City Hall (Review)

Revered documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s four and a half hour documentary about Boston’s city government ends up, frustratingly, as too reflective of its subject. This is a well meaning, extremely competently put together thing that is often fascinating but, ultimately, is so unwieldy and talky that it never really gets anything done.

This is an exhaustive, fly on the wall look at everyday process and, to be honest, it is just a lot. The idea seems to be (I say ‘seems’ because the presentational approach eschews any obvious intent) to show process, importance and a little bit of hope. It focuses almost entirely on constructive, community efforts. We see vignettes about important issues being discussed and dealt with, the idea is that things are being done about the topics that need to be addressed. There is no criticism and there is nothing but process. The whole film is seeing the machine at work and it focuses on well presented, competent people interacting positively with the community. Obviously, these moments are all real and are, on a base level, really interesting to see. It is nice to see how things get done and how the state actually acts on a local level. There is also a lot of opportunity to see the city speak for itself, with a pleasing balance of representatives and the people they represent.

What this ultimately means, though, is that we are only ever greeted by the facade of local government. This is what it looks like when the cameras are pointed at process and that element, the inherent impact of observation, goes uncommented upon. My central issue is that this film only works as a fly on the wall, as an apolitical observer, but does not actually exist as such. This is a curated selection of footage and as much as you see so much, you see certain things more than other things. The parts where you see day to day employees doing their jobs are fascinating, there is a really interesting and purely educational film here about how things actually get done – a beyond feature length take on 24 Hours at A&E (a British reality TV show) but about local government. Instead, what we have, primarily, are long winded meetings and speeches by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. These meetings go on for far too long. Some of them are really interesting but the sheer amount of them becomes overwhelming. This may be the point, but you get this point quite early on. It is nice to see the film cut to shots of bored people in the audience of these meetings – and there’s a lot to read into that – but this would work even better in a film that was half as long.

The Marty Walsh speeches, however, are a problem. It is interesting to see how many hats a mayor has to wear but it is also frustrating to just see this man go around speaking a lot and repeating the same rhetoric. Again, this film shows more of the performance of politics than it does the process of it. Walsh likes to relate things to his experience, which can be humanising but it can also be inappropriate. When you see many of his speeches in close succession, which you never really should see, they start to look inauthentic in ways that they perhaps actually aren’t. This selected array of footage means we will never know what is not shown, and with no authorial intrusion we have no choice but to take things as they are.

This lack of authorial intrusion is well meaning: let the city speak for itself. It is laborious though. The city speaks for itself in a very manufactured way and without overt curation – without a clear guiding hand – it does seem aimless. As the film continues, you start to wonder what the actual point is and if the conclusions you start to draw are actually intended. This seemingly hopeful portrait instead becomes a sequence of people talking about very important issues that, realistically, just are not being solved. The fact that these a long running issues, and that they overlap, implies a lack of actual impact and progress. Is it supposed to show this? You will never really know. By showing everything, you often do not really get anything as you don’t know what this ‘everything’ is actually representative of. It is a documentary so focused on every individual tree that you never really get a picture of the forest.

Fundamentally, this film exists in the wrong form. As a documentary mini-series, with guided episodes that had self contained topics or that dealt with unique areas, this would be very powerful. The informative approach would be more effective and the lack of intrusion would make more sense. As it exists, it is hard to not become numbed by it all, and therefore not informed. This would all add up if there was an overt thesis, if it was clearly about the idea that government at this level does not really work, that it is overwhelming and that it doesn’t really get anywhere. But at many points this does not seem to be the case. And while there are parts here that are utterly fascinating, and the B-Roll of Boston is beautifully captured and often poetic, this is overkill.

This seems like an authoritative, show all documentary about something. But, the uncritical focus and the overt presence of cameras cuts into that. This is local government putting on a performance, which is fascinating idea but only works if the film admits to this. Wiseman wishes to blend into the background and, in doing so, only captures the foreground. At the end, I am reminded of Werner Herzog’s immortal words about documentarians: ‘we should not be the fly on the wall. We should be the hornet that stings.’ In certain cases, these words do not hold true; in this case, Herzog is very correct. In just showing local government in a grab-bag way this film ultimately does not show much. It needed to probe and explore and instead exists primarily as passivity.

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