The Wiseman Cometh Back: Film Forum delivers the second installment of 'The Complete Wiseman'
Frederick Wiseman returns! Not that the 87-year-old filmmaker ever went away, having produced a remarkable run of documentaries since 1966, but now Manhattan’s Film Forum continues its Wisemania celebration with another week of his distinctive documentaries.
From September 6 to 14, the middle part (1986-1996) of Wiseman’s prodigious output will be capped by the world premiere of the director’s latest, Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, on September 13. “The Complete Wiseman: Part III” wraps up the tribute in early 2018.
The Film Forum opts not to present “The Complete Wiseman: Part II” chronologically. But, then, it is not essential to see these films in any particular order and, fortunately, most of the titles get repeat showings. Since Wiseman movies are often hard to find anywhere else, a trip to the famed repertory theatre is recommended.
Compared to the early films screened last spring during “The Complete Wiseman: Part I,” Wiseman’s middle period is marked by longer running times, more languid pacing, more eclectic subject matters and sometimes a more hopeful tone. Nevertheless, Wiseman reveals his continued concerns with institutional structures and their impact on society in general and the human spirit in particular. In addition, his cinema verite technique (aided by long-time cinematographer John Davey) remains constant: no narration, voiceovers or soundtrack music, and long takes of everyday events and conversations that become increasingly interesting, even significant, as they proceed.
Here, in order of appearance, is a critical mini-guide to the week’s dozen titles:
High School II (1994) offers a much more uplifting, progressive image of a “place of learning” than Wiseman’s dark, troubling 1968 High School. Hardly a sequel, this look at Central Park East Secondary School demonstrates deliberately (at 220 minutes!) why CPESS has one of the most noteworthy graduation rates of any inner city high school in the nation. Scenes with students and teachers leave one with positive impressions and stand as a sharp contrast to the strict, oppressive approach depicted at Philadelphia’s Northeast High School three decades earlier. High School II screens September 6.
Deaf (1986) and Blind (1986) are the precursors to High School II as the first indicators of a shift in Wiseman’s emphasis on the “good works” of some establishments, in these cases elementary schools for children with special needs. The staffs of both the School for the Deaf at the Alabama Institute and the Alabama School for the Blind show great care and dedication toward their students, and Wiseman brings the viewer into the students’ world (as much as possible) by approximating the youngsters’ perceptions. But Wiseman never flinches from the ominous: in Deaf, early shots of homeless people and a road sign for nearby a prison represent the negative possible outcomes for the students, supposing they didn’t have their school as a home base. Similarly, in a later sequence, the administrators discuss the financial difficulties of keeping the schools going. Deaf screens September 6 and 11 and Blind screens September 7 and 13.
La Comédie-Française Ou L’amour Joué (Games of Love) (1996) seems like a complete departure from the Wiseman norm, as a film shot outside the U.S. about a high arts institution: the venerable La Comédie-Française. While the subject matter might not be as vital or relevant to fans of early Wiseman (Titicut Follies, Law and Order, Hospital, Welfare, et al.), the director never forgets to include the perspectives of all those involved in creating and maintaining this renowned French theatre company. The actors, directors and crew members, yes, but also the janitors, cooks and waiters, plus the executives and office workers behind the scenes—especially during difficult labor negotiations that could be viewed as a theatrical drama of its own kind. As one character says of a Marivaux play, “It’s…. multi-layered [with] ambiguous meanings.” He could be just as well taking about La Comédie-Française Ou L’amour Joué, screening September 7 and 9.
Providing something different among the earnest, upbeat mid-period Wiseman works, Aspen (1991) is a bold study of contrasts and a bitterly funny—also sad—reflection of the concerns of the American nouveau riche. Here, Wiseman aims his camera at the “smart set” staying at a chi-chi ski resort, intercutting unintentionally funny scenes with shots of the tireless, nameless workers who cater to their needs. One unforgettable sequence features a seminar on nose job surgery (and the elusive search for beauty), during which food servers are ignored by the participants. Wiseman’s film shifts all-too-swiftly back and forth from promotional travelogue to satirical nightmare—including a retro costume dance party that could have come right out of The Shining. Aspen screens September 8 and 14.
Central Park (1989) covers the egalitarian nature of one of the world’s most famous parks, jumping from a funky jazz concert to shots of the homeless sleeping to an acting class to a wedding to a bird-watching session to a Gay Pride parade to an office meeting about park safety concerns. The images are either innocuous or gently mocking. But even here, the park workers would be unappreciated, almost invisible, if it weren’t for Wiseman’s unobtrusive yet intently observational camera. Central Park screens September 8, 10, and 14.
Zoo (1993) generally reserves judgment about the personnel who minister to zoo animals while simultaneously questioning the whole idea of animal captivity for the sake of human spectatorship and entertainment. The film intercuts charming, lighthearted animal antics with disturbing, sometimes bloody behind-the-scenes activities before building to a devastating finale involving—SPOILER ALERT!—wealthy donors dining on animal hors d'œuvre delicacies (e.g. hickory grilled quail with fennel thyme sauce). If one combined a family picture and a horror movie with a dark comic undercurrent, you would have Zoo, which screens September 9 and 14.
Ballet (1995) returns to an insider appreciation of a high arts organization—the American Ballet Theatre—and the many people involved in the hallowed dance company. Introduced on September 9 by Cynthia Harvey, the director of ABT’s JKO School and a dancer seen in the film, Ballet not only captures the magnificence of the dancers but also the demanding expectations of the choreographers, including the legendary Agnes de Mille. As with the other Wiseman films concerning culture and the arts, after-hours workers are given screentime, as are the executives who fret about financing and scheduling. Ballet screens sans Harvey additionally on September 11 and 13.
Near Death (1989) might just be Wiseman’s masterpiece, an epic-length (358 minutes), up-close study of the doctors, nurses, staff and patients at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. One of the few black-and-white films (appropriately so) of this period, Near Death captures the most heartbreaking, intimate moments imaginable: the times family members must make choices regarding the fate of dying loved ones and how they cope with those decisions. Wiseman’s access to his subjects is always impressive, but in this film his entrée is amazingly unguarded without ever feeling exploitative. Despite the six-hour length, Near Death is never dull. All the same, remember to bring comfortable shoes and a few handkerchiefs to the theatre. Along with Zoo, Near Death is the most unsettling entry of Part II, yet both are the most resonant. Near Death screens in its entirety on September 10.
Multi-Handicapped (1986) joins Deaf and Blind as a study of a school for children with disabilities. Again, Wiseman brings the viewer into the world of both staff and student, developing empathy on both sides without ever resorting to the melodramatic or patronizing effects of Hollywood-style narratives about the “less fortunate.” Ideally, Multi-Handicapped should have been scheduled in tandem with the two aforementioned features, but it screens on its own on September 12.
Missile (1987) breaks up the overtly humanistic themes of the series with a study of the banality of evil: the care and feeding of the U.S. nuclear missile program. Though the workers and technicians are not explicitly criticized for their stoic demeanor, Wiseman suggests that society as a whole is to blame for matter-of-fact attitudes toward world destruction. This chilling and ever-germane documentary screens only once: September 12.
With Deaf, Blind and Multi-Handicapped, Adjustment and Work (1986) completes Wiseman’s mini-series of modestly focused works. Here, the Alabama Industries for the Blind exemplifies the benefits—and some of the challenges—of employing blind individuals. This affecting portrait becomes most intriguing during a meeting when a prospective employer labels the blind as “sick,” prompting the workers to stand up for themselves. Thus, Adjustment and Work is meant to offer hope in a way a movie like Missile represents doom; it screens September 13.
Frederick Wiseman is a singular filmmaker. It might be odd to say the topics he tackles are less important than the techniques he uses, but it is Wiseman’s unique, signature approach that reveals so much more about the subtexts of those topics than conventional nonfiction films ever do. This is important to keep in mind when comparing Wiseman’s middle-period films to his early works, too, since the darker aspects of the relatively benign subjects of the 1980s-90’ become no less consequential than the exposé-laden nature of those from the 1960s-70s. After experiencing even one of Wiseman’s cinematic journeys, it is difficult to think of any institution the same way again.
Visit the Film Forum website for showtimes and more information: