City Hall On Blu

It's been a slow year, so far, for new releases I'm particularly excited about, but we finally got one: Frederick Wiseman's City Hall.  It's a bit ironic, perhaps, as this is one of the least exciting movies in film history; but it works for me.  With the field of documentary film becoming more and more dominated by true crime, political pandering and celebrity garbage, watching a Wiseman flick feels like an increasingly zen experience.  As non-confrontational as his work has always been, it seems like he's been mellowing even further out in the last decade or so - it's hard to imagine the guy who's been giving us At Berkley, Ex Libris, Monrovia, Indiana and now this swinging back to create a Domestic Violence 3.  His shooting and editing formula has eased into a groove so predictable you can call out from your couch, "okay, now we're going to see two still shots of a city street at night and then onto the next meeting," right before it all unfolds on screen.
And that's not a criticism.  At this point he has to expect and want us to relax into a comfort zone.  After all, from the very beginning, Wiseman has been against showy camera tricks, gimmicks, leading narration, emotional score, etc.  The fact that the man behind the camera never leaves you guessing about what he's up to let's you settle in and think exclusively about the people in front of the camera.  For four and a half hours.  By the end of City Hall, you'll feel like a native citizen of Boston, all ready to vote in the next local election, which is the gift of this film.
I do have one complaint about City Hall, however.  One of the consistent strengths of Wiseman's films is what he discovers.  It might be too neat to say each of his films documents a system, but it's pretty true, giving us a keen, insider's view into the world around us we never had before.  From Meat to High School, we're given a deeper insight into what we've already thoroughly experienced (vegans excluded).  "Meetings" are famously dull, but the meetings Wiseman meticulously observes are fascinating because it exposes the inner workings we're usually excluded from.  You could have toured London's National Gallery hundreds of times in your life as a patron, but National Gallery shows gives you the tour only the top level insiders would get to experience.  So City Hall is positioned to be a perfect, multi-tiered exploration of local government, just like his other films have shown us the full cross section of every other system he's turned his camera to.
But unfortunately, this film is really, to use a technical term, up the mayor's butt.  Look, I'm not expecting a scandalous take-down expose from a Wiseman film.  But even in just about every other film he's done, we'd be seeing meetings of the faculty debating what to tell the protesting students or the curators deciding what to charge the patrons.  But outside of one very brief introductory scene, we're not seeing the mayor talking to his staff about what to say at an event or rally, we're just seeing the public speeches he gives there.  I kept thinking, this is what I'd switch off of on my access news channel.  And the mayor isn't just one character in this complex sea of local government, this film follows him around to dozens of events; we're barely given any time away from him before he steps back in front of the camera with another prewritten speech.  I can only assume Wiseman was given very limited access, which would explain barely getting behind the curtain, but even then I can't imagine why he wanted to film all of the mayor's speeches so doggedly.  You start to get the impression that only one person works at city hall.
Not that there's nothing worth discovering; far from it!  There's a frank and charged talk between impoverished locals and business owners who want to open a dispensary in their neighborhood.  We see a number of cases where mostly younger people of color are trying to push diversity movements into their government.  We get an eye-opening glimpse into small room of technicians who monitor and control local traffic with real-time surveillance.  A charming retiree tries to get his landlord to help with a rat problem.  There's a montage of 311 calls that could have been an entire film all to itself.  Nervous scenes where people try to beat their parking tickets or just a calm moment watching a crew slowly pave a road are all great.  Building inspectors, fireman, garbage collectors.  Everything you want from a Wiseman film is here.  Endless indulgent footage of mayoral speeches just happens to be slathered all over it.
2021 Zipporah Films BDR.
Zipporah Films offers this film on either DVDR or BDR, naturally I've chosen the latter.  I've said it before and I'll say it again: their prices are exorbitant for burned discs (they're even high for professionally pressed discs), but at least they do a first class job.  Framed at 1.78:1, City Hall is spread across two dual-layer discs with a clear and vibrant image.  I don't need to compare it to the DVD edition to see from it's obvious sharpness and fine detail that this is pristine HD picture.  Playback can be a little dodgy with BDRs, but I've played these on two different players with zero issues.  We're given the choice of two audio options, both lossless (rare to see on burned discs): stereo in LPCM and 5.1 Surround in DTS-HD.  Optional English subtitles are also included.
So yes, I'd prefer pressed discs, but otherwise you can't say they didn't do a great job.  Obviously, Wiseman is as staunchly against extras as ever[??? I don't get that attitude, but it is what it is], but in terms of presentation, Zipporah has done everything you could ask for.  And City Hall really is a good movie; don't let my complaints put you off.  Yes, I'd have liked to see more of the mayor in the office and certainly a higher ratio of other city employees to him.  But this is still on the level of work most issue-of-the-week documentary filmmakers today should be aspiring to.  I'm already looking forward to his next one!

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