Every Frederick Wiseman documentary that I’ve seen to date has … something. It isn’t easy to define. But his films, which are often long — his newest feature, City Hall (streaming online via Film Forum’s virtual cinema), runs a stark four-and-a-half hours — offer it in abundance. Moments, faces, images, or interactions which, like uppercuts out of nowhere, penetrate the straightforward, direct style of Wiseman’s filmmaking to throw us viewers off balance, rejigger our understanding of the subject at hand, nag at us for years afterward. These moments are hardly limited to outright violence.
But as suggested by the simple nomenclature of Wiseman’s titles over the years — Welfare, Hospital, Public Housing, Meat, State Legislature, Zoo, High School — this director’s prevailing interest is in the institutions, public and private, that shape, govern, regulate, perhaps even save or drastically worsen our lives; the institutions providing the “order” in social order. The violence of discourse, the links between policy and interpersonal history, the languages of power and disenfranchisement, the everyday human folly and fight encouraged by all of the above: These are his subjects.
They are the domains within which Wiseman, now in his 90s, has continued to shock us for the past half-century. In the infamous Titticut Follies (1967) — Wiseman’s debut nonfiction feature, set at the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane, in Massachusetts — the bitter awakenings are sparked by precisely those images that got the movie censored for decades. They’re the images bearing witness to the mistreatment riddling that facility: images of a naked, mentally disabled men being taunted and humiliated by a guard; of the body of a dead inmate; of the utter rot of the place. Compare this to the pained irony of, well, any scene in High School (1968) — but particularly a maddening late conversation between a gym teacher and a recent alum, who’s been fighting overseas and has come back in one piece, about the classmates who’d, as the teacher puts it, “Got shot up real bad.” Domestic Violence (2003), a film largely set at a women’s shelter and unerringly attentive to the relationship between the shelter’s rehabilitative process and the willingness of women to share the most shattering details of their lives, begins and ends with excruciating scenes of police making domestic-violence calls — the latter of which offers a damning lesson in the ways that domestic violence can be completely illegible and invisible to even the police, the people whose job is, ostensibly, to do something about it.
Wiseman’s City Hall specifically trains its eye on Boston under the leadership of Democratic Mayor Marty Walsh, in 2019. It is not a study of the mayor alone, but rather of how a city and all of its offices — police and firemen, business and diversity councils, offices of housing and veterans affairs, and so on — function to serve Boston’s constituency. As such, it is ripe for the kind of penetrating moments Wiseman has mastered. And the movie delivers. A scene that begins as a visit to a middle-aged, working-class combat veteran by Boston’s Inspectional Services draws on until its subject is no longer the man’s rodent problem: It’s his visible shame at his circumstances. A public forum goes awry when a hopeful group of weed entrepreneurs hoping to open a new dispensary face pushback from their new, predominately non-white, working-class neighbors — people who feel that their concerns (contra those of their white, better-off counterparts) are being railroaded and left unheard.
By the time these scenes arrive in City Hall (each is well past the movie’s three-hour mark), we’ve already seen Boston public officials, including Mayor Walsh, testify again and again to the city’s care for its residents. We’ve witnessed the city’s self-conception, by way of a liberal mayor’s office, as a polity defined by its immigrants, its working class, its non-white majority. We’ve seen the care Boston’s public officials take to emphasize the needs of the city’s unhoused, its veterans, and its minority business owners, among many others, balancing these needs against the resources available, the palpable tensions with the Trump administration (from which these officials, including Walsh, emphatically differentiate themselves) — the whole nine. Wiseman is famous for buttressing the longer sequences of his films with montage interludes that offer up rhythmic views of the look, sound, and feel of a place. So by the time of these late scenes, he has even delved into the banal minor labor that keeps a well-run republic going: parking tickets dutifully doled out, police working detail at a Red Sox parade, streets being swept, garbage collected.
This is the stuff that has crowded the screen, and the viewer’s mind, by the time of the lonely veteran or the contentious town hall. It’s the stuff that adds a sad, frustrating irony to everything therein. We’ve already heard so much about what the city can do and seen so much of what it is doing that to encounter these moments of crisis late in the film is to be rattled by the failures of the city’s political ideals. That’s one of the tricks Wiseman routinely pulls from his sleeve, in movies that otherwise make a point of never using talking heads or titles telling us where we are, who’s speaking, what everyone’s “role” is. A Wiseman affair is always a vacuum of context: Rather than elaborate contextualizing or scene-setting, Wiseman gives us movies in which the action is the information. People are their own information: The ways they talk and behave and perform the work of discourse are, in Wiseman’s direct style, the closest thing to drama that a documentary of this nature has to provide.
But rather than a dramatic arc, Wiseman provides the arc of ideas. The mass of details his films’ collect, hoover-like, and dispense seemingly at random, have a thread to them. City Hall is no exception. The movie opens with quick glimpses of 311 operators responding to calls of various importance, and the point of the scene is not the subject of each call, but the labor of undertaking these problems: of the ways that a city’s employees are responsible for pointing us all in the right direction. Everything that follows attests to and complicates that idea. For four-and-a-half hours, we float through a succession of scenes largely anchored in talk, talk, talk. Even some of the interstitial sequences, those montages drawing invisible maps through both the city and the building of Boston City Hall itself, are crowded with language: one-line snippets of the things city workers and public officials say to keep our lives — our cities — in working order.
This is true of so many of Wiseman’s films that it shouldn’t be surprising for talk to be the stealth subject here, the movie’s dominant mode and most invigorating idea. It is, after all — when you get down to it — like watching four and half hours of meetings. But what’s fascinating about City Hall is the role that narrative, specifically, plays in the government’s self-conception. It’s reminiscent of Domestic Violence in that way. There, we see long sequences of intake interviews at the women’s shelter, then even longer sequences of group therapy, before rounding off to scenes of exit interviews, in which women — still, as in those previous scenes, sharing the details of their lives and communicating their needs — prepare for next steps. In City Hall, we’re treated to scenes predicated on a similar disclosure of need and life circumstance. The difference is that, this being a movie about the system as much as its a movie about the citizens, we’re treated to just as much talk from the city’s side. We’re in the room where it happens, as the song goes, bearing witness to the decisions being made that will impact peoples’ lives, largely for the better. Whereas scenes such as that with the veteran and his rodent infestation force us to wonder about the decisions that led this man here, on the verge of eviction, so plagued by rodents that he can barely sleep at night.
The Marty Walsh of this movie is a man who cannot hold a meeting, or relate to other citizens and officials, without telling a story about himself. To a group of veterans, he shares the story of his battle with alcoholism and a 23-year recovery. To a group of protesting nurses, the story of his childhood cancer. To a group of older residents concerned about health care costs, he shares the story of his family’s own dealings with expensive medicine. This is all quite humane; Wiseman doesn’t render it into something one can easily disregard. Nor does he let it escape us that this is effective politicking. When that one elderly woman speaks up about pharmaceutical costs, Walsh’s solution — oft-repeated — is to rely on the services the government already provides, to go here or there, talk to this person or that one, speak up. Even if the citizen in question already has. Even if talking directly to the mayor is about as far “up” as one can speak.
Walsh is from Dorchester — a fact cemented into my mind because we hear him say it so often — and, being the descendant of Irish immigrants, takes admirable pride in the city’s diversity and immigrant history. “The city can’t thrive if we’re disconnected from each other,” he says. He is aware of the city’s inequities. (In one meeting, we hear a city official say that the city had recently ranked number one in income inequality among U.S. cities.) City Hall is unique in Wiseman’s canon for having, in Walsh, something approaching a central character; usually the setting of the movie serves that role. What happens here is something more entangled and curious. The ideals of the man and the actual practices with which they’re borne out are in quiet tension with each other. Mayor Walsh comes off as a very good Democrat. This movie has a way of wondering how far that’ll get you.
When I saw City Hall for the first time this summer, smack dab at the center of the pandemic, I was initially perplexed by its lack of explicit befuddlement at the political leaders it depicts; I was, at the moment, craving more of the bitter irony Wiseman let seep into many of his early films. Then the election happened; Biden won. And that punctuating question, about the efficacy of well-meaning Democrats, became much more resonant. City Hall’s barely adorned and adamantly unruffled depiction of Walsh’s Boston precedes the Covid era and election season — only barely. These problems are inseparably tied up in the questions raised, the humanity witnessed, the limits exposed by this movie. A case in point: As of this writing, Mayor Walsh is among the names circling President-elect Biden’s incumbent cabinet. On its surface, in so many ways, City Hall could read as an endorsement. But politics aren’t that simple — and Wiseman’s movie most certainly isn’t, either.