Sunday, January 10, 2021


 “…to those who sneer at this my city…I give them back the sneer and say to them: Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.” — Carl Sandburg

Among the many things the pandemic has changed for us is the city. Gone, for now, is the fun hustle and bustle of a metropolis. And gone is the sense of community when the act of getting groceries or going to the theater is suddenly fraught with the potential for perpetuating a crisis. (What those who feel no sense of social responsibility, those who’ve been gathering together in tight indoor spaces flapping their bare faces to the wind, feel about this is beyond my understanding.) Into this void step recent documentaries that remind us what it’s like to live in a city, to be surrounded with diverse interpersonal encounters, to mix with people across all manner of walks of life as a matter of course. That might also remind us to build awareness of the cooperation needed to survive.

In Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall, the master of the epic documentary of place and process—with such classics as High School and Juvenile Court among dozens more—now turns his camera on Boston. Filmed over the course of 2019, we see a four-hour picture of all the various tasks and responsibilities local government must accomplish. True to Wiseman’s form, there’s no explanatory text or contextualizing interviews. He gives us generously portioned—and subtly shaped—looks into a variety of situations. Meetings of all sorts form the backbone as we walk through negotiations, ceremonies, constituent Q&As, social services, parks and sports. Some recurring personalities emerge. The mayor—then Marty Walsh—is often around. But we also see community gatherings and various local leaders doing the humble work of keeping a sprawling urban environment running with maximum cooperation and minimum fuss. There’s joy to be found in its quotidian frustrations as we see people really trying to do good work, and others trying their best to maneuver around obstacles of one sort or another.

Watching the movie unfold we see the citizenry in all their rambunctious, and potentially fractious, diversity. How can one city manage to serve them all? And yet it does, however imperfectly. Here’s a movie that restores your awareness of how much goes quietly right every single day, and how much unspoken trust we actually have to have in one another in order to run an even partly functional society. The traffic lights change. The buses run on schedule. The employees of the city show up to work in offices flashy and humble alike. One scene that plays like a microcosm of this larger truth is bulk trash pickup day, a long sequence in which sanitation workers toss improbably outsized items into the back of a garbage truck. The gears grind and the rubbish is, somehow, amazingly, compacted. Every time they pick up another piece, you might think, how is this sturdy chunk of furniture going to fit? And yet, one watches in amazement as it does.

Over in Chicago, Steve James’ City So Real hops neighborhood to neighborhood in intimate portraitures of everyday life from barbershops and restaurants to dinner parties and fundraisers. Collectively, it becomes something like a comprehensive panoramic snapshot of modern (well, pre-pandemic, at least) life in the Windy City. He filmed it during the 2019 mayoral primary, using campaign events, debates, clashes, and canvasing as a guide to take us through the various social strata of his home city. Here, in this metropolis with rich working-class roots, coupled with a complicated history of corruption, we find a window that’s also a mirror. James has done this for his city many times over by this point, from Hoop Dreams’ young basketball players and The Interrupters’ community activists to Life Itself’s biography of quintessential Chicagoan Roger Ebert and America to Me’s deep dive into a high school. With this new project, we get to take a wide-ranging tour of the city with a knowledgeable guide able to communicate clearly about what, and who, should be seen.

It’s a sprawling series—stretching over five episodes—that encompasses the usual litany of the city’s issues: gentrification, police brutality, gun violence, economic inequalities, and local corruption. But it’s also a picture of a resilient people attempting, and often succeeding, to live side by side in that struggle together. This comes into sharp focus in the final episode, filmed during the summer of 2020 and all of its fraught pandemic protections and protests for racial justice. The camerawork, always a close and real style, takes on added urgency, and the interviews, largely outdoors, take on new tensions. But underneath even these complications we can see the soul of a proud city reflected in its best citizens yearning to do right by each other despite the best efforts of the worst.

Then there’s New York City, the star of two recent personality-driven documentary series. (If there’s a more photographed city than NYC, I don’t know what it’d be.) Pretend It’s a City finds Martin Scorsese following author, humorist, and all-around delightful crank Fran Lebowitz. It’s named for her advice to annoying tourists who gum up the sidewalks by gawking when they should be walking. It’s a city, she grumbles. People live here. They have places to go and people to see. Although, to hear her tell it, she can take or leave most people. Her fabulously cutting wit is often funny, as evidenced by Scorsese’s delightful laughter erupting in most scenes. She discusses the big topics of contemporary city life—helpfully segmented into episodes titled “Cultural Affairs,” “Metropolitan Transit,” and the like—as well as larger complaints and concerns about the world as a whole. Scorsese did this once before, in the relatively trim 2010 movie Public Speaking. What that 80-minute feature had in pithiness, this miniseries expands and luxuriates and can’t get enough. Here’s a project devoted to nothing more than the sheer pleasure of hearing a thoughtful person speak intelligently and humorously about matters of literature, society, and politics. That doesn’t mean you’ll always agree with her, or find her every stance an easy-to-grok assertion. It’s better than that: a chance to engage with a prickly and particular personality, sometimes nodding and smiling in concurrence, or sometimes carrying on little debates with her in your mind as you wait for her to slyly toss her next verbal grenade. She has love for what her city can be, and deep disgruntled complaints about all the ways it falls short.

Less irascible, but just as idiosyncratic is How to with John Wilson. This documentary series on HBO pushes against all possible definitions and assumptions that collection of signifiers put in your head. He’s a man with a camera. He wanders the city taking what must be endless amounts of footage. A people watcher par excellence, he narrates in a light, casual, unassuming tone a montage of continual surprise as he chases down the smallest of observations. These quotidian ideas build, in turn, to an accumulation of humanity in all its quirks and foibles. Take, for instance, a moment where he insists people conclude small talk with a tap on the arm. Surely, one thinks, there won’t be clips of that. But then there are. Over and over we see a conversation on the street or in the park or near the subway end with a gentle farewell tap. It goes on and on and the mind reels at Wilson’s ability to capture and synthesize. He reminds me of Bill Cunningham’s street fashion photography in his ability to find the striking in the everyday. But that’s not all. His winding, discursive episodes—part video essay, part memoirist visual diary—are too clever to be just a catalogue of behaviors. Often his narration will arrive matter-of-factly at a punchline of sorts, a flatly stated claim that’s given a surprisingly just-so visualization, some cockeyed perfect illustration in the form of a visual pun or goofy joke, or, even funnier once it’s lulled you into its rhythms, a counterpoint undercutting him.

Unlike so much television these days, it asks you to hear and see at the same time. You can’t be glancing up from a phone or laundry basket and get the full effect. He also interviews people, weaving them into his patter. He's able to disarm or discombobulate with his flatly presented simple questions. This takes us through a variety of eccentrics and interests—he’s talking everything from scaffolding, conspiracy theories, furniture preservation techniques, split checks, and, most randomly, a device a circumcised man invented to try to regrow his foreskin. (That last guy’s almost too eager to share.) Here’s a dryly funny and critical, but also warm and humane picture of life in the big city, aware of the full scope of our differences and commonalities. There’s something profound about his approach simply in its willingness to take in so much of his surroundings. Through his droll, intuitive shot selection, he’s sifted his images to help us notice things we might otherwise overlook. When he connects with a spring breaker on a beach and discovers depths in his shallowness, there’s a reminder that there’s always more to discover about the people and places around us. Wilson’s most moving episode is the last of the first season, in which COVID hits and he is forced to constrain his wanderings. It becomes the most interior and personal, as his whole urban environment is narrowed down to an attempt to cook the perfect risotto to leave for his elderly landlady as shelves empty and ambulances roar by. Again we see the beauty in the little things against the backdrop as enormous as a city.

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