The American documentarian Frederick Wiseman will be receiving a complete month-long retrospective of his 30 films at the Walter Reade Theater beginning January 28 with his latest, Belfast, Maine, and it signals a major cultural event. Because Wiseman’s films are tightly controlled by his own distribution company and are not readily rentable through the usual video-store outlets, they have not had the full-scale recognition, except among filmmakers and awards-givers and Wiseman devotees, that they deserve. Ever since his first film, Titicut Follies (1967), about the state prison for the criminally insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts (it was famously banned by the state of Massachusetts from public screenings until 1991), Wiseman has been turning out documentaries annually, with few exceptions, on the nature of American institutions and communities. Although his films are unsurpassed as ethnography, they have far more than ethnographic value. No contemporary American director of any kind can surpass Wiseman’s body of work for its range of sympathy and power and emotion and intelligence.
In looking again at a half-dozen Wiseman documentaries in preparation for this piece, I found myself ravenous to get at everything he’s ever done, to re-immerse myself in their amazing human density. I wasn’t aware until I started re-seeing these films how starved I am for an experience at the movies that calls on all my faculties. After you’ve seen a great Wiseman movie, it’s painful to contemplate the paltriness of most of the current dramatic films, with their glossy star turns and pumped-up plots. In the pantheon of art, documentaries are traditionally marked down as raw material compared to the supposedly deeper voyagings of drama, but Wiseman’s movies give the lie to such arbitrary demarcations. His best films – ranging from his earliest, such as High School, Law & Order, Basic Training, and the harrowing, transcendent Hospital, which I think is the greatest documentary ever made in this country, on through Juvenile Court and Welfare up to, more recently, Public Housing – have the richness of major novels. They have the same capacity to disturb and open up worlds. I am not saying here that Wiseman’s movies are great because they are more “real” than dramatic films. His films are great precisely because he doesn’t try for omniscient objectivity. Like any filmmaker, whether working in fiction or nonfiction, Wiseman filters through his own sensibility what he chooses to reveal. He’s supremely open to experience, and so we feel we can trust what he shows us – not necessarily as “the truth,” but as Wiseman’s truth.
Belfast, Maine is a remarkable panorama; a mix of blue-collar and upscale, this port town of almost 6,500 people offers up lobstermen, clothes pressers, recovering addicts, taxidermists, sardine canners, high-school teachers, judges, telemarketers in cubicles, community-theater actors, medical-outreach workers. Running just over four hours, the film could be read as a summation of what Wiseman has been doing for more than 30 years – except, of course, that Wiseman’s art is too open-ended to ever allow for finalities. What you get in his best movies is a sense of the sheer ongoingness of life; his films, which he also edits, superbly, are layered with incident, but they proceed from the assumption that life is far more complex than our attempts to understand it would suggest. Nothing is mundane, because everything human is deserving of our gaze. More than that, everything human is, in the most embracing and secular sense, sacred. No other director has given us as many overpoweringly expressive close-ups of faces in moments of undisguised agony and endurance. Wherever Wiseman points his camera, people’s lives bubble up, as if the intensity of their experience was there all the time, waiting to be grasped.
Wiseman’s movies don’t just offer up an antidote to Hollywood’s pat manipulations and sentimentalities. They make most of what pass for documentaries in this country seem equally spurious (especially the so-called “reality” docs on TV). For audiences, his avoidance of any voice-over narration or musical score can seem mulish and effete; at times we wish we knew more about what he’s showing us, more background and details. He has an unfortunate fondness for long-form sequences elapsing in seeming real time, particularly in his films from the past decade or so, and his extended takes on, say, neighborhood planning sessions sometimes simulate the effect of being trapped inside a community-action cable-access channel. But Wiseman’s faults are by-products of his virtues, and piddling beside them. Coercion is anathema to his sense of authenticity. He doesn’t go into a project with an agenda; discovering his subject as he goes along, he wants audiences to make their own discoveries, too. Which is not to say that his movies are simply accretions of impressions lacking any point of view. Wiseman may not go into a project with preconceptions, but that doesn’t mean he leaves it the same way. High School (1968), for example, set in a Philadelphia school, is practically a species of prison film. I remember seeing it when it came out – I was just finishing high school myself – and registering the shocks of recognition: the regimentation, the stultifying attempts at scholarship, the petty tyrannies. (And I went to a “good” school.) Seen today, the film has an added dimension; these bored, beaten-down kids would soon coalesce into the counterculture, or be streaming into Vietnam.
There are documentaries, such as Robert Flaherty’s, that move us because of the heroic quality of the lives and the imagery; Nanook of the North and Man of Aran seem to stand out of time as icons of experience. Wiseman’s films bring the heroic down to manageable size; he’s the most democratic of great movie artists. What is so devastating, finally, in his films is simply the ways in which people play out their days, the way moments of cruelty and evasion alternate, often in the same person, with moments of overwhelming generosity. We realize from Wiseman’s movies how much we know about other people, and how little. The lives we see onscreen come and go, and we want more of them, we want to hold on, because Wiseman’s depth of feeling makes them seem central to our own.