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Frederick Wiseman: The Tawdry Gruesomeness of Reality

February 28, 2011 | by

From Sinai Field Mission, © 1978 Zipporah Films, Inc.

Fred Wiseman has been my idol for a long time. In the 1970s it wasn’t all that easy to see his films. For a while I had seen only Basic Training (1971) and High School (1968). Nothing else. Titicut Follies (1967) was almost impossible to see because it was under a court injunction. Videocassettes had been introduced, but Wiseman’s films existed only on 16mm—ready to be slapped onto a projector or viewed on a flatbed. Until very recently, he was reluctant to transfer his films to DVD. I believe it was because that would have made them too easy to be seen.

When I was editing my first film, I visited Fred Wiseman in Boston. His offices in those days were on Lewis Wharf, and he very kindly allowed me to watch several of his films on a Steenbeck editing machine. At dinner in his home, one of his sons asked him whether he was going to show me “the two-hour, the three-hour, or the four-hour boring film.” Fred didn’t smile. But honestly, I had no problem with the length. For me, they could have been even longer.

I saw Fred again at the London Film Festival in 1978. He was showing Sinai Field Mission. My future wife, Julia Sheehan, and I went to the first screening at the National Film Theatre. Julia, also a Wiseman fan, had just gotten off an all-night flight from Boston, and promptly fell asleep next to Fred. She was mortified. I remember being mesmerized by the film and its “language.”

The cinder block buildings, the microwave dishes, and the injunction: to stop sunbathing on the modules. If Surrealist painters had to conjure an empty, featureless plain with pieces of driftwood, Wiseman was able to do away with the driftwood, the conjuring, and simply point the camera at reality. The results are disarming and even dismaying.

A woman plays basketball alone in Frederick Wiseman’s Sinai Field Mission (1976). The clip appears courtesy of Zipporah Films and may not be downloaded or used in any way. All Frederick Wiseman films are available from Zipporah Films at zipporah.com.

One thing surprised me in 1978. Fred had little interest in watching other movies at the festival. He was interested in London theater and excited about the prospect of going to a play. I still believe, over thirty years later, that his movies come from the theater, perhaps the theater of the absurd, rather than from any specific film tradition.

Many people have written or filmed unending paeans to the human race, the nobility of man, the endurance of human spirit. But they have described man as we might like him to be, with little regard for how he is. Wiseman has had the honesty and supreme decency to portray human society for what it is: a madhouse. Titicut Follies was his first but not his only madhouse movie. It was a template for the thirty-eight movies that followed.

I sat down recently and re-watched Sinai Field Mission. It was much as I had remembered it. The man with the push broom in the middle of the desert, the Texas techies (from some bizarre organization called “E-Systems”), the endlessly marching Ghanaians and Finns, the lonely, enervated one-person basketball games, the bicycle rider straining himself on a hill to nowhere. Sisyphus without the grand illusions. In sum total: a feeling of immense dislocation, meaninglessness, and isolation.

A man rides a bike along a desert road in Frederick Wiseman’s “Sinai Field Mission” (1976). The clip appears courtesy of Zipporah Films and may not be downloaded or used in any way. All Frederick Wiseman films are available from Zipporah Films at www.zipporah.com.

I learned about filmmaking at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, California, where I spent a lot of time watching movies: a few documentaries and a steady diet of Dreyer, Hawks, Renoir, and Nicholas Ray. The documentaries I saw were by Buñuel, Herzog, and Georges Franju—not the Maysles or Leacock and Pennebaker.

Wiseman once asked me, “How could you possibly like my movies? They’re all filmed in wobblyscope,” his affectionate term for handheld camerawork. And he is right. His movies are stylistically ur-vérité. No narration. Available light. Fly-on-the wall. But Wiseman’s films prove a simple principle. Style does not determine content. He may be a direct-cinema guy in form, but the content is not valetudinarian but visionary and dystopian. Wiseman has never been a straight vérité “documentarian.” He is a filmmaker and one of the greatest we have.

A jeep drives through an arid valley in Frederick Wiseman’s “Sinai Field Mission” (1976). The clip appears courtesy of Zipporah Films and may not be downloaded or used in any way. All Frederick Wiseman films are available from Zipporah Films at zipporah.com.

I have jotted down some obsessions, themes, and predilections that recur in his films. These are not comprehensive but hopefully give some idea of what I love about his work.

1. Surface

We constantly think about the motivations of people—their dreams, ideas, hopes. This is not really present in Wiseman’s films. He shows things as they are. As they are manifest. He never asks anyone to explain anything, certainly not themselves. He never interviews anybody. Instead he functions as eavesdropper, listening in on conversations unraveling around him . . . And what amazing conversations they are. People endlessly tallying up senseless columns of numbers. There is a brief inkling that the mission in the Sinai is concerned with peacekeeping, that there is perhaps some larger purpose for it all, but in this film larger purposes shrink away, leaving us with a residue of meaningless ritual.

2. Real Time

We very rarely see examples of real time in the movies. There is the minute of silence in Godard’s Band of Outsiders (1964). But in Wiseman’s films, we are treated to many minutes of silence and to unbroken time. Earnest conversations about seemingly nothing ramble on and on. If movies generally compress time through cutting and editing, then in Wiseman’s films time feels extended. A minute of real time can feel interminable, or if you prefer, like an eternity. But I am reminded of a remark made to me by Sidney Coleman, a Harvard quantum field theorist, about the artist and designer Robert Wilson. Sidney said, “Slow is not boring. Only boring is boring.” The same could be said about these films. Slow, yes, but endlessly fascinating.

3. Length

Fred has gotten into countless fights with film programmers and television producers about the length of his movies. He is the Howard Roark of documentary. Like Ayn Rand’s protagonist in The Fountainhead (1943), he would rather blow up the building he designed than remove a doorknob. Change one frame, alter one image, try to reduce the length by one second, particularly if it’s already over four hours, and Fred will destroy the film rather than compromise. He is the ultimate auteur. Near Death (1989) is set in an intensive care unit at Beth Israel hospital in Boston. The viewer begins to feel his own mortality and to wither under the weight of the subject matter over the course of six hours. I, however, told Fred it should have been even longer. I was serious. For a Wiseman film to work it has to be long. Unendurably long. Intolerably long. It is hard to look at Wiseman’s version of reality. One has to be led there and forced to look at it on a leash with a muzzle.

4. Anti-Sociology

Many commentators have written about Fred as though he is a social scientist—a prolific chronicler of institutional behavior. But this gets it backward. Fred likes institutions like Fellini likes the circus. They are a backdrop or a metaphor for something else. I prefer to think of Fred as an entomologist who has poked his camera into some truly nasty termite pile and watches with bemused satisfaction as the termites scurry around carrying odd parcels and such. What are they doing? Can we ever know?

5. Irony

Irony is, properly considered, a weapon. Often it’s a way of showing a disconnection between what people think they are doing and what they are doing. Irony abounds in Wiseman’s films. No one, absolutely no one, really knows what he is doing. And Wiseman, the observer, is fascinated by a reality (hidden just below the surface) that nobody in the film seems to notice.

6. Religion

When Wiseman turns to “evangelical” subjects, as in Aspen (1991) and Essene (1972) as well as in Sinai Field Mission, we characteristically feel the absence of God rather than his presence. The preacher in Sinai Field Mission is instructing his soldiers that life has a purpose, that each man fulfills an important and valuable role, but everything he says and the context in which he says it seem to suggest the exact opposite.

7. Sex

Dreiser has nothing on him. Sex has never looked as tawdry and sad as it does in a Wiseman film. The lab technicians masturbating a monkey in Primate (1974). Humans are portrayed admirably as evil primates. The female veterinarians castrating a wolf in Zoo (1993) as a male janitor looks on nervously, his hands folded over his crotch. Fred has a gift for filming condom demonstrations. In High School II (1994), white middle-class students are shown how to put a condom on a huge black dildo. In Public Housing (1997), the students are black teenage mothers. This time the dildo is small and white.

8. Repetition

Every Wiseman scene recalls other Wiseman scenes. Look at High School and the hapless teenagers in gym class dancing to “Simon Says” (the 1910 Fruit Gum Company version) and the Ghanaians marching in Sinai Field Mission. Wiseman proves that redundancy is the spice of life. Everything recalls everything, but, more to the point, everything repeats everything.

9. The Meaning of Meaninglessness

Sinai Field Mission . . . a man with a large push broom is sweeping sand in the desert. What more can you say? Oh yes, it’s about the UN peacekeeping forces in the Sinai. Trapped inside a windowless bunker and surrounded by a chain-link fence and razor wire, the Texans, Finns, and Ghanaians try to keep the peace. After a short while, they inevitability start fighting with each other. The Store (1983) is an excursion into Neiman Marcus during the holiday season. The employee and employer birthday parties at the conclusion are surreal and desperate. Does it matter whether we are rich or poor, owner or lowliest worker? It’s all depressing. In Near Death, one of the terminal patients explains how she has finally found a way to lose weight. Dying. If you don’t pay attention, you might consider the film life affirming. Essene takes place in a monastery. A monk pursues a fly unendingly with a flyswatter. This is the height of boredom as religious ecstasy. When a Spanish teacher in High School drills in the line, “Sartre is an existentialist philosopher,” or a helpless welfare recipient in Welfare (1975) refers to Godot in the closing minutes of the film, I can imagine Wiseman smiling. These are his roots—not Grierson and Flaherty but Beckett, Anouilh, Ionesco, and Sartre, the theater of hopeless irony and the absurd. It’s no wonder he lives now in France. Wiseman’s films can be considered as extended essays on the meaning of meaninglessness. And they are incredibly bitter and funny. Really, really funny.

These forty-odd films are highly personal and idiosyncratic works. They create a world, equal to the worlds of Renoir and Hitchcock and Fellini. For me, Wiseman is the undisputed king of misanthropic cinema.

Errol Morris is a filmmaker and author. This essay is excerpted from Frederick Wiseman, a catalog of essays edited by Joshua Siegel and Marie-Christine de Navacelle and published by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, to accompany the Wiseman retrospective that opened there in the fall.

9 COMMENTS

2 Comments

  1. Drew Johnson | February 28, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    That I would expect Errol Morris to have great things to say about Frederick Wiseman doesn’t keep this from being the best and quickest capture of his work I’ve come across. The mistake of labeling Wiseman a social scientist is not only avoided but skewered and I particularly like the point that Wiseman trades in externals.

    This matters a lot–not just to what makes him great but also to what makes him strange in the period in which he’s done his work. Wiseman has gone farther with the unalloyed external than is really possible to understand without actually experiencing the accretion of Welfare, Public Housing, or my personal favorite (and the only one I own) Belfast, Maine.

    I haven’t yet seen Near Death.

    Sometimes I think his movies consist of just those things that the 20th century most wished to remove from the makeup of The Novel: the endless accumulation of physical and social detail coupled with the inference of consciousness rather than its confident depiction.

    Now that his films are on dvd, the public libraries in and around Boston seem to be getting on board. But I remember when one of the first things I did whenever I gained access to a new university library was to check which unseen Wisemans they possessed.

    I wish Morris had offered at least an aside about Wiseman’s foray into fiction: The Last Letter–adapted from a chapter of Grossman’s Life and Fate. Mostly on account of my curiosity. I haven’t seen it, and it’s on the list.

    Thanks for the piece. And perhaps Wiseman could find his way into The Paris Review again in an inaugural The Art of Filmmaking?

  2. William | March 22, 2011 at 11:46 am

    The tawdry gruesomeness of reality? This reads like some bizarre appreciation of Wiseman by John Waters. Perhaps it’s true that the more ambiguous elements of Mr. Wiseman’s work ultimately reveal more about the viewer speaking of them than about the films themselves. Mr. Morris is obviously presenting to us his own misanthropy rather than a true picture of what Wiseman has offered. Wiseman is too great an artist to oversimplify human nature so caustically and the understated methods of his approach necessarily allow for others to view and interpret through their own cracked lenses. Morris, to make his argument, must ignore the dedication and compassion exhibited (and given firm emphasis) in films such as Deaf, Blind, Multi-Handicapped, Adjustment and Work, Juvenile Court, Public Housing, State Legislature, and Domestic Violence, as well as most of the films he did to choose to mention. As for the absence of God, this again is a presence lacking in the eye of the beholder. The final conversation between the two doctors in Near Death touches on profundities that inform the entire 6 hours of the film.

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