Review: City Hall

As Frederick Wiseman enters his 10th decade on the planet, his iconic fly-on-the-wall documentary methodology tends to focus more and more on the minutiae of civic discourse. City Hall, which spends a leisurely autumn hanging around the municipal government offices of Boston, follows his immersive docs on the New York Public Library and a multicultural neighborhood in the NYC borough of Queens as celebrations of politics in the service of improving people’s lives. In essence, they are all optimistic works, which sounds almost transgressive in these days of American divisiveness. That isn’t to say there aren’t disagreements on display here, but the general purpose of this always compelling four-and-a-half hour film seems to be an attempt at showing how people work toward understanding, especially when it comes to fiscal and economic matters.

The central “character” is Mayor Marty Walsh, a dyed-in-the-wool Irish Democrat who wears his progressivism lightly. (He has since quit the job and joined Joe Biden’s cabinet; thus precipitating the recent mayoral election that brought to power a more rigorous progressive, Michelle Wu.) Walsh shows up in many of the episodes, usually at a lectern spouting anodyne generalities about Boston’s all-important “diversity,” which Wiseman plays up by constantly scanning his audiences and thus providing a survey of the different ethnicities and types that make up Walsh’s constituency. The effect is oddly surreal in that Walsh often seems to be anywhere and everywhere at once, and while what he says rarely makes a stark impression, he never strikes a confrontational tone (except once in a while when he has to refer to then-President Trump, whom he never actually names). One of the reasons for the amiable atmosphere was a lucky happenstance: the Red Sox had just won the World Series and the mood in town was uniformly buoyant. One wonders what the film would have been like if Wiseman had made it during the dog days of summer.

And while the most viscerally interesting sequences show how the machinery of city governance directly affects citizens—traffic central civil servants overseeing thousands of CCTV cameras in an attempt to keep vehicles moving; staff taking phone calls on the city hot line and answering questions about everything from dead pet collection to internet connectivity; a municipal employee administering the vows for an LGBTQ wedding—the best parts of the movie are the ones that document meetings in all their procedural normality. Wiseman and his editors have a unique knack for cutting through the detritus of meetings without sacrificing the feeling of being in one of those rooms in one of those chairs trying to follow everything that’s going on, and the results are not only edifying but enlightening. A particular gem is a long discussion at a community center in the poor neighborhood of Dorchester between local residents and a company that wants to set up a marijuana dispensary in the area. At first, the residents are averse to the project, which they say could bring in white middle class outsiders who will line up outside the dispensary (thus attracting criminal elements) and park wherever they want. But slowly the discussion becomes more pointed: these residents, many of whom are immigrants or children of immigrants, resent the seemingly experimental nature of the dispensary. The company behind the dispensary, which was founded by a group of Asians, are prepared for these reservations and try to assure the residents that they know that the Black and other minority communities suffered most from the War on Drugs, and that one of their aims is to right the balance now that cannabis is legal. The reason they chose Dorchester is to bring marijuana money to a community that needs it, through employment and a stronger tax base. The meeting is only a preliminary step—in the end, the real bete noire of the confrontation is the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which sends no representatives—and it ends with a hopeful reconciliation and a promise to keep the discussion going.

More casual viewers, especially those who have seen Wiseman’s earlier films, may find City Hall too accommodating to the political realities that hold sway in Boston, but that’s Boston, not Wiseman. If it were my decision, I’d require every high school student in America watch the 40-minute Dorchester sequence so they could understand how real civic responsibility works. But the whole movie is heartening in ways that you don’t expect. Maybe the system doesn’t work right now, but it can work, and often beautifully. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Bunkamura Le Cinema Shibuya (03-3477-9264), Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645).

City Hall home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 Puritan Films, LLC

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