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Taking the pulse of Belfast, Maine

By Robert David Sullivan

JANUARY 31, 2000:  Frederick Wiseman may imagine his audience to be historians in the 23rd century -- scholars who will someday need a primary source to determine the color of a mail carrier's uniform in 1999, or the rules of etiquette at a city council meeting that wasn't conducted over the Internet. The 264-minute Belfast, Maine is Wiseman's 30th film, and he keeps to the style he established in Titicut Follies (1967), a stark, narration-free documentary about a prison for the criminally insane. Wiseman is the antithesis of public-TV favorites Ken and Ric Burns, who provide their viewers with inspiring music, flowery narration, and perfect literary quotes to explain every image on the screen. This approach isn't necessarily better, and it certainly demands more patience. But the images in Belfast, Maine may be more memorable in the long run because they demand your own interpretations rather than those of a talking head.

Belfast, Maine is a portrait of a small city with a sardine cannery, some lobstermen, a few artists, and a lot of poor people. For much of the film, Wiseman follows social workers as they care for the elderly and the handicapped, as if saying that a community can be judged by how well it tends to its most vulnerable. But he'd never make that point directly. This is a film with a six-minute excerpt from Death of a Salesman -- (as rehearsed by a community theater group), and we have to figure out for ourselves whether Wiseman found something relevant in the play or just wanted to convey the enthusiasm of the middle-aged thespians.

On-camera speakers are not identified, and there are no superimposed graphics, though Wiseman obligingly lingers on any sign planted in front of whatever building he's about to enter. (I'll bet a lot of them come from the same signmaker, and he could boil down these four hours into a handsome commercial for his services.) There is no background music in the film, though Wiseman shows us a saxophonist playing outside a movie theater, and he lets a church choir provide the sound while he gives us close-ups of people in the pews (alternating between the drowsy and the alert). For a recurring audio theme, he uses the whoosh of cars on Belfast's nearly empty roads, an ironic counterpoint to the turtlelike pace of life in the town. We also get the kerchunk of quarters tumbling into a clothes dryer and a cacophony -- screeching parakeets, gurgling fish tanks -- at a pet shop in a strip mall.

In fictional films, the absence of music and dialogue often instills a sense of foreboding, as if we were being prepared for a sudden explosion. Intentionally or not, Belfast, Maine often rides on this convention. The film opens on a foggy sunrise. We see a seagull perched on a wooden piling and nervously looking about, and we half expect the Loch Ness Monster to pop out of the water. Instead, Wiseman puts us on a lobster boat, where an old man measures the catch to see what must be thrown back.

There are no arty camera angles in the film -- there's not even any zooming or panning that I could notice -- and Wiseman often uses jump cuts to bring us closer and closer to an object (though never revealing anything as bizarre as the severed ear at the beginning of Blue Velvet). In one sequence, he jumps toward the Halloween decorations in someone's front yard. This may be a playful recognition that his directing techniques are often imitated in low-budget horror movies, or it could just be the serendipitous result of his determination to film everything of interest in town.

What has to be deliberate is the sense of mystery that Wiseman adds to several scenes of everyday life. There's a hypnotizing eight-minute sequence set in a factory in which hair-netted women and chugging metal machines do seemingly contradictory things to potatoes: cutting them in half, mashing them, scooping out their insides and then filling the holes up again . . . Only when Wiseman is ready to move on does he show the final product -- which I think you can find in your grocer's freezer -- tumbling off a conveyor belt. But some mysteries are never solved, such as the sign for "Pferd Files" in a general store, where we listen to some men discuss the dangers of getting shot at while deer hunting.

There's a lot of food in Belfast, Maine. After the potatoes, we see a guy expertly making doughnuts at a little bakery, and later there's another long factory sequence, this time at the sardine cannery. The women who snip the heads and tails off the little fish move at jaw-dropping speed, but their bored expressions indicate that they're long past impressing themselves.

Many of the Belfast residents who get to speak on camera fit the stereotype of the stoic Yankee with a dry sense of humor, such as the bedridden woman who explains her longevity with "I'm not good enough for up there [pointing a finger toward Heaven] and not bad enough for down there." Some of the others are more pitiful, such as the grown woman who patiently sits while a social worker picks lice from her hair.

Wiseman doesn't flinch from much in Belfast. A quintessential moment comes when a farmer comes upon a wolf caught in a leg trap. The wolf looks meekly at the guy's rifle, and I briefly wondered whether Wiseman would cushion the blow for the viewer. But by this point in the film, I knew him pretty well, and I had just enough time to brace myself for the inevitable.

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