In an age where documentaries strive to be showier and snakier - "docu-tainment," if you will - along comes Frederick Wiseman to remind us of the importance of a simpler approach. Wiseman, a workhorse who's churned out 37 films in 41 years (many of which stretch to 4 hours or more), is considered by many to be a legend in his field, a filmmaking brand all his own. Wiseman's style is fly-on-the-wall, often using long, unbroken takes to merely record events as they unfold, refusing to enhance the moment with music or narration in post-production. And while Wiseman himself has shunned such film school terms as "cinema verité" and "observational cinema" (he insists that any editing adds enough of a point-of-view to demolish the purity such tags imply), his films have become recognized as top examples of the form.
Wiseman's latest work is "State Legislature," a three-and-a-half-hour opus that follows the day-in, day-out routine of the Idaho state government during its 2004 term. More than just a wonk procedural, "State Legislature" is at times a highly fascinating look at the careful, occasionally deeply personal arguments and discussions that lead to governing on the local level.
The opening scene explains why Boise was likely picked as Wiseman's subject: as the Speaker of the House explains to a teenage tour group, Idaho's government is a collection of part-time "citizen legislators," regular folks with day jobs who convene for a relatively short period, as opposed to the typical practice of sending professional politicians to the capitals. As such, there's an impression of the state as the embodiment for the optimistic view of America - of the people and by the people.
More importantly, though, the goings-on in Boise come across as fairly typical for most states, and when the lawmakers come together to discuss issues such as water policy and charter schools, it could very well be any state in the union. The footage of these debates, mixed with the occasional clip of lobby festivities (school choirs, displays of ethnic heritage, science fairs), presents an accurate portrait of your average visit to any statehouse.
At 217 minutes, Wiseman's film provides ample time to linger on a great number of issues, and the idea here is to show that while they may sound boring at first, the actual debate is far more fascinating than one would expect. Early, there's a discussion on video voyeurism; legislators tussle over how to draw the line between the misdemeanor of a teenage prank and the felony of a sex offender's actions. Later, there's a debate over whom to allow to the debate; will opening up the floor to non-residents who may be affected by the proposed action also open it up to a parade of out-of-state lobbyists? And in one scene, a speaker with a penchant for quoting radio talk show hosts as dependable sources gets a tough smackdown from a committee member fed up with the guest's know-it-all attitude; the scene is brilliant human drama, found in the unlikeliest of places.
Wiseman steps back and lets the arguments play out on their own. This being politics, such discussions sometimes go around and around without really getting anywhere, as when two sides of the illegal immigration debate square off in a hallway, each spouting their beliefs quite well (and quite politely) but neither budging an inch. This single scene represents, in a way, the current state of politics in the smallest of nutshells: passion without compromise.
And yet, the running time, which allows Wiseman to stretch out in his study of these events, is also the filmmaker's downfall. Many of his movies of late have stretched to unreasonable lengths, and "State Legislature" rambles on for so long that its girth becomes a symbol not of vital storytelling or valuable document, but mere self-importance. The film would be just as satisfying at half its size. Perhaps "State Legislature" is best digested over the course of two, maybe three days, which would allow for the smaller moments to remain in memory longer.
"State Legislature" arrives on DVD through Wiseman's Zipporah Films website. The movie is split over two discs, housed in a single-wide keepcase. The menu is completely no-frills: a black screen with title, studio logo, and the word "play." There are no chapter menus, although each disc is broken up into a handful of (lengthy) chapter stops.
Video & Audio
Like most documentaries, Wiseman's work isn't best remembered for audiovisual razzle dazzle. Shot on 16mm film, "State Legislature" comes across decently in this 1.33:1 full frame transfer - it's clean, clear, and mostly grain-free, the best we could expect from something like this. The soundtrack is a simple, crisp stereo mix with a straightforward presentation of the dialogue. No subtitles are included.
An admirable and sometimes totally compelling look at government on the local level, "State Government" is also too much for its own good. Rent It if you can, then take your time pouring over its ample material.