Monrovia, Indiana (Frederick Wiseman, 2018)

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Alienation from the Land: The Movie.

The new Frederick Wiseman film is always one of the film events of the year, and this week his new one opens exclusively at the Northwest Film Forum. Wiseman, despite his advanced years, has been one of the most productive American directors of the last decade, with a string of documentary masterpieces (La danse: The Paris Opera Ballet, National Gallery and In Jackson Heights are my personal favorites from among his post-2008 work) that would be enough to mark him as one of the finest ever to work in that form even if he hadn’t been making films just as often and just as high-quality since the late 1960s.

Monrovia, Indiana starts with and continually returns to the rich farmland and livestock of the Midwest, worked almost completely by machines. Every turn in the editing shows a population disconnected from their past, from their environment. The landscapes, gorgeous skies and verdant croplands alike, are almost completely devoid of human life. The fascinating and weird diversity of Wiseman’s 1999 look at a small American town, Belfast, Maine, is almost nowhere to be seen, as is the vibrant chaos and struggle of Jackson Heights.

Instead bored students listen to a history lecture about the high school basketball stars of the 1930s. City council meetings vainly negotiate against the totalizing onslaught of cookie-cutter development, development literally severed from the land in that it cannot get proper water service to protect its residents from fire. People eat cheap pizza and drink Budweiser and get tattoos and guns and dock their dog’s tails for no apparent reason (in one of the most disturbing film scenes of the year). President Obama’s assertion about clinging to guns and religion is never far from one’s mind as the film continually circles back to the church, but the solace found there, however real (and that shaft of light shining in the penultimate funeral scene has a beauty the minister’s sermon can’t touch) seems hollow. The young are just as bored with God as they are old white guy basketball. The final shot is as perfect a capper as we’ll see this year.

Looking forward to the sequel, Monrovia, Liberia.

Ex Libris: New York Public Library (Frederick Wiseman, 2017)

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Opening today and running for (most of) the next week at the Northwest Film Forum is the latest film from Frederick Wiseman, the 87 year old documentarian who may very well be the best director of the last ten years. Coming to prominence at the height of the cinema-verité trend, debuting with Titicut Follies fifty years ago, Wiseman has spent his career examining institutions and the ways in which they do and do not serve their public. The verité label doesn’t quite apply to him (and he’s often rejected it), his films are too carefully organized, his images too artfully designed. There’s a fly on the wall element to be sure, along side his disdain for direct interviews (though he’s not above filming one of his subject being filmed by a journalist, as he did in Ballet for example). But his movies are too patient, too precise to be lumped together with the Pennebakers or Maysleses. His last decade of work has been mostly films about artistic organizations (La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet, Crazy Horse, Boxing Gym, National Gallery), along side profiles of communities both urban (In Jackson Heights) and academic (At Berkeley). Ex Libris, combines both elements into an examination of the interactions between the organization and its community. Alternating, as he has in all these recent films, between scenes of the institution being used with those of it being run, with interstitial shots establishing the various branches of the library system in their neighborhood, Wiseman makes an engrossing argument for the fundamental necessity of the public library, a space anyone can use for any number of reasons, from reading for pleasure to doing research to after school programs to expanding internet access to people who otherwise couldn’t afford it. While at the same time the contrasting images of the wealthy donors who help fund the library and the desperately poor people who depend on it for everyday life points to the fundamental inadequacy of the library itself, of “education” alone as a means for creating a just society.  This library is the ultimate neo-liberal institution, the well-meaning bureaucrats who run it working as best they can to ameliorate the conditions of poverty just enough to hold back real change, while the philanthropic set pat themselves on the back for going to see Ta-Nahesi Coates get interviewed.

Ballet 422 (Jody Lee Lipes, 2014)

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Ballet 422, which opens this week at the Sundance, owes a very great debt to the great documentarian Frederick Wiseman (seen recently haunting Seattle Screens with his National Gallery) especially his dance films (Ballet, La Danse and Crazy Horse). The film follows 25-year-old dancer/choreographer Justin Peck as he has two months to put together the New York City Ballet’s 422nd original production, his first choreographic work on such a large scale. As in the Wiseman films, the movie consists mostly of length footage of people at work, proceeding from the early rehearsal stage through the final performance, with occasional looks at the backstage workers (particularly the wardrobe department) and “pillow shots” (prominently close-ups of shoes, a favorite subject in the Wisemans as well) providing syncopating breaks in the narrative. As with Wiseman, there are no direct-to-camera interviews or explanatory voiceovers; the cinematic apparatus remains for the most part invisible (though there is a moment when the cameraman hilariously realizes he can see himself in a rehearsal mirror and quickly reframes himself out of the shot). Lipes does employ a very few un-Wiseman-like explanatory title cards, which are necessary in the beginning to set the story, but also serve to mark time as the clock ticks on our hero’s deadline.

Continue reading Ballet 422 (Jody Lee Lipes, 2014)”

National Gallery

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Following a successful two-week run at the Northwest Film Forum late last year, SIFF is bringing Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary, National Gallery back for one Monday night this week as part of their Recent Raves series. At about three hours long, Gallery is only a medium length Wiseman film, a look at the venerable British art gallery, the paintings within it, the people that run it and the public that visits it. The 85 year old filmmaker is probably more well-known for his examinations of public institutions in films like Welfare (1975), Titicut Follies (1967), At Berkeley (2013) or High School (1968, followed by a sequel in 1994), but he’s also one of cinema’s great chroniclers of art as work. His dance films (Ballet, 1995; La danse, 2009; and Crazy Horse, 2011) are astounding, and, along with 2010’s Boxing Gym, form with National Gallery as expansive a look at the business, craft and sheer effort that goes into the presentation of art to an audience. Like those other films, Gallery is divided into a series of segments highlighting different aspects of the institution: the tour guides explaining a work or an artist; the craftsmen and women building frames, gallery spaces, designing and testing lighting; restorers at work fixing paintings damaged by time; and administrators debating the best ways to persevere the museums brand and grow its audience. The segments are broken up by shorter series of shots, much like the pillow shots of a Yasujiro Ozu film, where we get to look at the paintings and, as interestingly perhaps, the faces of the people as they look at the paintings. 19th Century landscape painter JMW Turner, himself the subject of a fine biopic directed by Mike Leigh starring Timothy Spall, is one of the featured artists. That film, Mr. Turner, is currently playing at the Sundance Cinemas. The pair would make for an excellent, if lengthy, cross-town double feature.

National Gallery plays at the Grand Cinema on Tuesday, March 3rd.