Bruce Newcomb, Robert Geddes, and all the members and staff of the Senate and House of Representatives of the Idaho Legislature during its 2004 session
US DVD: Jan 2009
If Ken Burns can be likened to PBS’ manic tour guide of America’s greatest moments, then Frederick Wiseman serves as its resident archeologist, quietly measuring the country’s smoldering political unconscious that courses within the non-descript facades of its institutional structures. Burns’ most popular films tend to celebrate American diversity in a superficial, if not by now rote manner, usually along the narrative lines that: there was once was anti-black racism within the United States, but baseball, World War II, the Civil War, jazz, or what-have-you allowed us to breach the racial divide and construct a brighter-and-kinder nation of tomorrow.
As Burns’ popularity has grown, so too has his films’ patriotic bombast as they become increasingly unmoored from measured historical reflection in the name of a faux-populism. The War is a case in point where not one historian is to be interviewed throughout its 15 trudging hours, and Japanese-American accounts were included only after various protest groups guilted Burns into acknowledging that this perspective has been all-too-often shelved.
Wiseman, on the other hand, has steadily continued making films in a direct cinema vein ever since the release of Titicut Follies in 1967. Before becoming a filmmaker, Wiseman taught law at Boston and Brandeis Universities. The idea for Titicut Follies arose from his frequent class trips to the local psychiatric asylum in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, believing that his students should become acquainted with the institution where they, as prosecutors and judges, would be sending some defendants. Appalled by its conditions and the treatment of its inmates, Wiseman chronicled on celluloid how the United States disposed of its least fortunate and most vulnerable members of society. With this first film, Wiseman initiated his 42-year long career in exploring “how institutions reflect the larger cultural hues”.
In many ways, Burns’ and Wiseman’s careers serve as indexes of the transformations that Public television and documentary cinema have undergone throughout the last 40 years. Wiseman’s style was birthed from the radical innovations of the direct cinema movements of the ‘60s. Employing critical montage, rejecting voice-over and narrative contextualization as well as musical accompaniment, Wiseman forced viewers to navigate unaided through the intricate mosaic structure of his films. With increasing experience, the length and complexity of his films augmented, perhaps crescendoing in 1997 with Public Housing.
Burns, on the other hand, masterfully alchemized documentary into middle-brow commercial appeal by interviewing both celebrities and historians, and summonsing the beloved Ken Burn’s effect: dramatically zooming in and panning over photographs to emphasize faces, gestures, an unnerving detail, unlocking the hidden textures that litter static images with the force of time-based technology. His films were not simply a testimony to the rather saccharine notion of the American melting pot, but also a dazzling demonstration of how new technologies can resurrect the past in vital and engaging ways.
Wiseman’s films interrogate viewers’ relation to the filmed material, using editing to destabilize linear narrative and a media-res approach to shear context. Burns films seduce viewers into narrative certainty with the voice-over massaging them along the way, assuring them that all will be well by the film’s conclusion. But neither filmmaker’s project would be possible without public funding through PBS, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Ford Foundation.
To give PBS credit, it has continued to fund Wiseman’s films for over 40 years—despite their lack of commercial appeal. But one need only chronicle its advertising campaigns to see which filmmaker the real money backs. Wiseman’s work speaks to an older time when public funding was regarded more as a reservoir to produce cutting edge work regardless of its popularity; its inherent integrity spoke for its necessity.
Burns’ work resonates with a neo-liberal ethos that dictates that popularity and appeal must drive the overall project; this does not necessarily always require sacrificing complexity, but it would be disingenuous to imply that it never does. Both filmmakers’ works attest to the need for public funding to create ambitious projects that do not fit traditional venues. But they also mark the divide within this already marginalized and underfunded community as to whether public moneys should be spent to challenge tax payers’ perceptions or to placate them.
One reason that Wiseman’s films might be so consistently overlooked is due to their unassuming style. They seem almost haphazardly pieced together if one is not paying careful attention to their overall structure. Their mosaic structure, after all, makes them perfect to watch in a piece-meal fashion due to the convenience of time-shifting technologies like DVD players and the ever shrinking leisure hours viewers have available to view them uninterrupted. Furthermore, their interest in institutions rather than a central personality significantly limits their appeal in a celebrity-driven media culture.
Similar to his earlier films, State Legislature orbits around an institution: the 2004 session of the Idaho State Legislature. The film begins with a series of shots cutting into the State capitol, emphasizing its edifice and location. By film’s end, however, we watch a memorial conducted in its House for a recently deceased member who served 12 years. A bagpiper plays “Amazing Grace” and slowly walks to the exit at the rear of the room. The representatives silently turn observing him leaving, the sound of the pipes echoing into the marble halls as if transubstantiating into the very spirit of not only the departed representative, but the institution itself. It is a transcendental moment. But the doors slowly shut. The representatives turn around. And the screen cuts to black, shuttling us back into reality, reminding us that such moments are dependent upon nothing more than the daily operations and interactions of everyday people.
It is this movement between the particular and the whole, the local and the national, the literal and the transcendent, that Wiseman traces in the practices of everyday life that make him such a brilliant filmmaker. He accents the banality of the institution right from the film’s opening. Bruce Newcomb, Speaker of the House, addresses a group of moderately interested students, emphasizing that “anybody can do what we’re doing.” The importance of the institution, according to Newcomb, is in its supposed representation of a cross-section of Idahoans.
Yet as the film progresses, we are asked to take this statement to task as we witness various groups not being adequately represented. For example, we watch one representative speaking to a news reporter about his attempt to pass legislation providing undocumented workers with the ability to obtain drivers licenses since, like it or not, they compose a vital and significant number of Idaho’s workforce. Notably absent from the legislature, however, is anyone from Hispanic descent.
We do see one Mexican-American pleading to a disinterested representative for his cause but to no avail. The only other time Hispanics are present is during a mariachi sequence where a band is playing in the capitol’s halls. Likewise, we later witness a nearly all-white student chorus singing, “Swing Lo, Sweet Chariot,” in off-key falsetto. Although seemingly minor incidents within the film, they nonetheless draw attention to the way in which various minority interests have been marginalized, quarantined from the halls of debate and substituted by easily digestible forms of entertainment.
Overall, the Idaho legislature serves as a microcosm for the various issues that concern the entire United States. We watch representatives, senators, and the public debate issues concerning video voyeurism, media deregulation, the imposition of the Ten Commandments in the public sphere, illegal immigration, and, most significantly since it is the penultimate section of the film, anti-homosexual legislation.
This last issue is particularly noteworthy in the way in which Wiseman allows viewers to watch the entire legislative episode unfold as a junior representative overrides the Committee Chair’s desire to kill the defense of marriage bill by forcing it to a vote. Interestingly enough, after witnessing over ten minutes of the full session, we never once hear mention of gays or lesbians or even homosexuals by any of the representatives, which suggests that the topic is so taboo that its very mention is verboten.
At the same time, those opposing the bill do so not in any defense of minority rights, but either because the junior representative has challenged legislative hierarchy or the bill itself threatens the integrity of the State Supreme Court by implying that some of its judges might have liberal tendencies in defending homosexual marriage. Disturbingly, liberal viewers are placed in alliance with the opposition even though they find its reasoning as homophobic as the bill itself.
Despite the aforementioned examples, State Legislature does not demonize the people of the Midwest. It reveals them as engaged, if albeit conservative and at times a bit narrow-minded, citizens carrying on debates about issues that concern us all—not with the well-seasoned arrogance and strut of the career politician, but instead with the hesitations and awkwardness of ordinary people wrestling with the issues before them.
At its best, the film forces viewers to take account of the complexities of the moment such as one of the opening scenes where a prayer starts off a Senate session. Although one can rightfully be concerned with the erosion of the separation of church and State being witnessed here, one cannot ignore that the prayer is for three senators’ sick sons. We are particularly drawn into the humanity of the moment as the camera zooms in on one senator dabbing his watering eyes with his handkerchief. We don’t know if he is one of the fathers or simply someone who cares.
Either way it doesn’t matter since the point is the impact of the prayer itself, its relation to and affect upon people. Both a breach of church and state and a ritual that reveals the humanity underlying the legislative body, the prayer signals how all ideological issues are nonetheless intimately intertwined with actual human lives; this doesn’t justify such a breach taking place, but it does help explain it and show what is at stake. And this is what makes Wiseman’s films so valuable: rather than giving us the easily digestible turn-of-phrase, the simple narrative reconciliation that smoothly fades to black, they force us to confront the complicated and contradictory moments where ideology and emotion, institution and humanity collide.
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