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Belfast, Maine (1999)

 -  Documentary  -  October 1999 (USA)
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Poetry in motion
1 February 2013 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

"Poetry in motion[...]a wave out on the ocean could never move that way." - Johny Tillotson, "Poetry in Motion."

If anything came into my head when watching the extraordinary cinematic achievement of Frederick Wiseman that is Belfast, Maine, it's the above quote which, while it was referencing the beauty and majestic nature of a female, could nothing but describe the way I saw this documentary. It flows like absolute poetry, with nothing feeling out of place or disjointed. This is a massive achievement and struggle for Wiseman, who does not use any narration or title cards informing us of a date, time, or an issue. Despite the way he rejects the term "observational filmmaking," I can't think of a better word to describe this picture. It's poetic difference and an astonishing piece of art.

Some of you may remember two years ago, when I was lucky to encounter a copy of Titicut Follies, Frederick Wiseman's first major film that garnered more controversy than many documentaries will ever see. Because of its intense and liberating portrayal of a Bridgewater Mental Hospital in the late 1960's, it was refused a formal release by a stubborn Massachusetts legislature who clearly cared less about the treatment of their state's patients and more about the way their institutions would be viewed. Nonetheless, it saw its release in 1992 on PBS and is currently available on DVD on Wiseman's website, along with his other documentaries. Anyone contemplating pursuing a career in psychology or sociology should feel nothing but obligated to watch this film. To quote the film's tagline; "don't turn your back on this movie if you value your mind or your life."

Yet I digress from Belfast, Maine, a documentary, like Titicut Follies that demands your attention but not in the same regard. Titicut Follies wanted to inform you and show you the horrors behind closed-doors. Belfast, Maine wants to show you a wide-open community, made public to anyone who walks on the soil. It's a small, New England port city that is mainly comprised of the working middle class, with much emphasis and detail payed to the extensive workload the townspeople deal with. Wiseman's obsession with the common-man is boldly shown here, focusing on people working as lobstermen, judges, policemen, factory workers, city counsel members, social workers, volunteers, small business owners, the disabled, etc. Not to mention, a pristine glimpse at different dance clubs and social activities outside of the public's workload.

There are lingering shots of the interior of a local high school and a skatepark, as well, but Belfast, Maine seems populated mainly by the middle-age to elderly demographic. Wiseman makes very clear to us that these people are slaves to the institution, completely building their lives off of job persistency and devotion. Some of the most intense and mesmerizing sequences take place in Belfast's many factories, one of them dealing with the packing and distribution of sardines, another with potatoes. These sequences go on for about fifteen minutes each, and we see not just the content workers slaving away at monotony, but their dedication and continuation in a job that is emptying and largely unrewarding.

One of the many morals that could be extracted from this epic is the American Dream and its slow decay into obscurity and extinction. One of the earliest scenes in a high school focus on a discussion about the classic novel Moby Dick and how the American Dream theme ties itself in with the timeless story of a captain hellbent on capturing a ramped whale. Another discussion later on in the film centers around the equally timeless novel Death of a Salesman, which explicitly details the American Dream. Even as we watch the teachers discuss the respective novels in front of a uninterested student body, there's a depressingly present feeling of hopelessness and solemn disappointment on the teachers' part. They seem to find their efforts to educate the uninterested for nothing.

This is truly a film that needs to be seen and not explained to those who have not had the pleasure of sitting through it. It's definitely not a travelogue by any means necessary, as Wiseman seems to appreciate the simplicity of the port town itself, while equally condemning what has made the town fall into that category. The observational technique the film employs works wonders, and this is almost crucial for the film's success.

Even at a heavy 245 minutes (ranking as the longest film I ever sat through), Belfast, Maine's length is indifferent in the usual "too long" or "too short" opinion. Wiseman shot a little over 100 complete hours of footage and perhaps even that would be indifferent to the positive/negative aspect of length. Yet, once more, he has shed light on an area of the world that probably would've went tragically unnoticed otherwise. The reality and naturalistic filmmaking is truly an invaluable addition, and the atmosphere we take in, the characters we meet, the places we go, and the things we see are all housed in a masterwork of cinematic proportions. The lasting effect was a peculiar one, for me, however.At times, I wanted to take the next plane to Belfast to admire the casual beauty and simplicity of the town, while the next motivation I had was to take my camera and embark on an odyssey of my own throughout my hometown.

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