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Clueless in Boise

The public events in a legislature bear only a tenuous connection to what is really going on.


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Alan Ehrenhalt

Alan Ehrenhalt is a senior editor at Governing.

There are quite a few public institutions in this country that you can understand pretty well just by watching. Being a fly on the wall is a useful way to study a high school, a housing project or a public hospital. It works for a police department, a juvenile court or a county welfare office. Given enough time to observe people closely, listen to what they say and how they treat each other, one can come to a pretty sensitive understanding of who has the power, who makes the rules and how the rules are enforced.

The reason I'm quite sure of this is that over the past 40 years, every one of those institutions has been the subject of a documentary by the producer Frederick Wiseman, who simply turns on the cameras, watches and listens, edits the film, and provides his audience with genuine insights and remarkable dramatic moments.

From "Titicut Follies," his expose of a Massachusetts mental institution in 1967, through "Public Housing," his investigation of a Chicago housing project, Wiseman has created remarkable movies without the benefit of narrators or even interviews. There isn't much doubt that he is one of the greatest documentary film makers - and one of the more important social critics - of the past generation.

This makes it all the more interesting that Wiseman's newest film, "State Legislature," a close-up of one year's activity in the Idaho Senate and House, is an ambitious flop. When the film is over, you don't really know much more about the Idaho legislature than you did when you sat down to watch. This is true whether you are a state politics buff or an utter novice. You don't learn how power is exercised, who is being treated well or badly, or what the important players are like personally. It's essentially a black box going in and a black box coming out.

What's the reason? Well, one simple explanation would be that Wiseman has lost his touch. He's 77 years old now; maybe he doesn't possess the ability to create a powerful film the way he did when he was 37 and doing "Titicut Follies." But this is surely wrong: "State Legislature" skillfully uses every one of the standard Wiseman techniques - the revealing close-up photography, the emotional perorations from people who forget the camera is upon them, the trivial but poignant details, such as children singing in the Capitol rotunda or the bagpipe that closes it all out, 217 minutes from the opening scene.

A slightly different explanation might be that Wiseman is still a technical virtuoso, but he no longer has the critical edge that made "Titicut Follies" and "High School" and "Juvenile Court" acknowledged masterpieces. Those earlier films burned with indignation about the injustices inherent in large, impersonal institutions, and the quiet strength of those who did the best they could to survive in Kafkaesque circumstances. "State Legislature" doesn't have any of that: The Idaho House and Senate aren't overwhelmingly just or unjust; the characters are neither noble nor tawdry; without a cause to pursue, one might argue, Wiseman lacks the power to capture dramatic moments.

But I don't really buy that one, either. "State Legislature "has plenty of highly charged scenes: There's the impassioned debate on a gay marriage resolution; the argument in the hallway between a legislator and a pro-immigrant activist; the priceless moment when a senator drones on about how "government belongs to the people" while a citizen spectator snoozes away contentedly in the chair behind him. The parts of the movie aren't all that bad; it's the product as a whole that proves singularly unenlightening. And that's the truly challenging puzzle about "State Legislature."

But it's a puzzle that has a solution. The solution is that while a legislature is a public institution, it differs from a juvenile court or a high school or a mental hospital in a fundamentally important way.

As a fly on the wall in juvenile court, you can learn most of what you need to know from things the judge and the witnesses say, and the way they look and behave. A high school is a place virtually all of us attended and have clear memories of; you watch the students and the teachers and the principal, and you have a context to put them in. For better or worse, you are in a position to form judgments. A mental hospital is a little different; when you come face to face with a paranoid schizophrenic, you can't help wondering how he got that way. But the truth is that the people who work in the hospital don't really know, either. They're a little better informed now than they were in 1967 but not all that much. They're stuck watching the symptoms, just as any of us do when the place is on the screen in front of us.

A legislature isn't like any of these. The public events - the testimony, the floor debate, even the casual conversations in the hallway - bear only a tenuous connection to what is really going on. To understand the place, you need to know about all sorts of things that Wiseman's "direct cinema" technique can't possibly capture. You need to know which party is in control, and by how much. You need to know who the governor is, and how he gets along with the legislators. You need to know what sorts of people these legislators are: not just what they say but how long they have been there, where they come from, what they did before they ran for office and how they got elected.

You learn these things watching "State Legislature" only if they happen to come up in a conversation that made the final cut into the film. The governor of Idaho in 2004 was Dirk Kempthorne, a Republican. I listened to all 217 minutes pretty carefully, and I don't think his name was even mentioned. That year, Republicans controlled the state Senate 28 to 7 and the House 54 to 16. That's not covered, either. Nor was the clearly relevant fact that a term-limit law was passed in 1994 and repealed by the legislature eight years later. And most important, you know virtually nothing about the lives or backgrounds of any of the members, lobbyists or staff aides other than what you can glean from things they say in front of the camera.

Over the past few years, I've written in a couple of places about my fascination with and admiration for the ideas of Lewis Namier, the 20th-century English historian. I don't intend to revisit all the Namierite ideas at great length here, but I can't help thinking that a little bit of Namier would be a big advantage in trying to make sense of "State Legislature."

Namier devoted much of his long career to studying the legislative world. He didn't write a lot about America; his main subject was the British Parliament in the 18th century. But much of what Namier said applies to any democratic legislative body, at any time, anywhere in the world.

Namier's deceptively simple insight was that listening to what legislators or lobbyists or executives say in public is one of the worst ways to figure out what is going on. These people are always making speeches, but the speeches generally reflect what they feel they are expected to say - or what their colleagues or constituents want them to say. To understand a legislative body, Namier argued, one must use different methods. One must find out in detail who the members are: the communities that produced them, the families that raised them and the other families they were close to; where they went to school, what they did in private life before seeking public office.

Namier called this form of investigation "prosopography," a very unwieldy term that simply means "group biography." There have been skillful practitioners of it in Europe for the past half-century, but relatively few on this side of the ocean. Kevin Phillips and Garry Wills are probably the most important Namierites writing about politics today, whether they would accept the description or not. Michael Barone uses the technique effectively in his "Almanac of American Politics." By and large, though, there are few American journalists or scholars willing to take the time to do what Namier and his disciples did for Britain. They simply listen to the speeches and testimony, record them faithfully and pretend they know what is going on.

I first encountered Lewis Namier when I was covering Congress in the late 1970s. Reading a few pages of him made me realize exactly what I had been missing. Speeches on the House floor about farm subsidies or missile defense were window dressing; somebody had to give them to keep the place in session. What really mattered were the relationships: the big-city Democrats who sat together in a corner of the chamber and took their cues from the AFL-CIO; the southerners who rarely said anything on the floor but voted as a bloc on almost any important issue; the minority Republicans who spoke in impassioned terms about the importance of amending a bill but had no intention of supporting it no matter how it was amended.

Why did these people behave this way? The most important answer was that they behaved as they did because of where they came from. As Namier himself put it, "What matters most about political ideas is the underlying emotions, the music - to which the ideas are a mere libretto."

And this is why in the end, "State Legislature" not only doesn't work but couldn't work. Legislative bodies really are different. They're not like schools, or courts, or a welfare office. They're much more complicated places. Anybody who doesn't realize it will fail to understand them. That doesn't apply only to movie producers.


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