Frederick Wiseman’s ‘City Hall’ Will Teach You How Local Politics Really Works
At 90, the documentary-filmmaking master shows no signs of slowing down. And his latest, “City Hall,” a 4.5-hour examination of Boston politics, is essential viewing.
Frederick Wiseman is American cinema’s foremost sociological auteur, a chronicler of the myriad civic institutions and organizations that—in the best-case scenario—allow the nation to operate and evolve for the benefit of its citizens. From the groundbreaking early years of 1967’s Titicut Follies, 1968’s High School and 1970’s Hospital, to the more recent triumphs of 2017’s Ex Libris: The New York Public Library and 2018’s Monrovia, Indiana, Wiseman has exhibited an intense interest in, and eye for, the interconnected systems and forces shaping our daily lives, a web that encompasses issues of race, class, gender, privilege, and power. Without making overt argumentative points, his films reveal the intricacies, ideals, challenges, hypocrisies, failures, and achievements of the modern world.
Even at the age of 90, Wiseman continues to churn out non-fiction gems like no other, and that definitely holds true with regards to his latest, City Hall, a four-and-a-half-hour documentary about the inner workings of Boston that, following its current online run at the Toronto International Film Festival and upcoming debut at the New York Film Festival (September 25-30), will premiere on VOD in November.
Produced from the fall of 2018 to the winter of 2019, and shot in his usual no-frills manner (by cinematographer John Davey), it’s a sprawling panorama of government and community work. Tracing lines between the corridors of legislative authority and municipal hearings and neighborhood meetings, the film presents a comprehensive view of the grinding gears that keep the metropolis running. Comprised of scenes involving policy makers, activists, entrepreneurs, and average citizens striving to enhance their small part of the complex Boston civil machine, it’s a portrait of how macro progress is achieved only via a wide range of interdependent micro efforts.
Per Wiseman tradition, City Hall features minimal camera movement, preferring long, unbroken takes of men and women—from all walks of life—talking about proposals, debating dilemmas, and brainstorming solutions to an array of problems. In Boston, many of those have to do with minority- and gender-related inequalities, which have become more pressing as the city’s demographics have radically shifted (55% of residents are now non-white). Foreshadowing a host of hot topics that have dominated our 2020 discourse, back-and-forths abound about racial discrimination, pay gaps, disparities in business opportunities, environmental initiatives, and policing and crime, with Wiseman attentively training his gaze on his subjects at hand. In doing so, he transforms his film into a tribute to the act of listening and engaging with others, providing a forum for the distinct voices that make up contemporary society.
The loudest of those speakers in City Hall is Mayor Marty Walsh, who functions as the connective tissue for Wiseman’s expansive overview. Whether at a Chinatown parade, in a boardroom sit-down with colleagues and confidants, holding press conferences about the Boston Red Sox championship parade, hosting a Goodwill event, or addressing elderly churchgoers’ questions about credit card scams and pharmaceutical costs, Walsh is omnipresent in both the film and, it’s clear, day-to-day Boston life. In these diverse venues, he demonstrates refreshing candidness, especially when decrying the lack of national support he and his city have received from President Trump. But more importantly, he exudes a sincere love and enthusiasm for public service, and a belief in local government’s ability to assist, and raise up, its population. Listening to him relate to veterans through tales of his own struggles with alcoholism, one gets the sense that he not only preaches the value of direct and empathetic interaction, but that he walks his talk.
Admittedly, some of the routine drudgery on display in City Hall (school board hearings, meetings about how to best address housing matters) might traditionally be labeled “boring.” And, as with a lengthy debate about a plan to open a cannabis shop in lower-income Dorchester, much to the concern of residents, the fact that Wiseman sometimes lets these scenes play for upwards of 20-plus minutes can test one’s patience. Yet even that strategy is part of the director’s larger point: namely, to illustrate that, while the discussions that help keep the lights on—and sustain forward progress—aren’t always glamorous or enlivening, they’re nonetheless vital to the public good. Epitomized by a humdrum sequence involving two separate motorists petitioning to have their recent parking tickets revoked, it’s a celebration of the mundane, multifaceted toil necessary for the continued maintenance and enhancement of the infrastructures upon which we all rely.
Wiseman connects his talking-head vignettes with transitional montages that traverse the city’s streets, flowing from its skyscraper-dotted downtown to its immigrant enclaves and everywhere in-between. The purpose of this device is, first and foremost, to impart a deep sensory impression of his milieu. His evocative snapshots (of sanitation workers crushing gas grills in a trash compactor; of crosswalks chirping their warnings; of boats cruising in the harbor) convey a feel for what it’s like to inhabit these spaces at these specific midday and nighttime moments—an effect made all the more poignant by our current coronavirus-fostered quarantined-and-isolated predicament. Moreover, Wiseman’s uptown and downtown journeys, with stops along the route at Boston University and the Vietnamese district, suggest the fundamental unity of the city, or at least the various ways everything in this modern locale is, in some crucial fashion, intertwined.
Dialogue is central to City Hall’s action because, ultimately, it’s fundamental to the process of governance, and of building and fortifying the bonds of community. What one gleans from Wiseman’s film is that nothing happens in a city, or a society, without the free and open (and sometimes contentious) exchange of opinions and ideas. That’s, on the face of it, an obvious reality. And yet to see it reflected in so many different metropolitan settings is to gain a new appreciation for the act of constructive conversation—proffering suggestions, raising objections, initiating collaboration—as a vehicle for transformation.
“A city can’t thrive if we’re disconnected from each other,” states Walsh, thereby articulating what Wiseman has shown us through his deliberate choice of footage and canny editorial structure. In police-briefing reports about illicit activity, in Walsh’s comments about historical discrimination against the Irish community, and in varied recollections about military duty, substance abuse, and prejudice, City Hall proves a celebration of the power of storytelling to unite—and, also, a masterful example of it.