Glasgow Film Festival Review: Frederick Wiseman’s ‘City Hall’

City Hall Movie Review - 2020 Frederick Wiseman Documentary Film

When a Frederick Wiseman film finds its rhythm, time stops being of any consequence. In his best films (which, by my count, are Hospital, Welfare, Near Death, In Jackson Heights and Ex Libris: The New York Public Library), individual scenes and sequences send out signals that resound and redouble, their significance becoming more apparent when, perhaps hours later, one of the salient concerns emerges in new circumstances. Wiseman’s editing structures become elaborate maps of meaning, and any questions about the length of the films fade when the thoroughness of the engagement with their subjects makes itself clear. If City Hall isn’t quite the equal of his greatest films, this does not mar the sophistication of its shape nor the more grounded, moment-to-moment pleasure it is easy to take in the situations Wiseman’s camera finds for its purposes, or the film’s political drive. 

From National Gallery onwards, a certain strain of utopianism has entered Wiseman’s films, with the exception of City Hall’s immediate predecessor, Monrovia, Indiana, which betrays a mournful eye on its setting, clearly as a result of the election of Donald Trump. It’s hard not to see both Monrovia, Indiana and City Hall as Wiseman’s anti-Trump diptych, composed in entirely dierent moods: where the former is downcast, the latter is more optimistic, readier to admit to hope of improvement in the country’s democratic processes. Trump is only once mentioned by name in City Hall, elsewhere referred to by euphemism, but opposition to the methods of his governance is in evidence everywhere in the city government Wiseman takes as his subject. 

In the same way that At Berkeley bifucates between precisely documenting the work of then-chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau and creating a panoramic portrait of the university in his charge, City Hall splits itself between tracking the mayor of Boston, Massachusetts, Marty Walsh (now appointed Secretary of Labor in the Joe Biden cabinet) in the various guises of his position, and sequences that isolate specific aspects of city government, from budget meetings and business proposals to citizen helplines and, in one unaccountably charming scene, what happens during parking violation hearings. City Hall tries to see in the round, and — at 272 minutes long — it has enough time to do so. 

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City Hall Documentary

The topics that recur throughout City Hall with the most emphasis are the city’s homelessness crisis, and its attempts to rectify the situation, and the work of Walsh’s administration to live up to their promises about racial justice and gender equity. At points, the two issues dovetail. After meetings with eviction prevention teams and homeless shelters, there’s mention of a HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) proposal to make changes to the Fair Housing Act of 1968, a key piece of legislation introduced after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that protects potential tenants from being discriminated against on the grounds of race or ethnicity, sexual orientation or religious beliefs. The speaker’s words at this particular meeting display hyaline clarity: this is a challenge to the Civil Rights Act. Boston, as so many of the film’s subjects repeat, is a majority-minority town. In this case, then, a proposed change that would license prejudice is an afront to the fabric of Boston society, and exacerbate a housing crisis already copiously documented by the film. 

The vast majority of sequences in City Hall, taking place as they do during a plenitude of meetings, are fueled by rhetoric. Walsh’s is of unique interest, especially because the bulk of his scenes take place during public appearances. His rhetorical style emphasises pathos, appealing to a listener’s emotions as he puts personal reminiscences into direct conversation with the work of city hall. He always personalizes his speeches, sometimes to a fault. His words of thanks to a group of veterans swerves into a personal note about recovery; while he addresses staffers at a Boston Latinx Employee Resource Group meeting, he makes a detour into the history of Irish migration to the city. He does overstep, but it’s a part of his image, clearly PR’d into existence with a great degree of skill, to seem casual and focused — a regular guy who’s good at his job, lacking in the bureaucratese that plagues so many of the organizations that the nonagenarian Wiseman has filmed throughout the decades. 

It’s only when citizens begin responding to speeches that rhetoric assumes a place of vital importance for the city’s democratic project. This is clearest during a late-in-the-day meeting, which takes place in Dorchester (one of Boston’s poorest districts), about the opening of a cannabis dispensary in the area. A number of residents vouch for the good intentions of the group making the presentation, but they have questions, and there’s a firmness to their rebuttals, a crisp use of language and absolute clarity of argument that brings to mind the wonderful community portrait of In Jackson Heights, or the amazing debates about how to correct the McGraw Hill textbook that makes blatantly false assertions about slavery in Ex Libris. What this scene also makes apparent is that, for all the praise due to Walsh for his sentiments and his administration’s work for the diverse communities of Boston, there are still people excluded from the process (quite literally: one representative makes the point that by not translating the dispensary presentation or having an interpreter present, the Cape Verdean population of Dorchester are denied access to political involvement entirely). More often than not, it’s the poorest non-white citizens of Boston whose voices go missing in these discussions. Realizing that this is the case, and correcting it, Wiseman’s film seems to suggest, is democracy at work. 

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City Hall Documentary

At Work: there’s a book to be written about Wiseman using this title, since so many of his documentaries are about labor, and all of them enormous acts of labor in themselves. Passing vignettes of city employees in the act of working punctuate City Hall: there’s an incredible scene of men taking residents’ trash away, working the levers of the compactor (shown in close-up) and crushing whatever they find with the machine’s metal teeth (including a mattress and, however unlikely it seems, a grill); later on, there’s a brief scene inside of a traffic control center, isolating the controllers’ hands on their keyboards (also shown in close-up) selecting which camera feeds to pinpoint on their screens full of smaller screens (which must resemble Wiseman’s own gargantuan editing procedure). Finally, there’s a moment in which a member of Pest Control visits a man whose home is being visited by a group of huge rodents, which calls to mind similar scenes in Wiseman’s Public Housing . This is a small selection among the film’s vast, vast tapestry of work. 

Also punctuating City Hall are pillow shots of Boston, a regular device Wiseman uses in his films to connect the setting’s spaces together. Houses, businesses, public spaces — all of them are shown in quick, three or four-second-long shots. These inserts can create cross-references within the film, in the way that sites previously at the center of an earlier scene reappear in a new context, but they can also connect film to film: for one, during a celebration of the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series, the stadium bears a sponsor sign by one Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, formerly Beth Israel Hospital, whose intensive care unit is the subject of Wiseman’s longest (and very best) film, Near Death. But in focusing on the connections, it’s easy to miss how beautiful these little montages, and the images within them, often are. John Davey, Wiseman’s cameraperson since the early 1980s, has a stellar eye for composition (most markedly in the opening and closing shots of each film), and some of the passages appear to perform the film in miniature: shots of city hall itself are angled as though to make the building jut out and overlap with adjacent offices, showing visually how the policies of the city government stretch beyond its corridors. 

Wiseman has referred to his films as “reality fictions,” which attests to the fact that it’s the filmmaker and his collaborators who compress the work, in all their structural dispersal and observational precision, into defined narrative shapes from clear ideological perspectives. (And it’s a remark that contradicts wholly the idea of the “fly-on-the-wall” documentary: a type of filmmaking that does not and will never exist.) “Reality fiction” contours everything in City Hall, from the microscopic level of scene transitions (a registrar taking a photograph of a city hall wedding moves to the cameras of a press conference; a meeting with housing developers segues into the inspection of new-build condos) to the macroscopic level of entire sequences given deliberate framings, such as the film’s strangest section, the veteran’s meeting, where the testimony of a recent veteran is framed with a montage of paintings depicting the key events in the formation of America as a settler-colonist state. These are not accidental, and nor are they insignicant choices in aesthetic and ideological terms. It’s Wiseman and his team’s approach to the material that proves the intelligence of the film’s construction, adding in City Hall as another monument to one of the essential bodies of work in the history of cinema. Long live Frederick Wiseman! 

Marc Nelson (@MarcDNelson) is a film critic and bookseller based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He writes for Take One Cinema and The Wee Review. Marc also blogs at theworldentire.com​.