The Center Holds

At Film Forum, Frederick Wiseman documents American institutions under strain


When last we left Frederick Wiseman, he was still mad. The opening of Film Forum’s complete retrospective, which began last spring and concludes in early 2018, covered the prolific and pioneering documentarian’s angriest period. He would descend into bureaucracies that liberals find incensing — with self-explanatory titles like Basic Training (1970), Meat (1976), and The Store (1983) — and confirm our worst suspicions. But they were always more than salvos. A law professor turned filmmaker, Wiseman went into his third doc, the Nixonian-titled Law and Order (1969), expecting to stick it to the pigs; he came out shocked to learn that some, though not all, police officers were good people trying to do their best within a poisonous system.

“The Complete Wiseman: Part II” picks up in 1986 with a radical shift. It’s here he started immersing himself in institutions that weren’t overtly poisonous. Some of them were nice, noble, or simply benign. What does the muckraker of Titicut Follies (1967) do with a doc about a park? Or a ballet company? Or a vacation hotspot? They were even now mostly in color, which made them neither as stark nor as grim as his b&w hellraisers.

Was Wiseman softening with age? Oh no. Even when he’s positive, Wiseman’s a downer. His approach, as in all of his 43 films, remains the same: Wiseman eschews many standard documentary techniques — narration, talking heads, interviews, even helpful onscreen text — forcing us to find his story or argument based on nothing but the footage he’s put onscreen. But mid-period Wiseman films tend to be not only even longer than his previous work, but even more open, even more empathetic, and still no less cutting. They show how hard it is to do good.

Take the earliest titles in the series: a nine-hour-plus tetralogy from 1986 and 1987 about the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind in Talladega. In Deaf, Blind, Multi-Handicapped, and Adjustment & Work, we see students, kids and adults, as unfailingly patient teachers try to help them find agency, to survive in a society that makes little accommodation for them. We’re far from the second Wiseman, 1968’s High School, in which students are seen as products on an assembly line.

Or are we? The staff at the institute were still operating a kind of factory. But they too are trying to do good, and Wiseman honors them with a complex portrait. Deaf boasts the longest scene in a filmography filled with endless meetings and town-hall hoedowns: a near-hour bout between administrators and a suicidal boy. It ends as dispiritingly as rows in High School or Basic Training before it, with authority figures using their power to break those beneath them. And yet the epic length gives us all the time in the world to parse uncertain faces, watch nervous body language, and see the boy’s adult overlords as more than mere villains.

There are no bad guys in Near Death (1989), in which the cruel institution is the body itself. For six hours — still Wiseman’s longest — we watch as frazzled doctors treat a group of terminal patients, all while debating the unanswerable: When does prolonging life become an act of sadism? Despite the grim subject matter, Near Death is his warmest, gentlest film, bearing witness to both the dying and the doctors. Even when the latter make tasteless jokes, who can fault them for relieving stress?

Wiseman could still be “old school.” Missile (1988) finds him in dark-comedy mode, showing a California Air Force base where trainees prep for a nuclear war that might never come. Zoo (1993) is what you’d expect from a Wiseman film about a zoo, though its horrific behind-the-scenes revelations tend to be delivered with subtlety and wit. The best joke, if you will, is that Wiseman films the animals as though they were people while their captors unthinkingly treat them like objects, including a sickly croc who’s stuffed into a box like a broken computer.

But Missile and Zoo are outliers. In the rest, like the Harlem-set High School II (1994), Wiseman struggles to be positive but settles for honest. His films about the arts — Ballet (1995), about New York’s American Ballet Company, and La Comédie-Française ou l’Amour Joué (1996), on Paris’s oldest repertory theater institution — mix footage of dances and plays with backstage drama, watching as hundreds of employees struggle to find a balance between art and commerce.

Some edge into mystery. Central Park (1990), maybe his greatest work, is a relentless shape-shifter. It starts as a simple tour of the grounds, turns into a cosmic exploration of humanity imposing itself upon nature, and ends as a microcosm of how a city as huge and diverse as this manages to function. With Aspen (1991) he does something similar-but-different, refusing to make a mere exposé of the ski resort town.

Despite his progressive bona fides, Wiseman has never been one to tackle The Issues. He makes nonfiction films that feel timeless, dated only by their fashions and hairdos. Still, if these twenty-to-thirty-year-old Wisemans remain relevant, it’s because one of his central ideas — that America and most of the Western world is made of broken systems, held together by scotch tape and bubble gum, and by people who, for all their flaws, mean well — seems like it’s finally, at long last, coming home to roost. People in both La Comédie-Française and Central Park wax on about the importance of remembering history, as if we’ll doom ourselves to repeat it. And here we are.


The Complete Wiseman: Part II

Through September 14, Film Forum