PRINT February 2000


Frederick Wiseman

WE CAN ARGUE OVER WHETHER OR NOT Frederick Wiseman is the most gifted documentary filmmaker America has ever produced, but he is surely the most obsessive. He began his career in 1967, abandoning his law practice to chronicle the treatment of inmates at Bridgewater, Massachusetts’s State Prison for the Criminally Insane. The outcome of that effort was Titicut Follies, a legendary muckraker of a picture (though we can only speculate about the reforms it might have inspired, since its release was held up by legal hassles for two and a half decades). In the thirty-three years he has now been making movies, Wiseman has conducted an exhaustive exploration of the way Americans live, recorded in thirty movies about institutions (High School [1968], Juvenile Court [1973], Welfare [1975]), industries and careers (Meat [1976], Model [1980], Missile [1987]), significant spaces (Canal Zone [1977], Central Park [1989], Zoo [1993]), artistic endeavors (Ballet [1995]), communities (Aspen [1991], Public Housing [1997]), distinctive modes of existence (Blind [1986], Deaf [1986], Near Death [1989]). Each is a remarkably extensive examination: It’s not unusual for a Wiseman film to clock in at three hours—and a few even run to four.

On the triple occasion of the completion of Wiseman’s thirtieth documentary, Belfast, Maine (1999), his receiving the Irene Diamond Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to human-rights filmmaking, and his upcoming seventieth birthday, the Film Society of Lincoln Center is mounting a complete retrospective of his nonfiction films. (His single foray into fiction, 1980’s Seraphita’s Diary, is the only work not included.) The month-long festival—which began in late January with the American premiere of Belfast, Maine—is a rare opportunity to see these pictures, many of which have been shown publicly only once or twice since their initial airing on public television. In Wiseman’s hometown, Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Harvard Film Archive screened most of the early films together in 1993, but the tribute Lincoln Center is paying him this season is nonetheless overdue. Wiseman must be the least famous American director of his caliber; indeed, the genre in which he works generally dooms filmmakers to obscurity. But Wiseman began his career at the outset of the richest and most varied period in American movies, the Vietnam era, and the first phase of that career—which ended with the dwindling of this “American Renaissance” around 1975—produced a series of features that have to be counted among the signal achievements of those years: High School, Law and Order (1969; about the Kansas City police force), Hospital (1970), Basic Training (1971), Juvenile Court, and Welfare.

Though these pictures have much in common with Titicut Follies, they are notably different in tone. They’re raw, knotted depictions of the combat ordinary human beings wage in and against nightmarish bureaucracies—women and men whose lives are defined, at least temporarily, by these interactions. And in almost all cases Wiseman’s unblinking gaze refuses to distinguish between the struggles of clients whose circumstances have placed them within the purview of these systems and the struggles of the employees who attempt to make them work. He doesn’t validate the notion of villains, and in fact the joyous surprise in film after film is how decently most of his subjects behave when they have to deal with the misery, bafflement, and defeat of people whom the massive, antiquated machine—maddeningly slow and inefficient—fails to assist. The only characters in a Wiseman film we don’t sympathize with are the officials who see themselves as the voice of the system and refuse to acknowledge its inadequacies—to borrow from Brecht, those who aren’t sufficiently detached to comment ironically on the roles they play. High School contains, sadly, the largest contingent of these self-satisfied menaces, like the administrator who instructs a student to accept an unjust punishment from a teacher because it’s good for his character, or the woman who reads aloud, in assembly, a heartrendingly naive letter from an alumnus about to be dropped into the jungles of Vietnam, proudly holding up his missive as proof that the school has done its job. And they pop up occasionally elsewhere—the field sergeant in Basic Training who seems to be trying to turn himself into a machine, the judge in Juvenile Court who dispenses facile psychiatric advice. But there are astonishingly few of them. If Wiseman had come to these subjects with a political agenda, he wouldn’t have discovered all the ways in which the humane impulse pulses through the corridors of ill-designed, dilapidated bureaucracies. Law and Order and Basic Training stand out boldly from the more typical films of the era in their insistence on presenting cops and military officers as ordinary human beings whose intention actually is to serve others.

Welfare, my own favorite among Wiseman’s films, completed in 1975, was the last of this amazing bumper crop. He couldn’t keep it up forever—the urgent tone, the seat-of-the-pants feel of cinema verité, the sense of vast structures crumbling around us; he was by then forty-five, and the culture, too, was changing. Beginning with Meat in 1976 and Canal Zone in 1977, his movies lost that urgency and began to take on a more contemplative mood; in 1980, when he began collaborating with the photographer John Davey, they became visually more evocative. William Brayne, who’d shot all of Wiseman’s previous pictures, from Law and Order through Manoeuvre (1979), had a marvelously gritty, free-form style. Davey became Wiseman’s partner just before the documentarian added color to his palette, and the new cinematographer’s more classical aesthetic is better suited to the later movies, with their patient layering of information, their love of physical detail (particularly in the workplace), their musical structure (characters, locations, activities recur like refrains). For Wiseman, there’s no such thing as banality; he sifts the material of the apparently banal until he’s found the variety of its texture. In a movie like Central Park or the luxuriantly shaped Belfast, Maine, an epic measure-taking of a small New England fishing town, that process is not only deeply engaging but deeply beautiful.

The passage out of the ’70s wasn’t easy for Wiseman. Movies like Canal Zone and Model (his first with Davey) seem to lack energy and purpose. It took him a few years to find a new mode to work in, and I think that what has taken hold in his later pictures, their defining characteristic, is the communitarian ideal that underlies them. You can see a longing for community in the early Wisemans, and a recognition that we see the potential for it whenever two people make a human connection, however fleeting. But in a film like Hospital or Juvenile Court these miraculous meetings, fortuitous crossed paths, feel more like scenes Chekhov might have written; we experience them as disparate, random. The evolution of Wiseman’s vision of American life is clear when you juxtapose the ’70s-vintage Juvenile Court or Welfare with 1997’s Public Housing, where he focuses on the efforts of an embattled group of people to hack a reasonable communal existence out of the resources—human and otherwise—they’ve managed to cobble together. His early movies are wonder-struck testaments to the power of human beings to endure in places where the center no longer holds. His late ones are full of quiet optimism, as he finds his subjects linking up in meaningful and often imaginative ways, finding new centers and seeking the means to fortify them.

Steve Vineberg teaches film and theater at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts.

“Frederick Wiseman: American Filmmaker” runs from January 28 to February 24 at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater in New York.