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NYFF 2020: City Hall, Malmkrog, and The Last City

Odds and ends from the NY film festival.

The eloquent contemplation of war and Christianity among five Russian aristocrats amounts to a filmic confrontation better read than seen in Malmkrog. Based on “Three Conversations” by Vladmir Solovyov, it unfurls for 238 minutes in a dignified Transylvanian manse. The greatest source of tension lays not in the fissures in embattled gentry-think—ranging from Eurocentric chauvinism to Tolstoyian pacifism—but in comestible mystery. I was less inclined towards the ideas of a dying breed of aristocrat and more curious about the details of 19th century Russian food and drink (likely European-leaning) that remained beyond the purview of a buttery gliding camera.

The characters in globe-trotting movie The Last City may or may not be cosmologically connected. Spanning Be’er Sheva, Sao Paolo, Hong Kong, Athens, and Berlin, it is an unvarnished and better version of Cloud Atlas peppered with incest jokes and a thorough detailing of the war crimes committed by the Japanese.

The Boston government gets the Frederick Wiseman treatment in City Hall, and while limited to Beantown, the film keenly illustrates democracy at large. As per his want, Wiseman’s sprawling documentary presents a quotidian tableaux of the city’s inner workings — public servants and government officials in the line of pencil-pushing duty with particular focus on Mayor Marty Walsh who accounts for about a third of the film’s scenes, including Veterans Day at Faneuil Hall; a bucket-brigading a turkey through a large warehouse while Space Jam song blares. There are task forces and budget meetings, including one where one woman drinks Monster energy to get through the day. There are people getting married, people disputing parking tickets, a coalition on fair housing, and a session on the economic advancement of Latinas. A man with giant rats and no wife faces eviction, while the residents of Dorchester listen, and speak, when a weed dispensary comes to their side of town applying for a permit. It would be Boston’s first.

It’s strange to be nostalgic for administrative tasks that in real life are never as cut and dry as what’s prosaically captured by Wiseman’s unobjective camera. It's real-life Parks and Recreation untrammeled in its mundane glory. Maybe it is the quarantine and the new and severe lack of daily encounters, but for me this mosaic of strangers going about their usual work and performing unanxious tasks proved an additionally invigorating sight for my sore eyes confined to a walkable radius. After all this is over I too will wait on line in a drab municipal building without losing my patience in order to experience bureaucracy and life.

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