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The visual poetry of documentarian Frederick Wiseman

After six decades and 43 films, Frederick Wiseman, whom Pauline Kael years ago called “the most sophisticated intelligence in documentary,” is now enjoying more attention than ever before. He will be honored by Film Forum with a full retrospective of his films starting April 14th. In Los Angeles, Cinefamily is also honoring Wiseman with a comprehensive four-year retrospective that includes three newly restored 35mm prints (Titicut Follies [1967], High School [1968], and Hospital [1970]). He also received an Honorary Award (Governors’ Award) from the Academy in November, along with Jackie Chan, editor Anne Coates, and casting director Lynn Stallmaster.

Wiseman’s films are often, yet mistakenly, grouped with his contemporaries Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, and Albert and David Maysles as part of the American direct cinema movement of the 1960s and 70s. These filmmakers, like Wiseman, were using recently developed lightweight, portable 16mm cameras with synchronized sound recording equipment to capture events spontaneously, but there the similarity to Wiseman ends. The direct cinema film makers aspired to be, in Leacock’s famous phrase, a “fly-on-the-wall”: to observe, follow, and capture events as they happened without a script. This approach was, in the words of Soviet film theorist Dziga Vertov, “life caught unawares” by the camera eye, an unblinking, impartial witness that would reveal deeper truths about the world displayed before it.

Wiseman’s films are distinctly different. Where direct cinema tended to focus on charismatic individuals in crisis situations, Wiseman’s films, anticipating the cycle of “network narratives,” take as their subject American institutional life, revealing, in the words of Richard Brody, “the rules and the exercise and negotiation of power behind the surfaces of daily life.”

Further, while the direct cinema filmmakers insisted that their films must be structured chronologically in order to remain as faithful as possible to the pro-filmic events they have recorded, Wiseman’s films are clearly structured according to principles other than chronology, using rhetorical strategies such as contrast, similarity, analogy, metonymy, and irony. This temporal shuffling for aesthetic and thematic purposes is evident from Wiseman’s first documentary, the controversial Titicut Follies, which begins and ends by showing parts of the same annual musical show mounted by the inmates of Bridgewater and suggesting that everything in between is an inescapable nightmare involving social performance.

Frederick Wiseman in 2005. Picture by Charles Hayes, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Frederick Wiseman in 2005. Picture by Charles Hayes, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Wiseman himself is dismissive of the very idea of direct cinema’s ideal objectivity, or that his films are examples of it. Primate [1974], about the Yerkes Primate Research Center in Atlanta, is in part a joke about direct cinema, with his camera observing and framing the fly-on-the-wall scientist observers, taking a wider view than theirs. Wiseman readily admits the creative manipulation in his work in his own description of his films as “reality dreams” or “reality fictions.” He lists himself as director in the credits of his films, and has insisted that “When you’re signing the film, you are saying it’s your film, this is the way you see it.”

Although Wiseman’s films never feature a narrator, either within the film or as voice-over to explain or contextualize what we see, his authorial voice is always present, both at the level of the shot and in overall structure. His images consistently seize upon objects and physical details in the institutions he films and invests them with significance beyond their functional purposes. His images are charged with meaning beyond the literal to an extent that can only be called poetic. Like William Carlos Williams, Wiseman knows how much depends upon observing a red wheel barrow beside the white chickens glazed with rainwater.

In Wiseman’s documentaries the institutions are themselves treated symbolically (Wiseman calls them “cultural spoors”), with the films employing textual strategies that force the viewer to understand them as social microcosms, as interwoven parts of the larger social fabric. Like all the institutions Mr. Wiseman has examined – whether publicly funded ones like hospitals, schools, and courts; or cultural ones like advertising, retail sales, and ballet companies – they are shown to have their own logic, a logic which fuels the institution’s operational processes.

Crucially, Wiseman’s attitude toward institutions has shifted over the years, moving, broadly speaking, from exposé to empathy. In earlier films people were seen as victims of institutional practices; more recently they are more accepting of the people within institutions and even of the institutions themselves.

The love and openness that characterize Essene (1972) and the four films of the Deaf and Blind series (1986) have become prominent in more recent work. Belfast, Maine (1999) is a magisterial work that discovers aspects of many of the institutions Wiseman had examined in earlier films at work in the eponymous New England town even as it embraces the range of people who live there. The subject of domestic violence was important enough to Wiseman to devote two films to it (Domestic Violence [2001] and Domestic Violence 2 [2002]). And his most recent film, In Jackson Heights (2015), is a celebration of harmonious racial, ethnic, and religious difference in a neighborhood that proudly advertises itself as the most ethnically diverse in the world.

Animated by the same expansive and generous spirit that informs these films, Wiseman has become more involved in the other arts. Recent films have focused on dance Ballet (1995), La Danse—Le Ballet de l’Opèra de Paris (2009), Crazy Horse (2011), and perhaps even Boxing Gym (2010) and painting (National Gallery), which cleverly uses the gallery tour guides’ discussions of famous paintings to comment on his own filmmaking practice. Currently Wiseman is collaborating with James Sewell and the Minnesota Ballet Company on a ballet of Titicut Follies, hardly a subject that would leap to mind for such an adaptation (he already had collaborated on Welfare: The Opera in 1997).

Looking for an upbeat interpretation of King Lear, a teacher in High School II (1994) says about the ruler’s relationship with his daughter Cordelia that it was “a different kind of love. It’s very interesting how kinds” of love may be found in the play. This is becoming true of Wiseman’s own films as well. It is perfectly appropriate, therefore, that Wiseman’s work is now being embraced more widely in return.

Featured image credit: 16mm film reel from DRs Kulturarvsprojekt, (archive of Danish Broadcasting Corporation). CC-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Alan Barker

    Astonishing bad journalism. Do your research. Read what Leacock and Pennebaker actually said and did. The concept of “fly on the wall” was created by bad journalism such as this.

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