(Frederick Wiseman, 1999)
It was about sixty minutes into this four-and-a-half-hour portrait of the blue collar, bayside town of Belfast before I had any sort of idea what year it was. The giveaway is the marquee of the town movie theater, where the lineup consists of Stephen King's Thinner
, The First Wives Club
, and D3: The Mighty Ducks
— firmly establishing us in the autumn of 1996. A subsequent discussion on same-sex marriage reinforces that setting, with DOMA having been in the news at that time.
Without these clues, though, you could easily be forgiven for thinking it was the early 80s or even the 70s. There's a timelessness here, a suggestion of communal continuity that's lasted decades. The assembly lines we see at various factories act almost as symbols for that continuity — all the relentless, repetitive motions that started in the Industrial Revolution and haven't stopped since. There's artistry in the monotony, with Wiseman's cinematography and editing full of respect for the craftsmanship on display.
And yet that timelessness feels like it's slipping away. That's the impression created by Wiseman's disproportionate focus on the town's aging population, with their many health problems and strong dependence on social services. In fact, if you were to guess the town's demographics based on screen time here, it'd break down to like 65% senior citizens, 25% forty- and fifty-somethings, 5% twenty- and thirty-somethings, 1% teenagers, and 4% infants and toddlers. (I don't think I saw one child aged 6-13.)
It's a very skewed portrait, creating the impression of a lack of youth and a lack of future. More often than not, the town of Belfast feels like the extended campus of a nursing home, with all the various civic activities — flower arrangement classes, Civil War lectures, community theater, choir — only serving to distract the residents from their impending death. Is this a metaphor for life in general, or is it specific to this bayside community at the brink of the Information Age? I'm not sure.
One big failing of Belfast, Maine
is that, in the four-and-a-half hours it spends observing this community, it captures zero sense of family or family life. We see kids tagging along with their mothers on errands, and we see mothers chaperoning their kids on visits to doctors or social workers, but there's no real impression of family bonds. Two parents getting their infant baby baptized is the only sequence that touches upon it — but even that scene is more about the institution of the church in the community than about family. In that way, Wiseman
's film is a lot like a governmental survey, where all the facts gathered about the jobs and landscapes and civic institutions and income levels fail to capture the real pulse of the community.
What Wiseman does successfully capture is how very segregated the citizens of this small town are by gender. (Not by race, of course, as every single person in Belfast seems to be white, if not specifically of German heritage.) There are jobs for women and jobs for men. Errands for men and errands for women. Hobbies for women and hobbies for men. The lack of overlap is really surprising. The choral group is one of the few integrated activities, but even there the basses and tenors are grouped away from the sopranos and altos. Given this division and the Wiseman's disinterest in the town's social life (we glimpse inside a bar for a few quick seconds), it's almost impossible to imagine anyone in Belfast going out on a date. No wonder the town is dying out!
It's easy to underestimate the quality of the cinematography and editing in a Wiseman film. They're usually top-notch, and Belfast, Maine
is no exception. The way he visually breaks down the workings of the sardine factory is masterful, for example, with swirling masses of dead fish having a real hypnotic artist try to them. He reportedly spent five full weeks editing that one sequence, and it shows. I wish the film spent more time outdoors — where the reliance on natural light creates fewer constraints — because Wiseman and cinematographer John Davey have a knack for accentuating the postcard beauty of the autumnal New England landscapes, even when filming the brutality of a hunter shooting, at point blank range, a wolf with a paw caught in one of his steel traps.
The editing is stronger within scenes than between scenes. There's a repetitiveness to the film that is a bit unfortunate — the tendency to cap a scene with an exterior establishing shot, for instance; and the way every scene is a self-contained capsule. Wiseman chooses never to intercut between scenes, so everything we see becomes compartmentalized, without any sort of integrated flow to the portrait of the life in the town. You could probably argue that this strategy heightens the sense of mortality that hangs over the whole film, turning each sequence into an artifact inside a time capsule, robbed of history of future. Still, as an example, it would have been nice, after seeing rehearsals for a production of Death of a Salesman
, to have seen the final performance. But, no, life does not go on.
The screenshots above were chosen more or less at random, at fifteen minute intervals of the film. There's a metaphor in that.Grade: