So many new releases and unearthed rarities cross through New York’s various first run and repertory screens each week that it often gets terribly hard to prioritize. Given that, I only expected only a handful of warm (or half-warm) bodies waiting for the start of Frederick Wiseman’s nearly four-hour State Legislature at the Anthology Film Archives last weekend.
Surprisingly, Anthology’s little Maya Deren had a healthy matinee audience ready to be treated to a mini-masterwork of real documentary—“real” in the sense of documentary filmmaking that hews closely to the formal definition of the term, that verité strand that’s been long overtaken in our theatres (and in public consciousness) by beefed up Frontline expose reportage and essayistic finger-wagging. Wiseman stubbornly eschews overt editorializing, preferring instead a laid back approach that allows his subjects room to grow and complicate themselves in front of our eyes. He also continues to shoot his films—many of robust length culled from mountains of footage—on 16mm, a choice which, in this digital era, lends each shot a kind of value that more frenetic video-lensed docs generally can’t achieve.
With overwhelming patience, Wiseman documented the 3-month 2004 session of the Idaho state legislature. Unlike larger states where legislators work full-time for their constituents, underpopulated Idaho’s elected officials work only three months of the year for a nominal stipend. Choosing a less “complicated” system than, say, California allows State Legislature the ability to unfold into a treatise on the issues of the day in America, not just Idaho—it’s our democracy’s crucial battles writ small.
So, we find a heated argument around public funding of education stemming from a bill that would put 200 more children into kindergarten (common sense or the creeping hand of socialism?). Or, a tense segment in which a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman is voted down in committee (a necessary protection or a waste of the government’s time?). These “showdowns” are remarkable for the seriousness of purpose of the legislators and their generally passionate articulacy. In between, State Legislature achieves a nearly hypnotic state, the only sounds being the hushed conversations and clacking footsteps echoing off the marble walls of the state’s beautifully appointed Capitol.
State Legislature seems a profoundly optimistic work, one in which we see the mechanisms of American democracy actually functioning. Of course it’s sloppy at times (the government, not the filmmaking, which is wholly elegant and rigorous), but when you assemble a bunch of random folks into a room and ask them to make decisions on behalf of some vaguely defined constituency, what else can we, and should we, expect? It’s riveting stuff.
State Legislature is gone from the Anthology, but available on DVD from Wiseman’s website, along with many of his other films.