Essay: There’s no democracy of hands but there are many hands in a democracy: ‘City Hall’ (2020) and ‘Her Socialist Smile’ (2020)

by Ruairí McCann

City Hall

Shortly over an hour into City Hall, Frederick Wiseman’s 276-minute portrait of a city and its civics, we see Boston mayor, and one of the film’s fulcrums, Marty Walsh recall a gesture of defiance. In the wake of the announcement of Trump’s Muslim travel ban in 2017, Walsh staged a televised press conference where he gathered all the members of his staff with a 1st or 2nd generation immigrant background behind the podium. The group was so numerous it stretched from the stage, out of the press room and down the hall. Wiseman cuts from this recollection, pulled in the formal but performative setting of a presentation to the Boston Latinx Employee Research Group, to a short scene in one of the building’s main atriums. No longer focused on a single person, Wiseman constructs an aural and visual montage of people queuing up for such necessities as collecting birth, death and marriage certificates; paying for parking fines and passes. We hear snatches of many interchangeable exchanges and see people wiling away the wait on their phones. In the middle of it all, a caretaker and his trolly trundle by.

City Hall (2020) – Boston mayor Marty Walsh

Here is city hall and democracy as it is embodied in grand style rhetoric and a top of the totem pole persona, and here it is as a series of day-in and day-out actions and operations. Where the order of the day for the vast majority of people who walk through its doors and work behind its desks and counters is not sticking it to Trump but the frequently mundane business of greasing society’s wheels. Wiseman’s intention, in the direct juxtaposition of these two scenes, is not to expose one to vault the other: to present Walsh as the polished façade behind which many gears and cogs tick away, unheralded. Instead, this is but one stitch in the weave, as the film moves between different manifestations of city hall, ergo democracy, society and civil responsibility. In cross comparing these forms, he shows a system that is not Manichean, but irreducibly complex in how its different constituents play out in ways that are both complementary and frictional.

Which is why the aforementioned dialectic does not represent how the film is shaped and moves at large, that is, centrifugally, beginning within the actual building of city hall and with Walsh, who recurs in various capacities. Both high profile: speaking to the press after a Red Sox Superbowl win, and in low-key cabinet and community meetings. Wiseman is attuned to how Walsh’s comportment changes, depending on the situation: when speaking on Veteran’s Day to a passive, receptive audience, he delivers a monologue that ties the experience of PTSD to his own past and present struggles with alcoholism, and therefore the soap box becomes a confessional. Yet when he is in a Q&A with a Senior Action group, who are directly asking him about issues such as scam calls and the ballooning cost of health insurance, he is forced out of the realm of political theatre to speak in more conversational and practical terms.

When not tethered to mayoral activities, i.e. the majority of the film’s runtime, Wiseman’s attention steadily splinters and spreads out across the city, hitching itself to building inspectors, sanitation and road maintenance crews, the fire and forestry departments, and myriad instances of community congregation and regulation. It is in these sequences that the unromantic minutiae of maintaining a society are put under the microscope, thus rendering many of its fault lines visible. One sequence covers a pest control visit to the apartment of a retired military veteran dealing with a rat infestation. Through the vet’s chattiness, it is steadily revealed that this is no one-off fluke. It is indivisibly bound up with his precarious financial situation. A true amelioration of his situation will require an all-hands-on deck, trans-departmental approach, and so there is little the pest control officer can do, beyond commiserating with the man and referring him elsewhere.

Another key sequence, near the end, depicts a city hall-funded meeting between a group who want to set up a weed dispensary and the members of the low-income neighbourhood where it will be situated. Lengthy and engrossing, it is where the film’s more critical side is most apparent and where its dramatic arc reaches a crescendo. The meeting progresses and grows contentious, unravelling the concerns and tensions that exist between the dispensary owners and those residents present, who are concerned that the business will exacerbate existing issues with traffic congestion and crime.  More and more people are heard, there is communication, and yet the meeting seems headed toward a dead end. Attention therefore slowly gravitates towards the obstruction – the elephant in the room, city hall.

There are obstacles to these two groups co-operating, which were either built-in by local government or allowed to exist out of neglect. The community wants more meetings, but the city is unwilling to pony up for the cost of further sit-downs, or for delivering education on the substance they are controlling. In a fit of frustration, one of the dispensary board members vents over the deep prejudice ingrained in the inordinately high cost of setting up a dispensary in the poorest neighbourhood of a city with a ‘majority minority’ population, versus establishing the very same business in a whiter city like Boulder, Colorado.

The sequence is shot and edited in the classic Wiseman mode of the group-meeting, with the trading back and forth between close-ups of people speaking and cutaways to others listening. In this particular case, with more speaking participants than usual, Wiseman refrains from emphasizing the proportions of the room or all of its inhabitants from the outset. Instead, he cuts to people accumulatively, as they speak, murmur or listen, giving the sense of a problem being worked out en-masse, inclusively. Though by the end, the impression is that of democracy being hemmed in and so becoming an impotent and confusing tangle of interests.

This comparison, between the different outlets and realities of politics, has been at stake and play since the very beginning of Wiseman’s career in moving images. In a 1973 interview, conducted by a member of the ACLU for the Civil Liberties Review, Wiseman, the former Law School teacher—and son of Jacob Leo Wiseman, an Ukrainian-born immigrant who would have been the first Jewish judge  to sit on Boston’s municipal court, if his nomination weren’t terminated in an antisemitic fervour—believes there is a fundamental disconnect between rhetoric and reality, ideology and practice, at work in all levels of how his country is run. This belief has been a prime motivator for him as a filmmaker, though how it has been expressed, and the conclusions drawn, have changed as the decades have filed by and he has accumulated a vast body of work.

In this regard at least, Wiseman was more pessimistic in his early years as a filmmaker, and it is no wonder, given that he experienced a baptism by fire. His debut film, Titicut Follies (1967), which portrays life at Bridgewater State Hospital, a facility for the criminally insane located in South-eastern Massachusetts, was banned by the state on grounds of obscenity and invasion of the patients’ right to privacy. The powers that be claimed that they were merely ensuring public safety –  though it could also be interpreted as an act of burying the lede that was the hospital’s endemic ill-treatment of patients and lack of funding. Something that lieutenant governor Eliot Richardson claimed, like a good liberal, he wanted to be transparent about when he originally backed the production of the film and then praised it following a preview screening. But he was quick to change his tune as soon as it became clear that it could damage his career. 

That divide is more stark, even violent, in a film like Law and Order (1969), which follows the activities of the Kansas City Police Department. While it is not exactly the pointed exposé of police brutality and corruption that it may seem to be on paper, Wiseman is still set on showing the dissonance between seeing officers on the beat, slamming the face of a black teenager in custody against the hood of a car or punitively choking a prostitute for “fucking with our boys”, and seeing them at the station when they get a gentle dressing down for calling old white men uncouth things like “hoss”. Its ending is one of a society in total disarray. A collapse encapsulated in miniature with a scene where the police arrived to handle a domestic that has turned public. He closes with an abrupt, final shot, of mindless, futile flight.

In comparison, optimism prevails in City Hall, and there is a detectable admiration for a figure like Walsh, who if he were around in the 60s, 70s, or even as late as the 2000s, in a Wiseman film, likely would have been treated with a colder touch. But still, unlike many across the political spectrum, but particularly around middle, Wiseman maintains his refusal to conflate rhetoric and practice and, in the process, has made a towering, multi-dimensional work.   

Her Socialist Smile

While City Hall takes on a whole city and system, Her Socialist Smile takes as its focal point an individual. Helen Keller, born in 1880 and died in 1968, was deafblind by the age of 2 and yet, against the odds, learned a way to communicate and then read and write, with the aid of her teacher and life-long companion Anne Sullivan. She subsequently became a bit of a media sensation, presented by the press as a modern miracle. Her fame facilitated an enormously successful career into adulthood as a writer, public speaker and an important advocate of disability rights. And this is where most loglines on her life come to a full stop. The aspect of her life and work that has been far less explored, and which attracted director John Gianvito, was how her crusading did not end with those who cannot see or hear but included the vast profusion of people who were not free. She was fiercely committed to causes such as industrial workers’ rights, unionism, women’s suffrage and racial equality, all leading to and emanating from a deep-rooted identity as a socialist.

Helen Keller

There were a couple of challenges in making a film such as this. The first was practical. Due to a terrible freak accident, elaborated on in the film, there are few images of Keller still extant. The other challenge lies in the irony of depicting the life of someone so eloquent about her first-hand, sensory experience of the world, using a medium that, given its audio-visual nature, cannot directly or straightforwardly emulate how she actually navigated that world. In response to this, and the object of presenting a history that has been previously, and frequently, blotted out, Gianvito’s tact is to accept and play with this tension; between depicting her perspective, his own and other people’s accounts of her, and the limits of them all.

Gianvito accomplishes this many ways, but perhaps most eye-catchingly through the primary formal gambit of presenting excerpts of her writings and speeches as white text on black, to be read by the audience. The initial impressions of these sequences, particularly during some of the longer passages, where a block of text is followed by block after block, is that they are anti-cinematic. Yet the choice serves multiple, contravening purposes.

In depicting only the text, Gianvito avoids the potentially greater manipulation and obfuscation of fiction or a more didactic documentary form by showing her words on the screen as they existed on the page, instead of trying to ape them. Yet being able to sit with the text, to read and re-read, not only allows for her ideas to imprint, but for the very curated nature of ‘a text’ to come to the fore. The visual uniformity of these boxy paragraphs, compared to Keller’s descriptions of her own mind, of every mind, as boundless, makes them seem in their own way constrained, and so artificial and not exactly unfiltered.

The awareness of this limitation, and so the self-critiquing formalism, gets reinforced at the audio level. Several passages are also recited by a narrator (Carolyn Forché), who in addition to stepping in for Keller serves as a more overarching presence. Reading other accounts of Keller and the main narrative script written by Gianvito, in a voice that is stringently even, precise and non-region specific. Gianvito, however, is suspicious even of this approximation of objectivity, so he subverts further the notion that Forché could ever be the voice of Keller, or the god of history, by periodically showing her in the flesh, in a recording booth. He also compares her with two other types of vocal performance and sources, with the narrator’s baton pawned off twice. One digression has another actor reading for W.E.B. DuBois, in a far more theatrical performance. Similar, in content and acting style, to one of the chorus of sources that sporadically chime in during a Ken Burns’ work. Later there is an intrusion of the real, with a quick rundown of the global libertarian socialist opposition to the Russian Revolution provided through an excerpt from a recorded lecture given by Noam Chomsky. Apart from the dramatic and educational purposes these brief scenes serve, they are also remind that the effect of re-representing and dramatizing historical personages and events is never uniform or neutral.

Though Gianvito was unable to lean on the archive, his tools are not confined to the written word or spoken voice. He purposely eschews potential fill-in-the-blank methods such as reconstructions or interviews, but his patchwork approach does include handheld close-ups of the natural world orbiting a rustic homestead, with the focus often trembling and the seasons cycling. Another recurring locale is one of the vaudeville stages on which Keller frequently trod and spoke. The nature vignettes, while making what would otherwise be a very schematic and halting film beautiful and dynamic, are another instance of Gianvito tentatively aligning his gaze with Keller’s touch. A purposeful flicking between alignment and disjuncture which is achieved in the general sense, in the slow reveal of the exact location of some of these bucolic images. But also with specific moments of montage, such as the intercutting of rare silent film footage of Keller admiring a garden with Gianvito’s camera homing in on and grazing some flowers.

In the theatre scenes, there is a marked contrast between the sight of its painted tableau of swanning aristocrats, and the radical nature of Keller’s beliefs and many of her orations. Though it is more than just a motif milked for irony, as Gianvito’s inclusion of this high end, bourgeois space is to address how Keller’s presentation, rhetoric and reception fluctuated, depending on the space and audience. Gianvito then overlays the theatre sequences with slow fading in and out text, pulled from newspaper Q&As with Keller where she, slyly and humorously, holds her own against often spurious or deceptively simplified inquiries, and yet the overriding impression of these particular extracts is of how many forums pruned and cultivated her to fit inclinations and purposes other than her own self-conception and convictions. In comparison, the radicality of putting her text on black is heightened. The black of the unadorned image, is the colour of her limited senses and also the liberating canvas of her thought. When this screen is home to just her words, they exist relatively unhindered. When we see the black screen by itself, its very blankness seems to hold an unpronounced but radiant potential. Anything can be etched, animated and typed on there. 

Gianvito proves these by having other types of images pervade the film, and illustrate some of the larger political context: from contemporary documentary footage of Keller to the aftermath of the ransacking of an anarchist publication’s office to an excerpt of an animated, right-wing propaganda film in which a sturdy and loyal US worker rids his workplace of a Bolshevik rat.

This multi-media raggedness is also a key component to Gianvito’s work, on the whole. While Wiseman’s corpus is an exemplar in consistency, happening upon one set of techniques and honing it over fifty-five years and forty-six films, his fellow Bostonian, by adoption not birth, has landed a vocation whose course is far more winding.

Alongside parallel careers as a film professor and programmer, Gianvito has produced a small but diverse body of moving images. The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein (2001) is a nearly 3-hour excoriation and exorcism of life in the shadow of the First Gulf War. It is a largely fictional work, a wartime community portrait and coming of age and loss a la Maurice Pialat’s La Maison des Bois (1971). Though its three plot strands are crafted with a more unstable blend of realist, melodramatic and impressionistic approaches and touches. It also has documentary, or essay film, elements in its barbed, intermittent analyses of how the influence of, and tacit support for, the war sank deep into American culture. Not just in overtly political venues and news outlets, as would have been expected, but everywhere. From the mouths of talk show comedians to the shelves of toy shops, the war was being peddled and bought wholesale.

His follow-up film, Profit motive and the whispering wind (2007) is, in comparison, a simpler  proposition. Shot largely on 16mm, its 56 minutes are spent visiting the gravesites and memorials of a wide variety of individuals and events that mark the history of radical American politics and activism. Its structuralist construct simultaneously gives it a contemplative quality and the mien of a slow-stirring keen, with its final cry a rabble-rousing, rejigging of form, as Gianvito concludes the film with protest footage embossed with rotoscope animation. On the other hand, his follow-up project, For Example, The Philippines (2010 & 2014) takes not the span of a short feature but 9 hours and two films to investigate the aftermath of American colonialism in the Philippines, and not according to an overtly rigorous structure but by spilling out to include many, interlinking oral histories.

The belief that implicitly drives this willingness to chop and change from project to project, and the specific formalism of Her Socialist Smile, is reminiscent of the viewpoint which sees cinema’s earliest, non-industrialised or homogenised, days as inherently radical. Prevailing modes of representation erase vast swatches of history, people and experiences, and so a freer, oppositional cinema can be found through not only finding a new expression but, once found, finding another, and then another. The trick is to refuse to stay put and be constrained to one way of making films – ergo thinking and being.

Ruairí McCann is a graduate of English Literature with Film Studies (BA) from University College Dublin and Film Studies (MA) from Queen’s University Belfast. He sits on the board of the Silgo Film Society and has written for Photogénie, Electric Ghost Magazine and Little White Lies.

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