Review by Beth Gilligan
Posted on 29 June 2008
Source Zipporah Films DVD
Categories Frederick Wiseman
For a modern audience accustomed to the rapid-fire editing and clip montages that have become a hallmark of reality television and cable news, the pacing of a film such as State Legislature can feel a bit jarring at first. A 217-minute fly-on-the-wall examination of water policy, contractor licensing, telephone deregulation, and other such pressing issues facing the elected officials of the Idaho State Legislature, the film seems almost destined to veer into C-SPAN territory.
However, as with most all of Wiseman’s films, the genius is in the editing, with long takes punctuated by revealing close-ups of legislators alternatively listening attentively, squirming in their seat, or zoning out; cuts from drawn-out policy meetings to brief snippets of children singing in the lobby; footage of a traditional Mexican hat dance being performed as state troopers look on skeptically; a brief shot of a legislator tearing up during the opening prayer. Due in part to these editing choices, the film’s length seems not excessive, but rather appropriate, as it mirrors not only the duration of the hearings where the minutiae of various proposals are picked over, but also the stubborn persistence of the group of dedicated individuals working diligently to enact change in their towns and cities.
Like Zodiac, in which suspense takes a backseat to scenes illustrating mundane office work, research, and home life, State Legislature contains several lengthy scenes of policy debate. Political party affiliations are barely mentioned, and sober, respectful tones are maintained throughout by most of the speakers. Although the movie was filmed in 2004, it stands in such contrast with the way that politics are conveyed on both the network and cable news that it at times feels slightly old-fashioned, even if some of the issues being discussed (e.g. video voyeurism, same-sex marriage) are of a decidedly 21st century nature.
As the Speaker of the House explains to a group of visiting schoolchildren in the film’s opening scene, in Idaho, unlike in other states, the legislature is only in session three months, so all elected officials must return to their districts and face the consequences of their actions (or inactions) during the rest of the year. This notion is underlined throughout the film, for it becomes increasingly clear that no matter how prosaic some of the issues being discussed may seem, they are collectively vital to the way in which we live our lives. While the Idaho state representatives and senators are by no means exempt from the occasional burst of self-righteousness, the overwhelming impression is of a group of dedicated individuals working to ensure a decent quality of life for their constituents. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the movie’s final scene comprises a tribute to a late legislator, followed by bagpiper’s rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
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