Frederick Wiseman’s Earliest Documentaries Chronicle the Messy Strength of American Institutions


It is a peculiar truth of American life that, for all our myths of individualism and independence, this country’s defining trait may well be its faith in its institutions. Sure, the institutions can fail us — schools can produce dysfunction, courts can dispense injustice, politicians can sell us out — but we seem to persist in the belief that, no matter how bad our leadership or current predicament, our institutions will be there for us. That in their continuation somehow lies the greatness of this nation.

Over the course of a fifty-year career, the documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman has set out to chronicle, as he’s put it, “American life as expressed through its institutions.” His definition of “institution” can be rather loose: His movies depict not just schools and hospitals and military bases but also race tracks, department stores, modeling agencies, art galleries, and boxing gyms. Each Wiseman picture presents a kind of ecosystem — a place with its own rules and hierarchies, its own oppositional forces, where the people attempt to play their part in the system while also not losing their own humanity.

Film Forum’s massive new Wiseman retrospective has been (thankfully) divided in two. Part One encompasses the sixteen documentaries he made from 1967 through 1985. As such, the series showcases how the director’s style and vision have developed. We critics may talk of his films as if they were one continuous body of work, but the Frederick Wiseman of the late Sixties and early Seventies was a rather different artist from the Frederick Wiseman of the 1990s and 2000s.

For starters, there’s the concision of these early films: High School (1968), his look at a huge, somewhat oppressive Philadelphia public school, runs 75 minutes. Law and Order (1969), about the Kansas City police force, 81 minutes. Hospital (1969), shot in the emergency ward of New York’s Metropolitan Hospital, about 84 minutes. The longest title from this early batch is 1977’s Canal Zone, about life among Americans working around the Panama Canal, at 174 minutes; today, that’s not even the tenth longest movie of Wiseman’s career. (His most recent three releases have all run three hours or more.)

What’s length got to do with it? As far as strict running times are concerned, not much. (Wiseman’s movies are as riveting at 190 minutes as they are at 90.) But there’s a relentless rhythm and rough intensity to these earlier works: The camera might rush along behind a doctor or teacher or soldier, or jerk back and forth between different figures, capturing fleeting visual poetry along the way. When things move faster in a Wiseman film, for whatever reason, the offhand gestures stand out even more. In one of the most memorable scenes from High School, a teacher hurtles down a corridor ordering any students who are out and about to return to their classes. One kid, talking on a pay phone, casually puts up a finger, telling him to wait — a split-second gesture of outrageous insolence in such an authoritarian environment. (Wes Anderson would borrow the moment in Rushmore.)

The violence in these works suggests Wiseman’s quest for drama and conflict was once more conventional. A hapless, possibly even suicidal young soldier is terrorized by his drill sergeant and other officers in Basic Training (1971). A cop puts a sex worker in a terrifying chokehold in Law and Order. A junkie stoned out of his mind on mescaline vomits profusely, repeatedly, all over a room in Hospital, then asks for someone to turn on some music. You come out of these films shaken, maybe even a little emotionally scarred.

Scenes such as these — or pretty much all of the nerve-racking Titicut Follies, his 1967 directing debut about the goings-on at the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, a film removed from distribution for decades due to various lawsuits filed against it — led some at the time to label Wiseman a muckraker. It’s an absurd claim, especially given the empathy and complexity of his work. Look at how acutely Wiseman can chart human behavior with just a couple of quick shots: In his few moments onscreen, a psychiatrist berating a welfare worker for refusing to help a troubled young man in Hospital vividly reveals himself, the camera quivering and zooming into his eyes, which alternate between fury, confusion, and compassion. Something similar happens with the military officer trying to chum it up and reason with a crotchety, uncomprehending German villager in Manoeuvre so that he’ll allow U.S. Army vehicles to pass through his property for a war game exercise. Or the fashion model trying to hide her disappointment as she’s told by an agent that she’s just a couple of inches too short for the high-end gigs she desires, in Model (1980).

“To the extent that I’m trying to do anything, it’s to show as wide a range of human behavior as possible, its enormous complexity and diversity,” Wiseman once said; he’s probably uttered some variation of that in every interview he’s given. That belief has clearly informed the growing expansiveness and sobriety of his work: The films have gotten significantly longer, and the depiction of these institutions ever more thorough. Meanwhile, the fragmentary cutting and shorthand has given way to a more transparent editing style that often creates the illusion that we’re watching something happen — a conversation, a staff meeting, a university class, etc. — in real time. Individual scenes can now go on for twenty minutes or more. He seems less interested in extreme cases and more in the routine workings of institutions and the people in them — almost as if he’s set himself the challenge of making the most mundane things impossibly cinematic. (Irony of ironies: Wiseman has been granted access to nuclear missile bases, hospitals, schools, police departments, and government offices of all kinds. The one institution that always turns him down? A Hollywood studio.)

All this might give the erroneous sense that Wiseman’s films are didactic, dry, ennobling social studies lectures. But what he’s really doing is holding up a mirror, allowing us to recognize that these places are made up of people just like us — which might go some way toward explaining why we continue to have faith in these institutions. Perhaps more importantly, Wiseman doesn’t set out to judge or prove a point or — as so many documentarians like to do today — scold. He often knows relatively little about his chosen topic before he shows up with his camera and microphone and starts exploring. No matter the subject — be it shocking or frivolous — the films all glow with that sense of discovery.

The Complete Wiseman, Part 1: Early Wiseman

Through April 27, Film Forum