Faster Than You Can Say Second Wife: A Family Thanksgiving Story

Holidays were always interesting at our house, largely because of my mother’s proclivity for picking up strays (yeah, yeah, I know: pot, kettle; apple, tree). She ran a halfway house for alcoholics, and often we’d host these broken, middle-aged men, who had once been successful doctors and lawyers with beautiful families, but had lost it all by the time they got to my mother. They were newly awash in The Program, exuding the humility and gratitude of a new recruit. But one Thanksgiving stands out from the other holiday gatherings, and luckily there were no alcoholics at this one, because I’m pretty sure their fragile sobriety would have been mightily tested. 

First a disclaimer: This is a true story, insofar as I believe that everything within happened. It’s conceivable that I have blended family holidays. This sort of thing happens to me. I often remember parts of several movies, putting them together to make a whole new movie, thinking that what I am remembering is the movie I remember. It’s also possible that I have left out parts of the story, or that aspects of the day have become embellished over the years. As I grow older, my memory grows general, with bursts of specificity that either advance my personal agenda or contain facts so trivial and irrelevant that I don’t know what makes me think of them.  

Second, some background: My father died in 1967, when I was four, my brother was three, and my sister was 18 months. This left my mother a widow at 34, with three babies, very little money, less job experience and a high school diploma. My mother felt that she was abandoned by my father’s family after his death, and she became estranged from his parents and siblings. My father’s youngest sister had lived with my mother and father for a time after they were married, and so my mother felt particularly hurt by that desertion. Now, my mother was a good Christian woman, who could be selfless and forgiving at times, but she was a bit controlling. She could hold a grudge with unrivaled tenacity, and demanded loyalty above all else (pot, kettle; apple, tree). But, while she perceived herself to be forsaken by her in-laws, and told us often that they weren’t the best people, she managed to forge a career, and raise three children who mostly went to college and grew up to be reasonably well adjusted. We had a fine working-class upbringing, and all was more or less well.

Third, more background: In the early 80’s, my brother got a scholarship to an Ivy League school, and began to live the life of an Ivy League student – you know, spending semesters abroad, dating heiresses - that sort of thing. While my sister and I seldom ventured farther away than the subway would take us, he was globetrotting, and unbeknownst to our mother, had established contact with my father’s youngest sister, who had moved back to Ireland years earlier. My brother visited her and her family there. I don’t remember what actually happened – I must have been really stoned or away from the homestead at this point, but I understood that my mother was furious with him. I can so clearly imagine her feeling betrayed that I can almost hear her screaming. But somehow my brother convinced her that she had to let go, and she did. She visited the Irish relatives herself, and my oldest cousin even came to live with us for a while. (I don’t know why he stayed though, because my mother, who had become a substance abuse counselor, so harassed the poor kid every time he had a beer, she might have driven him to drink the next one.) But in general, relations between my mother and one small village in Ireland had become cordial, if somewhat fragile, even though she told us she wanted nothing to do with the rest of our father’s family.

Flash forward a few years, and the aforementioned paternal aunt, her husband, and my cousin, are going to be with us for Thanksgiving. My brother, in his first year of medical school, is also coming, along with three or four of his fellow students who aren’t going home. He has also invited the mother of one of these friends, a very nice woman who sells real estate in one of the tony western Boston suburbs, and probably doesn’t often visit our gritty urban neighborhood. Also in attendance will be my maternal grandfather, maternal great aunt, and my sister, who has just had her gallbladder removed. (This being the mid-80’s, she’s had an actual operation, with a big incision and stitches, not like today’s wussy procedure, where you can go out dancing that night.) What my mother doesn’t know until about two days before Thanksgiving, is that my aunt has invited her brother, my paternal uncle, and his new wife.  We have not seen this uncle since my father’s funeral, and my mother is not happy. However, she is trying to deal with it, moving back and forth between forgiveness and planning something guilt-inducing designed to elicit a full apology.

When my uncle and his new wife arrive, it is disconcerting, even for my normally unflappable self. There is a ghost sitting in my mother’s living room: His physical resemblance to the father I only know through photographs and secondhand accounts is uncanny. This elderly man is who my father would have been, and he doesn’t quite live up to the hype that occurs when someone dies young. He is not superhuman, and yet he is alien. He is also divorced, and has married a much younger woman, with my first name, -- and having married into the family, my last name as well.  Since it is uncommon, I am not accustomed to another Joyce, let alone someone with my full name. 

My grandfather arrives. He is a little old man with a sixth grade education, who has never had a nice thing to say about anyone. An immigrant, he has a thick French Canadian accent, and as he has grown older, his nastiness has become rather funny, because his inhibitions died with his wife ten years earlier. His insults aren’t as hard to take when they’ve skipped a generation. When he asks me, “What did you use to cut your hair, the lawn mower?” or “Where did you buy your clothes, the circus?” I can laugh it off, but my mother wouldn’t be human if she didn’t carry some baggage. Papa, as we called him, had grown too feeble to climb the stairs, and the bathroom is on the second floor. A coffee can is procured for him, in the event that he needs to pee.

Arriving with Papa, is my great aunt, Katie, sister to my maternal grandmother, who has been widowed years earlier, by a man with whom I don’t remember ever having a conversation. He had been present at all the family functions, but I don’t recall him ever getting a word in. Aunt Katie is also French Canadian, with a thick accent and thicker cat-frame glasses. She is a woman of modest means, but she makes her own glamorous clothes and hats and always wears gloves. She is very active in her church, making “bandages for the leopards” and such. I think she means lepers, and I also think that by this time the lepers aren’t using homemade church lady bandages, but I admit I don’t know this for a fact. In reality, the church is trying to keep her busy, because she has a penchant for befriending wrong number callers, and for excessive bingo. My great aunt is also responsible, I am convinced, for the fall of Communism in Russia, which happens as a result of her prayers and those of her church ladies, though she wouldn’t actually live to see it. Above all, she is a pragmatist: I remember once telling her that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, and she said, “Well, good. Someone has to write the words on the toothpaste tubes, so there will always be work.”

Papa spots my father’s brother, and because Papa is starting to lose his hearing, screams at my mother, loud enough that everyone on our street can hear, “Who is that man?” My mother explains that he is my father’s older brother, who Papa met many times, many years ago. He screams, again to the neighbors, “Who is that girl with him? Is that his daughter?” My mother tells him the “girl” is my uncle’s new wife. He then screams for my brother to take him to the back porch so he can piss into the coffee can. At this point, my sister has to excuse herself, because she can’t allow herself to laugh, for fear of popping the stitches in her gallbladder incision. 

The afternoon wears on, getting weirder and more uncomfortable. My grandfather keeps asking – “who is that man?” and “who is that girl?” at 15 minute intervals, and we give up answering him after the first few times. Aunt Katie screams at him, because she is also hard of hearing, telling him that the “girl” is my father’s sister, which of course she isn’t, but no one argues with her. My sister comes back downstairs, but by this point, my uncle – not the ghost-of-my-father uncle, but the husband of my father’s sister – has finished a few drinks and turns into the stereotypical jolly Irish drunk, determined to make my sister laugh, because apparently the Papa and Aunt Katie show isn’t funny enough for him. Meanwhile, when my sister is not warding off the tickling from Uncle Johnny, she is being chased around the house by my brother and his med student friends. After all, she is a live surgical specimen, and they want to see her incision, check her temperature and generally annoy her. I think they want her to pop a stitch, so they can get some practice. She moves in and out of the public space, as the hilarity and its effect on her stitches allow. 

The “girl,” or aunt by marriage with the same name as mine, now also known as The Other Joyce, is obviously nervous. Who wouldn’t be, given the screaming? I don’t remember much of the conversation beyond the screaming, though I do remember her asking me what I did, which was always dangerous territory, as I had dropped out of college and was working for an outspoken lesbian who managed punk rock bands.

We sit down for dinner, and it is actually good. This is a bit of a surprise, as my mother, a talented woman in many regards, was no cook (pot, kettle; apple, tree), and often spoke of inventing a “turkey scent spray” that you could use in the house when you wanted people to think you actually made the turkey. There was a lot of polite conversation, and Papa was quiet, having procured a giant turkey leg, which was his favorite. 

We are all nearly finished our first helpings, when The Other Joyce begins to shake, her eyes rolling back in her head. Before the army of med students can get to her, she spasms and throws up all over the table. Aunt Katie quickly grabs the turkey and moves it out of harm’s way. Papa doesn’t look up from his turkey leg. The med students get her to a bedroom to lie down. My uncle won’t let anyone call an ambulance, which makes the med students positively giddy. He claims that nothing like this has ever happened to her before. I go to Aunt Katie, who, in addition to being hard of hearing is also more or less blind, and was directly in the line of fire, and ask if she’s okay. She says that she’s fine and asks for a Kleenex. The table is cleared faster than you can say “second wife,” and my sister has to go lock herself in her room, because she can’t take it anymore. I settle Papa and Aunt Katie in the living room, and he screams, “What’s wrong with that girl? Is that girl’s father going to take her home?” and “Boy! Could that girl puke!” The real estate woman from the western suburbs who had come with her med student daughter makes a gracious exit, but later sends a lovely thank you note, mentioning nothing of what happened. Her manners were impeccable.

My uncle and The Other Joyce leave after she has rested for a couple of hours, and I never see them again. Papa and Aunt Katie both died not long after, though I don’t think their deaths were related to the festivities. Mom also died around Thanksgiving in 1999, but I think she taught us an important lesson – that NOT letting go of grudges might actually make for more relaxing family holidays.



Reflections, Deflections, Inflections, Infections.

One year ago today, I left my job at City Hall after seven long years that flew by. As I have said 1000 times, to anyone who has asked, I don’t think I realized how spent I was until I walked out the door. That last year there was brutal. The air was thick and the gravity was real. They were always big jobs for all of us, but in that final year, people were dying and starving and being evicted. Businesses were failing, and the city was an eerie reflection of its former vibrant self. I lost family and friends to the virus, and there were no funerals, no chance to say goodbye. My house abuts the cemetery, and when I was home, the earth movers were my incessant soundtrack, seven days a week. It was sobering and frightening. I remember sitting here and listening, wondering if this was it. In some ways, we still don’t know. But I am proud of the work we did. We tried hard to do everything we could to ease the burden of the living and the grieving, the scared and the angry. People really stepped up. Leaders were born. Fissures were revealed. Voices rose up. We all rowed together for a while, until we didn’t.

This last year has been great. I have been lucky to have plenty of projects and work, but more importantly, I have had time. I’ve been taking long walks with my beloved (dog), reading fiction, listening to records, not working at all on Saturdays, and cooking Sunday supper every week with my “family.” I’ve never cooked before in my life. Tomorrow is corned beef and cabbage, naturally. I started a daily Substack, with which I am having lots of fun. It’s basically a way for me to listen to records with friends without having to hold them hostage in my living room as they politely play along. Some people who indulge me tell me it’s the first thing they read every morning, and a handful have said they read it BEFORE they Wordle (™ New York Times), which I consider the highest honor imaginable.

Soon after I left City Hall last year, I co-wrote an op-ed with my friend Damon, which was published in the Globe. I didn’t have to run it through five levels of defanging and approvals before submitting it. I have my own voice again. That’s not a complaint about my time at City Hall. It’s just a fact. When you work or are perceived to work so close to a public figure, everything you say is scrutinzed for hidden messages. I was talking to him not too long ago, and he was describing his strange experience of being assigned the task of promoting someone else’s agenda. It’s a good agenda – really a great, transformational agenda, but it’s someone else’s. I said “Dude! I mean Secretary! Welcome to my world from 2014 to 2021!” It was a good laugh.

In the last year, I’ve hosted amazing book talks on Zoom – awkward in execution but rich in ideas and more importantly, in community. Through this worldwide plague, with its curves and waves, I have been grateful for the opportunity to connect and re-connect with people, even if they’re just in tiny boxes. I have been working with Joe Pernice, with whom I own a record label, on reissuing some of his music on vinyl. And he has two and a half new albums in the can. He has never, in the 25+ years I’ve known him, been so prolific, or so good. Our 20-year side hustle is flourishing and threatening to consume a bit more of my time.

I raised a bunch of money for Interim House, the place my mother founded fifty years ago to help people struggling with addiction. I’ve talked to people about jobs, turned down jobs, helped lots people look for jobs, and rejoiced at seeing where some of my favorite people landed post-City Hall. The idea of getting on the hamster wheel ever again hurts my head. I keep walking by my closet full of work clothes and work shoes thinking “I should get rid of those,” because my monkey suit days are surely over. I spontaneously developed an allergy to eye makeup. I told my dermatologist, and she said she had a cure. I was excited to hear it. She said “Don’t wear eye makeup.” Funny lady. I’d burn my panty hose, but you never know when you’ll have to get dressed for a funeral, so that seems shortsighted. I might do it anyway.

I’ve been cleaning out my house, finding things I didn’t know I had when I bought another one of the same thing. Others who could work from home went through this a year earlier, but I was going to work every day then, so I am behind. Related, if you need two dozen hand towels, a few blankets, vegetable peelers or a flat-packed coffee table, I know where you can find them. 

I’ve been rooting for the people now at City Hall. Of course I am rooting for my former colleagues – I adore them -- but also for the new people. The first year is overwhelming, even bewildering. I am laughing a little as policies that we worked on for years are rolled out as if new. To be sure, we did it too, with work that was underway in the administration before ours. It’s what you do, because politics. There’s a book in that for sure. The problem with government is politics. And I am not ashamed to admit that I am a little bit jealous, because of the money now growing on trees. Big ideas are expensive, and money is newly abundant. That would be fun. Very recently, I have been exploring Ukrainian music, and buying it on Bandcamp, because that puts money directly into the bank accounts of the artists.

Looking forward, I have ideas. Big ideas. Some I can talk about; some call for more discretion. Maybe if I write some of them down, someone will shame me into executing, or better yet, someone will appropriate. For instance, we need to open a facility that presses vinyl. Right now, it can take a year or more to get a record pressed, because the big labels, who once owned the means of production, divested from all of that when they made us buy our record collections all over again on CD. Well, now they are back at it, knocking the little guys off the production line. So we need to start a plant for the little guy. It should be a social enterprise, or maybe a co-op, and it should employ people coming back from incarceration, and pay them a living wage with benefits. I've done some research. It’s doable, and it doesn’t have to be me. I’m happy to help someone else think through it.

There also needs to be a Super Political Action Committee (Super PAC) for arts and culture. Or someone should start some kind of Dark Money entity, perhaps called Dark Arts Money, or something better. Our system is lousy with these shadow organizations, and until the game changes, that’s the game. It should work to elect candidates who will do the things we all know need to be done, and defeat those who won’t. I don’t know about you, but I am tired of turning up hat in hand to explain the economics case or the moral case for arts and culture. It doesn’t seem to be working and all this nibbling around the edges has left a lot of people hungry. Again it’s doable, and it doesn’t have to be me. I’m happy to help someone else think through it.

“When are you going to write a book?” is a question that everyone asks everyone else all the time. And I think everyone thinks they CAN write a book. I’m not sure that’s true. I haven’t started writing the book everyone keeps asking me about, mostly because I don’t remember a lot of things. But I’ve been thinking and scribbling, because even though I don’t remember, I can spin a yarn with the best of them. Remember that obituary that went viral a few months ago? “Because she was my mother, the death of zaftig good-time gal Renay Corren at the impossible old age of 84 is newsworthy to me, and I treat it with the same respect and reverence she had for, well, nothing.” Its truth and beauty made me cry, and got me thinking that I should write obituaries for myself and my closest comrades who are not yet dead. It would eschew the accolades and celebrate the essence. It would be called Nearly Departed. Here’s an excerpt from mine.

Joyce Linehan (she/her/hers) reads a lot of books, but while reading a book, she finds it difficult to concentrate sometimes, because she is always thinking about the NEXT book she will read instead of thinking about the book she is reading. This impulse was exacerbated when she read that the average avid reader gets to read 2500 books in her life, which seems to her like a very small number. Along these lines, she once had a boyfriend who drove her crazy because he took too long to fix his coffee at the Starbucks. He would add cream and sugar and stir and stir and stir, taste, add more, stir and stir and stir, while she added cream, replaced the cover, and walked, understanding that the coffee would stir itself as she moved. It goes without saying that they broke up. For Joyce, it’s definitely not about the destination, and it’s certainly not about the journey; it’s about the NEXT journey, and the journey after that one.

 That seems like a good place to stop. 

What the Island of Misfit Toys Tells Us About People

In Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, on the Island of Misfit Toys, there is a scene where Charlie-in-the-box throws the bird who can’t fly off the sleigh without an umbrella. People have long debated whether this was a blooper or a statement about resilience. Perhaps we can trace the decline of western civilization to this one scene in this one beloved and terrifying stop-motion animated Christmas special, and the effect that it had on the national childhood psyche from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies. I think you can essentially divide people our age into three categories: 1) people who were terrified that the bird was abandoned, 2) people who believed the bird could always fly but just needed someone to believe in him and 3) people who didn’t give a rat’s ass if the bird could fly.

There might be a few non-classifiable people, like those who believe an umbrella is not a parachute, but they’re assholes anyway.

Taking Leave of City Hall

I take my leave from City Hall, grateful to the Mayor for the opportunity he gave me in 2014, to help put into operation the policies we talked about in his 2013 campaign. Those were heady times, filled with an air of such immense possibility to shape our beloved city for generations. And now his journey takes him to a place where he can help millions of working people, serving a president poised to be the most transformational in our lifetime. He is going to hold the position once held by Frances Perkins, one of the most remarkable Americans I have ever learned about. His impact will be deep and generational. So many people are so proud of him. 

I never expected to take such a job – I had built a great career - but the offer was too good to refuse. Having spent most of my life pushing from the outside, the lure of a position from which I could affect real and lasting change was overwhelming. I wanted to make sure the arts had a real seat at the table, fight for the underdog, and mentor the next generation. In the last seven years, under the Mayor’s leadership, I have done all of that and more. I have been part of a team that created more subsidized housing than any other city in America, housed hundreds of chronically homeless people, leveraged growth to achieve good, expanded family leave policy for City employees, and worked to preserve and build cultural facilities. I pushed to establish a Percent for Art program, which is something I had been working on since long before I got to City Hall. That’s millions of dollars for public art. We built real and innovative supports for people struggling with addiction, which for me is very personal, as a continuation of my mother’s life’s work. I worked to create an office that oversees grant seeking and grant making. I had the opportunity to push good climate policy, move workforce and wealth-building initiatives, and make sure the animals in our care are safe. I was able to influence the hiring and promotion of very talented people, now sprinkled in every corner of the building. They will do great things. I am humbled to have had a hand in a great many things at City Hall. In the past year especially, we battled a multi-front war, fighting a deadly pandemic, the resulting recession and working to do what was in our power to advance equity.

I am proud of the work that Marty Walsh and the team he assembled has done. I have learned a lifetime of lessons in the last seven years, which were both the shortest and the longest I have experienced. I am particularly proud of the work I did to begin the conversation about dismantling racist policy and building a system that affirmatively furthers real equity. In 2013, Marty Walsh and I had many long conversations about the fact that race and racism are the subtext of every conversation about policy and history in Boston. We resolved then to tackle that. I led the work to establish the Mayor’s Office of Resilience and Racial Equity, and pushed to make sure that racism was part of every conversation at every table to which I had access. And I had access to a lot of tables at which people like me don’t usually sit. I found some good people there, willing to listen and act. I believe I made a difference. I believe I influenced some hearts and minds. City Hall has a lot more work to do, but I think I am leaving it better than I found it.

As rewarding as political leadership can be, it can also be hard. There is a pervasive feeling that many people are waiting for you and your colleagues to fail, in pursuit of a fleeting shot of schadenfreude. Virtue signaling is a popular sport, and ambition and fear fuel a frenetic race of one-upmanship. I suppose one of the reasons I lasted as long as I did is because I spent 12 years in Catholic schools and had some level of comfort in always feeling as if I was always just about to be yelled at, shamed or embarrassed. People who know nothing about you sit in judgment, and they can be cruel. It’s hard not to take it personally. It is certainly a lesson I will carry with me as I become a better outside agitator. But the good days outnumbered the bad, and I wouldn’t trade our accomplishments for anything.

Governing is about consensus and compromise, by design. Just remember how grateful many of us were for that, as the last administration in Washington moved to destroy the work of better administrations. But that means it’s a slow and sometimes frustrating process with a series of well-placed brick walls that usually don’t come down until there is some bombastic outside trigger, making the action sometimes seem reactive instead of thoughtful. That’s hard. One of my greatest accomplishments in government was to see to it that the legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman could make his film CITY HALL. If you have seen the four-and-a-half-hour opus, you know it’s about the nobility of public service, and the beauty of our city. It’s pure poetry. It’s about good people trying really hard to figure it out. And, as one of my very smart colleagues pointed out, it might just be a rumination on the fact that it’s process, and it’s never really finished. That’s the idea. That framing is too perfect, and as the credits roll on Fred’s latest work, they also roll on mine.

I wish the next Mayor the best of luck in building their own team and have let everyone know that I am around if they need me.

So, what’s next for me? I don’t know yet. I am going to take a bit of time to assess. I wish I could have some people over every night, to talk about big ideas, but that pernicious virus is still out there. I intend, as always, to be an advocate for righteous causes and people, and to advance truth and justice. This is the first time since I was 15 that I haven’t had a well-developed plan. I am available for projects and socially distanced dog walks. I am going to read some books and listen to some records. I am going to push once again from the outside, using all that I have learned. I probably have a book in me. This might be the beginning of a chapter.

(Image from Kallman, McKinnell and Knowles) 

Frederick Wiseman's CITY HALL

I couldn't be more excited about this film, and couldn't be more grateful to have had the opportunity to watch the master at work. I am compiling notices here. The film opened at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals in September, and will open across the United States in October and November. I am glad to know that it seems to have an audience beyond people like me, who find the rhythms and humanness of public service fascinating. 

It was a highlight of my career to be able to spend time with Frederick Wiseman, and to watch him work. I have been a fan since I was a teenager. 

Hollywood Reporter

"Even a native New Yorker like myself, born and bred to despise Boston’s sports franchises, clean streets, comparatively lower crime rates and whiff of historical superiority, cannot deny how much Beantown impresses under Wiseman’s seasoned gaze, revealing sides of itself that few viewers outside the city may be aware of."

Screen Daily

"Wiseman seems to suggest that there’s good spin and bad spin, and this stocky, twinkle-eyed Irish Bostonian, who serves gravy at a Thanksgiving dinner for special needs adults and boasts at a municipal gala about the city’s low unemployment rate and success in fostering upward social mobility, is held up as an example of the canny yet virtuous politician, the anti-Trump in person."


“Boston’s city government is the opposite of what Trump stands for,” Wiseman’s said, and indeed, City Hall maintains a belligerent tone throughout, pitting Mayor Walsh’s office as anathema to Trump’s: a safety net for the downtrodden, a champion of inclusiveness, and a bellwether for the whole country to look up to and follow. “I realize in Boston we can’t solve the problems of the United States,” Walsh says halfway through, “but all it takes is one city.”


"Wiseman, 90, followed Boston's Democratic mayor Marty Walsh and his team for the best part of a year. The resulting four-hour film has been hailed as "a testament to American democracy" when so many of its tenets seem to be under threat. 'Mayor Walsh and Trump represent two extremes,' Wiseman told reporters."

The Economist

"Local government is far from esoteric or low-stakes, Mr Wiseman contends: 'City administration affects more aspects of our lives than any other form of government: birth, death, marriage, driving, construction, crime, violence, fire, health, food. It provides the services and regulations required for people to live together with some degree of success.'”

Open yourself up to the mentally daunting nature of the plunge, and “City Hall” amounts to a vibrant half-day hangout with democracy in action.

“A city can’t thrive if we’re disconnected from each other,” states Walsh, thereby articulating what Wiseman has shown us through his deliberate choice of footage and canny editorial structure. In police-briefing reports about illicit activity, in Walsh’s comments about historical discrimination against the Irish community, and in varied recollections about military duty, substance abuse, and prejudice, City Hall proves a celebration of the power of storytelling to unite—and, also, a masterful example of it. 

The Gate: City Hall | TIFF 2020 Review

Late in the film, during a discussion about an upcoming NAACP convention, Walsh makes it known that everyone, not just the well connected, are as vital to the conversation as anyone else, and this one moment – in a film filled with countless brilliant slices of life – sums up Wiseman’s intentions perfectly. City Hall might actually be Wiseman’s career best.

Boston Globe: Fred Wiseman’s ‘City Hall’ (as in Boston City Hall) at Toronto film fest

I seriously doubt it’s what Fred Wiseman had in mind, but his new movie, “City Hall,” might turn out to be the most effective campaign ad Marty Walsh didn’t have to buy.

The Playlist: ‘City Hall’: Frederick Wiseman’s Latest Is Four-Star Competency Porn [TIFF Review]

Throughout the film, Walsh comes off as something of an anti-Trump, though Trump himself is only occasionally mentioned, and almost always halfway so (in vagueries like “What happens in Washington, we feel on the streets of Boston”). But what Wiseman’s film boils down to, in many ways, is a much-needed dose of competency porn – a snapshot of government officials trying their very best to do better, and to be better. And that might be the story he’s really telling: a reminder that government, for all of its speed bumps and snags, can work. It can help. The people running it just have to want it to.

Variety: ‘City Hall’ Review: Frederick Wiseman’s Mammoth Boston Doc Shows Anti-Trump Politics in Practice

Yet in certain key senses, the film is an unusual Wiseman work, not complacent in its gaze or approach. More insistently political than most of his films, albeit through observational emphasis rather than direct editorialization, it’s also rare in its character-driven nature, allowing a clear protagonist — a hero, even — to emerge from its many diffuse scenes of everyday life across a broad social and professional spectrum.

Film Stage: Venice Review: Frederick Wiseman Digs Out the Soul of City Hall in Latest Documentary Epic

His ability to ennoble even the dreariest of bureaucratic entities never ceases to amaze.

The New Yorker: Highlights from the Second Week of the New York Film Festival

Wiseman considers, with a lofty philosophical logic and an ardent sense of observation, the very nature of good government, as he sees it at work in Boston, with the mayoralty of Marty Walsh (who was elected in 2013 and reëlected in 2017).

Moveable Feast: New York Film Fest 2020 Review: A Metropolis That Works for All Takes Work in Frederick Wiseman’s Illuminating “City Hall”

With “City Hall” starting to make its way into the world in the middle of a pandemic in which the response has seemed less than ideal, it’s both comforting to see these gears being constantly in motion with the best intentions behind them as it follows Mayor Martin Walsh into meetings about better coordination of city services or planning the logistics of the parade celebrating the Red Sox recent World Series win or distressing when revealing the inefficiencies of the whole process and how slowly it yields results.

WBUR: Marty Walsh Takes A Star Turn In Fredrick Wiseman's 'City Hall'

I’ve never seen a Wiseman film with a figure as central as Mayor Walsh becomes in this one. We keep circling back to our Mah-ty on an exhaustive schedule of flesh-pressing public speaking events where he occasionally veers off-script onto unexpectedly personal tangents about his childhood cancer diagnosis or his struggles with alcoholism. The movie’s hardly a campaign advertisement, but during all these meetings (oh, so many meetings) it’s easy to see why Wiseman responds to Walsh and gives him a place of prominence seldom afforded to other officials in his films: He likes him because he listens. (“Your mayor seems like a good chap,” a friend from far away texted after finishing the movie.)

Leave it to documentary master Frederick Wiseman to make a 275-minute documentary about local city government and turn it into maybe the most essential American documentary of 2020.

AP: Frederick Wiseman on the life of American institutions

The film doesn’t in any way suggest the government of Boston is perfect. But it does suggest, I hope, that there’s a mayor who cares and is trying to implement programs and raise money for services that will make a difference in people’s lives.

Disappointed Media: CITY HALL -- A Magnificent Work of Direct Cinema

Frederick Wiseman is considered to be one of the most influential filmmakers in the direct cinema style of documentary filmmaking, and even as a nonagenarian, he’s still one of the most interesting voices working today. And while his newest film City Hall may be long, it’s powerful stuff and should be considered essential viewing.


There’s an empathy and honesty from the Mayor that is hard to ignore, and Wiseman repeatedly allows him to speak his truths. There are moments throughout the scenes where Walsh says the opposite of a political answer, coming clean about his past and reasons for pursuing policies. For Wiseman, this fascination with Walsh feels like a critique of national politics. The simple act of showcasing an authentic man trying to make connections across the city feels fairly inflammatory for this director.

In City Hall, we are not observing a city ‘managing’ its population, we are observing a symbiotic relationship, within which the equality between the two parties is absolutely vital.

Forward: Now 90, Frederick Wiseman is as vital and relevant as ever

But maybe this is beside the point. “City Hall” is extraordinarily “relevant” to 2020, because, at a time when the prevailing tone of the Democratic Party is, “Let’s get back to normal,” Wiseman’s film — a portrait of a relatively prosperous, liberal-run metropolis — poses the question, “What exactly was normal, and was it quite as good as Joe Biden is always saying?”

Wiseman films always have their share of vivid characters, but “City Hall” is the rare one to contain a figure who might be considered its hero or protagonist. That would be Mayor Marty Walsh, who sports a note-perfect Bahstahn accent and points to his Irish heritage as connecting him to the many immigrant communities contained in his city. For any New Yorker who’s lately been stewing over the ridiculous, endless pissing match between our mayor and governor, it’s refreshing to encounter a political leader as humble, dedicated and focused on the common good as Mayor Walsh appears to be.

Critics At Large: City Hall: Frederick Wiseman in Boston

Wiseman’s real focus in City Hall is the slow, uphill battle, championed by Walsh, to achieve social justice in the city of Boston, to honor diversity and inclusivity and remove the barriers to gender and racial parity (especially in the workplace) at a time when the federal government is moving backwards.

Squid News: ‘City Hall’ Film Review: Frederick Wiseman Celebrates the Power of Civic Engagement

Just because Wiseman isn’t narrating or making direct statements, it doesn’t mean there’s not a point of view at play here; it’s apparent that the director champions governmental institutions and community involvement in an age where reactionaries are still trying to make government small enough to drown in a bathtub and to make individual citizens feel hopeless and cynical about their elected officials.

In time it becomes clear that Walsh isn’t the subject of “City Hall” but rather the most visible face of the city’s government, its good will ambassador. He also serves as a sharp counterpoint to President Trump, an unseen presence whose administration, policies and political agenda wind through the movie like a cord.

Wall Street Journal: ‘City Hall’ Review: An Inspiring Display of Municipal Bonds

His film, narration-free as always, constitutes a love letter to civic governance, and the notion of democracy, at a time when public discourse seethes with scorn for urban life. It is also a celebration, simultaneously clear-eyed and optimistic, of what Boston’s government, under its mayor, Martin J. Walsh, has been trying to achieve in a city that’s endured more than its share of racial turmoil in the recent past. 

Los Angeles Times: Review: Frederick Wiseman returns to his Boston hometown in the magnificent ‘City Hall’

Walsh’s political passion is informed by his Catholic beliefs (“That’s a sin,” he says of the NRA’s negligence) and a genuine belief in the power of municipal government to change lives for the better: “The people that work for the city work for you,” he tells his fellow Bostonians more than once. It also reflects his commitment to diversity and extending the reach of the city’s services to marginalized communities. We often see Walsh addressing those communities with sincere, sometimes touchingly awkward vulnerability: Speaking to the concerns of veterans in recovery, he describes his own struggle with alcoholism. At a meeting with Latino constituents, he criticizes President Trump’s racism with memories of the anti-Irish prejudice endured by his own family.

AV Club: Frederick Wiseman’s mammoth-length City Hall finds humanity alongside the bureaucracy

And for City Hall, he’s chosen to look at the municipal workings of Boston, which still has a strong Irish-Catholic image for many people but is in fact “majority minority,” with a population that’s more than 50% people of color. How that gets navigated on a day-to-day basis is the film’s primary, never-stated subject.

ArtsFuse: Film Review: Frederick Wiseman’s “City Hall” — A Kinder, Gentler Government?

Walsh makes sure that his constituents know that he’s been through childhood cancer and that he’s in recovery from booze. Yet he also encourages them to talk about themselves. And it’s in these moments that City Hall comes alive.

NPR Fresh Air: An Action-Packed Doc About Local Government? It's All In Wiseman's 'City Hall'

Walsh has an empathetic touch: At one point, addressing some of his Latino constituents, he criticizes the Trump administration's attacks on people of color and reflects on the discrimination endured by past generations of his Irish Catholic family. In another scene, he attends a fundraiser for nurses and reminisces about the kindness of the care he received as a childhood cancer patient. Sometimes Walsh overreaches in his attempts to relate to his fellow Bostonians, but it's moving to see him make the effort. And he seems genuine in his belief that municipal government can effect real, beneficial change in his citizens' lives.


I guess cinema and public appearances are platforms that engender more empathy that say, social media. However, there’s something brave about depicting a mayor exposing such vulnerable personal secrets. Wiseman depicts Walsh’s flaws too. He plops the camera in front of Walsh long enough and not edit anything out. And there’s something that a knowing audience can pick out, validly. And I know grass is greener, etc. But Wiseman makes Walsh look so good here that it makes me resent the kind of mayors we have. How our mayors represent the boorish nouveaux riches and performative intellectuals plaguing our streets.

Cinema As We Know It: TIFF Review: The Residential Monument of ‘City Hall’

Its only recurring figure is Marty Walsh, serving his second term as Mayor of Boston. And serving isn’t some vague rhetoric here, his moments on screen are all focused on his duty to his electorate. He appears at holiday celebrations, interdepartmental meetings, environmental roundtables, and a televised celebration of the Red Sox World Series victory. It is unexpectedly heartening to see a mayoral leader so focused on progressive policy and in favor of accountability and humanity. Walsh holds himself with unmistakable purpose and conscience and his addresses are always his own words, delivered in his recognizable Boston accent.

Hyperallergic: How a City Government Works, According to Frederick Wiseman

The film is neither a condemnation nor a celebration of city government, but a clear-eyed view of how people try to work together.

WaPo: Frederick Wiseman, the dean of documentary filmmaking, turns his attention to local government

The same sense of contemplation and perseverance propels “City Hall” to its full-circle moment, an affecting testament to the countless anonymous people who undergird the part of a functional democracy that’s routinely taken for granted or demonized as the “Deep State.” Wiseman delivers an engrossing rebuke to that toxic myth by putting viewers into their own deep state: In this case, one of reflection, admiration and profound gratitude.

Texas Art and Film: CITY HALL

It’s easy to see why Wiseman would want to capture the tenure of Walsh as mayor of Boston.  He has strong basic values of equity and fairness, and after overcoming a brief addiction which taught him the importance of acknowledging emotions and talking about significant experiences, he is sensitive to the challenges and needs of the disadvantaged whether by race, sex, or ethnicity.  This allows him the capacity to move the city forward in practices, policies, and programs that are meant to benefit the general public.

Film Threat: City Hall

Fred Wisemen is not so much a director as he is a symphony conductor. His latest documentary, City Hall, is a testament to this. At a sprawling four and a half hours, he finds beats and rhythms within his subjects, providing a texture and pattern that builds into melodies and occasionally swells into crescendos

Third Coast: Review: Documentarian Frederick Wiseman Returns with Masterful City Hall, an Immersive Exploration of Municipal Machinations

His latest masterpiece is City Hall, which moves us through the workings of the city of Boston, led by its progressive and skillful mayor, Martin Walsh, and his seemingly endless numbers of civil servants who keep nearly every aspect of the city moving and functional…mostly.

Austin Chronicle: City Hall

City government is the social establishment that personally affects our lives the most, and while the phrase “required viewing” gets thrown around a lot, I cannot think of another film that plainly and comprehensively lays bare the both the complex apparatus at work, and the people dedicated to serving its populace.

Chicago Reader: City Hall highlights public servants actually serving the public 

The sometimes profound cynicism of some of Wiseman’s earlier films is replaced here by the even more profound conviction that people are at the heart of government and that many of those people just want to help.

Nashville Scene: Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall Is a Thorough Examination of What Keeps a City Running

There’s a particular focus on Boston’s diversity, along with how city services attempt to meet the needs of its substantial immigrant population. On both the official and personal levels, we see Bostonians reconciling with the city’s particular history of racism while working out how to enact a more progressive future. 

Boston Globe: Boston is the star in ‘City Hall’

Finally, Mayor Marty Walsh speaks. He talks about how his experience of alcoholism chimes with the sense of dislocation and stress that returning veterans must feel. He’s speaking extemporaneously. The comparison is in no way gratuitous or self-serving. This isn’t a politician talking to voters. It’s one human being who’s suffered talking to other human beings who’ve suffered even more.

Patriot Ledger: ‘City Hall’ documentary shows Boston from the inside out

The Government Center delve unfolds in a series of chapter-esque meanders between the micro and macro with plenty of shots of Boston’s iconic skyline and landmarks to root you. The rendering should make plenty of Beantowners proud and Walsh, seemingly ever aware of the camera, comes off crisp, progressive and inclusive — a shining illumination that may pose something of an extra hurdle for upcoming challenger Michelle Wu and others.

Rolling Stone: ‘City Hall’: Frederick Wiseman’s Latest Reminds Us Why Democracy Is Slow — But Effective

When I saw City Hall for the first time this summer, smack dab at the center of the pandemic, I was initially perplexed by its lack of explicit befuddlement at the political leaders it depicts; I was, at the moment, craving more of the bitter irony Wiseman let seep into many of his early films. Then the election happened; Biden won. And that punctuating question, about the efficacy of well-meaning Democrats, became much more resonant. City Hall’s barely adorned and adamantly unruffled depiction of Walsh’s Boston precedes the Covid era and election season — only barely. These problems are inseparably tied up in the questions raised, the humanity witnessed, the limits exposed by this movie. A case in point: As of this writing, Mayor Walsh is among the names circling President-elect Biden’s incumbent cabinet. On its surface, in so many ways, City Hall could read as an endorsement. But politics aren’t that simple — and Wiseman’s movie most certainly isn’t, either. 

Willamette Week: Frederick Wiseman’s New Doc “City Hall” Is Like Watching a Puzzle Being Put Together, and the Final Picture Is of a Stable Democracy

City Hall is sort of like watching a puzzle being put together in real time (it's over four hours!), only the pieces are people, meetings, ideas and industries, and the final picture is of a stable democracy. 

Portland Press Herald: Indie Film: ‘City Hall’ shows humanity through the lens of local government

In responding to inevitable speculation that his choice to focus on the boldly anti-Donald Trump Mayor Walsh (who declared Boston a “sanctuary city” for undocumented people) was, itself, a political statement, Wiseman noted, revealingly, “ ‘City Hall’ is an anti-Trump film because the mayor and the people who work for him believe in democratic norms. They represent everything Donald Trump doesn’t stand for.”  


Funny story about how the film came to be made. Yvonne is the Mayor's assistant, and she sorts his mail. She makes piles. She'll say, "oh this one is housing, so it's for Sheila." "This one is veterans, so it's for the commissioner." "This one is weird and I don't know what to do with it, so it's for Joyce." And that's how Fred Wiseman's letter got into my hands. Of course I rolled my eyes when she handed it to me. Then I looked at it. "Hi, my name is Frederick Wiseman and I am a filmmaker..." I shrieked, "Oh my God, Yvonne, do you know what this is?" She just laughed. I then called the five whole people in City Hall who would understand why I was so excited, because I would need backup to convince everyone this was a good idea. And that's what we did! In the process, we indoctrinated a few of the younger City Hall folks, who are now BIG Fred fans for life. So, I won't complain ever again if Yvonne brings me the weird mail.

Labor Day

Here's a playlist with one song for every hour of the work week! I compiled this playlist on a platform that doesn't pay artists enough for their work, proving that irony is not dead. 

Song for today: August 26

Song for today, Women’s Equality Day, which should probably be renamed “Women’s Equality in Voting” Day, because we don’t want anyone thinking there’s not still a LOT of work to do.