Frederick Wiseman’s latest film, Belfast, Maine, is having its New York premiere in the best possible setting, as the opening feature in a full retrospective of his work. The picture will also be broadcast on PBS on February 4, which is good news for those who can’t get to Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. But if you are able to attend at least part of the retrospective–or are willing to run one of your own, in your mind’s screening room–you will find that Belfast, Maine is extraordinary in two ways. First, it is an immensely rich and immeasurably valuable microcosm of American life at the end of the twentieth century. Second, and most unexpected, it is a microcosm of Wiseman’s art.
He is a student of institutions–the hospital, the welfare office, the housing project, the high school–and sometime during the past thirty years he became one himself. No other documentarian since Robert Flaherty has enjoyed such widespread, superlative-laced praise; few have been so prolific. Yet strangely enough, though critical opinion and public television have elevated him to the status of an official artist (or as close to such a thing as we have in America), Wiseman is an extremist.
He is extreme in the limits he sets on his filmmaking, banishing from the screen all interpretive or explanatory devices such as interviews, voiceovers, texts or archival footage, so that viewers must confront the present moment. In doing so, they may also confront themselves, taking notice of how they read the evidence of their senses. (What store of information do they draw upon? What stock of prejudices?) Wiseman is similarly extreme in his claim on your patience (at four hours, Belfast, Maine is not the longest of his films) and in his determination to make you wade neck-deep into realities that don’t rate even a splash from most other filmmakers.
These realities, at their harshest, have sometimes been the muck to Wiseman’s rake. The stuff he dragged to the surface in his first film, Titicut Follies (1967), so displeased the shamed parties–authorities of the State of Massachusetts–that they secured a court order preventing any public screenings. The legal reasoning: By recording the brutalities meted out in a state prison for the criminally insane, Wiseman had violated the inmates’ right to privacy. Needless to say, this ruling made Titicut Follies a prized item on the film-society circuit and guaranteed Wiseman’s fame; and though the ban is no longer in force, Wiseman is still known as the man who documented, in gruesome detail and at excruciating length, such episodes as the force-feeding of a crazy old man.
There has been much in his subsequent films–from High School and Welfare through Public Housing–to maintain Wiseman’s reputation as a maker of exposés. And yet: Who would have thought you could appeal to conscience by means of phenomenological contemplation? A protest film by Wiseman is like The Jungle as written by Robbe-Grillet.
Wiseman has, by the way, made a picture titled Meat, which delivers nothing less than advertised. But other films have taken him far from Upton Sinclair territory. He has looked at dance (Ballet), theater (La Comédie-Française), religious life (Essene), green space (Central Park), commerce (The Store), life with disabilities (Adjustment and Work), life toward its end (Near Death), human-animal relations (Zoo), police work (Law and Order) and the military (Basic Training). With the exception of that last subject, all these areas of life–plus welfare, plus high school, plus the criminal justice system and more–find a place in the grand synthesis of Belfast, Maine.
In the opening eighty minutes (nearly the length of a normal feature), Wiseman takes you through a day in Belfast, from dawn to dawn. First, in deference to expectations, the film offers the scene that all tourists want to watch: Lobstermen sail out of the harbor at daybreak to collect their catch and rebait the pots. At the conclusion of the day-in-Belfast segment, you see these men again, but in a nontouristic setting. Before going to their boats, they drink coffee in a little pastry shop, where Wiseman shows you how the doughnuts are made.
But well before you reach that doughnut shop, Belfast, Maine has gone beyond the postcard view of a “waterfront community” (as a sign boasts at the entrance to town). Wiseman’s version of the daily cycle includes an early shift at the dry cleaner’s; a class in flower arranging; a tour of a factory, where potatoes come in at one end and packages of stuffed potato skins come out at the other; a conversation about logging and forest management, held at a roadside grocery-tavern; two encounters with deer hunters; a ballet class; a City Council meeting; a choir rehearsal of Handel’s The Messiah; and the living-room caucus of a circle of activists, who are talking tonight about gay and lesbian marriage.
While you’re visiting these scenes, you may deduce the season from the Halloween decorations that appear everywhere, and the year–1996–from the presence in the movie theater of Thinner, a Stephen King thriller. Of course: At this time of year, any self-respecting Maine cinema needs a lobby display featuring a life-size cutout of the state’s spookiest author. By this point, though, you’ve understood that every day in Belfast has its scary side.
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.