It often feels more like an exercise than a planned film.
Robert Mugge made his name directing documentary films about American popular music, including Pride and Joy: The Story of Alligator Records, Gospel According to Al Green, and Kuma Hula: The Keepers of a Culture. But one of his early films treated quite a different subject: Frank Rizzo, who served as mayor of Philadelphia from 1972 to 1978.
Rizzo may be most remembered today for his clashes with the African American community, including a 1970 raid of the Black Panther party which included strip searches recorded on camera (charges against the Panthers arrested were later dropped) and a 1978 raid on the black liberation group MOVE, which resulted in 11 deaths and destruction of 65 houses.
Amateur Night at City Hall: The Story of Frank L. Rizzo, shot in 1977 and originally released in 1978, does not cover the MOVE incident. However, what it does include about Rizzo’s relations with the black community (and student protesters, hippies, or anyone else he disapproved of) and his general approach to life suggests that the extreme violence of that attack was not out of character with other decisions Rizzo made as police commissioner and governor.
Amateur Night is a fairly obscure film—it’s not listed in Mugge’s entry on IMDb.com, for instance—and viewing it is a mixed experience that requires a large measure of indulgence from the viewer. It often feels more like an exercise than a planned film (according to one contemporary review, Rizzo did not cooperate with the filmmakers, so they relied largely on archival materials) and at its worst seems to be a collage of whatever the filmmakers could get their hands on. Maybe that approach seemed more interesting in 1978 (a shortened version of this film won the Silver Hugo at the 1978 Chicago International Film Festival), or maybe the fact that Rizzo was so much in the news at that time meant that anything about him could draw an audience based on topical interest alone.
Here’s an example from early in the film: When Henry Cianfrani, a state senator from South Philadelphia, mentions the Italian market during an interview, we get a clip of the Italian market. Pretty clever, huh? Well, not really—it feels more like the kind of filler that local television stations use when they have more airtime than news, and making a collage out of these bits and pieces doesn’t result in a satisfying feature-length film. A related issue is that these examples of “authentic” local culture (the fish tossing at Pike Place Market in Seattle comes immediately to mind) are often performances primarily for the benefits of tourists, raising the question of who is being fooled by whom.
Even less interesting are the many “man on the street” clips of people offering their opinions about Rizzo, also a staple used to fill out television news coverage (one recurring interviewee is a gabby cabbie straight out of Central Casting). The problem is that most of the comments offered by these individuals are not particularly enlightening, and since you can always find someone to say just about anything about just about anyone, there’s no particular reason we need to hear the thoughts of these particular people. A related problem is that unless you are already well informed about the events being discussed, you won’t get out of much of this film, because it assumes that you already have the necessary context to interpret what you see on the screen.
There are some clever moments in Amateur Night. The opening segment, for instance, consists of someone whistling, “There’s no Business like Show Business,” while the screen is filled with a photograph of Frank Rizzo in his police uniform. This is followed by clips of Philadelphia’s famous Mummer’s Parade (noted for the marchers’ spectacular costumes), and the segment closes with a screen card bearing a characteristically inflammatory quote from Rizzo: “I’m gonna make Attila the Hun look like a faggot!” That sets up a premise worth exploring—Rizzo’s career as an example of treating politics as a branch of show business—and one that is particularly relevant given the current presidential campaign. Unfortunately, the remaining 74 minutes or so don’t live up to that initial promise, and the many interesting archival materials are buried under a boatload of filler. |
Amateur Night at City Hall is distributed on DVD by MVD Entertainment Group. There are no extras on the disc.