NYFF 2018 Critic’s Notebook 1: Monrovia, Indiana, American Dharma
It’s fitting that the first two films I saw at NYFF after returning from TIFF were Frederick Wiseman’s Monrovia, Indiana and Errol Morris’s American Dharma. It’s not that you never hear Our 45th President’s name in Canada (given that we’re at Twitter war with them or whatever the status is), but it doesn’t come up as much; to return to two movies that wrestle with Trump’s America was very much a “welcome home, whether you like it or not” moment. Monrovia is a highlight among Wiseman’s recent work, while Dharma continues what’s basically been a decade-plus downward spiral for Morris; nonetheless, the two pair productively.
All of Wiseman’s work from 2010’s Boxing Gym onwards (when I started keeping up with each of his new films in real time) has been fundamentally affirmative in nature, looking at institutions and places he likes or, at the very least, where serious discussions with ramifications for surrounding community life are taking place. This was not always the case; I’m hardly a Wiseman expert, but I’ve seen two of his more savage works, 1977’s Canal Zone (in which ugly Americans behave like assholes for three hours in range of the Panama Canal) and 1983’s The Store (luxe capitalism at its tacky worst on display at a Dallas Neiman Marcus). That satirical impulse has been in check for a while, and maybe it still is here—it’s unclear to me what stance Wiseman is taking in his portrait of an Indiana town whose population barely cracks a thousand. I do have some theories about that, which require me to let some obvious biases fly.
Monrovia is a pure case study in “fly-over country,” a tiny town whose demographics shifted from 99.2% white in the 2000 census to 97.3% in the 2010 census. In the culture wars we will all be pleased to engage in until our deaths (the way things are going), there are, broadly speaking, two stances on this type of community. There’s the anti-, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” case, which isn’t all that new and doesn’t really require much explicating (hotbeds of xenophobia and racism, a lust to impose reactionary mores on the populace). The pro stance is equally familiar, if no less reductive; white small-town America’s seemingly undistinguished nature belies deep values worth fighting for, ones which depraved coastal elites, blinded as they are by cocaine and sodomy, are powerless to recognize.
Taking this argument at face value, Monrovia allows the community time to define its values. What are they? In an early scene at a high school, the most coach-type teacher you can imagine lectures a room full of students barely avoiding catatonia about how “dominant” Monrovia used to be at producing basketball all-stars; that word, “dominant,” is hammered over and over, sounding weaker and weaker with each iteration. There are visits to some type of fair where bumper stickers, AM radio-style trolling, are sold (“You lie,” “Work harder, millions on welfare are depending on you”) and a gun store that has similar decorations (“I support gun control, I use both hands”). The dread name of Our 45th President is never uttered, but it’s not hard to guess where many of the subjects stand politically—not the folks rocking proudly tacky “God Bless America” t-shirts and caps with lots of martial eagles and flags to drive the point home, and certainly not the city council woman opposing development because she’s worried about “changing demographics.” She doesn’t mention which demographics she’s worried about changing, but it’s not hard to guess. (Her Twitter page‘s contents are not a huge surprise.)
I’m not being sarcastic when I say that Wiseman is the premiere filmmaker of Meetings; it’s during these bureaucratic, sometimes painfully circuitous discussions that matters of actual import are hashed out. Monrovia is the cinema of anti-meetings, a meticulous record of gatherings in which absolutely nothing memorable or substantive is said, empty rituals that assert their own importance with nothing to back that up. The most devastating scene is one at the local Masonic Lodge, in which an elderly man is presented some kind of award for years of service. He stands patiently, as pages and pages of ghastly, pseudo-portentous text about values, God, journeys through life etc. are read out at him; the whole enterprise is so dull, so empty that it’s amazing no one starts cracking up or looking visibly curious about what the hell’s going on here. God, guns, religion (guess which one) and hard work, then, are the Values on display here, with Wiseman alternating scenes of silent enterprise (at an auto shop, tattoo parlor, on the farm and at a pizza place, among others) with this kind of anti-cinematic material—and, sure, scenes of people affectionately hanging out, enquiring about others’ health and generally being decent human beings. I’ve never found the idea of “Our Shared Humanity” to be of much value; it’s perfectly possible to be decent to one’s friends and neighbors (on a case by case basis) while actively responsible for greater harm.
If, say, Breitbart’s in-house “film critic” (sometimes) John Nolte were to review Monrovia, I suspect he’d find it to be a fair, even-handed, even commendable tribute to Small Town America; Wiseman isn’t tipping his hand by slapping on ironic music cues or other nudge-y underlining methods. That’s not his MO: one key attribute of his work has always been his insistence that he’s arrived at a shooting method that’s objective, in the sense of not altering how his subjects act. But objectivity of shooting method is not the same thing as having no POV, and Monrovia strikes me as a fairly devastating portrait of a community on auto-pilot, secure in Values that produce absolutely nothing worth talking about. I think the next-to-last scene—a very underwhelming eulogy—hammers that point home; you may well disagree.
Moving onwards, to Breitbart itself: in some (highly regrettable) ways, American Dharma is a movie I’ve been unconsciously preparing to review for the last ten years or so. I was reading Breitbart before there was Breitbart, via the aforementioned Nolte’s blog, Dirty Harry’s Place. Now apparently scrubbed from the net (alas!), this was where Nolte talked about how much he loved the Death Wish series and hated Communism; when the late Andrew Breitbart launched his web presence, Nolte was a super-logical choice to head its “Big Hollywood” division, which would publish angry articles about how Matt Damon said something mean about George W. Bush. In those early days, Breitbart per se didn’t exist: there were a series of sites (Big Government, Big Hollywood et al.) later consolidated under the Breitbart brand in an example of vile vertical integration. Like its inspiration, the Huffington Post, in its early days the Breitbart sites seemed to not pay too many contributors, the proof being they were publishing some really insane, rambling drivel. For example, please enjoy this choice excerpt from Yervand Kocher’s “How I Stopped Worrying about Tobacco Companies and Loved Second Hand Smoking”:
There’s nothing more American than a strong, beautiful woman blowing smoke in my immigrant face. It makes me feel like a full-fledged American citizen. I’m enchanted by the smoky veil of the American dream and feel the mighty fume coming out of the American land, a Native genie rising from the bottled mysterious desert of endless imagination […] Feminism and anti-smoking campaigns are twin sisters; actually brothers. These two movements are unnatural encroachments of a totalitarian mindset on individual freedom. If you can convince a woman to cease being a woman and you can control an individual’s biological urge to smoke and partake in the mystery of smoking, you can control everything else as well.
These were the years when former SNL star Victoria Jackson shared songs like “There’s a Communist Living in the White House,” when Robert Davi and Michael Moriarty contributed essays about socialism and Frank Sinatra. How far we’ve come! In the wake of Breitbart’s death, there was a nasty internal power struggle, one agitated by the rise of Trump. There were casualties, but at the end of the day the site emerged much stronger, with higher traffic numbers and a much-expanded brand imprint. Some of the credit for that can almost certainly be assigned to Steve Bannon, who seems like exactly the kind of executive who’d get very excited about SEO. Once the ludicrous (but free!) writers had been purged, putatively serious figures like Young Conservative Intellectual Ben Shapiro helped the site grow, and the rest is recent history.
None of this history is in American Dharma; if you wanted a one-stop primer on how the new right was born, it’s not here. I’m willing to credit Bannon for a certain kind of cynical professional proficiency in helping an actively worthless/malignant website spread its wings, but I certainly wouldn’t think of him as an ideas guy. To the extent that Bannon has ideas, they’re mostly paranoid apocalyptic Randian gibberish; his significance is limited solely to his business acumen. There was, and is, nothing special about the kind of content Breitbart peddles in; it’s hardly significantly different from the kind of anti-globalist paranoia strains of evangelical thought have peddled since the ’50s, or the AM radio ravings that flourished in the ’80s and ’90s, or Fox News, or Drudge Report’s busy little array of “suggestive” links, or anything else on the spectrum. Breitbart’s innovation was entirely about headlines and modes of dissemination; to allow Bannon to present himself as a man of ideas, even ones the film actively pushes back against, is to fall for his narrative entirely.
The press kit for American Dharma includes a preemptively defensive statement from Morris about how it’s important to look someone like Bannon in the eye and find out what they believe to better understand how we got in this mess. I’m not a political journalist, but I’ve been tracking these lunatics for a long time and can speak with some confidence on the matter: if you wanted a one-person decoder ring who could explain why all this happened, Bannon is absolutely not your man. In any case, you won’t learn anything in detail about his work, or how Breitbart grew and flourished; he has some greatest hits to trot out (busting Anthony Weiner), some talking points to hammer, and that’s about all. One of the only intentionally funny things about the movie is a title card reading “the fog of #war” (a hashtag that was one of Andrew Breitbart’s last contributions to this world); it turns out Bannon was inspired to begin his career as a documentary filmmaker by seeing Morris’s The Fog of War, but this is nothing like that film’s comprehensive walk through the life and ashes legacy of Robert McNamara. Morris does not do anything so simple as let Bannon talk and hang himself; he actively pushes back, telling Bannon his ideas are ugly and xenophobic. This form of #resistance is useless—Bannon’s clearly just thrilled to be getting the full treatment as a Man of Significance from a filmmaker he seems to sincerely admire.
Setting aside the film’s approach to ideology: since 2008’s Standard Operating Procedure, for some reason I cannot possibly fathom Morris has been shooting all his movies in widescreen. This one-size-literally-fits-all approach reached a true nadir in The B-Side. Subject Elsa Dorfman’s photos are in a 16:9 ratio, so a 1.33 ratio would be best for showcasing them in full, with 1.85 still ok; in using widescreen, Morris was forced to either crop the photos (showing the top or bottom blown up and filling the frame) or show them tiny at the center of the screen. This isn’t even a formal choice, it’s just a technical mistake undermining the work ostensibly being celebrated. Here, shooting widescreen means tons of negative space in shot/reverse shot interviews or something even sillier. There are some ludicrous opening shots of Bannon striding over concrete; Morris plants the camera just above the ground, pointed down, filling up 2/3 of the screen with out-of-focus concrete until Bannon’s shoes enter frame at the top. Because Bannon wanted to talk about some of his favorite movies, Morris indulged him; that means you can watch clips of Academy-ratio films (Twelve O’Clock High etc.) cropped and distorted into widescreen. (Instead of humoring Bannon’s desire to talk about Chimes at Midnight or The Bridge on the River Kwai, Morris should have waited for Mile 22 to come out; Mark Wahlberg’s kill-em-all hero is modeled on Bannon. A tribute from Peter Berg is basically what he deserves.)
At least one use for 2.35 is found here: if you ever wanted to read Sopan Deb or Marlow Stern’s Tweets in widescreen, it turns out a stand-alone Tweet fits the frame fairly well, which is about as visually stimulating as things get. This is a web browser movie, but not one that opens any interesting tabs, and it’s instructive to note that Ian Buruma is among those given thanks in the end credits. Obviously Morris could not have known that Buruma would disgrace himself at the NYRB by the time this film came out, so flagging that is a bit of a cheap shot; still, it’s indicative of the establishment clubbiness that birthed this film. Morris obviously believes that Bannon is a significant figure traveling in the same circles as him, whose ideas must be understood to clarify the darkness we’re in, but really he’s just an asshole, no different from any person who went into a bar, slapped an InfoWars bumper sticker on the bathroom mirror and thought they were fighting the good fight. We live in profoundly, dangerously stupid times; Morris’s film does nothing to clarify them or combat their architects.