New York's Film Forum showcases the early films of documentary great Frederick Wiseman


This Easter weekend brings a revival and celebration of another kind: the complete canon of filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, with several of the prints restored in 35mm.

The festival at New York City’s Film Forum, titled “The Complete Wiseman Part 1: Early Wiseman,” starts Friday and lasts a full two weeks (April 14-27). It will be followed in the fall with Wiseman’s later works.

Full disclosure: I have been a fan for a long while and even had the opportunity to interview Wiseman about 20 years ago. But at the same time, I admit the interview was a little frustrating. The lawyer-turned-documentarian was all too clever at not answering questions, especially those about the meaning behind his creations. Like many artists, he prefers the viewer to come to his or her own conclusions. This is not to suggest, however, that Wiseman doesn’t present a point of view in his films—and he certainly concurs that all filmmakers have a point of view. In the case of Frederick Wiseman, the “truthful cinema” of cinéma-vérité is only seemingly free-form.

Style is both the key to understanding Wiseman as well as the reason his texts are dense, never easy to read. Working in the observational cinéma-vérité tradition established by Jean Rouch, he eschews talking-head interviews, voiceover narration, extra diegetic music or sound effects, or any kind of inserted archival material. He is the antithesis of Ken Burns, whose overrated PBS blockbusters are all about spoon-fed exposition and explanation. But unlike the more famous Maysles Brothers (Grey Gardens), who also employed cinéma-vérité and began filmmaking around the same time (in the mid-’60s), Wiseman distinguishes himself by the nature of his subject matter, and his unearthing of something disturbing in the subtext, if not right near the surface, of his glacially paced journeys. For this and other reasons, Wiseman more than deserved his Honorary Academy Award last November.

An unnerving disclosure is especially true of Wiseman’s debut feature, Titicut Follies, shot in 1967 but not given its U.S. premiere until Film Forum presented it in 1992. Fifty years ago, the 37-year-old Boston lawyer Wiseman arranged a trip to the State Hospital for the Insane in order to show his law students the kind of place their prospective clients could be sent. After witnessing the abuse of the patients, Wiseman decided he needed to record it all on film, and he even received ample access from the authorities. But a court case followed once the hospital realized how poorly its institution looked in the completed documentary. Essentially, Titicut Follies was banned in Boston and beyond, becoming a cause célèbre, yet it still had enough of an impact to force the State of Massachusetts to begin reforms.

With its title coming from a surreal variety show put on by both the guards and patients, and cinematography echoing German Expressionist horror, Titicut Follies has been more widely seen in recent years, and it has inspired and influenced other artists, including choreographer James Sewell and composer Leonard Pickett, who have combined forces to create The Titicut Follies Ballet, which will have its world premiere at New York University’s Skirball Center on April 28. Meanwhile, the 50th anniversary of a newly restored 35mm print of Wiseman’s original film will kick off “The Complete Wiseman” on April 14. It will also be shown again on April 15 and 16, followed by a Q&A with Wiseman on April 21, then with Pickett on April 22 and Sewell on April 26.

The one major drawback to Titicut Follies, though the false excuse for why the state wanted the film banned, concerns Wiseman’s own exploitation of the patients. To make this kind of documentary, such a problem would have been unavoidable, and it is doubtful that permissions and releases were granted at the time, so one has to weigh the cost/benefit of the effort: Laws were in fact changed, and the film is still powerful, no matter how invasive it could be considered. (Others in the vérité field, from the Maysles to Shirley Clarke to Michael Moore, have all been criticized for this built-in dilemma in their productions.)

Other films in the series suffer from the same conundrum, though usually to a lesser extent, since in the case of Follies many of the patients with mental disabilities may not have even been aware of their being filmed—such as when they are stripped nude and hosed down by the guards as a form of punishment. Similarly, it is doubtful the pathetically ill patient in Hospital (1970), who vomits endlessly, would have wanted the world to see this unpleasant moment in his life—or have it recorded for all eternity. But Hospital, showing April 23, 25 and 26, like Wiseman’s other works, looks at the bigger picture of how institutions operate, and the inequities of these micro-societies, especially when those with power abuse that power. In the case of Model (1980), on April 16 and 19, the issue of exploitation is downright self-reflexive, as the young models within the competitive yet absurdist fashion world come across as willing victims.

Those inequities are on multi-leveled display in Wiseman’s gruesome but haunting Meat (1976), on April 18, because not only do we see step-by-step the cattle on the blocks being butchered and turned into hamburger, but we also feel for the workers of the factory who kill the animals: They are metaphorically butchered by the management “suits” during a brutal labor-negotiation sequence. The point of this variation on "Kick the dog' (or cow, in this case) is hard to miss if one has the patience and stomach to watch the earlier, Grand Guignol slaughter sequences—and it is not a pro-vegan message, even if it might have that side effect. Likewise, Primate (1974), on the same April 18 bill, shows scientists using and abusing primates for sci-fi-type experiments. Why? Because they can. And these scientists seem oblivious to their inflictions of cruelty. But Wiseman isn’t oblivious and he ensures we empathize more with the animals than the humans, which makes both Primate and Meat at once horrifying and heartbreaking.

Wiseman’s technique of following certain characters (whether human or animal) in privileging close-ups in long takes is one of those tip-offs to the very meaning Wiseman coyly refused to confirm for me. In one of his most celebrated films, Welfare (1975), showing April 17 and 23, Wiseman not only confers this privileging to the welfare applicants but also to the harried staff, giving them a degree of empathy that might be unexpected but makes sense in the grand scheme of a system that isn’t doing justice to the unemployed any more than those trying to help them—at least those in the trenches.

But the question whether Wiseman is providing any answers to societal problems is less obvious than his critique. One could glean sheer revelation as a possible remedy in another well-known Wiseman title, High School (1968), on April 15, 21, 22 (again with a Q&A with Wiseman in person), and 27. Here we witness a school structure, with its many rigid rituals and authoritative leadership, as thinly veiled preparation for the teenage boys who are soon to be drafted into the army during the Vietnam era.

Basic Training (1971), on April 20, is the logical extension of this system, and would have made a strong, edifying double feature with High School. Instead, Basic Training, a sort of precursor to Stanley Kubrick’s fantasy take, Full Metal Jacket (1987), is paired on the 20th with Law and Order (1969), one of Wiseman’s more controversial films because the police are seen—like the citizens they are meant to protect—in a somewhat understanding light, an approach by the director that undermines legitimate, left-wing complaints of law-enforcement abuse. Again, Wiseman is fashioning a bigger picture, determining that the long arm of the law is only as good as the justice system that governs it. If one is looking for a polemical piece, Law and Order will disappoint.

The inclusion of Wiseman’s lesser-known films will allow viewers to compare these works to Welfare, High School and the like. Canal Zone (1977), on April 25, is a fascinating microcosm of American nationalism and xenophobia: Not only do the Americans who live in the Zone ignore the Panamanians, who are seen working at menial jobs, they don’t even acknowledge that Panama belongs to the very people they are dismissing. Sinai Field Mission (1978) is nearly the opposite, a Wiseman anomaly in that it takes place outside the U.S. proper and focuses more on the exterior activities of the early-warning system established by the U.S. Army in 1976 than the individuals involved in the Israeli-Egyptian conflict. Perhaps this is a subtle way of distancing the viewer from the intractable Middle East struggle—and the quotidian work of the technicians re-routes the expected high drama to an unusually mundane perspective.

In Voyages of Discovery: The Cinema of Frederick Wiseman (1992, University of Illinois Press), Barry Keith Grant writes that Wiseman’s forays are not so much documentaries as modernist revisions of genre films, and it is hard to argue against seeing Sinai Field Mission as a different kind of war film, baring the banality of war. Likewise, Manoeuvre (1979), also on April 24, displays the foolishness of U.S. army games in Germany; Meat is a western from the point of view of the helpless animals, and Racetrack (1985), on April 22, also takes the animal POV, rewriting every picture from National Velvet (1944) to Secretariat (2010). Meanwhile, Essene (1972), on April 16 and 21, demythologizes traditional “religious” films like Going My Way (1944) and Barabbas (1961), and Juvenile Court (1973), on April 17, takes the camp out of the wayward youth pictures of yore.

My personal favorite genre revision is another little-known but superior work: The Store (1983), on April 19, a kind of bridge between The Marx Brothers’ The Big Store (1941) and the after-hours department store horror flicks of the 1980s. Once again, Wiseman shows us the stifling, regimented structure of an institution (Neiman-Marcus in Dallas) and its ominous effect on its workers. The finale, including a cameo by Lady Bird Johnson, represents the coup de grace of class hierarchy oppression.

The Store is one of Wiseman’s “middle-period” films, before his run of equally observant but more earnest explorations: Multi-Handicapped (1986), Deaf (1986) and Blind (1987). These least-known projects will probably appear in the Forum’s fall series sequel, leading to the mesmerizing, epic-long Near Death (1989). More recent films, those of the last 20 years, include In Jackson Heights (2015), which will be shown on April 22 as part of the Anthology Film Archives’ “Cinema of Gender Transgression” series. This tapestry of life in Queens, New York should return in the fall at the Film Forum with other “late” Wiseman, including several featuring an odd Francophilia fixation.

Most of these later films contrast with Wiseman’s early work, perhaps in ways that dissipate the onetime urgent, exposé quality. To experience that earlier energy, the next two weeks at Film Forum will be eye-opening, even if it that opening is at least in part in the eye of the beholder.

For showtimes and more information, visit Film Forum’s website.