Fred Wiseman’s novelistic samplings of reality

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Filmmaker working at a Steenbeck film-editing deck.

At his Steenbeck editing console, Wiseman first assembles and condenses sequences and then pulls them into the film. (Photo: Margot Balboni.)

As I write these words, Frederick Wiseman’s 30th film, Public Housing, is about to be broadcast, Dec. 1 [1998], through PBS, the national network that has presented all of his documentaries. It concerns the Ida B. Wells housing development on Chicago’s South Side. The sites of his past documentaries have varied from high schools to hospitals, from public parks to private playgrounds. He has shown us the inside of military and police units, welfare and model agencies, prisons, a primate research lab, a meat packing plant and a zoo.

It is often said that Wiseman’s films are about institutions. This is almost accurate. His films are, in fact, about people, interacting within institutional settings. People add complexity to institutions that are often poorly and simplistically designed for the purposes they serve.

The style of these films is deceptively simple; most are shot in black and white with one camera and no narration or music. Wiseman, who selects the subjects, is producer, director, editor, and sound technician on location. Later, he distributes the product through his small company, Zipporah Films, in Cambridge, Mass. His television contracts have never permitted editing. This kind of control, together with the energy required to find financing for each film from philanthropic sources, is almost unheard of in contemporary filmmaking. It has made Wiseman what one writer has called “a genre unto himself.”

Unlike most people in his profession, he seems to be creating a coherent body of work, an oeuvre, as contrasted with a large number of miscellaneous films. He says he did not set out to do this. “But after I’d made seven or eight films, I realized that I had made one long film and I was continuing to add segments to it. [They] are all about various aspects of contemporary American life. It seemed a worthwhile thing to continue.”

To characterize him as unique would understate both his temperament and creative accomplishments. A Boston Globe interviewer once observed, “An easy manner conceals a graceful intellect. It is perhaps one facet of his genius that he does not appear to be one.”

Although he refuses to discuss the intent of his films or to compare his work with other producers’ work (and is resolutely silent on his personal life), he talks about his filmmaking techniques with a candor refreshingly removed from movie-making jargon.

“People make such a big deal about documentaries,” he told a reporter a few years ago. “A documentary is just another form of fiction. It is arbitrary … made up. It doesn’t follow the natural order. Its major sequences are shorter than they are in real time. They acquire meaning they wouldn’t have in isolation. What’s magical about a good film is magical about a good play or a good novel. If you try to define it, you’re a fool.”

Wiseman set his style with Titicut Follies in 1967 and years later realized it was the start of one long film about American life. (Photo © Bridgewater Film Co. Inc. 1967.)

Tom Shales, one of America’s leading film and TV critics, has called Wiseman “one of the greatest nonfiction filmmakers who ever lived” and frequently rails against public television (though it has aired his films) for largely ignoring his importance. “You’d think Wiseman, on the basis of his record,” Shales wrote in the Washington Post in June 1986, “should have carte blanche. But the Reagan-dominated public television bureaucracy would deny composing paper to Beethoven and canvasses to Picasso.” In another column he compared public TV’s treatment of Wiseman with turning down D.W. Griffith and Thomas Edison. (Wiseman, himself, once observed that “the life of public television is not programming, it’s bureaucracy.”)

Shales has not been alone in praising Wiseman and condemning public TV (especially CPB) for its inadequate support of his work. In 1986 Wiseman had the temerity (some said the foolishness) to testify before the Senate subcommittee on communications, detailing his criticism of public TV and CPB, its largest single source of production money. “Personal politics, the buddy system, jealousy and pop ideology dominate the [CPB] panel discussions” which he went on to describe as “guaranteeing mediocrity.”

At the time, Robert Coles, a psychiatrist, Harvard professor and accomplished writer, applauded Wiseman in The New Republic, both for his films and for “taking on the very people whose power can stand between him and his work and thousands of viewers.”

Frederick Wiseman was born in Boston on New Year’s Day of 1930. His father was a lawyer and his mother was associated with child development clinics. He graduated from high school in Boston and from Williams College, where he was an enthusiastic student of literature (finding special pleasure in a Williams’ course on Stevens, Eliot, Yeats and Pound), finally taking a law degree from Yale in 1954. In the mid-’50s, he spent a couple of years in Paris, enrolled at the Sorbonne.

“I think I went to law school because I didn’t know what else to do,” he says. “I hadn’t thought very carefully about my professional career.”

What he had thought about, a lot, was movies: seeing them and making them. For awhile he taught law (“Psychiatry and Law,” among other courses) for Boston University and was invited by a high school classmate to join a company that serviced government contracts for agencies such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the anti-poverty program. “I was switching to a film career,” he says, “but had to earn a living.”

In 1964 he produced his first movie. “I had read Warren Miller’s novel, The Cool World,” he recently remarked, “at a point when I was very dissatisfied with teaching law. I didn’t think I could direct it myself because I hadn’t had the experience, but I acquired the rights. I admired the movie that Shirley Clark had made of [Jack Gilbert’s] The Connection and approached her to direct, and that’s how it started.”

While teaching at Boston University, Wiseman occasionally took groups of law students to observe what was to become the subject of his next film and first documentary, Bridgewater Prison for the Criminally Insane, run by the Massachusetts Department of Correction. Titicut Follies, shot in 29 days over a period of three months and completed in 1967, is a harrowing look inside Bridgewater where, at the time, many of its mentally ill patients, civilly committed, had no criminal records.

Elliot Richardson, then the state’s attorney general, ruled that the film invaded the privacy of the prisoners and prohibited its distribution within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, a restriction that was in force for 22 years until a state court overruled it in 1991. Ironically, Bridgewater’s superintendent thought the film might be extremely useful in drawing attention to conditions in the hospital and hasten long-sought funds to correct them.

It took Wiseman six years to pay off the Titicut Follies production costs. The litigation it initiated was both lengthy and costly. Still, the film, apart from its acknowledged social importance, established a documentary style that would mark Wiseman’s movies for the next 30 years and cause his work to become a distinguished contribution to public television, an enterprise not crowded with first-class filmmakers.

Wiseman’s next film, High School (1968), documented a large public high school in Philadelphia, its middle-class teachers, administrators, students and parents. Here he encountered a problem that would return in some of his subsequent work. When the movie was finished, he screened it for those who had given him permission to make it. They approved of it highly — until the reviews came in. Most of the critics praised Wiseman and made extremely negative observations about life in the school. In The New Republic, Joseph Featherstone wrote, “Northeast High School is preaching an ugly and pinched doctrine.” Time magazine’s Richard Schickel said the school was “moronic,” calling the staff “petty sadists” and “simple-minded.” A lawsuit was threatened and Wiseman, already appealing the Titicut Follies judgment, withdrew High School from distribution in Philadelphia. [It was not screened or broadcast there until 2001.]

The problem would arise again in his eighth film, Primate (1974), in which he followed the daily activities inside the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center in Atlanta. After seeing the film, the director of Yerkes, Dr. Geoffrey Bourne, expressed mild concern that a couple of scenes might be misunderstood. Then came public reaction, after which Bourne canceled his appearance on a WNET follow-up program to discuss it, calling the film “rubbish” and “a perversion.” (In New York the film got 150 calls, largely negative, and a bomb scare, a threat on Wiseman’s life, and a Nielsen rating of 4.7.)

WGBH, Boston, delayed its broadcast of Primate, then scheduled a discussion that featured Wiseman, a Yerkes representative, a Harvard philosophy professor and Graham Chedd, then producer of Nova. This generated 300 calls, all bitterly opposed to one or another of the panelists. Yerkes sent out a form letter asserting it had been duped by “camera tricks.” At the time, Wiseman defended himself against Bourne’s charges by suggesting he was “reacting less to the film than to the reviews.”

In a lengthy and informative description of Primate and its troubled broadcasting history, David Denby wrote of Wiseman in Boston’s The Real Paper: “With the savvy of his law background and the tenaciousness of a man repressed by state censorship (the Titicut Follies ruling), he takes the time, trouble and money to get in where it counts … Reality will speak for itself, but someone must be quick enough to go there and report back.”

Given the intimate nature of Wiseman documentaries, it is surprising that he has needed to fend off so few complaints about privacy.

“It’s funny,” he once told a reporter, “how willing people are to be filmed. For some reason, it never seems to bother anybody. I ask permission if there’s time. It’s rare that somebody says no. It’s a combination of flattery, indifference and vanity, I guess.”

Yet it seems remarkable that in documentaries such as Hospital (1969), and especially Near Death (1989), where issues of life and death are being decided by doctors and families, people seem to be so little distracted by the camera and sound equipment. In Near Death, which Harry Waters of Newsweek described as “the most powerful dose of reality ever administered by the tube,” it is astonishing that those involved in some of the most poignant scenes are not more self-conscious.

“Most of us,” says Wiseman, “are not good enough actors to change our behavior for the camera. If we were, the level of acting on television would be a lot better.”

Why did the families allow Wiseman to observe these painfully personal moments? He says they told him they wanted to help him (and, one assumes, the film’s viewers) to get through the same ordeals. “So in a sense,” Waters wrote, “Near Death could be regarded as a rehearsal.” In addition to his unobtrusive manner, another reason for his acceptance among the subjects of his films, is that he presents himself as a quietly mature and intelligent person.

Pauline Kael, longtime film critic of The New Yorker, commented on this indirectly in an early review of his work: “There’s a good deal to be said for finding your way to movie-making — as most of the early directors did — after living some years in the world and gaining knowledge of life outside show business. . . . What Wiseman finds ties in with one’s own experience.”

The setting for Law and Order (1969), a film that continues to enjoy excellent distribution, presented innumerable opportunities for Wiseman to “take sides.” That he resisted these temptations reflects the sort of judiciousness that someone much younger might not have brought to the violence the film reveals.

“Whether he’s recording volatile or placid incidents,” wrote Gary Arnold in the Washington Post, “Wiseman looks at them without shame and without sentimentality.”

More than most films, Wiseman’s are wide open to differing interpretations. In the absence of clear authorial guidance, critics and those in the general audience, are free to “recreate” the films; to supply motivations and produce small personal stories within Wiseman’s larger one. With no narration to explain what is “really going on,” no music to take the viewer’s emotional hand, and in all but a few films (The Store, Central Park and Aspen) black-and-white footage, the audience is offered an unparalleled do-it-yourself opportunity. For some, this poses a challenge, but Wiseman film enthusiasts say they can concentrate on what matters without the distractions of sound and camera razzle-dazzle, narration and music.

In The Store (1983), a Neiman-Marcus salesman spreads a fur jacket for a young prospective buyer to admire, remarking that sable is “a Texas fur.” It is a rather bland scene in my judgment. But this is what one critic, Mary Lou Weisman (no relation to the filmmaker) saw and reported in The New Republic:

“This is all ceremony and they both know it. The man is going to buy this sable jacket. It is a matter of honor. He has roped his first steer, had his first woman, found his first oil well, made his first million, bought his first Cadillac, and now he must do right by the missus. The bull paws the dirt, but the camera leaves the area before he charges.”

As Wiseman has said on several occasions, “The only safe assumption to make about the public is that they’re about as smart or dumb as I am. I can’t anticipate how people are going to react. . . . My job is to make the best film I can and hope that what I’ve done will connect with other people’s experience and interests.”

Most critics report, in a relatively straightforward way, what they see, or think they see, in Wiseman’s movies, and some (Pauline Kael, David Denby, Robert Coles, Frank Getlein, Tom Shales, Richard Schickel) have moved on to suggest what these things mean and how Wiseman achieves his effects. Few have failed to describe the films as “complex.” And many have remarked upon their similarity to novels. Wiseman, himself, agrees with both observations.

In 1986 he made four films about people who were blind, deaf or had multiple handicaps. The documentaries were shot at the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind. Together they run nine hours. John O’Connor wrote in the New York Times that they would be an ideal choice for inclusion in a time capsule to be opened in a couple of hundred years, “for they would show our society at its most caring.” The setting might suggest a clinical approach. But here, as elsewhere, reviewers like Robert Coles found Wiseman “a visual poet,” arranging and composing reality “as artists or writers do,” putting him in the company of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Toni Morrison and others who are “storytellers, not social scientists.”

Few contemporary filmmakers have so frequently been compared with writers. Pauline Kael was one of the first to do so in a 1969 review of “High School”: “[He] extends our understanding of our common life the way novelists used to . . .” she wrote. Here is David Denby on Hospital in Atlantic Monthly (1975): “The outward blandness is reminiscent of Hemingway, Orwell and the Depression photographers.” And Wiseman, himself: “I approach my [editing] just like someone writing a novel: the events are not staged, of course, but the way I condense and rearrange them is not the same as in real life. I call my work reality fiction. . . . There’s no reason a documentary film should not be as complex and subtle as a good novel.”

The comparison between writing and Wiseman’s filmmaking is almost always linked to his editing. This is where most of the composing is accomplished. Wiseman talks of “internal” and “external” editing. The first is how he compresses an hour of real-time film into five minutes “to make the sequence appear that it took place in the way it’s being shown. External editing, by contrast, is the way the individual, edited sequences are related to each other to make a structure for the film.

“Both,” he explains, “are related, in large part, to the material” (i.e., what is being filmed). Here he compares “Zoo” (1993) which has a lot more cuts than “Juvenile Court” (1973), “because in ‘Zoo’ at least half the participants didn’t speak English very clearly and the pictures told the whole story, whereas in . . . ‘Juvenile Court,’ what people say to each other is more important, and you have to allow time for them to say it…so that what they say is adequately comprehensible to someone who sees the film only one time.”

The assembly requires time and patience. Wiseman uses only one foot of film for every 25 feet shot, and he usually spends at least eight months editing each film. He sees the editing as a mosaic process — piecing together individual cuts to make sequences that eventually create the whole film and, finally, the entire oeuvre.

Many have commented admiringly on Wiseman’s technique. On October 1, 1973, Frank Getlein made some observations in the Washington Star that might apply to many of the films: “Generally, he doesn’t cut within the scene. He stays with the person doing the talking, only occasionally — and often to great effect — panning across to others, a discernable, but not dominating editing rhythm — each large take is surrounded fore and aft by a series of short ones.

“By scattering his shots, he avoids the deadly lack of movement inherent in the form and . . . creates a continuous sense of the larger background within which individual confrontations are played out. This complex, effective technique is what makes Wiseman an . . . artist as well as an immensely informative feature journalist.”

In a recent conversation, Wiseman told me, “I’m pleased that people refer to the literary quality of the films. I think it’s because I reject the idea of simple, didactic, thesis-oriented films. I’m interested in complexity and ambiguity, not in simplifying the subject in the service of any particular ideology…I hope that when someone sees my movies he knows what my views are. But if I could summarize my views in 25 words or less, I shouldn’t have made the movie, I should have written the 25 words.”

Just as good books merit more than one reading, so many of Wiseman’s films are worth a second look. This is because some of the remarkable things going on in them are obscured by the off-handedness of how they are presented. Take a couple of sequences from “Missile” (1987), a film about training Air Force officers to man the launch control centers for Minuteman missiles. In one scene we see a student making a mistake on a simple countdown. Later, a staff officer complains about a student who, during an exercise, launches a missile without authorization. “We are talking about a big error there, right? A three bagger . . . a critical error,” he says to the class. A student asks, “Did he make it through the program?” and the instructor replies, “Barely.”

Coles’ reference to the Depression photographers is apt. There are, in nearly all Wiseman films, memorable, if fleeting, images that haunt viewers long after the entire movie has faded: wind and rain-battered outdoor advertising, an empty street, or face, or room. Such pictures bring to mind Edward Hopper’s lonely people and places, Dorothea Lange’s photograph of a pensive “Migrant Mother,” Manet’s painting of a bar girl at the Folies Bergere, staring at us intently but without comprehension.

Wiseman has made one of the greatest single contributions to noncommercial television since it was established in 1952. In part this is because of his talent as a skillful documentarian, an authentic artist, as his editing alone makes clear. Fortunately technique is matched by his choice of subjects. “I pick places,” he says, “that are successful in their own terms, places with complex issues. It’s too easy to shoot sitting ducks. You have to discard your simple-minded notions, otherwise you are doing propaganda. In such places, as Robert Coles has commented, “complexities, ambiguities, ironies, inconsistencies and contradictions” abound.

Wiseman has persistent regard for people who inhabit these places, never masking or simplifying their nature. This attitude is difficult to maintain. It sometimes has the effect of making the familiar strange and the strange familiar. “If I start to dilute the material,” he says, “that’s a very patronizing attitude . . . horrible.”

Much credit must also be given to his uncommon, single-minded, hard-working manner. This is infrequently a characteristic of what many call genius. “It is not an altogether easy job,” wrote Michael Arlen in The New Yorker in 1980, “or a widely popular one, this stripping down, this rearranging of the old scale in order that we may hear new music, but . . . it is simple in the noblest sense, and brave, and by no means without love.”

It is true that public TV has supported Wiseman’s work rather grudgingly. Most of the support for his films has come from foundations–chiefly Ford, MacArthur, Aaron Diamond and Joyce. (In 1982 Wiseman received one of the MacArthur Foundation’s five-year “genius” awards.) But about 20 percent of the support for the films came from public broadcasting sources, according to his own analysis in the mid-1990s. On one occasion, when a CPB “peer group” review panel turned down Wiseman’s request to make the Neiman-Marcus film, “The Store” (asking why he had not selected Gimbel’s or Macy’s), one of Wiseman’s bureaucratic CPB nemeses, the director of programming, correctly reversed the decision.

WNET also served as “sponsoring station” for Wiseman films, putting up the money for film-to-tape transfer and publicity expenses, though nothing for production. Wiseman represents his relationship with WNET as a good but limited one: “They haven’t created any obstacles for me.”

Moreover, public television has provided Wiseman with his only access to a national TV audience and has extended that accessibility on his own terms — no editing. If Wiseman needed to rely upon the commercial networks for funding and exposure, he may have stopped making films many years ago.

Not only do Wiseman films provide an opportunity for today’s Americans to observe their collective lives, but the documentaries also will be of immense value many decades from now. Public TV was not established precisely to showcase incisive social commentaries, but it is useful to know that when given the chance to do this it responded positively, and has continued to do so steadfastly.

Most television material is highly ephemeral. It is therefore remarkable that someone with serious intent and talent chooses to devote most of his professional life to producing for TV a body of work in the way historians of the past, such as Toynbee, or novelists like Balzac and Dickens, created substantial work for personal and public libraries as well as contemporary consumption.

I asked Wiseman recently how such close encounters with so many and such different people have influenced his life. His answer: “I have increasing respect for the integrity and decency of most people most of the time, and an awareness of the complexities of intervening in people’s lives. I have also developed a wariness of slick, easy and simplistic solutions to complex problems.”

Who we are, few would argue, determines what we notice and judge to be important. In this respect, public broadcasting can be grateful that Frederick Wiseman has been its leading film documentarian in its early decades.

He is now editing his 31st film. It will be completed in 10 months. He says it is about a small town. That is probably all he will ever say about it. Everything else will be in the movie.

David Stewart, a Current contributing editor, is the retired director of CPB’s international activities office. A version of this article appeared in his book The PBS Companion: A History of Public Television.


In Salon, Nick Poppy interviews Wiseman after the filmmaker finished Domestic Violence, 2002.

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