny. So, you shoot it. And it becomes funnier as more people try them out. I had no idea what the mattress salesman was going to say and that’s also quite funny. But that’s his pitch.

Alissa Wilkinson

When he has those jars he shows buyers that are supposed to represent how much skin and fluids get into a mattress.

Frederick Wiseman

He talks about liquids staining a mattress.

Alissa Wilkinson

It’s like something that if you wrote it into a fiction film, people probably wouldn’t believe it.

Frederick Wiseman

It would be too extreme.

Alissa Wilkinson

I know. It made me want to go buy a mattress cover.

Do you feel at all like the time you’ve spent living abroad, off and on, has helped you develop the kind of outsider perspective you might need to make a film like this, where you’re also an outsider — a guy from Boston coming to make a movie about a small town in Indiana?

Frederick Wiseman

I don’t think it’s because I’ve been in France a lot. I mean, even if I’d been living in Boston before I came to Monrovia I’d feel like an outsider. Just because the way of life is, in a superficial way, very different. I’m not sure that ultimately it’s very different. We all have different sets of habits. They may not be the same habits but they’re habits.

Alissa Wilkinson

Do you feel like that is something that people sense? How do they view you? Or do you not think about that when you’re making a film?

Frederick Wiseman

Well, I don’t know. You’d have to ask them. They were very friendly toward me and they liked the fact that I was interested in their town. A movie hadn’t been made about them before.

But that’s always the case. I think one of the reasons I can make these movies, apart from possible issues of narcissism or vanity, is that people like the idea that someone’s sufficiently interested in what they’re doing to make a movie. Which is not an abnormal response.

Two members of the “Liars’ Club” in Monrovia, Indiana.
Two members of the self-proclaimed “Liars’ Club” in Monrovia, Indiana.
Zipporah Films

Alissa Wilkinson

I feel like the depiction we see a lot right now is that people in the middle of the country are mistrustful of outsiders or “elites” or people from the coasts.

Frederick Wiseman

These people, whether it was because I was introduced properly, from their point of view, or because they liked the idea of the movie, or some other reason, or some combination of reasons — they were extremely friendly. They liked the idea of being filmed.

For instance, a group of men every morning between 6:30 and 7:30 show up to this restaurant and shoot the shit, you know? Bullshit each other. And they call themselves the Liars’ Club. That’s not in the movie. It’s an exaggeration that they were lying. But they were a group of older men and younger men who knew each other very well. They had fun together.

Farming, sometimes, because it’s so mechanized, it’s lonely! So they would come in, have a cup of coffee, and hang out. They were, from the beginning. Somebody told me about that so I showed up. They enjoyed us.

Alissa Wilkinson

You have the same feeling with the Freemasons when you shoot in their Lodge.

Frederick Wiseman

Yeah, the Freemasons — when I showed them the film in Monrovia, the head of the Freemasons thanked me for including them in the film. I was surprised that I got in! But I think I got in because they liked the idea of being filmed, but also because it was a public ceremony, because the family of the honoree were also present and they got permission from the State Chapter to let me film.

Alissa Wilkinson

I was wondering, because I know that’s a secret kind of space.

Frederick Wiseman

Secret society, yeah. I didn’t give away too many of their secrets.

Alissa Wilkinson

How did the town react to seeing the film?

Frederick Wiseman

They liked it. At least, the people who talked to me liked it. I showed it three times in intervals of a half an hour. I took over three theaters, a multiplex, in Mooresville, which is 10 miles away. And about 600 people came. That’s about half the town — I don’t know if they were all from Monrovia, but roughly half the town. They seemed to like it. If there were people who didn’t like it, they didn’t say.

Monrovia, Indiana opens in New York City at Film Forum on October 26, followed by a Los Angeles release on November 2 and additional cities to follow.

Source: https://www.vox.com/2018/10/25/17879756/frederick-wiseman-interview-monrovia-indiana

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