Belfast, Maine

From the Chicago Reader (2000). — J.R.

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Frederick Wiseman’s patient, four-hour unpacking of a small town in Maine confirms the impression of his previous masterpiece, Public Housing: that the masterful documentarian of High School (1968) and Welfare (1975) has now become a masterful essayist. Or maybe he’s been an essayist all along but has lately begun exercising his intelligence and organizing his documentary materials in increasingly subtle and nondidactic ways. What seems different and special about his recent work is its avoidance of easy theses. He picked as his subject this seaside community of 6,000 inhabitants, 99 percent of them white, because he lived a few miles away. He explains his approach as follows: “To document both change and continuity brought about by economic pressure on everyday life in Belfast, I examine its institutions and everyday practices. I also take a look at places where people interact: family life, commerce, public services, and public places.” My favorite scene is a high school teacher’s brilliant lecture on Moby-Dick that throws a great deal of light on everything else, but a lot of what I remember most vividly is the documentation of the daily work involved in preparing and packaging seafood — none of it boring to watch. Released in 1999, this went pretty quickly to PBS, but a big screen gives it the monumentality and weight it deserves. 247 min. (JR)

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