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Idyll, or Elegy?

books and culture

Idyll, or Elegy?

Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary dramatizes the tough choices that America’s small towns face. November 8, 2018
Arts and Culture

Monrovia, Indiana, directed by Frederick Wiseman

In the wake of Donald Trump’s surprise election in 2016, many journalists, looking to understand his success, left their comfortable coastal redoubts to explore the working-class communities of America’s interior. Too often, these reports wound up telling as much about the reporters as about the communities they were investigating. This is not the case with Monrovia, Indiana, the new film by legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman, whose earlier works, such as Titicut Follies and Ex Libris, are classics of the verité style.

Wiseman spent ten weeks filming in this small Indiana town of about 1,500 people, creating a fair and insightful portrait of a section of the rural Midwest. He shows us quotidian aspects of life in Monrovia that are likely exotic to a typical big-city documentary-film audience: corn and hog farming, locals holding court at the town diner, a mattress-sale fundraiser for the local school, a farm-equipment auction, a Lion’s Club board meeting, and more. For urban audiences, the lives of service-class workers in the groceries and restaurants of their own cities, while differing in details, are likely just as foreign as the ones shown in Monrovia.

Most brilliantly, Wiseman captures the collision between Monrovia’s past and future. He shows how Monrovia, like so much of the Midwest, is dominated by a pervasive, smothering sense of nostalgia, which goes far beyond healthy community pride. In an early scene, a schoolteacher explains the town’s storied history of sports success. Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, winner of 10 NCAA championships, was born in Hall, about five miles away. Branch McCracken, a two-time NCAA championship-winning basketball coach at Indiana University, hailed from Monrovia proper; the high school named its gym in his honor. The teacher chronicles how, in the 1920s, Indiana was one of three major basketball hubs, and recounts the many tournaments won by local teams in that era. Afterwards, as if instructing the kids in their local culture, he notes how difficult it is to change any aspect of the school’s football field, because so many families either donated or have some personal tie to it.

This nostalgia, and the deep dislike of change that accompanies it, is a recurring theme. Multiple scenes show the town council grappling with issues related to growth. A county official and Monrovia native, having returned home after stints working in larger, thriving cities, describes a vision of fostering growth in the area’s established communities, including Monrovia. The council is not sold. Some of its members are wary of growth, particularly after a bad experience with the construction of a low-end, “vinyl village” subdivision by a now-defunct developer during the housing bubble.

In a Q&A session at the New York Film Festival, Wiseman acknowledged that one of the film’s key themes is mortality. Many of the featured characters are older and suffering health problems. More than a few are obese. In one poignant scene, Wiseman films a ceremony at the local Masonic lodge, in which a member is honored for 50 years of membership. None of the members are young, though. The lodge is one of the many formerly vigorous civil-society organizations in American life, the decline of which has been charted by sociologists like Robert Putnam. The film closes with the funeral of an elderly Monrovia woman. The lowering of her casket into the ground seems to symbolize the death of the town’s old ways.

And yet, Monrovia is not destined to die. The town is part of the Indianapolis metro area, a fact that goes unstated in the film. Growth has mostly bypassed Monrovia’s Morgan County, though Hendricks County to the north and Johnson County to the east are booming, and among the state’s fastest-growing counties. And Monrovia itself is enjoying a mini-boom; its population grew only from 318 to 628 from 1880 to 2000; since then, it has more than doubled, to 1,441. Concerns over growth are not purely nostalgia-driven, but reflect a genuine reality with which the town is confronted (a developer is already working toward building another new subdivision). And the town’s demographics are more vital than Wiseman’s film suggests: nearly half of households are families with children, and the median age of residents is only 31.

Morgan County and Monrovia have a future, then—if they want one—but embracing that future will require painful change. In the film, town officials grapple with the fallout from the poorly built subdivision, such as nonfunctional fire hydrants that can’t be repaired because of a bureaucratic Catch-22. Growth and change will bring many more such situations. The town will have to create its own water utility, strengthen its planning and zoning codes, and start relying on government—rather than the Lion’s Club—to implement public-space improvements. As a smattering of younger black faces in the film show, Monrovia will need to accept demographic change as well.

Change will also mean, though, that children growing up in Monrovia today will have a place to come back to. It means that the town can once again be a champion in sports; it won the Class 2A state football championship in 2015. It means that the best chapters of the town’s history may yet remain to be written.

The small towns of the American heartland all face the cross-pressures of nostalgia, death, and change. It would be unrealistic to suggest that all of them can tap into suburban growth, as Monrovia is beginning to do, but Wiseman’s film is a reminder that decline is not always inevitable. In many cases, it is at least partly a choice, originating in a refusal to face the future and its demands.

Photo: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

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