This Must Be The Place

In the documentary masterworks of Frederick Wiseman, ordinary people do battle with institutions--and the poetic tussles with the real

 

Over the past 37 years, Wiseman has created a new kind of movie art, one that reveals psychological, political, and spiritual truths using real-life events rather than staged scenes. Remove real-life from that previous sentence and you'll get a sense of an artist who's closer to the most forward-thinking of fiction filmmakers than to, say, the directors of Capturing the Friedmans or Dogtown and Z-Boys. I gather from reviews of Elephant that director Gus Van Sant has attempted to make an abstract, poetic film about high school with a voiceless, floating, godlike narrating eye--but Wiseman beat Van Sant to the punch by a full decade with High School II. An update to Wiseman's 1970 High School (November 6 at 1:00 p.m.), II depicts a progressive New York high school dealing with its students' crises at the moment of the L.A. riots. One of Wiseman's signature moves--using neutral, passing-traffic shots as interstitial material between sequences--gives High School II the perspective of one of Wings of Desire's invisibly hovering angels: We flit between the sublime and the sublimely banal. In one scene, a Latino class-leader type introduces a largely white group of chorus singers from Michigan during the riots: As he urges his fellow students to be cool, he also suggests the possibility of his pummeling these kids--and we see him smile at his own unconscious "gaffe."

A Wiseman movie lands on a situation of almost excruciatingly exciting moral drama--a character caught between two untenable moral positions--and then veers off to limn some felicity of atmosphere or personality that might be said to belong in a whole different movie. One finds oneself drawn, for example, to the performance style of the monks in Essene (November 9 at 1:00 p.m.), an in-house study of daily life in a monastery. The uniform speaking (or performing?) style of the monks--prissy, deliberate, melodramatic, hushed in the style of Oliver Stone or Tom Snyder--overwhelms our contemplation of the monastic life, and turns the movie into a fascinating vérité variety show: Andy Warhol meets Carl Dreyer. In The Store (November 14 at 8:00 p.m.), Wiseman's left-wing clichés while contemplating Dallas's flagship Neiman Marcus get body-slammed by the cameraman's repulsed fixation on the store's frigid properties--icy mannequins making an accusatory point so ham-handed that it becomes sneakily profound.

Courtesy of Zipporah Films

No filmmaker, not even the encyclopedic Robert Altman, has made so wide-reaching and comprehensive a portrait of contemporary America. Though Wiseman's films never stray for one moment from the task of painting the ordinary, the daily, that which will never appear on the evening news, they yearn, to quote Tom Wolfe about his own novel aspirations, "to put all of life between the covers of a book." And the pinnacle of that aspiration achieved is Wiseman's leviathan 1999 film Belfast, Maine.

Across the four mesmerizing hours of this picture, it seems as if all the characters from Wiseman's previous 30 years of filmmaking--cops, high school teachers, ER receptionists, counselors, and blue-collar workers, among dozens of others--had gathered for an Altman-style convention or family jamboree. Belfast (which opens the Walker series on Sunday at 1:00 p.m.) is a heart-stopping snapshot of millennial America that pushes no hot buttons and grazes no "issues," yet seems to contain within itself a CAT scan of the economic, political, and interpersonal behaviors of a nation. It also features Wiseman at his most Chekhovian: A portly, 50ish black man sits in a room and reads a windy text to a gathering of profoundly retarded elderly men. The mixed looks of polite receptiveness and pained boredom on the faces of the listeners might make you want to laugh, cry, and scream in the same moment.

Surveying the Walker's excerpts from a truly massive body of work, it suddenly became clear to me that Wiseman, with his freewheeling use of the actual as poetry, may have found a way for 21st-century art to break free of its indebted relationship to the past and reinvent itself again. Yet even after three or four hours, a Wiseman movie remains shrouded in mystery. Is it merely a social-studies exercise that takes on profound aesthetic qualities by accident? Is the filmmaker an academic subversive, a radical poet fooling the graybeards? We may never know. Whatever Wiseman himself might say on the subject, his oeuvre is capacious and unutterably vast, swaddled in a stoic, almost macho silence about its own identity.

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