Wednesday, February 20, 2008

State Legislature Opens Friday

Many outside of Idaho will not be particularly knowledgeable of the state’s politics, beyond perhaps the colorful names of some statewide office holders, like Gov. “Butch” Otter, former Gov. Phil Batt, and Sen. Mike Crapo. Some may have also read about their other Senator’s worst visit to Minnesota ever. However, legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman turns his camera on Idaho’s citizen lawmakers in State Legislature, opening in New York at Anthology Film Archives this Friday.

Wiseman is an unlikely cult filmmaker, celebrated for his long, in-depth documentary films, which often focus on bureaucratic organizations. However, jazz listeners may remember him for producing Shirley Clarke’s feature The Cool World, which featured a powerful Dizzy Gillespie soundtrack. As a documentarian, Wiseman eschews voice-overs and soundtrack music, instead capturing events as they happen.

The lead figure in Legislature is logically enough then Speaker of the State House Bruce Newcomb. In the opening scene, Newcomb speaking to a school group puts Idaho’s part-time legislature in context:

“I’m here for three months and I’m home as a rancher for nine months, and I have to live with what the legislature did to me and listen to what other people think I did to them, and then I come back and I make changes.”

Though part-time, most legislators appear quite conscientious. Newcomb might have a certain folksy charm, but he is clearly deeply conversant in the issues facing the state, as when he discusses water politics in great detail with a reporter. They bemoan the fact that water might be as valuable as oil, but as an issue, it is duller than dirt. Yet, Wiseman patiently lets this discussion and hearings on mundane issues like state licensing for contractors unfold in due time.

Legislature is similar to other Wiseman projects in its apparently unfiltered style. However, in some ways Legislature is a departure for Wiseman. His films have a reputation for following a thematic organization rather than a chronological order. However, Legislature’s early scenes document initial committee work and later scenes record floor votes, giving it a more conventional story arc, over the course of the legislative session.

Wiseman is probably best known for Titicut Follies, an expose of conditions in a Massachusetts facility for the criminally insane. Many of his documentaries are considered “problem” films in a similar vein, but again Legislature is an exception. Here, legislators are reasonably well informed and seem to work in good conscience on behalf of their constituents. Evidently, we can rest assured that at least the citizens of Idaho are well represented by their legislators. (I hasten to add we have no such reassurances here in New York.)

Wiseman seems to avoid partisan politics, as such. Perhaps, this was by necessity, as both chambers of the Idaho legislature are overwhelmingly Republican. However, when filming average citizens testifying before legislators, it seems like he gives a pronounced advantage to liberal proponents on issues like driver’s licenses for illegal aliens and whether an American history exhibit can include the Ten Commandments. In truth, this imbalance is the film's one major weakness. Of course, with a running time over three and a half hours, it is difficult to yearn for more footage.

Wiseman obviously had remarkable access, and captured some telling scenes. Ultimately, Newcomb and his colleagues acquit themselves well on film. It can be a challenge—perhaps best suited for C-SPAN die-hards—but Legislature has real insights on state government, and is notable as a documentary that does not add to the cynicism regarding the American political process. It begins a limited run in New York at the Anthology Film Archives, and debuts on PBS in June.

(Note: The highly recommended Company debuts on PBS tonight. Revisit the review here.)