Suffused with a valedictory feel that is part timing, part subject matter, Frederick Wiseman’s “Belfast, Maine” stands with the very best of the doc dean’s substantial body of work, a shrewd and meticulous late-October look at the various cells of the living organism that is this small New England port town. Already skedded for a Feb. 4 broadcast on PBS Stateside, this monumental and rewarding film is an outstanding intro to Wiseman’s oft-imitated, seldom duplicated modus operandi and will thus be in great demand at fests fearless enough to place this rigorous yet rewarding four-hour-plus item front and center.
In keeping with helmer’s signature style, film unfolds with no narration or onscreen identification, observing the citizens of the town as they perform their jobs and relax, emphasizing the rhythm of life with a structure approximating the day-night cycle. Lobstermen catch lobsters, dry cleaners press clothes, factory workers spew out stuffed potatoes and canned fish, deer hunters weigh their catch and kibitz, bakers make chocolate donuts, taxidermists clean and prepare fox skins, and so on and so on. Both blue-collar and well-to-do townspeople, a few of whom begin to show up in several sequences, seem perfectly normal and relaxed, quietly solemn as they work and affably practical as they play.
True to his overriding interests in American social service institutions and the constant pressures and constraints they face, the film conjures up memories of Wiseman’s previous work as it spends time with an intense high school teacher guiding his charges through “Moby Dick” (“High School”), medical personnel and outreach workers counseling young mothers and poor shut-ins (“Hospital,” “Welfare”), an overworked judge dispensing fines (“Juvenile Court”) and even two men and a director rehearsing a community performance of “Death of a Salesman” (“La Comedie Francaise, ou L’amour Joue”).
Wiseman has been walking this beat for over three decades, and the circumstances surrounding this production suggest that perhaps he felt a summation of sorts was in order. Having kicked around the idea of the small town as subject and already familiar with this gorgeous but poverty-stricken 224-year-old burg, Wiseman shot 110 hours of footage in October 1996 (as the town was learning to accommodate a huge credit card collection center) and took another year to sculpt it down to 3% of that total for the finished film.
Tip-off to his true skill and value as a social historian is fact that pic never wanders for a second, finding with unerring precision the poetry in the pedestrian without enforcing opinion or judgment. “He’s done!” someone yells in the course of a community-sponsored activity, and although “Belfast, Maine” has that millennial aura of summation — clear in the energy of the presentation and the hard work of these public servants and private citizens, although neither their nor, presumably, Wiseman’s work is anywhere near completion.