This Week's Show •

Documenting Democracy: Fred Wiseman’s ‘City Hall’

What Fred Wiseman found in Boston City Hall is not what he was looking for.  The master of documentary film is famous for his almost innocent camera eye that unlocks visual drama in big institutions ...

What Fred Wiseman found in Boston City Hall is not what he was looking for.  The master of documentary film is famous for his almost innocent camera eye that unlocks visual drama in big institutions — the New York Public Library, the Paris Opera, or in his early days: Bridgewater State Mental Hospital in 1960s Massachusetts. So why not finally get inside the modern brick and concrete fortress of official life in his hometown, and see what’s going on in the faces, the meeting rooms, the tone of voice in local affairs.  What he found was simpler than all that.  It was the un-Trump in the un-Washington. An almost astonishing civility, good humor, what looks like good faith in the hundreds of negotiations every day that keep a community going, and growing.

Fred Wiseman shot his film “City Hall” in Boston toward the end of 2018—before COVID, before the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, before the vote that elected Joe Biden president.  It was 10 weeks in the shooting in the nooks and crannies of city services. Then it was 10 months in the alchemy of editing and shaping what the legendary Wiseman eye has seen. It is now a four-and-a-half hour movie — between limited release in theaters and national exposure on public television.  And already it is a field day for reviewers far and wide: an artist’s impression of local politics and public conversation that seem to have turned upside down and are not settled yet.  To my eye and ear, Fred Wiseman’s “City Hall” feels like a classic that dates itself before the flood, so to speak, but is not at all frozen in time.

This hour, we’re in conversation with Fred Wiseman, speaking to us from Paris, where he distilled hundreds of hours of film into a movie. Lydia Edwards, city councilor from East Boston, also joins us.

Featured image by Adrien Toubiana, courtesy of Zipporah Films. The full Open Source panel event at City Hall, excerpted in this hour, can be found here. Our 2018 conversation with Fred Wiseman can be found at this link.

This Week's Show •

Boston Noir

Noir heroes tend not to be gangsters of Whitey Bulger’s grandeur; not tough cops either: they’re punched-out boxers and junkies, little perps, prisoners, victims reduced to victimizing each other and themselves.
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Howie Winter, Whitey Bulger's rival inside the Winter Hill King, kissing criminal-turned-actor Alex Rocco, with Robert Mitchum in the front at left. (Photo courtesy Howie Carr/Emily Sweeney.)

Howie Winter, Whitey Bulger’s rival inside the Winter Hill King, kissing criminal-turned-actor Alex Rocco, with Robert Mitchum in the front at left. (Photo courtesy Howie Carr/Emily Sweeney.)

Boston noir is an art of darkness, under an overcast sky and fishy salt-air smell of the  waterfront. It’s now a sort of signature of our city, in novels that became movies, like The Town, The Departed, and The Fighter. You can hear a lot of it  in the broken voice of Robert Mitchum, playing the title character in the movie, The Friends of Eddie Coyle.  He’s in a breakfast joint with a rookie gun dealer, warning him that there’s a price to be paid for screwing up, as he did in a botched gun sale, earning a new set of knuckles:

They just come up to you and say, “Look. You made somebody mad. You made a big mistake and now there’s somebody doing time for it. There’s nothing personal in it, you understand, it just has to be done. Now get your hand out there.” You think about not doing it, you know. When I was a kid in Sunday school, this nun, she used to say, “Stick your hand out. ” I stick my hand out. Whap! She’d knock me across the knuckles with a steel-edge ruler. So one day I says, when she told me, “Stick your hand out” I says, “No. ” She whapped me right across the face with the ruler. Same thing. They put your hand in a drawer. Somebody kicks the drawer shut. Ever hear bones breaking? Just like a man snapping a shingle. Hurts like a bastard.

Dennis Lehane, who wrote Mystic River, says noir is working-class tragedy — different from other kinds. “In Shakespeare,” Lehane puts it, “tragic heroes fall from mountaintops; in noir, they fall from curbs.”  Noir heroes tend not to be gangsters of Whitey Bulger’s grandeur; not tough cops either: they’re punched-out boxers and junkies, little perps, prisoners, victims reduced to victimizing each other and themselves. Noir is the bottom of underground capitalism, talking to itself.  It’s bad things happening to bad guys, giving and getting the punishment they think they deserve. More noir images from camera of Leslie Jones, preserved on the Boston Public Library’s Flickr page. Use arrows to navigate, and see more here.