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Now 90, Frederick Wiseman is as vital and relevant as ever

If there were a Nobel Prize for documentary filmmaking, Frederick Wiseman would have won a long time ago. Not just because he’s talented (no guarantee of Stockholm gold), but because his work seems to fit so well with the guilty dynamite mogul’s pet ideals: “wide-hearted humanity,” “benefit to mankind,” and so forth. The first time I saw Wiseman speak, the interviewer introduced him as “one of my intellectual heroes,” and most of the discourse around Wiseman strikes the same tone; he isn’t just brilliant — he’s heroic, using his vast skills as a nonfiction storyteller for the good of the human race.

Agree or disagree with this description (and most of the time I agree), it’s an odd one for a filmmaker whose work is skeptical of heroism — and, for that matter, broad categories of any kind. Wiseman’s earliest documentary, “Titicut Follies” (1967), a Muckraking study of a Massachusetts mental hospital, featured so many sadistic state employees that the state tried to get the film banned. Since then, Wiseman has made films about most of the key American institutions: education (“High School,” “At Berkeley,” “Ex Libris—The New York Public Library”); the military (“Basic Training”; “Missile”); healthcare (“Hospital”; “Near Death”); government (“State Legislature”; “Monrovia, Indiana”). Few of these have been as harrowing as his debut, but in even the gentlest there are no heroes, just competent people whose ideals have been sanded down by reality’s rough edges.

But the less heroic these subjects seem, the more mightily Wiseman seems to tower above them. He is, you almost want to say, a greater institution than any he’s documented: noble in his fealty to free speech, clockwork-regular (nearly a film a year for the last half-century), unafflicted by the compromises of old age (he turned 90 this year). He’s been making movies for so long he can seem not just heroic but superhuman — as benignly ageless as sunshine. Still, I know I wasn’t the only one who breathed a sigh of relief when it was reported, back in the spring, that he was COVID-free and putting the finishing touches to his 53rd film, “City Hall.”

A decent portion of the city of Boston seems to regard Marty Walsh as a hero. He was elected mayor in September 2013 with 51.5% of the vote but won a second term by thirty points. He’s spoken movingly about his struggles with cancer and alcoholism, and a few days after Trump’s inauguration, he made national news with a speech reaffirming Boston’s status as a sanctuary city for the undocumented. More than once, he’s offered to let homeless immigrants sleep in his office. The contrast with POTUS 45 couldn’t be plainer: Here’s a politician who overcame adversity without any apparent chip on his shoulder (or the help of a millionaire dad) and now carries out his duties with unforced selflessness.

But Walsh — the most visible figure in “City Hall,” though hardly the protagonist — is not a hero. I don’t think so, anyway. As Wiseman films him, he’s a different animal: less idealistic and more banal, less prone to personal sacrifice but — one hopes — more effectual. You can feel this whenever he opens his mouth. Somehow, he sounds hurried and unhurried at the same time, torn between milking the moment and moving on to any of the million other things he has to do. He speaks a strange language of initialisms and acronyms, of “utilize” and “equity” and “social capital” and “parameters” (always misused), of soft Latinate syllables wrapped loosely around matters of life and death. It’s the language of 21st-century American institutions, and nearly everyone else in “City Hall”— from Dorchester community activists to parking ticket adjudicators, from police officers to wedding officiants — speaks it, too.

I can’t really convey what it’s like to listen to this language for four and a half hours (Wiseman is famously unforgiving with his runtimes — “Near Death” is nearly six hours, and it’s been a while since he’s directed anything under three). More than once, though, I thought of Orwell. “The great enemy of clear language,” he wrote, “is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were instinctively, to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.” That was in 1946; Wiseman filmed “City Hall” in 2018. His subjects seem utterly sincere in their desire to help — when they use a word like “equity,” a little life glows through. But sincere bureaucrats are still bureaucrats. They hold vast, invisible power over other people while risking relatively little themselves. Their benevolences tend toward the small and singular, leaving no time for systemic change. The way they talk mirrors the way they work: They’re doing the best they can with a dull set of tools.

Looking back at the preceding paragraphs, I see I’ve used the word “institution” a lot without defining it — which is to say, I’ve done what a lot of Americans do: trust the conventional wisdom about institutions without stopping to wonder what, exactly, they are. Wiseman has spent most of his life making documentaries about institutions, but I’m not sure even he knows — or rather, each of his documentaries offers a subtly different definition. The ingredients are the same, but the proportions are always in flux, always reacting with each other in unpredictable ways.

The most basic ingredient (so basic it’s easy to forget about entirely) is a vast amount of stuff. Wiseman’s films have always distinguished themselves with their tactility; think of the safety razors and bowls of filthy shaving water in “Titicut Follies” or, a full 50 years later, the sequence from “Ex Libris” in which books are boxed, scanned, and stacked. When I watched “City Hall,” I started jotting down the names of ephemera but had to stop — there was just too much: gravestones, Styrofoam coffee cups, flowerpots, sand, rubber balls, balloons, gravy, asphalt.

None of these are especially exotic; arguably Wiseman’s greatest achievement in “City Hall” is to make them seem downright alien. There’s a little marvel of a scene in which we’re shown how a road is paved and spray-painted (another reminder, as if we needed one, that even the most extravagantly “educated” people know nothing about the world they live in). Like the greatest documentarians, Wiseman knows how to defamiliarize from the ground up. Unlike even some great documentarians, he knows how to make the process of defamiliarization wonderfully lively.

Naturally, all this infrastructure and raw material has an owner, and naturally, the owner is the Boston municipal government. Its ownership is founded on laws spelled out in the Boston City Charter, enforced by the Boston Police Department, and paid for (naturally) by taxes. This is the second ingredient of institutions as Wiseman understands them: the laws and regulations by which they function smoothly, or not-so smoothly.

Some of these regulations are plainly defined and rigorously enforced — e.g., a ban on deficit spending that effectively caps city hall’s budget at three billion a year to pay for affordable housing, law enforcement, disaster prevention, parades and more. This figure is, not to put too fine a point on it, basically nothing (to put things in perspective, San Francisco has roughly Boston’s population but more than double its budget), and it necessitates loose interpretations of other municipal matters. Wiseman films Bostonians haggling over parking tickets with state employees, and our sympathies are painfully split — on one hand, the rules these people have broken are ridiculous and deliberately hard to obey; on the other, every parking ticket paid means a few extra dollars for depressed veterans or homeless immigrants.

The final ingredient of any institution is its people. It’s this ingredient that Wiseman has examined with the most care, the most admiration, the most pathos. For Wiseman, people are necessary but, in the end, comically, poignantly insufficient. Granted a speck of authority, his subjects settle into their roles. They learn to showboat, savoring their petty expertise, ignoring anything beyond the horizon of their duties. As varied as Wiseman’s films are, we can speak of a few stock characters he keeps revisiting: the young, fleet-tongued community organizer; the stoic manual laborer; the board member guiltily eyeing the camera; and always, always the eerily calm phone operator.

“City Hall” begins and ends with phone operators. At first, their conversations are almost incoherent, but by the time we loop back, more than four hours later, our ears have adjusted to the babble. Administrations come and go, Wiseman seems to be saying, but bureaucracy moves on, and on, and on, smoothing out wrinkles in the social fabric. It’s an insight both funny (if the world ended, you almost feel, cockroaches, bacteria, and phone operators would survive) and poignant, for here are people who devote the bulk of their lives to helping frustrated citizens they’ll never meet. Mayor Walsh is, almost by definition, more face-to-face in his approach, but even he can only shake hands with a tiny fraction of the people his policies affect.

What is Walsh to “City Hall,” and City Hall? Not the protagonist, exactly, but a kind of structuring presence, a familiar face to follow through the grimy corridors of power. In many scenes, though, he’s nowhere to be found, and during these scenes the narrative becomes as unmoored as day-to-day life within the municipal bureaucracy must feel. Wiseman has experimented with this centering/decentering combination before — “Ex Libris” follows the NYPL’s president Anthony Marx, along with a few other upper-management types, from Manhattan to the outer boroughs, but goes long stretches without a presiding figure of any kind. In “City Hall,” the ordering of the scenes suggests an arch point about the way government functions: Walsh is in charge, except when he’s not in charge at all.

Toward the end of the film, some local business owners claim they have “good intentions,” but ultimately “just do what the city asks us to do.” Heard through one ear this speech comes across as compassionate leadership; through the other, it sounds suspiciously like passing the buck, for if “the city” elects leaders who fall short of expectations, isn’t “the city” partly to blame? You can hear some of the same ambiguity in Walsh’s rhetoric. He’s always apologizing for the way things are — a necessity when the city’s budget is stretched so thin — but he’s great at putting a brave face on things, assuring his audiences that he feels their pain, that things will get better as long as he’s in office, that he has good intentions. And maybe this is what contemporary liberal leadership is all about: apologizing as humanely as possible while painting a picture just pretty enough to stave off despair.

Wiseman has always preferred description to evaluation. When he seems to judge his subjects (especially in the early films), the judgment follows from the evidence onscreen and seem as inevitable as the multiplication table; in much of his later work, however, simple appraisals like “good” or “right” or “wrong” never arrive. Without meaning to, I’ve been following Wiseman’s lead in this essay so far. But enough of that — is Wiseman’s new documentary any good?

“City Hall” is, if this needs to be said, enormously informative and never not fascinating — which is to say it’s par for the course for its director. One of the major downsides of making 53 films is that each new one is more likely to be judged against the rest, and more likely to come up short. For instance: “City Hall” is beautifully paced but doesn’t fly by the way “Ex Libris” did. It’s often quite funny but lacks a single belly-laugh to rival the vomiting setpiece from “Hospital.” It’s occasionally lyrical, but not so lyrical as the pillow shots of rolling emerald hills from “Monrovia, Indiana.” It’s a hell of a city symphony, but nowhere near as vibrant as “In Jackson Heights.” It’s revelatory, but not as jaw-droppingly, you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up revelatory as “Titicut Follies.”

A more puzzling criticism, which I’ve come across in more than one early review of the film, is that Wiseman isn’t his usual incisive self this time around, that he admires Walsh too much to scrutinize him closely. For Indiewire, Eric Kohn claims that “Wiseman is enamored of the guy to the point of hero worship; with no news footage or additional information about Walsh’s record as a public servant, we’re forced to take his self-congratulatory word for it.” Striking a similar note in Reverse Shot, Jeff Reichert worries that “Wiseman’s figuration of Walsh as an ideal public servant skirts hagiography” (though he’s quick to add that other Bostonians worship him, too).

Maybe it’s a mark of Wiseman’s greatness that critics can walk away from his films with fundamentally different opinions of the subjects. In any case, I’ll admit that I don’t see much, if any, evidence of hero worship in this film’s four-and-a-half hours. It’s true that Walsh doesn’t say or do anything outright scandalous in front of the camera, but this is miles from hagiography. And does Kohn really believe “City Hall” provides no additional information — none — about Walsh’s record, other than what comes out of Walsh’s mouth? What about all the footage of the poor, the homeless, the sluggish businesses, the neighborhoods lobotomized by national chains, the one in six city residents still struggling for food half a decade after Walsh’s election? Aren’t all of these things a part of Walsh’s “record as a public servant?” And aren’t they a harsher rebuttal to Walsh’s smooth progressive rhetoric than the “news footage” Kohn seems to want Wiseman to spoon-feed us?

Perhaps Americans have grown so accustomed to sociopathic leadership that even a glimmer of sincerity in our politicians looks saintly — but this says as much about audiences in 2020 as it does about Walsh or Wiseman. Which brings me to the second major criticism of “City Hall” I’ve encountered: that it’s already dated — i.e., that America has changed so fundamentally in the last two years (or just the last couple months) that Wiseman’s documentary has nothing particularly “relevant” to tell us. I’m not at all convinced, for starters, that a film can’t be dated and of-the-moment at the same time. America fundamentally changed between 1967 and 2020, but that doesn’t mean we have nothing left to learn from “Titicut Follies.”

But maybe this is beside the point. “City Hall” is extraordinarily “relevant” to 2020, because, at a time when the prevailing tone of the Democratic Party is, “Let’s get back to normal,” Wiseman’s film — a portrait of a relatively prosperous, liberal-run metropolis — poses the question, “What exactly was normal, and was it quite as good as Joe Biden is always saying?”

Only in a country as sick as the U.S.A. could a portrait this ugly be mistaken for hagiography. Boston, as Wiseman films it, is the neoliberal city par excellence, a place where the surveillance cameras never sleep; where a grassroots activist can say, without a drop of irony, “Walgreens is a staple of our community”; where some of the poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods in the country sit cheek-to-jowl with some of the safest and wealthiest. Not one of its problems is so great that it can’t be buried in misleading statistics: Walsh boasts that his city’s unemployment rate is only two percent but doesn’t mention how many of the employed work two or three jobs and still need food stamps to survive (early in the film, he stresses the importance of bringing Amazon jobs, some of the most egregiously undercompensated in the country, to Boston). Normal isn’t perfect, or even particularly good; it’s just better than the alternatives — and hey, Walsh seems like a nice guy.

In a long essay on the tenth anniversary of the Great Recession, John Lanchester wrote, “The moral basis of a society, its sense of its own ethical identity, can’t just be: ‘This is the way the world is, deal with it.’” “City Hall” is about this kind of society, the one that existed two years ago and the one that continues to exist, somehow, in the fall of 2020. Wiseman has never been a polemicist. He respects the gentle crawl of bureaucracy too much to excoriate his subjects. But he is, above all, a careful observer, and what he observes in “City Hall” is in some ways as damning as anything he’s ever filmed: a well-intentioned administration whose symbolic deference to LGBTQs and POCs can’t disguise problems unworthy of the most powerful nation in history (and always blamed on Donald Trump, as if he’s been president for 200 years instead of less than four). For all the talk of equity and social capital and learning from each other, what lingers in Wiseman’s film is the sense it conveys of a cold, quiet fury that can’t be kept down for much longer.

This is the most important distinction in “City Hall,” raising it above mere run-of-the-mill excellence. Late in the film, we see a lengthy community meeting held in Dorchester, one of the poorest and most racially diverse neighborhoods in Boston. When the meeting opens up for questioning, a young black woman wants to know, “What happens after we vent and cry?” — in other words, what will leaders actually do to help the community? It’s an extraordinary moment, blunter than almost anything Wiseman has shot in the last ten years. What’s most extraordinary isn’t the anger in the woman’s voice; it’s how sick and tired everyone else looks. “Do more!” someone mutters, and dozens of others clap and nod. They’re not heroes, they’re just starved for change — skeptical that this is the way the world is, no longer willing to sit back and deal with it.

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