As the Film Society of Lincoln Center mounts a complete retrospective of his work, Frederick Wiseman delivers his 30th documentary to PBS, his long-standing patron and primary outlet. Though Wiseman’s films (from the recent Public Housing running back three decades to the Emmy-winning Hospital and Law and Order) are not like anything else on television, they are made for and at home in the medium, which is plain and life-size and well-suited to work that means to show life plain. And, of course, TV is where the money is: Without the unqualified support of PBS, the CPB and the NEA — which together funded Belfast, Maine, the director‘s latest and perhaps his magnum opus — Wiseman could never have produced such a large and uncompromising body of work. A four-hour nonfiction film about a small fishing-and-factory town is not going to start any bidding wars between Fine Line and Miramax.
While there are a lot of ”television events“ hurtling your way this month, the madness of February sweeps being upon us — cover your eyes, cover your eyes — Belfast, Maine actually merits the encomium. (Not that anyone at PBS has bothered to apply it.) Even among documentaries it is unusual, a sprawling example of the dying and never widely practiced art of cinema verite, represented now only by Wiseman and a couple of other aged peers — D.A. Pennebaker and Albert Maysles (formerly partnered with his late brother David) being the only ones I can think of. Because nothing is captioned or explained (Wiseman eschews narration, he has said, ”because I don’t like to be told what to think“), and because the film is long with a tendency to linger over conversations and processes many directors wouldn‘t have shot in the first place, and because it is neither ingratiating nor sensational, it requires patience and attention, and is therefore, by definition, not for every viewer. But it pays off, I think, in deeper dividends. It’s a movie, finally, about everything.
This is Wiseman‘s second ”city“ film, after Aspen (1991), and in its examination of how a community sustains and entertains itself, it perhaps not incidentally revisits the territory of such earlier works as Juvenile Court, Meat, Hospital, Welfare and High School; one does not want to call this a summing up exactly, but Wiseman is 70 now, and Belfast, Maine does feel especially big and even final. The film is composed symphonically; it has a musical rather than a narrative flow; and somewhat in the way that John Cage created systems to make his music less ”composed“ and more ”natural,“ less ego-defined and more one-with-the-universe, Wiseman has taken strategic care — by avoiding the too-meaningful juxtaposition, the neat through-line, the definite conclusion — to keep his mosaicked vignettes from becoming in any sense theatrical. Visual refrains, thematic echoes and variations, and small symmetries abound, adding formal coherence, but there is no arc, no program, no analysis, no opinion and no drama apart from the drama anyone might experience just by paying close attention to his own neighbors and the changing weather. ”For this kind of movie,“ Wiseman once said, ”the real movie takes place where the mind of the viewer meets the screen.“ And yet for all his I Am a Camera reticence, one can judge at least that he is a man tremendously excited by the world, the people in it, and the many specialized machines and elaborate systems (political, professional, social, personal) we build to manage and improve, and often unintentionally limit, our lives. There is throughout the film a nothing-human-is-alien-to-me, cast-no-stones curiosity as regards the many manifestations of personhood that makes Belfast, Maine, even in its most mundane passages — and Wiseman is essentially a poet of the mundane — a strangely spiritual work.
Pace the NAACP, it’s not just people of color who aren‘t represented on television; hardly anyone is. In the world according to TV, most everyone is urban, under 35 (under 25 on the W.B.), good-looking and well-heeled, and even when they are ”poor“ — which is to say, when they’re young, beautiful people who haven‘t quite gotten their careers going — they manage to dress well and live in spacious digs. When the actual real people of Earth do appear on TV, it’s typically as victims of, witnesses to, or indeed the perpetrators of some extraordinary (and usually awful) news event; as contestants for the big money; or as patsies for Judge Judy, Jerry Springer or other such modern coliseums, and in every case they are under unusual, distorting pressures. Wiseman‘s people of Belfast — who do come mostly in one color but are of many ages, occupations, incomes, interests, and states of physical and mental health — are more or less just getting on with what they would be getting on with anyway, notwithstanding that they are doing it in front of a camera. Nothing extraordinary happens, nothing that hasn’t happened the day before and will not happen the day after, and because of this the film seems to picture not merely a time, but all time.
After a long opening sequence that moves from a harbor in the morning mist out to sea with fishermen, we begin to roam haphazardly through Belfast, peeking in everywhere, establishing the great variety of life, and degrees of fortune, that may be found in a town of fewer than 7,000 souls. Signs and symbols of Halloween abound. We see big houses and little, though Wiseman seems to be drawn more toward the trailers and shacks (or perhaps the residents were just more willing to let him in). We go to a dry cleaners, a class in flower arranging, a ballet class. A social worker picks nits from a woman‘s hair. A not very good amateur choir rehearses. Potatoes are processed into food product, sardines tinned. A man makes doughnuts. Slices of smoked salmon are arranged for packaging, by hand and with surprising art. We visit a shooting range; a self-service laundry; a soup kitchen; a retirement home; a pet store; an emergency room; the district court, where miscreants are processed like fish or like potatoes for stealing wood, driving drunk, possessing marijuana. (It is not Judging Amy.) The City Council meets, and someone goes on for a while about sewer extensions. Tugboats guide a big ship into port. People go to the movies. Prisoners hear a lecture on AIDS. Two men rehearse a scene from Death of a Salesman, and play it rather well. A black man in a dashiki leads a class in African drumming. We visit the old and sick. (”At my age I shouldn’t be here anyway,“ says one woman. ”I should be up in a flying saucer.“) A man lectures on local contributions to the Civil War; a high school teacher discusses Moby Dick and notes, ”One of the nice things about Melville I think is that he gives us a picture of working-class life in America in the first half of the 19th century,“ neatly describing what Wiseman has done for the last third of the 20th. (One serious caveat: Some very bad things happen to fish, lobsters and the wild animals of the woods. You may want to avert your eyes.)
Meanwhile, the land keeps its own time: Rain falls, rivers run, dead leaves in water lap against rocks, the weather changes, the sky now the bluest blue, now a low, dark gray. Shot on film — not, as is increasingly the case among documentaries, on videotape — Belfast, Maine is lovely to look at (John Davey was the cameraman), and that the camera remains mostly fixed, allowing people and cars and belt-conveyed fish to move through the frame, gives the images weight and balance and sets up a kind of visual dialectic between what passes and what remains, the transitory and the eternal. In what I suppose one could call the film‘s extremely subtle climax, a female minister leads prayers for members of the congregation, ”some who are healing, some who are not, some who are dying, some who are not.“ In the final shot, which puts in a picture much that has gone before, gravestones occupy the foreground under the big, cloudy heavens, separated at the horizon by a highway, along which trucks and cars pass, not stopping for death, while we hear the sounds of gulls and engines.