Riding high after blockbuster runs of La danse, Frederick Wiseman enters his sixth decade of filmmaking in style, with an upcoming film and a yearlong retrospective residence at MOMA. And what is that style? Sensitive and skeptical, reserved but engaged, intelligent but not imposing, Wiseman’s 37 films are, despite their reputation as pure documentary chronicles, like heightened experiences of life viewed through a voracious, ubiquitous camera eye. The oeuvre is an all-access pass to the beauty of a lobsterman’s dawn (Belfast, Maine), women recovering (or not) from spousal abuse (Domestic Violence), war games (Manoeuvre), a komodo dragon’s eating habits (Zoo), and a Dallas department store’s back office, complete with sexy-chicken singing telegram (The Store).
The breadth and depth of Wiseman’s work clashes with expectations of a slate-gray institutional tour of America. But, as the director explained over coffee at a Midtown diner, every film is intended as a calibrated, densely multilayered affair.
“It’s the interplay between the specific and the abstract that interests me the most in telling a story,” said Wiseman, 80, who originally trained in law before producing Shirley Clarke’s The Cool World and deciding he could handle filmmaking. Example: Central Park, one of several New York movies, is a free-spirited mosaic of activity—from people hanging out and free-speech demonstrations to weddings and operas—that at once sketches a utopia of public fraternity while emphasizing the systemic decision-making behind the scenes. Missile opens up an ICBM-launch training school in California with a mix of mundane details and cataclysmic implications. The macabre class discussion of the ethics of nuclear holocaust is not to be missed, nor is the Muzak piped through the corridors—both representative of the blackly comic and surreal throughout Wiseman’s films. “My point of view is, a lot of the movies are funny,” said Wiseman.
His famous opening volleys of the ’60s and ’70s—the legally embattled Titicut Follies, MOMA’s retro opener Basic Training, and Welfare—lay bare power dynamics and the ideology of social control, but those films have been plenty chewed over. One of the great rediscoveries of the retro is the extraordinary Alabama special-ed series from the ’80s, especially Blind and Deaf. “In one sense, they’re movies about movies,” Wiseman said of the sensory self-consciousness they induce. But a seven-minute shot shadowing a little charmer practicing with a cane creates a very visceral sense of empathy. Just as deeply felt, the serial endgame cases of Near Death, about families and patients at a Boston ICU, are given a down-to-earth gravity, with doctors and nurses observed building consensus and blowing off steam.
Unbeholden to familiar documentary arcs, Wiseman’s films alight upon their subjects from different angles and achieve a fascinating kaleidoscopic sense of present-tense drama that doesn’t press the point. “I’m very conscious of the need to identify the rhythm of the movie,” said Wiseman, parsing the lengthy production process. “The issue presents itself in a more extreme form in a movie like La danse, but it’s the same.” Sculpting the pacing between and within blocks of associative sequences—from the series of treacherous one-act abuse hearings in Domestic Violence 2 to the matching of hand movements from cut to cut in La danse—Wiseman would be worth a retrospective solely as an editor. (Joshua Siegel, the curator of the series, goes one further: “I can think of no better film editor than him.”)
Doggedly shot on 16 millimeter (and color starting only with 1983’s The Store), Wiseman’s films have a spare, square, but bizarrely timeless style. It is the people—the hairdos, say, or the precise quality of racial simmering from Vietnam-shadowed Basic Training to the Chicago-set Clinton-age Public Housing—that mark the passing of years, generations, eras. The combined stylistic reserve and intimate access have maddened some critics who would not be happy unless “NO OBJECTIVE REPRESENTATION OF REALITY IS INTENDED OR IMPLIED” was flashing onscreen at all times. Wiseman’s huge admiration for bulldog interviewer and stylistic-opposite Marcel Ophüls, then, may come as a surprise. “He’s so smart,” the filmmaker said, enthusing over the-life-and-times-of-Klaus-Barbie doc Hotel Terminus. “There’s no style that’s the right style. It’s when somebody pulls it off and makes it work, whatever the style is.”
Wiseman’s films have limitations (largely self-imposed) and make multi-hour demands. They assume active viewing, plumb individual psychology by observation not solicitation, and can be, let us say, archival in terms of the extent of a subject’s coverage. (The raw footage from Wiseman’s films is, in fact, on deposit at the Library of Congress.) But it’d be hard to find another filmmaker with such a range of curiosity, from the absurd Primate (scientists versus test chimps) and the deeply moving Near Death, to the mind-bending Model (the construction of cover girls and boys), the dime-store vivid Racetrack (sports!), and High School II, with its depiction of actual exemplary civic education.
Not to mention the latest projects forthcoming, one about an Austin boxing gym (planned to be shown at MOMA) and another of a Paris nightclub. “There are some people who feel I’ve abandoned making movies about poor people. For me, that shows they don’t understand what I’m doing,” said the lifelong Cantabrigian. “It’s related to this whole idea that the real role of documentary is to expose the injustice of society. It’s certainly a role of documentary film, but it’s not the only role.”