The films of Frederick Wiseman seem composed of the most ordinary ingredients of life, and yet they wield a frightening monumentality. Just the titles of the first Wisemans I encountered on public television as a kid--Primate, Missile, Meat--suggest the silent strut of Richard Serra's massive, landscape-hiding arcs, or the mono- and bisyllabic immobility of an objectlike Andy Warhol movie. Like Serra, Wiseman suggests the presence of a superior alien intelligence that has mastered the Art Game by brilliantly eliding it; and like Warhol, Wiseman hides a poet's aching heart under the guise of "just showing stuff."
For mounting a retrospective of Wiseman's work, Walker Art Center deserves all the love and appreciation we can give them. (The Walker's three-week series, "Frederick Wiseman: A Sense of Place," starts November 2 and concludes November 21 at 8:00 p.m. with a dialogue between the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Wiseman and filmmaker Jim McKay.) I have seen Wisemans projected on sheets in avant-garde underground barracks, broadcast on PBS late at night, and on skuzzy, fourth-generation VHSs. The notion of Wiseman's cinema receiving the red carpet treatment from a major arts organization fills me with gratitude: Whoever conceived of this program deserves a lifetime of good karma.
Now: That said, the Walker curators have programmed Wiseman for the people of Minneapolis in a manner that's problematic at best. The trilogy of '70s Wisemans I named above gives us this master filmmaker at his most Kubrickian: Apes are medically tortured, a seemingly sentient cow travels from the barn to the deli counter, and the key-turners of America's missile system rehearse the release of the Big One. In Wiseman's more recent films about disability--Deaf, Blind, Multi-Handicapped, and the almost too harrowing Near Death--the scuffle between soul and body is rendered with Bach-like concision. Wiseman's wide-bordered masterpiece Public Housing is nothing less than serene. But these eight films are nowhere to be found in "A Sense of Place," whose dozen works--comprising just a third of the artist's total output--are said to focus on Wiseman's characterization of "our Americanness." Even in the absence of some of his most important films, however, what the retrospective does have to offer is further evidence that Frederick Wiseman may well be America's greatest living filmmaker. (Take this how you will, but I understand that many of the young French Turks of the new New Wave agree with that assessment.) In a case of beauty taking its sweet revenge against schlock, the Wiseman canon represents a kind of transubstantiation act in which our current, decadent fetish for Reality-Everything gets alchemized back into art.
Here are the things most commonly known about a Frederick Wiseman movie: It has no voiceover narration. No one in it addresses the camera or even acknowledges the filmmaker's presence. And it is very long. (Near Death clocks in at a nearly skull-crushing--but somehow exhilarating--five hours.) And viewers may be led down a blind alley by Wiseman's own descriptions of the films. Take a look at Wiseman's website, www.zipporah.com, and tell me you've ever come across such a modest, pointedly prosaic, Sociology 101-ish description of a film by its maker:
The first part of [Adjustment and Work] takes place at the E.H. Gentry Technical Facility which provides evaluation and personal adjustment services to sensory impaired adults and also functions as a vocational training center offering technical instruction in 15 career areas such as business, printing, home economics, food services, and computer sciences.
Wiseman's films--marketed, literally, to school groups rather than arthouses--are works of anthropology more than anything. A wised-up adherent to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, a micro-recorder of the conflict between individuals and (would-be humanist) institutions, Wiseman organizes his movies as if they were syllabi: High School II (screening November 20 at 10:15 a.m.) tackles teacher-parent relations, teaching difficulties, discipline issues, student interactions, etc. But there's a sleight of hand--or maybe the sly modesty of a great artist--at work here. Again and again, Wiseman's films find the director coming to a thunderous, Einstein-sized discovery--the prosaic study-guide approach to cinematic structure occasioning the birth of a wholly original sort of cinematic poetry.
The test of any great nonfiction film is: How beautifully, how artfully organized would it seem if you viewed it as a work of fiction? Wiseman's evil spawn, the marvelous tabloid documentarian Nick Broomfield, has the ratty showbiz sense to tell the story of Heidi Fleiss and her rich lover as if it were the Great Skeezy American Novel About Los Angeles and not an Inside Edition exclusive. Conversely, a Wiseman picture such as Domestic Violence 2 may seem to tick its way down a classroom checklist; but that very form--so inimical to traditional, buildup-oriented notions of storytelling--makes for a series of paroxysms worthy of Eugene O'Neill.
"Whatever relationship you had with each other is over right now!" bawls a Florida judge in Domestic Violence 2, the Law & Order-like companion piece to Wiseman's Domestic Violence. The first picture in Wiseman's diptych is about cops dealing with variously horrific and/or ambiguous and impenetrable domestic-abuse calls; the second (screening at Oak Street Cinema on November 10 at 7:00 p.m. as part of "Get Real: City Pages Documentary Film Festival," with proceeds benefiting the St. Paul Domestic Abuse Intervention Project) is about the putative abuser and abusee facing the bench. At first, DV2's cases have the vaguely lurid appeal of a reality show on Court TV. But as time passes, Wiseman's Sophoclean theme emerges: the almost cellular struggle between the nobly intended rules of a civic institution and the innermost needs of human beings. The majority of the men who stand before DV2's judges are not one's stereotypical idea of burly wife-batterers. In most cases, the question of "who started it" and who exacerbated it is up for grabs; what we see aren't victims and villains, but a lot of fucked-up relationships. Throw the presence of children into the mix and you have human histories that exist beyond the confines of "crime and punishment"--even as the filmmaker patiently details the restraint and exhaustion of the judges who've been given impossible jobs. Like all great Wiseman films, Domestic Violence 2 can be viewed through a local lens, through a topical one, and from the vantage point of Eternity. And all of these perspectives are accessible simultaneously.