Venice 2020: It Takes a City

New docs unveiled in Venice: Welles’ posthumous “Hopper / Welles”, Rosi’s “Notturno”, and Wiseman’s vital “City Hall”
Leonardo Goi


Above: City Hall

It was the first time this year I heard people clap before the film began, and the applause lived on with an energizing aftershock. The theatre was the Lido’s Sala Darsena, the time 19:45, and the film City Hall, Fredrick Wiseman’s new documentary, a foray into the workings of Boston’s city government that would keep us in the theatre for the following four and a half hours. City Hall, which premiered out of competition, follows Wiseman’s previous Venice entry, Monrovia, Indiana (2018), an anguished study of small-town America. But it feels closer in scope and tone to that film’s predecessor, the extraordinary Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (2017), a journey that shuttled you across the institution’s many branches as they sought to adjust to the digital age. Much of what made that film so stupefying to me was the way Wiseman was able to capture the NYPL as some living organism sharing a symbiotic relationship with the place and people around it. And City Hall feels just as alive and vibrant. Like Ex Libris, this is a vivisection of an institution that’s never captured as an ossified bureaucratic apparatus, but some body organ living and breathing in sync with the community around it.

Boston’s city government has been run since 2014 by Marty Walsh, and the Democrat is our chief chaperon. We follow the Mayor and other officials as they go about their daily routines, an endless series of meetings and encounters with Bostonians from all walks of life. We witness weddings, listen in to Walsh’s plans to tackle homelessness and discrimination (two of City Hall ’s leitmotifs), sit through meetings with Boston’s disadvantaged—the elderly, the disabled, the PTSD-riddled vets—and watch as the city strives to open safe spaces for them all. Structurally, the film invokes the rhythm of Ex Libris, with the encounters punctuated by glimpses of the city’s streets and buildings—not exterior shots of the administration’s buildings, necessarily, but a more peripatetic mosaic that steers clear from sightseeing to conjure a “real” and lived-in urban turf: nail salons, food banks, office spaces, housing projects.

“Boston’s city government is the opposite of what Trump stands for,” Wiseman’s said, and indeed, City Hall maintains a belligerent tone throughout, pitting Mayor Walsh’s office as anathema to Trump’s: a safety net for the downtrodden, a champion of inclusiveness, and a bellwether for the whole country to look up to and follow. “I realize in Boston we can’t solve the problems of the United States,” Walsh says halfway through, “but all it takes is one city.” You may argue there are moments when the idealism City Hall radiates through each and every frame threatens to turn the whole project into a showcase of Walsh’s tenure. After all, the mayor appears in over a third of City Hall ’s 45 scenes—but none of the most heated exchanges between citizens and officials, when Bostonians get to challenge the price of the administration’s policies, and the ingrained inequalities still plaguing the have-nots.  

But praise for Walsh and his work is warranted, and in the economy of City Hall, the juxtaposition between the virtuous example of Boston’s city government and the cancerous effects of Trump’s presidency on the country’s social fabric only reinforce the urgency of the film’s message. City Hall is a vital piece of filmmaking, an institutional ethnography that doubles as a celebration of American democracy as defined by Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address (“a government of the people, by the people, and for the people”). And in a year in which the festival’s official competition was a largely patchy affair, why this didn’t find a place among other Golden Lion contenders is beyond me.

Above: Hopper/Welles

Wiseman’s was one of three documentaries I saw in the past couple of days, a streak that began earlier in the week with Orson Welles’s Hopper/Welles. Another posthumous addition to the director’s oeuvre after his long-in-the-making The Other Side of the Wind (and as with that film, finished and stitched together by producer Filip Jan Rymsza and editor by Bob Murawski), Hopper/Welles is a recording of a boisterous dinner conversation between Welles and Dennis Hopper, which the director recorded in 1970 at his Beverly Hills home. Barely a year had passed since Hopper’s game-changing Easy Rider: less of a film than a cultural phenomenon, his directorial debut had turned the man into the prophet of a New Hollywood—a position Welles himself had enjoyed some thirty years prior, after his own monumental first feature, Citizen Kane. But to attach to Hopper/Welles the simplistic label of “a meeting between two giants” is to overlook how both their careers had by then already begun to dwindle, and to miss on the tension that permeates the film.

In 1970, Welles had just returned to Hollywood after a decade-long self-imposed exile in Europe, and was gearing up for a comeback project, The Other Side of the Wind, which he’d never get to finish, much less see on a big screen. As for Hopper, the instant success of Easy Rider had granted him full control of his sophomore, the million-dollar-budgeted The Last Movie (1971), but production for that film had turned into a cocaine-propelled disaster. By the time he sat with Welles, the 34-year-old actor-turned-director was wrestling with 48 hours of footage, and bracing for an untimely fall from critical and box-office grace. Details of that doomed production surface all through Hopper/Welles, a symposium (in the Ancient Greek sense of the word: an alcohol-fueled conversation) that touches upon all sorts of issues. We get a feel for the directors’ cinephilia, hear of Welles’ antipathy for Antonioni (which he’d parody in a film-within-a-film nestled in The Other Side of the Wind), of Hopper’s admiration for Last Year at Marienbad, of the seven times he watched L’avventura and the seven times he slept through it. And we hear them discuss politics, and muse on changing nature of filmmaking practices.

Visually, this doesn’t feel like a conversation as much as an interview, with Welles sitting somewhere off screen, and two cameras hovering around Hopper alone, roving dizzyingly between medium shots and hyper-close ups of his inebriated face. The raw and unvarnished aesthetic makes Hopper/Welles a maddening ride, all zooms and camera spins, but it also graces the film with an intoxicating quality of its own. This is an unguarded meeting between two directors who are genuinely curious about each other, and eager to share and challenge their views on filmmaking and the wider world. As the night goes on (and Hopper chain-smokes in between gin and tonics) the conversation assumes a more combative tone. Welles challenges Hopper’s political activism, and grills him as a “reluctant revolutionary” (“can you really change the world by making films and keeping quiet?”). And the neophyte sheds some of the reverence for the old maestro to defend his worldview, even as he’s all too aware that saying too much may get him into all sorts of troubles (in what’s possibly the most chilling exchange, Hopper tells Welles that the FBI comes knocking at his door every fortnight, to pass a list of suspected commies he’s not to mingle with, lest his career should tank overnight). 

That’s the power and beauty of Hopper/Welles.  This is—far and above everything else, perhaps—an archive, a solemn and rambunctious scrap of film and US history, heralding the emergence of a new movement (New Hollywood) and the death of another (the 1960s, and all the utopias and mirages that decade had promised). That it feels so alive and vibrant is nothing short of extraordinary.

Above: Notturno 

Slotted in the official competition was another documentary, directed by a previous Golden Lion winner. Having nabbed the statuette in 2013 with Sacro GRA, an excursion into Rome’s looping highway and the folks stranded along its perimeter, and then a Golden Bear in 2016 with Fire at Sea, a portrait of the island of Lampedusa and its inhabitants, Gianfranco Rosi returned to the Lido with Notturno, a chronicle of a three-year journey that shuttled the director across the Middle East. Notturno films glimpses of faces and places along the borders of Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria, and Lebanon—a transnational canvas of a region shattered by decades of warfare, and captured by Rosi in a travelogue that gives no real indications of time or space. Domestic scenes and everyday routines wrestle with the omnipresent specter of war, as tangible and lacerating a presence when Rosi trails behind the Peshmerga guerrillas fighting on the frontline, or when Notturno listens to the testimonies of those who survived the unspeakable atrocities inflicted by ISIS against civilians. We visit refugee camps, army barracks, derelict buildings turned torture chambers, people’s homes, prisons stashed with Islamic State terrorists, and a psychiatric ward where patients stage a play designed to capture something of the long and uninterrupted history of violence that’s plagued the region since colonial times.

That play—which Rosi returns to, time and again—doubles as a backbone in a film whose structure remains decidedly skeletal. This is a collection of episodes, of vignettes, some of which feel like relics of a long and restless road trip, and others that exude a fly on the wall feeling, as when Rosi leaves his camera inside a home to chronicle the daily routine of a single mother and her seven children. The blurring of borders and disorienting feeling that results from this is nothing coincidental, and I suspect Rosi would argue this speaks to the film’s effort to question borders as acts of betrayal, defined and re-written purely in accordance with political demands. Yet I fear the choice may end up diluting the incisiveness and strength of the film’s message, to the point that Notturno, cartwheeling across a mud-covered wasteland of rubble, checkpoints and rundown buildings, gradually morphs into a mood piece, as bleak and sepulchral as the cerebral skies hanging above those sprawling vistas. 

This isn’t an indictment of the spellbinding beauty some of those images crackle with. Notturno is a stunningly shot film, and features what was possibly the most beautiful scene I saw here on the Lido this year: a poacher hunting for ducks in the dead of night, his canoe gliding over a swamp illuminated only by the faint and distant burning of an oil well, a sickly sun. But as Rosi’s voyage went on, the succession of those majestic shots began to feel increasingly stylized, and their beauty out of place. For a film seeking to sponge up the resilience of those psychically damaged people forced to endure decades of warfare and no clear sense of future, Notturno feels surprisingly muted. And when Rosi turns in to eavesdrop on the memories of the Yazidi people who saw their families slaughtered by ISIS troops, I couldn’t quite shake off the feeling that the film was veering into a dangerously voyeuristic terrain, drawing on those sorrows to reach a pathos that escapes it throughout. Echos of the war ricochet everywhere we go: but they only feel loud because the film is an empty—if gorgeous—journey to begin with.

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Festival CoverageVeniceVenice 2020Frederick WisemanOrson WellesGianfranco RosiDennis Hopper
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