Monday, October 12, 2020

City Hall: Frederick Wiseman in Boston

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh in Frederick Wiseman's City Hall.

Still turning out documentaries at ninety, Frederick Wiseman is one of the enduring treasures of American filmmaking. His early films, produced for PBS, dealt with thorny, troubled institutions, and half a dozen of them – High School (1968), Law and Order (1969), Hospital (1970), Basic Training (1971), Juvenile Court (1973), and Welfare (1975) – are classic works of non-fiction humanism, balanced mysteriously between the poignantly familiar and the utterly unpredictable. The greatest sequences in them are the ones that provide moving glimpses of how professionals engaged in the work of these places, which are blighted by deep-seated institutional flaws and misguided policies and decades of accumulated cobwebbed bureaucracy, try like hell to break through and help the ordinary people they’re supposed to serve. At some point, Wiseman’s explorations became less radical and focused on more localized settings – meticulous excavations of towns and neighborhoods, cultural and educational and recreational entities. But the approach he had famously pioneered, drawing viewers into the world of each of these places through sometimes extensive fragments of their daily interactions and eschewing all the elements that we’re still used to in documentaries (voice-over narration, on-camera interviews, intertitles) has remained his modus operandi.

Many of his late movies have been fascinating (La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet, At Berkeley, National Gallery, In Jackson Heights); some have been less engaging (Crazy Horse, Ex Libris: New York Public Library, Monrovia, Indiana). His forty-third documentary, City Hall, which closed the GlobeDocs Film Festival in Boston and goes into general release at the end of the month, definitely fits in the former category. The city hall in question is Boston’s. The protagonist, to the extent that there is one, is Mayor Marty Walsh, who addresses one constituency after another – departments, organizations, community groups – by applying the same personalized vision of democracy, culled from his own experience as the son of Irish immigrants from a working-class background who observed the changing history of race relations in his home town as he grew older, and who is upfront about his own struggles as a recovering alcoholic. He wanders in and out of the film, and even for people like me who have lived in the Boston area for years, his may be the only recognizable face.

As usual Wiseman and his long-time cinematographer John Davey, proletarian visual poets, capture the setting from hundreds of different corners and perspectives, and with the same compelling casualness they show us how things work: how city workers fix the roads, how the fire department analyzes the causes of a conflagration, how people dispute parking tickets. (This is one of the most charming scenes in the movie: both the men we see do this present reasonable cases, and in both cases they’re rewarded with reprieves.) But though he never editorializes – to do so would go against the grain, and his methodology militates against it – Wiseman’s real focus in City Hall is the slow, uphill battle, championed by Walsh, to achieve social justice in the city of Boston, to honor diversity and inclusivity and remove the barriers to gender and racial parity (especially in the workplace) at a time when the federal government is moving backwards. Trump is barely mentioned; he doesn’t have to be, when most of the people we see on the screen are immigrants or children of immigrants and when, in one scene, a lawyer whose specialty is housing issues discusses the civil-rights implications of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s initiative to make it almost impossible for anyone who has been discriminated against to lodge a complaint.

City Hall is a chunk of a movie: it runs four and a half hours. Wiseman doesn’t believe in cutting up the text; some of the speeches are lengthy, like those of military on Veterans Day, and so are some of the interactions – especially a meeting between representatives of Lower Geneva, a section of Dorchester that is Boston’s poorest and one of its most multicultural, and Asian and white businessmen proposing to open a weed dispensary in the neighborhood.  As it almost always does in Wiseman’s documentaries, the length pays off: the details pile up, the fervor and lucidity of the unnamed participants become more and more impressive, and you take in so much information that you can practically feel your head expanding. And as Wiseman sticks to his subjects more and more comes tumbling out. One of the two veterans, a man in his thirties who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, displays a rifle he purchased because his uncle, who died in World War II, carried one just like it. You think you know exactly where his story is going but you don’t – it’s first funny and then affecting in ways you couldn’t have predicted.

The movie also has a quality that makes it unlike Wiseman’s previous movies. He’s a local himself, having lived in Cambridge for many years, and though he’s constitutionally incapable of sinking to easy sentimentality, City Hall feels like a love letter to Boston. That is, I think, the sweet surprise that reveals itself mostly in the final scenes.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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