PORTRAIT: FREDERICK WISEMAN
A Martian sends a postcard home
Watching Fred Wiseman’s films often reminds me of something the now departed British film editor, Dai Vaughan, once said: ‘the problems of documentary film are the problems of life’. What I think Vaughan meant was that the ambiguities and the radical indeterminacy of other people’s meaning and intentions are as complex to deal with in film as in life. Understanding other humans’ actions, grasping the context that people believe they are acting in and interpreting the meaning of their actions, are one of the great challenges of our lives and perhaps the basis of all the performance arts.
More perhaps than any other filmmaker, Wiseman has worked to turn the problems of life into problems of art. As the documentarian who has made the greatest single contribution to world cinema, and one of whose earlier works (At Berkeley, The Store) has been screened at earlier editions of Astra Film Festival, we thought this a good time to bring a more substantial reflection on this unique oeuvre to the Astra audience.
We have, we realise, set ourselves an impossible task - to offer a taster of an oeuvre which stretches over fifty years and nearly as many films. What hubris! Outside of esoteric film circles, Mr. Wiseman is not so well known here – or, better, known only indirectly, through his influences. You can the Wisemanesque stance in the films a well known Romanian filmmaker Cristi Puiu, for whom film also needs to bear witness to the nature of people in our world.
So, we have quite deliberately chosen a surprising pairing. We bring you two of the cineaste’s most profound reflections on the regimented interventions of modern society. In Domestic Violence I and II we experience the irresolvable moral ambiguities – the radical undecidability faced by agents who try to intervene in the lives of profoundly troubled families. Alongside this high seriousness we play what at first sight might seem like a slighter work: one of Wiseman’s dance films - this one set in a cabaret - and a famous Parisian tourist destination to boot. But as you will see, Crazy Horse unfurls into a deeply challenging engagement with the very idea of art, beauty and the nature of spectacle.
Crazy Horse also a film that sitting side by side with his apparently more ‘engaged social commentary’ films helps us understand the unifying vision behind the entire oeuvre. In all the films in our selection, as in the rest of his work, Wiseman brings with him an attitude that interpellates his characters as public men and women, calls upon them to give a public account of themselves – an account to which he will bear fair and honest witness.
Domestic Violence I and II come from Wiseman famous series of ‘institutional films’ – films in which, as he ironically put it, ‘the place is the star’. At the outset of his career a number of commentators wrote as if this series of films were sociological investigations of ‘the state of America’ – admittedly not a top-down ‘state of the nation’ view but an ethnographic view from the bottom up: local schools, a police station, a hospital, a department store, a ward where the great American taboo – death - is daily fare, and so on. The huge renown of his long-banned, first film, Titticut Follies (set in a prison for the criminally insane) strongly shaped this one-sided indeed misleading view because more than any of his later works it can be read as an active critique of ‘the system’. But Titticut Follies is firstly exceptional and watched today looks as far from a polemic as you are likely to get.
What becomes clear watching a film like Crazy Horse, is that Wiseman brings the same skeptical, professional distance to his work in a high-end strip-tease bar as to his superficially more engaged work. The true character of all his films derives, I would go so far as to say, from the filmmaker’s personality – the cool, ironic east coast regard of a true Tocquevillian American. In his great ethnography of the American public imagination, On Democracy in America, Tocqueville talks of the strange restlessness of Americans that makes them “serious and almost sad even in their pleasures”. I see something of this in Fred Wiseman.
The other crucial thing about this work is the author’s radical rejection of the drama/non-fiction divide. Wiseman is a filmmaker tout court. Like many of today’s documentarians, his films are to be understood as fictions or reality fictions if you will. In 2014 he said, “I think I make dramatic narrative movies, that can be as funny, sad, tragic as normal regular fiction films.” More than that: “I think my movies are more novelistic than journalistic…I do not like simple expose films. I am interested in the complexity and ambiguity of [human existence, ed.]. I like to make films which in some way suggest the enormous complexity of the subject matter.” (Frederick Wiseman about his aesthetic, video interview HUFFPost 2014, 1,10-1,20 min.)
All cinema is a collaboration – non-fiction relies on the trust of its real life heroes in those who will portray them. It is this characteristic of allowing his characters their best chance at self-expression and the professional distance the filmmaker cultivates to enable this that lies at the heart of Wiseman’s greatness. So, the genius lies in part in the distance Wiseman establishes between himself and his subjects. It is easy for an anthropologist in a foreign land to feel like a Martian sending postcards home. Wiseman’s achievement rests on having become a Martian in his own land – revealing patterns that are so familiar to us that we have stopped noticing them; and in so doing he makes us confront our lives as if strange and alien forms.
Another way of saying this, is to observe how Wiseman though not quite ‘a master of suspicion’ in the sense Marx, Freud and Nietzsche were, shares their skepticism about human pretension. In this sense Wiseman is like those social scientists – Freud included – who adopt something of the stance of the detective – following the cultural spores, tracking their traces in the lives of the individuals he brings to us. And like a true detective his most profound commitment is to the truth of the situation he finds himself in as he films. Famously editing his work for three or four times longer than he filmed, in that process he struggles to find the truth of the pro-filmic moment – but he does so, paradoxically, by using the full range of fictionalizing tricks of cinema.
Tocqueville’s is a recurrent spirit for me haunting my appreciation of Wiseman’s work. The great Frenchman saw that democratic principles and equalitarian social conditions gave rise to what he, for the first time, named “individualism" - a condition that tended to shrivel a man's consciousness of solidarity with his fellows, throwing him forever back upon himself alone and threatening to "shut [him] up in the solitude of his own heart”. For me, all of Wiseman’s work is a heroic engagement, a battle even with that condition. America has contributed the idea of happiness to our understanding of civilisation itself. In Frederick Wiseman it has provided us with perhaps the most penetrating observer of a civilization where the realisation of happiness is as elusive as the ubiquity of its promise.
The great achievement of Mr Wiseman’s oeuvre can, we hope, also be read by the sheer variety of the subject matters he focuses on in his films inviting the public to dive in the densest and deepest levels of human interactions as it happens in the terrain of:
High School I (1968), High School II (1994), At Berkeley (2013),
Research institutions- Primate (1974), Zoo (1993)
Legal/Police institutions- Domestic Violence I (2001), Domestic Violence II (2002), Law and Order (1969), Juvenile Court (1973), State Legislature (2006), Welfare (1975)
Health institutions - Hospital (1970), Near Death (1989), Titicut Follies (1967)
Institutes for disabled people - Adjustment and Work (1986), Blind (1987), Deaf (1986), Multi-handicapped (1986)
Army- Basic Training (1971), Manoeuvre (1979), Missile (1987), Sinai Field Mission (1978)
Cultural institution La Danse (2009), despre Corpul de Balet al Operei Naţionale din Paris, La Comedie Française (1996), National Gallery (2014)
Religious institute- Essene (1972)- Benedict monastary
Sport - Boxing Gym (2010), Racetrack (1985)
Commercial world, companies: - Meat (1976), Model (1980), The Store (1983), Crazy Horse (2011)
Community places: Aspen (1991), Belfast, Maine (1999), Canal Zone (1977), Central Park (1989), Public Housing (1997), In Jackson Heights (2015)
Michael Stewart, UCL
Founding Director Open City Documentary Festival