The End of The Great American Century

Belfast, Maine (1999)

Zipporah Films

“‘Optimists write badly’ (Valery). But pessimists do not write.”

—Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of Disaster 

The 1999 documentary
Belfast, Maine opens with impressionist images of the town’s once-thriving seaport, the coastal fog shrouding docked ships melting away in the pale orange of the pre-dawn sun. Four hours later, after director Frederick Wiseman has presented a panoramic view of the town and its barely 6500 inhabitants, the final image of the film—and the last Wiseman image of the century—is a view of the town’s graveyard, the open beauty of the sky completely clouded over. This foreboding image is one of extreme doubt, a sort of fear and trembling uncharacteristic of Wiseman, who, in spite of his reputation as an “observational” documentarian, has increasingly structured his films like arguments as his style matured. The cinéma-vérité studies of institutions at the beginning of his career like Titicut Follies (1967), Hospital (1970), and Welfare (1975) have made way for a more discursive style built on meanings found in the editing room, from the contemplative visions of public life in Central Park (1989) to the satiric visions of leisurely wealth in Aspen (1991). Now finished with his thirty-first film at the end of a century of unparalleled prosperity for the United States, the sense of loss present in the graveyard achieves a metaphorical importance uncharacteristic of the usually non-didactic Wiseman, and the viewer is left with a sense that something shown in the last four hours has vanished and will continue to vanish.

Wiseman chose Belfast as his subject for the film simply because he knew the town from spending summers at the time in nearby Northport, and thought that a small town like Belfast gave a portrait of American life his body of work was lacking, saying to West Irish Film Journal: “It seemed to me a natural extension of the things that I have been doing.” Over eight weeks, he accumulated about 110 hours of material, editing it down to 245 minutes for its PBS premiere on February 4th, 2000. The film forms an interesting dichotomy with Wiseman’s 1997 film, Public Housing, which focused on the Ida B. Wells housing project on the South Side of Chicago, providing a view of both Ida B. Wells as a state institution and the various effects it has on its almost entirely Black residents. Belfast, Maine is the reverse side of the same coin, an almost entirely white town with a population barely eclipsing that of the Ida B. Wells residents, but where the idea of a ‘state institution’ begins and ends with City Hall. Two massively different groups of people, different cultures, and two completely different Americas are on display in these films. What connects them is what causes the despair present in Belfast’s final image: America’s lurch forward into the 21st century will abandon the people Wiseman filmed. Both groups are representative of who gets left behind during times of great historic change. 

Belfast, Maine transitions from the seaport in the opening shots to various scenes that integrate the viewer into the daily rhythms of life in the town—people at the dry cleaners, a flower arrangement class with a group of older women, an artist painting in his loft—until suddenly, Wiseman gives us a quick economic lesson. We follow a sack of potatoes through the whole industrial process, from transport and sorting until their final destiny as packaged twice-baked potatoes, all ready to be heated up in the microwave. Two things about this scene: first, the sound is horrifying, as the clanking and whirring of the machines make noises that grate at the eardrums; second, outside of the transport of the potatoes from their sacks, the factory workforce is entirely female, and many look to be older than 50, if not older than 65. Not only is it rare in American film, even in the country’s industrial heyday, to show scenes of factory workers doing their jobs outside of official company propaganda, but it is even more jarring to see this work done with women making up the entirety of the assembly line. 

During the time of filming (the fall of 1996), Belfast was a town in transition. Its economy following World War II was dominated by the poultry industry, with two of the state’s largest processing plants present in the town. As the nation’s economy entered a recession during the Carter administration, the plants closed, leaving the citizens of Belfast scrambling under ever-decreasing employment prospects, and causing a major decrease in the town’s population. However, in the early ‘90s, the major credit card company MBNA moved two enormous facilities into the town, and—just as then-President Bill Clinton promised while selling NAFTA to the American population—a significant portion of previously industrial workers were forced to transition into white-collar professions. Wiseman films at one of the MBNA campuses towards the end of the film, the clanging of the factory work now replaced by incessant typing on a computer and bland chatter over the telephone. The final shot of the comparatively short scene is a view of a company slogan over the doorway: “Think of yourself as the customer.”

The Jeffersonian ethos of the small business owner being able to thrive in a pure hyper-capitalist America without state intervention holds a lot of weight even today, and towns like Belfast are supposed to be the final strongholds of this way of life, a bastion of those sentimental dreams of a socially cohesive America wherein everyone is able to succeed on their own terms. Wiseman shows many of these small businesses in action, showcasing the pre-dawn fresh donut preparations at Weavers Bakery and Catering, the symphony of New England accents as a group of men eat breakfast at Goose River Grocery/Beer/Wine, the sounds of birds and the dull humming of fish tanks at Foster’s Family Pet Center, and the busy bustle of Perry’s Nut House. A contemporary search for these locations reveals that only Perry’s Nut House is left, steadfastly serving Maine’s favorite fudge since 1927, all the others lost to time. Weaver’s Bakery and Catering is now an environmental consulting firm; Goose River Grocery is a vacant lot in a blank intersection; and Foster’s Family Pet Center has moved to a different part of Belfast under new ownership, its location in Wiseman’s film now shrouded by the triptych of Subway, Dunkin’ Donuts, and an O’Reilly Auto Parts. Even the big box grocery store in the film, Shop ‘N Save, a local chain, has been replaced. The store was consolidated with Hannaford Grocery, a different regional chain, but one with the backing of the Belgium based Delhaize group, a multinational retail conglomerate currently with a market cap of about 26 billion. 

Wiseman explicitly addresses this phenomenon when filming a rehearsal of Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman, specifically the scene in which Willy, the titular salesman, expatiates in a near-hysterical fashion to his boss Howard how the sales business has changed. This monologue is one of the most famous wails of despair in American drama, during which Willy yells (about his past life in sales), “In those days there was personality in it!” What Willy mourns is the disappearance of the capitalist ethos present in places like Weaver’s Bakery and Catering, where the son of the man who founded the shop comes in before dawn to cook fresh donuts, and the family business flourishes by virtue of this hard work. “This is the history we’re losing” says an amateur Civil War historian speaking to a small group in the film, describing the citizens of Belfast who fought for the Union—but the phrase takes on new meaning as Wiseman films these places now disappeared. The “personality” Willy speaks of is now squashed completely, and you get headlines as late as 2014 in the local paper, with residents expressing concerns over the gentrification of their downtown, confused at their beloved Army-Navy store being sandwiched between a $300-a-night hotel and a speciality olive oil and vinegar store. 

A structuring absence in the film is a vision of a state built to improve the lives of its citizens, with our views of local government restricted to a brief city council meeting, featuring an older woman begging the council not to sell the city park to developers. The state largely exists in the lives of Belfast residents as punitive social coercion; Wiseman shows a petty criminal court filled with people who can’t pay their $100 fines, and an interview with a state custody lawyer where the wrong answer means your child will be taken from you. The deregulation and unprecedented cuts to government spending in the Reagan years forced the palliative function of many aspects of the New Deal state to shut down completely as America marched past The End Of History. Cascading effects from those years viciously plundered—and continue to sap—the lifeforce of towns like Belfast, and, as a result, the most barbaric aspect of normal American life starts to become of greater concern to an aging population: healthcare. 

The film contains almost a dozen different scenes of the various forms of healthcare present in the town. Less shocking, and similar to the factory workers showcased in the film, women run almost the entirety of the various professional and less-than-professional networks of care present in Belfast. Wiseman shows women tending to the bandage removal and cleaning of an elderly man’s barely working legs, checking in on an older woman recovering from an overprescription of blood pressure pills that nearly killed her, questioning a mother about her toddler’s diet, even doing simple tasks outside of the professional realm, like combing the lice out of a mother’s hair. A telling scene involves a meeting of the executives and higher-profile administrative workers of the Waldo County General Hospital: a woman speaks to the crowd, describing Maine’s various health problems: the prevalence of smokers, heart disease, cardiovascular disease, increasing obesity, and many others. The class implications for the health issues notwithstanding, the United States is the only industrialized wealthy nation with no form of socialized medicine, and so the speaker’s final lines in the scene feel sinister, the syrupy corporate language feigning concern while speaking of how Waldo County must “accept the risk of providing services to meet the needs of this community.” 

Accept the risk? Of caring for people’s health? The casual cruelty of the statement hovers like smog over the many faces shown in the film, many of whom are over the Medicare age and, even if not actively sick, are in need of care that this tiny community must strain itself to respond to. Wiseman lingers on these faces; where the woman at the healthcare meeting sees liabilities, he sees human beings. 

If a viewer needs the point driven home more, Wiseman helps you out. Consider two scenes, back to back in the film. First, in a shot reminiscent of Alan Clarke’s Elephant (1989), the camera follows a hunter in a handheld shot from behind as he finds a wolf stuck in one of his bear traps, and subsequently shoots the wolf between the eyes. The camera cuts to a close up of its face as it twitches while bleeding out, while the hunter disposes of the corpse in business-like fashion into his truck. Then, a woman visits an elderly man in his trailer. The man has a speech impediment, making him difficult to understand. We soon learn it is from a stroke a year ago. He shakes nervously throughout the interview, revealing he had a nervous breakdown a while back. The woman tries to get a handle on how many different health problems the man has, not to mention possible financial problems: “Do you own any land? Do you have a winter coat? What do you do when you can’t afford your medication?” As the interview progresses, we learn he pays $200 a month for his rent and utilities in his trailer. A good deal, maybe, but his various medications can cost over $100 dollars more than that, per month, including additional biweekly injections that cost over $100 dollars per use. When the woman leaves after writing all this down she asks, “Are you sure you don’t need anything else?” The man shakes his head and says no, and the scene ends. 

It is not a coincidence that two of Bill Clinton’s primary campaign and administration talking points were about the vanishing American industrial workforce and the skyrocketing healthcare costs—two things that he promised to fix. But America at the turn of the century was not equipped to deal with these problems in any sort of productive capacity. In fact, surveying the present day, they’ve metastasized into endemic features of American life. Belfast is just one example of many. Factories shut down, people leave, and it takes a decade plus of declining prospects to give way to a mega corporation deciding there is a desperate enough workforce for them to step in and change the economic makeup of the town. People get older, they get sick, but their factory job no longer exists. Now they can’t afford healthcare, and even going to Waldo County General Hospital is a humiliating process, a one-star Google review from a year ago stating: “When corporatism meets healthcare you get WC Gen Hospital ER.” Immiseration occurs in movements, and alleviation always carries an expiration date that you have no say in. MBNA was bought by and merged into Bank of America in 2006, shedding almost half of its Belfast employees during the merger process, but eventually deciding to stay in town. Waldo County General Hospital was absorbed into MaineHealth in 2010, a “not-for-profit integrated health system” according to their website, as they operate throughout Maine with almost 3.5 billion in revenue in 2022. 

Much has been made of Wiseman’s supposed ‘impartiality,’ but while his filming method is based in non-intervention, the breadth of detail he accumulates is arranged so that meaning emerges in their construction, such as the previously mentioned example with the wolf and the man in his trailer. However, in Belfast, Maine, Wiseman almost tips his hand, placing a scene towards the end of the film that arguably forms the thesis of the whole film. It is one of the great scenes of his career: an English teacher lecturing on Melville and Moby Dick in a local high school. The teacher is probably in his early 60s, balding like crazy, white-haired with big glasses, a stereotypical image. After describing the intense labor involved on a whaling ship in the time of the novel, the teacher moves into what the lecture is really about, and what is most pertinent to Wiseman. He explains how Melville, in accordance with his democratic vision, revolutionized the possibilities of fiction by taking Ahab, a working-class fisherman from Nantucket, and elevating his story to the level of tragedy, therefore putting him on the same level as the classic tragic figures from the upper class, such as King Lear or Oedipus Rex. Wiseman barely cuts to the students, his camera spellbound by the lecture, as the teacher connects this elevation of working class Ahab to the foundations of the American project: the elevation of the common man. 

The teacher is correct that Captain Ahab is a tragic figure, but what he leaves out is that Moby Dick is also about how terrible it is to work under him. He is essentially a gangster, enforcing his rule upon his men and their ecosystem through intimidation and a cosmic self-importance, his ridiculous dreams of enacting a revenge against nature itself doubling as a death wish for himself and everyone around him. However, as critic Robert Warshow mentioned in his 1948 Partisan Review piece, the Gangster is America’s tragic hero: he rejects the normal qualities and optimism of a typical American life, and attempts to turn himself into a symbol of individual pre-eminence begetting unfathomable success, i.e. The American Dream. The gangster, like Ahab, is always doomed; the optimism inherent to the American Dream inevitably creates a sense of failure. Warshow notes, “This is our intolerable dilemma: that failure is a kind of death and success is evil and dangerous, is––ultimately––impossible.” 

Wiseman seems to agree; he switches angles on his close-up of the teacher as the lecture transitions into Melville’s later career, specifically 1857’s The Confidence-Man, a dark novel, wherein a man boards a ship on the Mississippi selling passengers whatever they want to hear. The teacher’s lecture ends with an affirmation that in novels like The Confidence-Man, the American Dream is revealed for the scam that it is, nodding along as a student describes it as “false.” It is an astonishing scene, far from the cheery enforced patriotism of the school in Wiseman’s 1968 film High School, as now, at the end of the century, even teachers are affirming the hopelessness of their position. Despite the quick stop at Perry’s Nut House soon after this scene, the Melville conversation blankets the whole film, lending a bitter aftertaste to everything that came before. 

It is hard to make the case for a Wiseman film outside of simply describing the scenes in order or in juxtaposition to one another; his method is such that the pleasure in viewing his films is in how he takes you by the hand and gently guides your attention to what he deems to be important to his overall design. Wiseman has stated that he has always viewed his filmmaking practice as more novelistic than journalistic, but just as the label of ‘observational’ deflates the rigor with which his films are constructed, ‘novelistic’ implies an all-powerful creator arranging his fictions with omnipresent power, missing the thrill the films have in excavating such rich veins of meaning from the reality he chooses to film. So while he clearly empathizes with the anger expressed by Melville and the high school teacher in the lecture scene—as proven by the mordant image of the cemetery shortly thereafter—the implications of his overall project bucks this cynicism entirely. Wiseman is categorically not the reactionary Melville of The Confidence-Man. To go to a town in the middle of nowhere and spend 110 hours filming .002% of the American population belies a monk-like belief that, even if many aspects of this community have long since vanished, a society slowly failing still has images screaming to be seen. The last image does tremble at the coming millennium, but Wiseman has made 17 films since 2000 with little sign of stopping.


[Editor’s note: Belfast, Maine can be hard to find, but is currently available to stream for free via Kanopy]