Walsh takes a star turn in Wiseman's 'City Hall'

Documentarian Fredrick Wiseman focuses "City Hall" on Mayor Walsh. Courtesy of Zipporah Films, Inc.

Here’s hoping Mayor Marty Walsh is ready for his close-up.

After rapturous receptions in Venice and Toronto, director Fredrick Wiseman’s towering 272-minute documentary “City Hall” has its U.S. premiere Friday, Sept. 25 as part of a reimagined New York Film Festival that’s moved online and to outer borough drive-ins.
(It’ll also be the closing night attraction at this October’s GlobeDocs before rolling out to the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room in November.)

The 90-year-old, Cambridge-based filmmaker’s 45th feature is an extraordinary piece of work and one of the most quietly radical in a career spanning six decades. Shot all over Boston in the fall of 2018 and winter of 2019, it’s more municipal portraiture akin to the director’s recent “In Jackson Heights” or “Monrovia, Indiana” but with an intensified focus on the inner workings of city government.

The movie earns its exorbitant length by exploring all the services that stem from the title edifice, not just headline-friendly subjects like social justice and civil discourse but also everything from marriage licenses to tree removal, parking permits and pest control. Politicians have made careers out of preaching that government is the problem and right now it’s easier than ever to succumb to a “throw the bums out” nihilism, but Wiseman wants us to reflect on all the essential roles that public institutions play in our daily lives. It’s the movie’s view that cities have certain responsibilities to their citizens and that this is necessary and noble work, even when it inevitably falls short.

Of course, Wiseman would never come out and say as much. The man who pioneered the impassive camera of the cinema verité movement with his 1967 “Titicut Follies” –a harrowing expose of abuses at Bridgewater State Mental Hospital that was banned for decades by Boston courts — once again hangs back and observes instead of editorializing.

There are no interviews in Fredrick Wiseman films. No voice-overs or music cues that tell you how to feel about what you’re watching. He doesn’t even offer any titles to identify his onscreen subjects. You’re just eavesdropping, peeking in on things as they happen, witnessing little vignettes that capture mundane day-to-day routines no other filmmaker would ever think to point a camera at. This accumulation of individual episodes over his movies’ massive running times becomes a sort of cinematic pointillism, creating murals of contemporary American life.

And then there are the meetings. Fredrick Wiseman loves civic association meetings the way Quentin Tarantino loves feet. He’s obsessed with all the ways in which we humans organize and arrange ourselves into structures and societies, and in the absence of narration or explanatory text, it’s often these assemblies that do the expository heavy lifting. It’s no accident that “City Hall” kicks off with a big budget meeting, as the next four-and-a-half hours will be preoccupied with the priorities and allocations involved in operating such an enormous administration. It’s a movie about the grunt work of good governance.

I’ve never seen a Wiseman film with a figure as central as Mayor Walsh becomes in this one. We keep circling back to our Mah-ty on an exhaustive schedule of flesh-pressing public speaking events where he occasionally veers off-script onto unexpectedly personal tangents about his childhood cancer diagnosis or his struggles with alcoholism.

The movie’s hardly a campaign advertisement, but during all these meetings (oh, so many meetings) it’s easy to see why Wiseman responds to Walsh and gives him a place of prominence seldom afforded to other officials in his films: He likes him because he listens. (“Your mayor seems like a good chap,” a friend from far away texted after finishing the movie.)

It’s also a relief to see the people of Boston onscreen in all our ethnic and economic diversity, and not just depicted as donkey Irish proles shouting “Go Sawx!” at Wahlburgers. (Y’all understand that Hollywood’s fixation on Southie gangsters is so they can make crime dramas about the urban poor without having to cast any black folks, right?) Sure, we watch everyone sing “Sweet Caroline” during a duck boat parade early on, but Wiseman is far more interested in the city’s minority-majority status, spending much of the movie in immigrant communities and focusing on programs promoting equity for all.

But such matters are more easily discussed than achieved. It all comes to head during the movie’s show-stopping set piece: an emotionally charged town hall in Dorchester’s Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood, where a Vietnamese cannabis consortium is petitioning to open a dispensary. (Yes, another meeting.) There’s so much going on in this sequence you could probably write an entire sociological study of the relationships between residents, commercial ventures and their local representatives, as well as all the structural factors determining which kinds of businesses are allowed to open where. It’s fascinating, infuriating and the film leaves it intentionally unresolved. There are no conclusions in “City Hall,” nor any pats on the back for jobs well done. Everything’s a work in progress, and will continue to be.

The film cannot help but leave you a bit wistful, given the current circumstances. I’ve been quarantining out in the suburbs for these past six months and found it an unexpectedly emotional experience to virtually visit these streets I used to walk every day. (Never thought I’d miss the T!) When Walsh touts the city’s lowest-ever unemployment rate it’s tough not to wince, knowing what’s coming around the corner. Wiseman’s regular cameraman John Davey captures so many offhandedly beautiful interstitial shots of neighborhoods and streets, near the end of “City Hall” I thought to myself, “I could watch this all day.” Then I realized I had been.

“City Hall” had its virtual U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival on Sept. 25. It will also stream via GlobeDocs on Oct. 11 and opens at the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room on Nov. 6.

This article was first published by WBUR 90.9FM on Sept. 25. The Reporter and WBUR share content through a media partnership.