As Maine Goes, So Goes...
Among the events recorded in the picture's first segment is a talk given at the Waldo County General Hospital on the subject of managed healthcare--or, as the lecturer pointedly says, sick care. The hospital must change the way it operates, she explains; and so, since we know which medical problems are most common in the county, let's review the causes: smoking, obesity and poor nutrition, alcoholism, early pregnancy, inadequate parenting, dysfunctional family behavior.
Some of these traits have already been documented in Belfast, Maine, thanks to the way Wiseman threads together the episodes. He uses three connective devices: shots of the heartbreakingly beautiful landscape, views of the roads in and around town, and scenes of home visits by social service workers. In one such scene, for example, the welfare visitor combs through the hair of a young and semi-toothless woman, looking for lice. While at it, she also asks, in a gentle tone, whether the woman has yet offered any advice about sex to her fast-growing daughter. Oh, sure. Sure.
As Belfast, Maine moves from the opening segment into the third and fourth hours, these visits to the poor and ailing seem to multiply. They also stretch in time and deepen in intensity, as in a sequence set in the emergency room at the General Hospital. Who are these middle-of-the-night patients? How did they come to be here? The film, in answer, takes us next to a rehearsal by a local drama club, which is putting on Death of a Salesman. As if in a dream, we then move from Willie Loman's desperation to an image of cornered wildlife. A wolf, caught in a trap, gets shot between the eyes and dumped into the back of a pickup truck.
The film by now has shifted in its view of industrial labor, from the deadly boring but relatively clean work at the potato-skins factory to bloodier doings at a fish-packing plant. (As the workers, performing in a mechanical blur, shear off the heads of sardines, Wiseman shows you close-ups of bandaged hands and blank faces.) What happens to the people who can't stomach such a job, can't live on the wages it pays, perhaps can't even get hired on? We witness part of a session at the District Court, where a judge quickly deals with the crimes of semirural poverty: possession of marijuana, possession of psilocybin, driving under the influence, driving a defective auto, speeding, theft of a cord of wood (estimated value, $100).
For the better-off residents of Belfast (those who take classes in flower arranging and live in beautiful old houses) or for the tourists who pass through town, these damaged, self-injuring workers and not-quite-workers are all but invisible. They give evidence of their existence mostly through products, such as the amply priced packages of sliced salmon in the Shop 'n' Save. But Wiseman sees the workers; he takes us to the fish farm and shows us how the salmon was processed. He also sees the young people who will soon be looking for jobs at the fish farm, or at Belfast's one outpost of the so-called New Economy: the office park where workers sit in cubicles, dunning people who haven't paid their credit-card bills.
The fish-packers and dunners of tomorrow are today avoiding the eyes of a dedicated and intelligent teacher at the high school, who is talking about Melville. The students probably register his notion that Moby-Dick confers dignity on the common man by raising a commercial fisher to the level of tragic hero; but what good does that do them? As for the teacher's closing remarks, on The Confidence Man as a bleak satire about the hoax of American democracy: The kids already seem to have got the point, without having to crack the book.
Obviously, I'm reading into the kids' faces, just as I've read into every other scene I've described. So let me bring to the surface my prejudices, as I said would be necessary. I think Belfast, Maine dwells on the persistence of the Old Economy--the one that's now considered to be terminally unsexy by Internet-besotted Op-Ed writers. I think the film quietly but devastatingly reveals the wounds inflicted by this economy. It also reminds us, movingly, of the persistent strength and beauty of the natural world, which is made to serve the economy; and it pays tribute to the courage and good will of people who go out, day after day, to ease what suffering they can.
A fitting summary of Fred Wiseman's work, and of his life as well.