New York 2018

Two Other Americas

The Daily — Oct 1, 2018
Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (2018)

Following their premieres in Venice and Toronto, two films that focus on communities at the center of the American political conversation are screening at the New York Film Festival. Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? focuses on African-Americans in the Deep South, while Frederick Wiseman heads out to Trump Country in Monrovia, Indiana. Both films are now garnering much stronger reviews than they did earlier in the fall.

Minervini, an Italian based in Texas whose work will be celebrated at the Viennale next month, immerses himself in his subjects’ milieu, often shooting over a hundred hours of footage before he begins editing. What You Gonna Do, shot in stark black and white, follows four strands. With their father in jail, a teenager tries to be a role model for his younger brother. A Mardi Gras performer fights for the preservation of local traditions. The Black Panthers respond to a fresh wave of racist violence. And a woman named Judy Hill struggles to save her bar, a community hub, from circling speculators. “In the past I have found the access Minervini gains from his subjects unnerving and possibly untoward,” writes Nellie Killian for Film Comment, “but in Hill he’s found a true collaborator with the self-possession to be an endlessly dynamic transformative force.”

At the Film Stage, Ethan Vestby echoes some of the criticism of What You Gonna Do voiced in early reviews when he argues that “it’s not that the subjects aren’t themselves compelling, it’s just that there’s a lack of shape to the film.” Arguments along these lines have sparked a “fast and loose” response from Cinema Scope editor Mark Peranson. “It’s character that matters here, fleeting moments rather than overarching drama,” he writes. “Minervini does not attempt to solve the problems of police brutality, inequality, poverty, social injustice, etc., because he’s a filmmaker, not a politician . . . And as a lowly filmmaker, we should also not expect him to solve the problems inherent in fictionalizing reality, but boy, does he give it a shot.”

Writing for the Notebook, Michael Sicinski points out that Minervini “emphasizes difference and individuality while at the same time demonstrating that there are certain unavoidable commonalities that characterize the black experience.” In short: “This is a film that we need.” Notebook editor Daniel Kasman adds that What You Gonna Do insists “not upon its own importance, but rather upon its necessity of being.”

Is yet another profile of Trump voters, supposedly invisible before 2016, just as necessary, even if it comes from one of our greatest documentary filmmakers? “While the director is in all likelihood aware of all those news outlets sending their reporters into the heartland to brief us on just what the hell those people are thinking, Wiseman is evidently set against making a contribution of his own to the genre,” writes Daniel Witkin for Reverse Shot. Trump’s name isn’t uttered once in the film. All politics in Monrovia, Indiana—population 1,063, over ninety-five percent white—are local.

Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov suggests that even a critic for Breitbart News would find in the film “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 . . . 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.” For Daniel Kasman, it’s “hard to ignore” that the town’s “institutions and clubs follow the same old rituals, the town council is unable to make a decision about its dwindling population, the old folks talk about getting older, and we feel like we are watching a slow death. By the time the film gets to a supermarket that seems common to a fault, it is imbued with a vague, rattling ominousness, like something from Dawn of the Dead.

But horror doesn’t necessarily preclude beauty. “At least two sequences in Monrovia, Indiana are as profoundly rhapsodic as any in Wiseman’s career,” writes Chuck Bowen at Slant. One of these is “the long funeral that serves as this great film’s climax. . . . Few moments in cinema have affirmed the communal power of church, to this atheist, as persuasively as this scene.” Wiseman, now eighty-eight, carries on honing his style, and his “characteristically excellent interstitial shots (a skill he’s sharpened to an Ozu-like level of precision) take on a painterly quality, evoking the pastoral mode in its distinctly middle American incarnation,” writes Daniel Witkin. And Lorenzo Esposito, writing for Cinema Scope, finds that Monrovia, Indiana wraps with “one of the most desperate and poetic endings Wiseman has ever shot.”

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