The best movie that opens this week cannot be seen at your local multiplex. It has no actors and no screenplay, even though it is four hours long. And I can say all this confidently, even though I haven’t seen it myself.
The movie is Belfast, Maine, airing on PBS tonight at 8:30 (at least in Colorado, check your local listings). It is the newest documentary from the great American filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, whose movies include High School, Titicut Follies, Public Housing, and The Store.
Wiseman’s movies have a style all their own. There are no narrators, no talking heads, no interviewees who tell you their stories. There are no dramatic re-creations of life-changing events. In fact, there are usually no life-changing events at all. Just ordinary life.
Two things make his movies outstanding. First, he spends so long with his subjects that they grow accustomed to his presence. He is so unobtrusive that they seem to forget a camera is trained on them. Therefore, there is no self-consciousness, no self-editing, just people being themselves.
For example, his film Titicut Follies shows life in a mental hospital. It was shocking because of its matter-of-fact scenes of violence and brutality. The guards ignore the camera and go about their business. If that happens to include a moment of violence to subdue an inmate, then so be it. (In fact, the movie was banned for ten years in the United States.)
A less graphic but equally disturbing example sticks in my head. It’s from his film Aspen, and in one scene he visits a meeting of plastic surgeons. The presenter flips through several photographs of people’s faces, pointing out what could be done to improve their noses. He gets to his last photo and braces his audience for an example of a strong “Jewish nose.” He reveals the picture of a normal, smiling teenage girl, and all the plastic surgeons laugh at her.
But Wiseman doesn’t set out to shock you. In fact, the overall tone of his films is very low-key. But for some people, low-key, ordinary life occasionally involves things most of us never consider — like beating an inmate or laughing at a young girl’s nose.
The second thing that makes his movies great is that Wiseman edits his footage into a rich, detailed portrait of a time and place. Wiseman shoots a lot of footage, only a small portion of which makes it in to his movies. This presents an interesting task for an editor: what do you cut, what do you show, and how do you arrange it?
Wiseman edits the film as though it were music. Different scenes are the verses in his composition. Oftentimes he’ll intercut a visual chorus that roots the movie in a specific place (like the night-time snow-grooming machines in Aspen, or the tramway in Zoo). Then again, he might set up a theme, then later play variations on that theme. For example, in Zoo, he includes a scene of the zookeepers making lunch (chopped fruit and vegetables) for some of the birds and reptiles. At the end of the movie there is a gala fundraising dinner and Wiseman carefully includes a shot of the big fruit salad for the guests.
Wiseman’s movies are slow paced. They are not immediately attention-grabbing. But for the attentive viewer, they are extremely rewarding. When the film ends you have a rich, ingrained sense of the people and place you just saw, infinitely more so than if you only saw talking heads and dramatic re-creations.
So even though I haven’t seen Belfast, Maine, I can confidently recommend it as the best movie you’ll see this weekend.
(By the way, none of Wiseman’s films are on video, so if you want to see his work, keep checking your PBS schedule.)