If Errol Morris bids to be poet-philosopher of the American extremities, then Frederick Wiseman is our town-hall archivist, a conscientious, class-wary compiler of documents about the fascination and, often, dreary ordinariness of the American quotidian. Morris has his fashion, but Wiseman’s massive 30-year legacy remains the more truthful and valuable work, not the least because it neglects quirk and extravagance, naturally focusing on labor, aging, illness, commerce, personal catastrophe, and, most compelling of all, the tension and righteous lunacy of public institutions. It’s a people’s cinema, the hardly-secret-but-overlooked history of jobs, neighborhoods, meeting places, and processes. No other cinematic body of work expresses with such detail the inadequacies of capitalist democracy to nurture and satisfy its citizens.
Wiseman’s techniques have varied little from his first launch into the void, the highly questionable and unforgettable Titicut Follies (1967)—as he presents his subjects nakedly, without narrative, narration, talking heads, or music. There is virtually no corner of the country’s daily life that Wiseman hasn’t chronicled, from High School (1968), Hospital (1970), Juvenile Court (1973), Racetrack (1985), and Zoo (1993), to the monastery of Essene (1972), the Chicago project of Public Housing (1997), the military training grounds of Basic Training (1971), Manoeuvre (1979), and Missile (1987), and the placid, semi-industrial nowhere of the new Belfast, Maine (1999).
Scalding as it is, Titicut Follies raises unavoidable pique about its selective editing and exploitation of the insane; Wiseman learned immediately to steer toward the median of human experience and to expand his scope (and his running times, sometimes escalating beyond four hours) to include the workaday as well as the sensational. Of course, in the best of Wiseman they’re one and the same, as in High School‘s historically inconsequential but nevertheless electrifying bouts of heroic combat between pimply students and the well-meaning adults hell-bent on draining them of ego. (Wiseman counterpointed 25 years later with High School II , whose portrait of a respectful, progressive Spanish Harlem school is inspiring and less memorable.) Always the proletarian, by the time Wiseman got to Belfast, Maine, he required little in the way of subjects beyond ordinary people making their living; just as the packaging-plant work or town meeting discussions begin to seem unimportant, the leveling gravity of Wiseman’s silent voice insists that nothing you could otherwise be seeing is as important.
Exhaustive rather than epic, Wiseman’s films often give the sense that watching them is secondary to making them (certainly infiltrating and filming the uneventful life of Belfast was a palpably more vital life experience for Wiseman than viewing the results is for us; who’s to say which matters more?). His expansive accumulation of details suggests an archival priority as well, and it’s plain in every frame that by his very nature Wiseman cares less for entertainment or message than for being true to his subject. His moment is the filming, and subsequent audiences are on their own.
But Wiseman’s objectivity is of course deceptive—his hands-off techniques suggest an impossible documentary purity. By feigning nonintervention (that is, never admitting his camera’s presence in the action it films), Wiseman begs many crucial formal questions: How does he seep his way into people’s lives? How cognizant are they of the camera’s role? How truthful is their behavior with a camera (Wiseman has come to often use high-res video, but Belfast is beautifully shot in Super 16) up their noses? Get to know Wiseman’s stockpile of filmed experiences well enough and these classic nonfiction issues resolve themselves—his sensibility becomes powerfully manifest despite his silence. What might seem at first blush to be the uncorrupted truth is actually the world according to Fred, and his archives are as subjectively constructed as Morris’s. Even so, the America you know in your bones (not, say, the America we see on TV, or at least the TV Wiseman doesn’t shoot) is unmistakably there in Wiseman’s films, and there alone.