Filmmaker, Heal Thyself

Can movies be overtly therapeutic? Could they minister to our needs? Perform social work? How about filmmakers? Each in its own way, Frederick Wiseman's documentary Domestic Violence and Nanni Moretti's psychodrama The Son's Room are secular humanist statements that address life's catastrophes with a curious mixture of emotional involvement, formal detachment, and the promise of personal improvement.

Domestic Violence, which clocks in at 196 minutes, is the most compelling Wiseman epic of recent years—reminiscent of his hellish 1975 masterpiece, Welfare, in its open-ended articulation of chaotic, violent, luckless lives. Domestic Violence offers up a number of shocking statistics: One-third of all women will be subject to violence, one-third of all police cases concern domestic violence, prenatal battering is the leading cause of birth defects. But much of it is simply women telling their stories to cops, social workers, and other women—fragmented narratives that suggest a chorus of Scheherazades, all working variations on the same hopeless tale of love gone very, very bad.

You needn't wait for the Christmas release of The Two Towers to get a screenful of orcs and trolls—or rather an earful of their doings. Only once in Domestic Violence do we see the immediate aftermath of a beating, but that bloody mess, carried wheezing and shouting from the unseen interior of a decrepit hovel out into the pitiless Florida sunshine, remains fixed in the mind's eye throughout the movie—and afterward.

Long day's journey into night: a child psychologist in Domestic Violence
photo: Domestic Violence Film, Inc. 2001
Long day's journey into night: a child psychologist in Domestic Violence


Domestic Violence
Directed by Frederick Wiseman
Film Forum
Through February 12

The Son's Room
Directed by Nanni Moretti
Written by Moretti, Linda Ferri, and Heidrun Schleef
Opens February 1

At once specific and archetypal, structured as a long day's journey into night, Domestic Violence is framed with Anywhere, U.S.A. images of the Tampa skyline and freeways. The first and last episodes show the cops intervening in family disputes—one already over, the other yet to reach critical mass. The men are typically tanked on alcohol and strutting with rage, the women variously diffident, provocative, and afraid, the cops clearly well trained. Not only do they respond by the book, the way they carefully position themselves in a semicircle around the distressed citizens seems scripted.

Wiseman has made documentaries on fashion models and military installations, small towns and theatrical events, but his great subject is social control. His last such documentary, the 1997 Public Housing, revealed the residents of a Chicago project as subject to relentless social regulation and surveillance—including, of course, his own. The eye of power turns upon itself. Most of Domestic Violence takes place inside The Spring, a Tampa institution (of indeterminate funding) where mainly female social workers maintain the hot lines, interview freshly battered women using a detailed questionnaire, and lead classes on the nature of sexual abuse. (The mantra: "It's about power and control.") The Spring is a nurturing alternative to the bleak man's-world outside. In one of the movie's few instances of metaphoric editorializing, Wiseman cuts from a feminist explication of male entitlement to a close-up of a happy baby—presumably a boy.

Like the police, the social workers represent the responsible, rational side of human nature. (How does their interrogation of the victims they shelter compare to that of the filmmaker?) The women and children reeducated at The Spring are the raw material of human interest. Staff meetings commenting on the progress made by various clients are juxtaposed with scenes in which the clients themselves volunteer their war stories—life with a crackhead, the horror of stalking. How difficult it is for these prematurely aged women to express anger or rebel: "Even now I feel it difficult to be angry at him." The legacy of abuse is passed from generation to generation, and Wiseman's harrowing closer leaves little doubt that the circle remains unbroken.

America's most distinguished documentarian, Wiseman may be regarded as the ultimate exponent of cinema verité, but he is more voyeur than social documentarian, less muckraker than aesthete—there are definite points of contact with his late contemporary Andy Warhol and the world of reality TV. Enthralling as Wiseman's documentaries can be (emphasis on the conditional), I'm never able to forget the artificial invisibility of his filmmaking—which, in this case, includes the anachronistic use of 16mm. During one interview, the camera pans back and forth between two speakers so as to maintain the continuity of real time. What lies beyond the frame? Who crouches behind or beneath the desk? Where are the cables and the microphones that produce this moment and preserve that rap? Could this be magic?

Walter Benjamin famously pointed out that the equipment-free image shown on-screen was actually "the height of artifice . . . an orchid in the land of technology." For that reason, perhaps, Wiseman has rejected the term "cinema verité," preferring to call his movies "reality fictions." How then does the filmmaker cultivate these particular orchids? Interviewed by Michael Atkinson two years ago in the Voice, Wiseman strenuously denied that the presence of his crew in any way altered the nature of what he was filming, which is to say the nature of the final product: "If I think somebody is putting on for the camera, I stop shooting, or I don't use it in the editing room."

There's certainly less rampant performing here than in Public Housing. Still, no one in Domestic Violence, save for a single, absentmindedly glaring cop, ever acknowledges Wiseman's camera. Making a movie can be interesting to watch, but unlike his fellow cinemagician Jackie Chan, Wiseman would never conclude a movie with a post-credit coda of outtake "miscues." Let's declare the 71-year-old filmmaker a national treasure and commission someone to make a documentary on his particular institution: Welcome to the Greenhouse.

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