Courtesy of Zipporah Films Inc.
Courtesy of Zipporah Films Inc.
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Frederick Wiseman’s ‘City Hall’

Some institutions insist on their own particularity and can reveal deeper truths, while others succumb to cruelty and inertia. With a special shout-out to the ‘Paris Review.’

Sean Cooper
January 26, 2021
Courtesy of Zipporah Films Inc.
Courtesy of Zipporah Films Inc.

The deterrent for critics and writers to engage seriously with Frederick Wiseman is partly a byproduct of the volume of his body of work. The gross sum of it (45 films and going) is a daunting context that undermines easy analysis for each release, a burden enhanced by the allusiveness of the viewing experience, which as great art tends to do resists depiction in another medium.

I’m sympathetic to the plight, which is also I suppose a way of generously interpreting how The Paris Review came to purloin sections of one of my own pieces about Wiseman.

I’ll leave the tedium of explaining the why of stealing another writer’s work and publishing it as the fruits of their own thought and inquiry to the Review. But having discovered the discrepancy when I recently set off to write a review of Wiseman’s latest film, City Hall, I thought it appropriate to bring it up here—since it relates nicely to the task.

In brief: In 2017, I profiled Wiseman for this magazine. A year later, The Paris Review published their first Art of Documentary Interview in their famed interview series, which as a younger writer I had admired, for how they revealed process and the way a writer can think about their work (Bellow, Emmanuel Carrére, McPhee, Didion, DeLillo, Ozick, etc.). The opening essays, despite their brevity, can likewise illuminate.

Having read nearly every clip on Wiseman I found from his 50-year career, I knew he became very good at saying the same few things about himself and his films over and over again, which is what makes him a tricky interview, to provoke him into novel terrain, and which is why writers, those who do interview him and those who just fall back on the record, often end up saying the same three or four things about him (fly-on-the-wall style, a documentarian’s documentarian, obsessed with power in American life), which given The Paris Review’s former track record of formidable interviews with major artists made this a rare literary event worth anticipating—an anticipation that was dashed almost immediately when I began reading my own sentences in the essay.

Here’s what I wrote in my profile of Wiseman in Tablet (italics added):

Since 1967, when Wiseman was 37, he has made roughly one feature-length film a year—almost all documentaries, and some as long as six hoursprimarily focused on the subject of power within American institutions in places as varied as a public high school, meatpacking plant, city zoo, juvenile court, and a Neiman Marcus department store in Texas. He’s also made films about the ballet and boxing, and physical places, like Aspen, Colorado, and Jackson Heights in Queens.

Here’s The Paris Review, 2018 (again, emphasis added):

He has made approximately one documentary film a year for the past fifty years, some with run times as long as six hours. His works are often meditations on the subject of power within American institutions, in places such as an asylum for the criminally insane, a public high school, a meatpacking plant, a Miami zoo, a juvenile court, and a Neiman Marcus department store in Texas. He’s also made subjects of the ballet in France, boxing, London’s National Gallery, and geographic locations from Aspen, Colorado, to Jackson Heights.

There are additional phrases of mine scattered across the remaining few hundred words of Paris Review text that you can easily get the sense, or at least I did, that I was reading my writing under someone else’s byline:

Here’s what I wrote in Tablet:

Wiseman was born on the first of January 1930, the only child of Jacob and Gertrude Wiseman …Following his father into law, Wiseman went to Yale law school … He lived in Paris with his new wife, Zipporah Batshaw, a Yale Law graduate …With an 8mm camera, Wiseman made films of his wife shopping and little scenes of Parisian life …The Wisemans soon returned to the Boston area and had two sons. … Later, Wiseman would co-write a script for The Thomas Crown Affair starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, but that would be his only brush with the Hollywood moviemaking apparatus … In 1966, Wiseman and his cameraman, John Marshall, shot a massive volume of footage, 200 rolls of 400-foot reels of film, that Wiseman would edit into Titicut Follies …

Paris Review:

Born in Boston on January 1, 1930, Wiseman is the only child of the European Jewish immigrant Jacob Wiseman and Gertrude Kotzen … he followed his father into law, attending Yale Law School … then traveled to Paris with his new wife, Zipporah Batshaw, a fellow Yale Law graduate. He made his first forays into film with an 8mm camera, shooting his wife in short Parisian scenes. After two years, the couple returned to Massachusetts, where Wiseman took a position teaching law at Boston University and they had two sons. … In 1966, Wiseman and his then cameraman shot a huge amount of footage at the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, which he would then edit into his debut documentary, Titicut Follies.

This isn’t some grand art crit analysis or insight being lifted, it’s the pedestrian connective tissue of collected information, in a couple of hundred words at most, which makes it minor, but it is real enough to be irritating (which compounded the disappointment about the interview; there was no insight in the opening essay, the interview failed to say anything new about Wiseman that wasn’t said often and elsewhere).

I alerted Tablet’s editors about the unusual editorial overlap, they talked to Paris Review’s new editor-in-chief, Emily Nemens, who had just taken over the helm of the journal from Lorin Stein. As it happens, it was Nemens’ first issue. In an email to my editor, she apologized, said that the print issue would not have a correction because it was too late, but that she had revised the Paris Review’s website to remove the similarity in language between the two pieces.

It turned out that the revision to “the similarity in language” wasn’t much of a revision, and there was no note made on The Paris Review website about the changes that Nemens oversaw; if in late 2018 you went to the Paris Review’s website you’d find that the Wiseman opening essay had been rewritten slightly and the rest of the phrases, similar or verbatim from mine, remained. That there was no amended correction wasn’t great but at the time this was going on I was in the middle of closing a 23,000-word feature, and nickeling-and-diming minor plagiarism by an august literary review was not a major priority. There was no great outcome.

No one actually wants to be a hall monitor. Or at least I don’t. Plus, I wasn’t familiar with the author of the piece, Lola Peploe, a French actress with no publishing record I could detect with a quick Google; in other words, it didn’t strike me at the time that elevating the issue was going to thwart some runaway plagiarist from another infraction.

I didn’t think of it again, until Wiseman brought out City Hall on the digital festival circuit this past fall and winter. Preparing a review of the film, my research resurfaced The Paris Review interview with Wiseman online, which brought to mind the episode, and led to my discovery that the correction to “the similarity” had been conveniently memory-holed. The revision had been replaced, the text “unfixed.” Again, why? I don’t know.

So consider this, then, my attempt at a corrective to the public record. Whatever The Paris Review does to its own copy, or wishes to say about the matter, trivial as they might perceive it, I’ll add nothing more than that they published my work without my consent under someone else’s byline.

As to City Hall, Wiseman’s latest, one could say it’s about Boston’s City Hall, but nearly all of Wiseman’s 45 films are ostensibly about one place, and hostile to tidy summaries when they stretch upward of six hours. To say, then, that City Hall is about Boston isn’t saying much of anything; and this is certainly part of the problem for anyone writing about Wiseman. Although the films are confined geographically to a building or location, their significance is created through the many ways in which the film transcends that confinement.

More cumbersome for anyone attempting to review or critique his work is succinctly explaining how Wiseman treats the passage of time. In his film’s undulating scenes of pedestrian, unassuming events, like office meetings, children’s recitals, and grocery shopping, happenings that take an hour or two in real life are compressed to a dramatic essence of five or six minutes, or 10 or 15 minutes, so that they feel “long” compared to rapidly paced contemporary Netflix docs, which churn through plot points like knitters eagerly stitching the pattern of a scarf. In Wiseman’s handling, these “long” scenes of public life are compressed, dramatic, and oddly potent. All of this is done, too, without voice-over narration or characters speaking directly to the camera.

Wiseman’s cinema vérité style places the camera, and the audience with it, up close to real life as it’s happening, the viewer as vulgar voyeur, yet there’s nothing real (or vulgar) about it, if real, in this case, means an hour chopped into a fraction of one. The paradox is that time feels more real, heady, and vibrant, so that the rising and falling action created inside the scene continues to reverberate and become dramatic, and more weird, as these scenes of real life stack up upon each other, like memories do, arguing and complicating the “Wiseman Plot,” which you could, if you were an ambitious critic, taking a crack at his whole oeuvre, argue is one giant film, made up of 45 “scenes” of Wiseman’s individual films, a few hundred hours that together tell a mordant, sophisticated, sometimes juvenile, and often death-tinged story of sentimental human existence.

After Wiseman broke out with Titicut Follies, his debut in 1967, his most polemical film about degraded conditions and patient abuse and neglect inside a Massachusetts state psychiatric hospital (the film was banned until 1992 by various courts on dubious grounds of invasion of patient privacy), he kept a steady gaze on the flagrant misanthropy of obtuse bureaucracies in action, aiming his lens directly where the rubber of state power hits the road, so to speak, as he captured a Kansas City police force, a Philadelphia public high school, and a hospital in Harlem. These films have their moments of humor, particularly the absurdity of the high-school administrators arbitrarily enforcing rules on children for no other obvious reason than to enforce rules, but all together it was dark stuff, as Wiseman noted after the release of the last in that period: “I’ll have been responsible for four of the most depressing movies ever made.”

In interviews Wiseman over the past several decades has represented that his work is largely apolitical—“I never start with an idea except that the subject might be a good subject,” was how he recently described his site-selection process. He’s not trying to illustrate sharp partisan points, he says, and he doesn’t do research before he goes to a new location, where he’ll spend several weeks or a few months shooting the raw film (Wiseman runs the boom microphone, alongside a longtime cameraman)—upward of hundreds of hours of footage he collects as a form of investigation, which he then shapes into the film during a period of careful editing that can take up the better half of a year to complete.

On Law and Order, his 1968 film on the Kansas City police, Wiseman was explicitly excited about how his documentary might illuminate the major political upheaval that had disrupted the national parties. Wiseman jumped on a plane for Missouri “there weeks after the Democratic convention. It was a golden opportunity to get the cops, and I could hardly wait,” he said not long after that movie was released.

But it was that film, I think, that moved Wiseman onto a new trajectory, away from politics and toward something more universal. While shooting Law and Order he encountered not only the anticipated brutality that police inflicted on suspects but the unprovoked violence and brutality that followed police officers as they responded to one 911 call after another, attending to the primal human danger that necessitates the enforcement of law and order in the first place. His responsibility to his own experience led him to weave both forms of violence into his depiction of the police, which as evidenced by his work afterward appeared to loosen the grip of programmatic leftist idealism on his aesthetic interests as a filmmaker and allowed him a freedom to explore the contradictions of both prevailing political ideas and layman conceptions of our institution’s strengths and weaknesses.

Sidestepping the political, Frederick Wiseman was now engaging his film audience with aesthetics as his priority, ‘providing information’ to a viewer that could then do with that information whatever she wished.

This freedom took unusual and interesting forms in the 1970s, as Wiseman shaped his voice and continued his nearly annual output. He went to film for the first time overseas, to follow Americans working in the Panama Canal Zone and, as testament to Wiseman’s ability to finagle access, on the Mt. Sinai Field Mission, a U.S. outpost deployed to ease the tensions then brewing between Egypt and Israel following the war in 1973. Watching janitors, missilemen, and high-ranking military pass the time while maintaining geopolitical peace; applying their militarized regimentation of 30-minute jogs and 90 minutes of card playing just the same way they might schedule their monitoring of international conflict, in Wiseman’s long back-and-forth sequences, the effect is to flatten it all to the same plane of silly human effort, where codes of conduct and official jargon are used to inflict flimsy, temporary notions of order against the chaos of long-warring peoples or the inevitability that the man in the desert will soon enough himself turn to dust.

Matured by the work he did in the 1970s Wiseman seemed to have truly shaken free, at least for a time, of politics as affect. At a 1979 screening in Santa Cruz, Wiseman argued the point to a crowd of aspiring filmmakers and beat kids that no one should place too much “freight” on films as he no longer believed documentaries could have “a one-to-one effect on producing social change.” Sidestepping the political, he was now engaging his film audience with aesthetics as his priority, “providing information” to a viewer that could then do with that information whatever she wished.

If politics lost their flavor for Wiseman he was still dabbling with the commercial possibilities of Hollywood. At that time, he was at work on the script for a feature film adaptation of Ann Taylor’s novel Celestial Navigation, a peculiar fiction about an agoraphobic middle-aged man who falls in love with a single mother who’s taken up a room with her daughter in his boarding house. For better or worse, the project didn’t come to fruition, and Wiseman set out in the ’80s to create what for me at least stands as his best decade of work.

There’s of course what might be his strongest film, Near Death, which largely confines itself to the hushed hallways, hospital beds, and remarkably blunt conversations between medical staff in an intensive care unit. Wiseman also made three of the best films for anyone first coming to the filmmaker: Model, centered on a Manhattan modeling agency; Blind, in an Alabama school for the blind; and The Store, the nearly perfect 1983 film of a flagship Neiman Marcus store in Dallas.

Throughout, he let the Reaganomics hang quietly in the background as he interrogated the weirdness of places like Model’s mid-rung modeling agency, where office denizens shuffle reams of paper and head shots as they package, sell, hire, fire, and coax low-end catalog models and high-end fashion faces into gig after gig around New York City. Wiseman obliquely acknowledges the obvious thudding political points that a less scrupulous and talented filmmaker would have seen as easy points to score with a sympathetic audience, as in one interstitial scene of the city street when we hear someone opine that “one minute outside New York and everybody’s a Republican. It’s so weird.” Wiseman hands the best speaking parts to the models, one of which explains to Andy Warhol, who makes a brief cameo, “I didn’t shave today because I figured, well, maybe they want real.”

Wiseman’s pursuit of the psychological expression of people in the interactions they have with each other as workers and charges in American institutions led him to conclude that everyone eventually reveals themselves if you keep the camera running long enough. “Usually you get what’s most characteristic about them; not just the conscious things that an actor might imitate but the unconscious things, too,” Wiseman said.

CITY HALL Official Trailer

Inevitably, as the political and partisan has gobbled up larger chunks of everyone’s interior experience, Wiseman’s films have again taken up some of his early interest in foregrounding the political, sometimes to dull and obvious effect. The director’s political turn has had an unfortunate effect on films like In Jackson Heights and Ex Libris, which has Wiseman, at times, pedantically riffing on American immigration policy and notions of American melting pot exceptionalism that ring flat and lifeless in the context of his otherwise cerebral humor and meticulous detachment. In City Hall, Wiseman succumbs to this instinct more than once, which is particularly disappointing given that this film follows up one of his strongest late career efforts with Monrovia, Indiana, a gorgeous ethnography of small-town hair salons, gun shops, and local government hearings on park bench locations, which thankfully never explicitly address the Trumpism and partisanship that no doubt crept out of TVs and deli counter conversations while Wiseman filmed in the midst of the first half of Trump’s term.

In Boston, shooting City Hall at the end of 2019, right before the pandemic, Wiseman is closer to the Cambridge that he and his wife call home (though he is currently riding out the pandemic—“bored and afraid”—in Paris). Wiseman has made several films in the greater Boston and New England region, but it’s here for the first time that he introduces something like a protagonist. Over the course of four-plus hours Wiseman’s camera rarely breaks for long from the city’s mayor, Marty Walsh, an Irish Catholic born and bred in Dorchester, with an accent of pure chowder, a thick neck, pale face, and a habit to speed-speak three or four sentences where one could have done the trick.

Mayor Walsh got his start in construction, hit rock bottom with a drinking problem, and built his life back up with AA to become a union leader and political success story. His political narrative is strung together in bits he does, charmingly, in one scene after another as he makes mayoral appearances in a church basement, events celebrating the Red Sox World Series win, at a Veteran’s Day memorial. Walsh’s primary cause in Wiseman’s portrayal, besides his own branding, is his administration’s mandate to “put social justice at the heart of our mission,” which with Walsh’s gift for retail politics and humanizing vulnerability makes it clear why Walsh would go on to become, today, the newly announced pick for Secretary of Labor in the Biden administration.

Yet the politics get so loud the unintended echoes are the only thing that become interesting in these scenes, like a public hearing for an initiative led by Asian American businessmen to bring a cannabis dispensary to one of the city’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods. Though themselves reflective of the neighborhood’s population, the Asian owners, who wish to bring in careers in growing, retail, distribution, and edibles for local applicants, are besieged by a multicultural coalition that seems interested only in asserting the certainty that the new business will do terrible harm to the Black residents in the community.

“This is one of the most diverse communities in the entire city. It is the poorest part of Dorchester. It is over 90% people of color. My question is: Do you have anybody on your team that represents one of the major ethnic groups in this community?” one Black resident says while he holds up his cellphone, filming his own speech and the responses to it for a livestream broadcast on a social media platform.

Patiently, the owners explain their business incentive to hire as local as possible, and expose the inherent fallacy of a points-based ethnic morality battle around narrowly defined identities that strive for government funds, media sympathy, and positive brand association in a complex marketplace of identity politics that has spun the social reality around itself as its new central axis. Is Wiseman, at 91, attuned to this particular niche wrinkle to the political dynamics he recalls from the 1960s? He leaves the question unanswered. At the film’s sentimental concluding scene, set during Mayor Walsh’s address to the city, a Black woman and white man, both Boston cops, duet on a soaring rendition of the national anthem. The formal-wear crowd of Boston’s luminaries offer a standing applause at this fashionable expression of syrupy post-Rockwellian racial harmony, an appreciation complicated when the camera zooms out and pans over a crowd that is overwhelmingly white. Again, Wiseman does not offer a definitive commentary on this irony, and appears content to leave the interpretation up to the viewer.

These are minor quibbles, though, and I could spend whole afternoons watching Wiseman drop jokes and ravel subtle narrative threads shot and sliced with exquisite care. In City Hall, there’s the quietly humorous scene in the office of a jargon-loving youth services administrator, when you realize the shot is composed so that you also see the framed photograph he keeps on his desk of just his dog; he’s the office dog guy.

Sometimes Wiseman himself makes an appearance, mirrored in the workers doing labor that mimics the filmmakers own task of assembling and editing. The Boston Parks Department gardener, who patiently fills a tray of soil with the tiny seeds that will spring to life to be planted around the city. Or the man who sits in a dark room at a control board, watching a bank of computer screens showing feeds from the city’s massive array of closed-caption security cameras. Seeking to detect unusual traffic patterns and narratives of human behavior, the man zooms and pans over the city, trying to make sense of what could easily overwhelm into noise and chaos.

The scene becomes retroactively poignant as Wiseman afterward cuts to a rainy day at the city’s Holocaust memorial, which the mayor visits to present a check and give a speech. The memorial’s strength comes from the lens roving over the memorial’s plaques and listed names of concentration camp victims, which in a slight twist of fate could have just as easily included Wiseman’s parents. It’s Wiseman’s sly gesture of gratitude for simply being here, and being able to make meaning of something as banal and absurd as a giant cardboard check being held up for news cameras in a tent in the rain.

Sean Patrick Cooper is a journalist who has contributed narrative features and essays to The New Republic, n+1, Bloomberg Businessweek, and elsewhere. His first book, The Shooter at Midnight: Murder, Corruption, and a Farming Town Divided will be published in April 2024 by Penguin.