Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
The latest film by the dean of American documentary filmmakers opens at the Northwest Film Forum this weekend. Monrovia, Indiana is Frederick Wiseman’s 44th feature, or so IMDb tells me, a study of small-town America at a particularly fraught moment. I look forward to seeing the film, and in the meantime offer up a couple of reviews of recent Wiseman pictures that struck me as somewhat smallish in his career but absorbing and very, very enjoyable: La danse (2009) and Boxing Gym (2010). As a former ballet dancer myself (yes, the dirty secret is out), I took great pleasure from the way Wiseman shoots dance in the former film, taking the Fred Astaire approach to showing the whole body; as someone who has never picked up a boxing glove, I took great pleasure in seeing how Wiseman surveys the pugs in the latter film. These were originally published in the Daily Herald.
Frederick Wiseman is one of the great names in documentary film, a director known for surveying different institutions from top to bottom: hospitals, legal systems, governments.
The approach is strict. There are no interviews with talking heads, no narration or explanatory titles, no music that isn’t already in the scene. Wiseman doesn’t tell stories, exactly; he exposes systems.
If La danse sounds lighter than his usual fare, it is, but it’s no less controlled and disciplined in its approach. The subject is the venerable Paris Opera Ballet, a famed dance company. This affords Wiseman many opportunities to depict dancers, both in rehearsal and final performance. But he also sticks to his style, which is to eavesdrop on the artistic director’s meetings, look in on the costume crew, and listen to a union rep describe the complicated retirement plans for dancers—whose careers will probably be over by the age of 40.
Sometimes his camera glances down the staircases and hallways of the Palais Garnier, the “old” opera building in Paris—at one point peeking into the watery caverns beneath it, a sight familiar to fans of the many incarnations of the Phantom of the Opera. But the greatest concentration is on dancers dancing, and this is superb. Most sequences show the dancers in full frame—no cutting to close-ups or body parts—as they work out their routines in real time.
Later, during stage performances, Wiseman actually allows a few dramatic camera moves, in reaction to the drama on stage—in one case, a stunning ballet of “Medea,” the scene depicting the title character murdering her children. Earlier, we have heard the choreographer of this piece tell his dancers about the emotion of a certain move by invoking “X-Men” characters. Well, whatever works.
The pieces, which we see in a jumbled order with no apparent plan, are a mix of modern and classical works. Like everybody else, the dancers are unidentified, which gives a strong sense of the ballet company as one big organism.
If you don’t care about dance, I suspect this film’s seemingly formless 138 minutes will feel like a very long slog, even if you can appreciate the way Wiseman sizes up the different levels of institutional activity. But if you like dance, and you don’t need a plot to carry you along, it’ll keep you rapt.
Now 80 years old, America’s most distinguished documentary filmmaker, Frederick Wiseman, has turned to physical subjects in his latest films. Last year’s La danse looked at the dancers and administrators of the Paris Opera Ballet; his new one, Boxing Gym, spends almost its entire running time in the title locale.
It’s a modest setting. Lord’s Gym, in Austin, Texas, sits hidden behind a Goodwill store; inside, with its heavy bags duct-taped and old fight posters peeling off the walls, the gym’s cozy jumble is part of its charm (Clint Eastwood’s gym in Million Dollar Baby looks regal by comparison). Wiseman’s style has no narrator or storyline, just the camera observing the workings of a place. We do recognize certain regulars at the gym, and the owner, Richard Lord, interacts with a variety of folks throughout. He’s one of those people who seem to carry around an entire philosophy of life in the way they set their feet. Of course, how you set your feet is a key component of boxing, and Lord is just as eloquent when he’s working out a student as when he’s describing the very casual rules of the gym.
It might surprise viewers that women are a large part of the population here; some women bring their kids in to hang out while they train. In fact, almost anything seems allowed at the gym except a certain un-coolness; as one boxer observes, anybody who comes in acting loud and flashy will be flushed out by the system. Some people are training, some are learning self-defense skills, some are simply exercising. But all of them look intent and serious. You are reminded that boxing is considered a science by its practitioners, and not something to be trifled with.
Wiseman lets his camera catch whatever seems interesting, including one mesmerizing sequence of two boxers (one male, one female) dancing around the ring in their own separate workouts, as though fighting invisible opponents. The movie’s sound design is also important, as Wiseman layers in all the grunts and squeaking sneakers and thwacks of gloves hitting punching bags. This is a very exact slice of life, rendered as accurately as possible.
At 91 minutes, Boxing Gym is shorter than most of Wiseman’s projects, as though it offered less complexity than his bigger films. That’s probably true, but it leaves behind a curiously blissed-out feeling, a portrait of a small haven that is accessible to all.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.