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An idyll examined

Frederick Wiseman's four-hour, 1999 documentary about Belfast, Maine
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  January 27, 2010

PACKED LIKE, WELL . . . Cannery workers in Belfast.

After 36 films and more than 40 years of filmmaking, Frederick Wiseman has probably come as close as any director to capturing this American life in all its breadth and nuance. Some of his best-known films — like 1997's Public Housing, about a development in Chicago — have inspired institutional reform. Others ostensibly do little more or less than observe a process. In advance of this weekend's Movies at the Museum showing of his latest film, La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet, at the Portland Museum of Art, I acquainted myself with Wiseman's art with a viewing of his quiet, four-hour gaze at Belfast, Maine, which was released in 1999.

Wiseman's documentaries are, by design, devoid of narrative exposition. None of his subjects address the camera, nor does Wiseman pose questions to them or identify them with sub- or intertitles. Further, his films lack musical cues, and in Belfast, Maine, we never encounter the same character twice. My notes from one of my favorite scenes in the film read as follows: "a boat (Mack Point) — efficient cuts as boat moves offshore, ties onto freighter, and heads back to port — music of horns." Though nothing particularly startling or unusual happens in the film, its cumulative effects are profound.

As he does with all of his films, Wiseman shot Belfast, Maine in under six weeks with a small crew, and edited it during production. (These four hours were cut from 110 hours of film.) The film begins on a foggy harbor sunrise, as lobstermen head offshore to retrieve and rebait traps, before moving on to a montage of the town's downtown and large, white colonials, establishing a sense of both place and time. Halloween decorations and election placards indicate that it's October 1996. Later, there is debate in a convenience store about the hot-topic clearcutting initiative of the season, from the perspective of men who earn their keep from the lumber trade, and consider it second nature to do so responsibly.

A surprising bulk of Belfast, Maine — and a key to where Wiseman's sympathies lie — consists of scenes of medical care, particularly doctors' home visits to elderly patients. Practically invisible members of the community, Wiseman is intent on noting that the infirm are crucial citizens in important ways: they illustrate the quality of medical care in Belfast, along with the lifelong habits of its residents. Sometime after a visit to a former five-packs-a-day smoker, Wiseman throws in a scene at a public meeting on medical care, where a speaker notes Maine's alarming rate of young smokers and rising obesity. Most of the film's longer scenes are focused on the daily struggles of lower-class residents, including its funniest stretch, at the local Maine District Court, where criminals (including one named Thomas Thomas) address charges both everyday (OUI, speeding) and only-in-Maine (the theft of a cord of wood, which the perpetrator would rather be fined for than return).

Wiseman's most hypnotic compositions, though, are set in the town's factories. Largely dialogue-free, these quick-cut montages show how anything from mashed potatoes to fudge to smoked salmon is chopped, produced, and packaged for market. The rhythm and noise of these machines makes a kind of double-edged music: to the uninitiated viewer, it's a magical process; to the worker, it's the mundane din of the everyday.

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