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.
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.
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.