Reflections In A Golden Eye

Film still for Reflections In A Golden Eye

Frederick Wiseman's respect for civic institutions makes him a champion of democratic values but his artistry should not be forgotten. By Nicolas Rapold

Frederick Wiseman's documentaries elicit a familiar list of responses from critics: no voiceover, text, or score; no clear protagonists, no simplistic narrative or chronological spines, bounded locale, etc. No this, no that - until eventually you realise you're talking about a film-maker in a special category. In the four decades since Titicut Follies (1967) initially classed him with practitioners of Direct Cinema, Wiseman has gone far beyond that movement's oddly celebrity-oriented preoccupation with in-the-moment truth. He has achieved his own form of realism in work of consistent richness and variety to produce films which are both social documents and great art.

Take for example a gently building sequence from his portrait of an old seaside town, Belfast, Maine (1999), the title of which evokes Sherwood Anderson's 1919 short-story cycle Winesburg, Ohio. Towards the end of the film a crusty high-school teacher praises Moby-Dick: “What Melville does in Moby-Dick is - and this is part of his great democratic vision, I think - he makes the tragic hero a fisherman from Nantucket.” The teacher then riffs on the viewpoints of Melville vis-à-vis Thoreau and Emerson. Wiseman himself splits the difference, first cutting to the serene beauty of a woodsy reservoir, then alighting on workers in a salmon-packing factory. Finally we join a social worker listening to a courageous woman recount in broad Maine accents her reconciliation with the abusive father she once vowed to kill.

Wiseman's approach is far more multilayered than just finding drama and detail in the everyday. The broad canvas of Belfast, perhaps closest to that of Central Park (1989), may surprise viewers accustomed to his portraits of institutions: the case-study cycles of Welfare (1975) or Domestic Violence 2 (2002), the “way-things-work” momentum of the boot camp in Basic Training (1971), or the meatpacking plants in 1976's Meat, the community ecosystems of Public Housing (1997) or High School II (1994). Wiseman's measured gaze is the common factor throughout, the touch that defines him in terms beyond documentary. It's a quality that people misconstrue as 'hands-off objectivity'.

Instead of summoning the raggedy ghost of documentary authenticity, Wiseman's craft deserves outright praise. Most fiction film-makers would kill for his ability to whittle down footage to allow drama, theme and essential information to emerge as if they had always been there. Then there are his discreet macro-level editing schemes, his wizardry with sound and image continuity, and his storytelling gifts of compression, tone and pacing. With his long time cinematographer John Davey (and previously William Brayne) Wiseman has honed his talent for unfussy balanced composition and his alertness to his subjects. Over the years the durability of these chosen constraints and his discipline have proved exceptional even as vogues for 'unflinching long takes' or directorial intervention become as clichéd as the 'voice of authority' of the 1930s.

Yet Wiseman had not fully embraced this freer approach in his renowned early movies: Titicut Follies which exposed mistreatment at a Massachusetts prison for the “criminally insane” and High School (1968), a portrait of a 1960s-oblivious factory for producing compliant citizens. The two films, still in heavy rental rotation, have become touchstones for socially concerned documentarians and auteurs keen to revamp realism. Yet their points of view feel less open compared to later works, ruddered at times by insinuating, even didactic, cuts and sequences. Wiseman, a lawyer by training, taught family, criminal and legal-medical law before directing and would take his students round to the institutions under study (including the prison in Titicut). His third film Law and Order (1969) shadows Kansas City police business around town and back at the station and already feels more freely assembled. Despite the title taken from a key issue of Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign, this is no one-sided exposé.

For his troubles, Wiseman earned historic battle scars from his first two films: decades of unprecedented censorship of Titicut Follies care of an injunction lodged over the inmates' privacy rights and, to avoid a lawsuit, a self-imposed agreement (which ended only in 2001) never to show High School in the town where it was made. Primate (1974) captured the absurdities and indignities of experimentation at an animal research lab and created a furore among the scientists it depicts, as well as incurring a bomb threat. Nor were these clampdowns relics of a turbulent earlier era: The Garden (2005) is a reportedly superb study of an all-purpose New York events arena that the venue's owners have so far succeeded in suppressing.

Fortunately Wiseman has avoided the distracting mantle of crusader or polemicist to become, in the old newsman's phrase, one of the most trusted voices in film-making. He has refined his most characteristic form: a unity of deep-structural view with found vignettes, accumulated detail, and editing that circles, alights and suggests rather than binds. The nearly three-hour-long Welfare (1975), building on the loosely serial-format of Juvenile Court (1973), was the first triumph in this vein - a Beckett-referencing epic of stasis filmed within a New York aid centre. Petitioners queue endlessly to justify themselves to beleaguered desk employees and Wiseman's knack with the material demonstrates the resourcefulness of a dramatist.

The documentaries range in length from about two to six hours. The roomier duration allows Wiseman to avoid constrictive expectations of traditional arcs and better reflect ambiguity. The scale of Wiseman's associative editing schemes keeps metaphors and themes from feeling too rigid or explicit, aided by bumper montages that provide emotional buffers, dab in more detail or remind us of the broader geographical and societal background. For example, it's only upon reflection that you realise that a community rehearsal of Death of a Salesman in Belfast leads swiftly to a hunter approaching a growling wolf in a steel trap. (Wiseman contractually requires uncut single-night broadcasts of his films when shown on public television, for decades now the primary venue for his debuts and the source of much of his funding.)

These films are both multifaceted chronicles and serial present-tense dramas. Near Death (1989) focuses on a few terminally ill patients at an intensive-care unit in Boston and draws us into intimate moments of deliberation and discussion between family and doctors. The film records a process and a culture at the same time: the procedures and professionals in such a unit, the role hospitals play in the final stages of life and the legal, medical and societal strictures at play. In a remark that illuminates all his work and perhaps especially the most final of decisions at the heart of this film, Wiseman has said he tries to shoot events where decisions are being made, as an insight into ideology.

As in the case of Near Death,Wiseman's work often enters territory that fiction has not fully mastered or even broached. The one-size-fits-all tag of institutional study hardly covers what is going on in the Domestic Violence films. The inhabitants of the women's shelter in the first film speak of grief, love, hatred and the terror of losing even a violent companion. In Domestic Violence 2, judge-mediated court hearings become a succession of inconclusive scenes between unhappy couples.

Yet as the Boston accents of the nurses in Near Death and the disconcertingly beautiful Florida palms in Domestic Violence remind us, Wiseman's films are always highly specific, local and real in a sense no 'setting' could be. Native Americans: this is the oeuvre as a fine-grained, unbounded compendium that earns the Whitman-Walker Evans comparisons though they might also evoke the backdrops of genre or regional fiction. Here are lobstermen, G.I.s, tramps, attorneys, stonemasons and on and on... The films are also time capsules where you can track fashions in casual wear, roadside strip-mallification, spanking practices, the prominence of faith, race relations in action, computers, you name it.

Not that the films seek to editorialise; the framing, guided by who's speaking and what fits, is too unobtrusive and the impromptu camerawork is too respectful and attentive for that. Wiseman's camera instead reflects an unmediated America that by comparison makes one aware of the weird hyperbolic novelty of pop-culture representations, not to mention the media's obsession with youth. Wiseman's attention to the elderly - the ancient woman chopping cabbage in a humble apartment in Public Housing, the bowed patriarch in front of family photos in Belfast - also marks the passing of generations and eras in America.

Although he does not pimp his relevance, his films often perch at cultural turning points: Model (1980) and his first colour documentary The Store (1983) are on the cusp of another wave of image-making; Basic Training,two years before the American draft ended; Public Housing during a period of unforgiving welfare reform; the nuke trainees near the end of the Cold War in Missile (1987); or the Panama Canal's microcosmic American community in Canal Zone (1977).

On a micro level Wiseman's camera technique is notable for its attunement to faces and hands and body language. His cycle of films at the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind: Deaf (1986), Multi-Handicapped (1986), Adjustment and Work (1986), and Blind (1987) reap astonishing benefits from his method. Wiseman's patience and unusually long takes induce an absorbing experience in the audience as we vicariously grasp the sensory contours of the world as perceived by the students (whose vantage points challenge the all-seeing access implied by a camera).

His awareness of the human body captures its beauty and mortality, its bulk and its grace. In Ballet (1995), the agile dancers piece together great art through repetitive rehearsal and avid instruction; in Domestic Violence, Wiseman shows not only the bruises controlling husbands have inflicted upon wives but also a mother exulting in the touch of her baby's hand on her face. The juxtaposition may jar a little but Wiseman sometimes collapses and blurs our traditional boundaries of experience. Near Death tracks a corpse, possibly one we have seen alive, to a student autopsy lesson.

The thunk of a corpse hitting a morgue drawer in Near Death echoes the thunk of the dead wolf in a pick-up in Belfast or of an anaesthetised thoroughbred in Racetrack (1985). Animals are no cause for sentiment for Wiseman who by and large demonstrates their function as both food and entertainment. Zoo (1993) opens with a montage of lion, hippo and flamingos in warm, living colour but also shows the vivisection of a rhino and ends with a charity dinner that suggests the institution as visual feast.

Yet a strain of black, often dryly absurd, humour informs Wiseman's confrontation of difficult material. (“Why are all the animals dead?” a child asks in Belfast. Mom: “Because they couldn't fit in here if they were alive.”) Humour crops up especially in the military films that bring us close to sanctioned killing: in the focus on turrets and sexual slang during the US-NATO war games in Manoeuvre (1978); or the casual hair-raising tale of a nuclear-console student who barely graduated in Missile.

However what's allowed Wiseman to make 36 films in 40 years is not a healthy sense of humour but a tenacious approach to production. Securing funding, fending off interference, and retaining rights, he is an unusually autonomous independent film-maker and the general manager of his own company, Zipporah Films.

An interest in theatre has been a distinctive sideline in his career. La Comédie-Française, où l'amour joué (1996), his second longest film, interweaves the Paris company's preparations for four plays with administrative meetings. (He later collaborated with one of the actresses in 2002 on The Last Letter, a fiction feature based on material he had previously directed for the stage.)

The artistic self-examination in La Comédie-Française joins an explicit strain of reflexivity, which in this case also means image-making, in Wiseman's work. Sometimes this is part of the film's purview; in Model, we witness the decoding and disseminating of “sophisticated” and “masculine” looks by talent scouts and the repetitive, surreal shoots of print and TV ads. Camera crews also pop up in Zoo and Central Park (including Francis Ford Coppola on set), as well as in Manoeuvre. As for his own project, Wiseman fashions a lovely metaphor of painters painting at the beginning and end of Belfast - but also turns a pet-store fish tank into a full-screen metaphor for gawking.

This reflexivity extends of course to America itself. Wiseman's most recent film, Stage Legislature (2007), displays the workings of American government as practised by Idaho's citizen congress. Not for nothing do at least three classroom scenes (in Blind, Belfast, and High School II) spotlight students discussing the definition of the American Dream. If one had to tie a bow on Wiseman's oeuvre, it could come from his undisguised respect for the civic-minded prep academy in High School II. The student body and faculty practise Aristotelian “habits of mind” through constructive egalitarian debate informed by a political awareness that the headmaster associates with her own progressive upbringing. By Wiseman's standards the school is practically an utopia: a self-evolving, self-correcting institution trying to close the gap between its goals and practice through discussion.

Fair-minded but eagle-eyed in his approach towards human beings, America and film-making itself, Wiseman is keeping a vital conversation going. Echoes of this dialogue may be heard elsewhere - in, for example, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, the work of Raymond Depardon and Nicolas Philibert, the Chinese New Documentary Movement and The Wire - but the indispensable Frederick Wiseman may well be in a class by himself.

Thirty of Frederick Wiseman's documentaries are now available to buy on DVD from his company Zipporah Films. See for details

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012