CITY HALL (2020)

(kanopy/MUBI) A doc from legendary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman that details the human infrastructure that allows a city to operate, primarily through Boston mayor Marty Walsh (who happens to be Biden’s pick for Labor Secretary).

I don’t know enough about Boston politics to properly judge the players in the doc’s spotlight, but I don’t think you need to. CIYT HALL pulls back the curtain to allow you to spend time — a lot of time, as the doc runs over four and a half hours — to see how the municipal sausage is made. You’ll watch politicians discuss agendas, but you’ll also be a fly-on-the-wall in parking ticket disputes, observe a community meeting concerning a cannabis shop, find yourself mesmerized by the mechanical power of a garbage truck, eavesdrop on 311 calls, and more.

While most filmmakers would focus solely on the impassioned bits — of which there are many — Wiseman showcases full twenty minute meetings and exchanges where, more than once, you can feel the boredom radiating from the room. CITY HALL lets you sit with the procedure and banal back-and-forth that it takes to help people, to try and make sure that Boston is operating as smoothly as humanly possible.

There’s a moment near the end of the film where you’re simply slowly shown a number of quiet spots throughout Boston, and the pacing and range of imagery instills the feeling that the city itself is breathing, fueled by the efforts of everyone and everything Wiseman has shown us over the past four hours.


(DVD/YouTube) Apologies in advance for the lengthy entry — please bear with me.

I moved to Chicago to attend film school, specifically Columbia College Chicago (not to be confused with NYC’s Columbia College). Back in the 90s, Columbia College Chicago was known as a film trade school: folks who worked in the industry taught you the basics to become another cog in the industry, and you were immediately able to get your hands on a camera, sit behind an AVID deck, rig lights, etc., as opposed to say UCLA or NYU, which taught you film history and theory for two years before you could shoot a single frame of film.

Freshmen CCC film students were required to enroll in FILM TECH I, and your first exercise was to shoot a three-minute silent film in Grant Park, an iconic Chicago space carved out in the mid-19th century, and was never to meant be touched by developers’ hands. It’s also basically Columbia College Chicago’s backyard.

Grant Park also happens to be the location of the protests that occurred during 1968 Democratic National Convention, the time and place of Haskell Wexler’s (best know as the Oscar-winning cinematographer of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOS NEST, WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT) hybrid fact/fiction documentary MEDIUM COOL, a film primarily concerned with the ethics (or lack thereof) of documentaries and photographic/filmic journalism, but whose captured footage of the DNC protest turned the film into an evergreen historical document.*

If you aren’t familiar with the events of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, here’s a primer.

(If you can’t view it, basically: a peaceful protest was turned into a bloody warfield by Chicago cops abusing their authority, all approved by the first Daley mayor.)

I didn’t see MEDIUM COOL until about a year into my CCC education, but I was still shell-shocked to see it, shot in the very same field I filmed a terribly pretentious, very slight short film. I admit, I felt a bit dirty, despite the fact that yes, it’s a public space but, after watching MEDIUM COOL, it felt like hallowed ground (even if it hosts Lollapalooza and the Pitchfork Music Fest every year).

Watching the events unfold yesterday (January 6th 2021), witnessing folks storming the US Capitol, watching a coup so dumb it felt like Christopher Morris penned it, immediately brought me back to when my wife and I travelled to DC for the Women’s March in 2016 which was definitely a clusterfuck of a protest, but still: it was a peaceful, indelible protest.

It made me recall all of the times I’ve seen protests in the news, and how when I was in D.C. my mind blurred into all of the prior D.C. protest footage I’ve seen in film and news over the years. It was a surreal moment then, and seeing a locale turn into the shitshow of domestic terrorism we witnessed on the 6th, of cops simply opening the floodgates into the US Capitol, allowing these racist, seditious assholes run rampant through the building, looting it as if the Patriots just won the Super Bowl, fried my brain.

To say we haven’t resolved the issues that spurred the police abuse in 1968, events that occurred ~fifty years ago., would be an understatement. But this is why MEDIUM COOL exists: to visually document historically important events, to reflect on them, and to force the viewer to reconcile the events in the film with the events in their current lives.


The full film:

“The whole world is watching.”