• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Real Thing

High School, 1968

Law and Order, 1969

Hospital, 1970

Basic Training, 1971

Welfare, 1975

Meat, 1976

Canal Zone, 1977

Model, 1980

The Store, 1983

Blind, 1986

Deaf, 1986

Adjustment and Work, 1986

Multi-Handicapped, 1986

Near Death, 1989

Central Park, 1990

In his most recent documentary, Central Park, Frederick Wiseman photographs homeless New Yorkers lying on the park’s benches and hillsides, covered in blankets, plastic wrappers, and bits of paper—shelter that looks more like a burial mound than protection for the night. It’s as if the homeless were carrying the means of their interment around with them, as if their only “home” could be death. This is the kind of harsh insight we have come to expect from Wiseman, who has been chronicling American institutions on film for almost twenty-five years without shrinking from life’s grimmer provinces. But apart from such images, the movie is mostly a record of New York exuberance, a celebration of the city’s surviving lyrical and idealistic impulses. In his films, Wiseman has often questioned received ideas and images: here he questions the commonplace that American cities are moribund.1

Beginning in 1967 with the notorious Titicut Follies, which was shot in the hideous Bridgewater, Massachusetts, facility for the criminally insane, Wiseman has completed twenty-three of these institutional portraits, mostly for public television.2 He has made films about hospitals, schools, military installations, and research institutes; a big-city police force and a juvenile court; a department store, a monastery, a racetrack, a modeling agency. From Titicut on, he has proved indifferent both to journalistic convention and audience convenience, working in an austere, provocatively reticent style. There are no titles, narration, music, or explicit commentary of any kind. He never announces his themes; instead, he plunges the unguided and sometimes baffled viewer into the life of an institution, imposing his own dramatic form on the many fragments of behavior he has photographed. In the films, institutional staff and their “clients” are caught in routine moments as well as in situations of extreme stress or even anguish. Through selection and juxtaposition of these little scenes, Wiseman puts together a complex portrait of the institution, a portrait that has the suspense not of narrative but of a sustained, detailed argument about values and experience.

Virtually everything in High School (1968), a savagely comic portrait of a “good” public high school in Philadelphia, gathers around a few central ideas: the school’s use of banality to control the students, the suppression of the students sexuality and independence. The movie begins with a teacher starting her class by reading the “thought for the day” (“What I do today is going to change my life tomorrow”) and a Spanish class learning the word “existentialism” by rote. The “thought for the day” is banal, but it is also appalling, for we realize that it is the school, not the students themselves, that is trying to change their lives. As Wiseman’s joke about existentialism suggests, the students are studying freedom in a way that will discourage them from being free.

These perceptions are repeated and varied throughout the film and reach a climax in the final sequence, in which the principal, a handsome woman with a fine head of white hair, reads to the faculty a letter from a recent graduate, a boy expecting to die in Vietnam. “Don’t worry about me,” the boy writes. “I’m just a body doing a job.” Everywhere in the school, in the classrooms and administrative offices and in the long hallways, we have seen the omnipresent teachers and school officials, frightened and rule-bound, trying to turn out teenagers who will submit to authority. In this case they have apparently succeeded. The boy, in words of self-negation that the principal applauds, has surrendered to the school even the meaning of his own death. High School is a sinister and very shrewd portrait of the American pursuit of mediocrity, a film of almost Nabokovian wit.

Over the years, Wiseman and his tiny crews3 have spent many months lugging camera and tape recorders through the vast gulag of American ameliorative institutions. The blank conference rooms, the barren marching fields, the listless or demoralized or overexcited people waiting on lines or trapped behind desks or ill in bed, become almost a Whitmanesque catalog in reverse, a bleakly witty panoply of American life at low ebb. But Wiseman also finds in these places signs of revolt, and moments of remarkable kindness or competence and even courage.

The cinema, which records the surfaces of things, the actions of the will and the emotions, is a sensuous art form. But Wiseman’s work is preoccupied with what one could call spirit. With an intensity usually found only in fiction, Wiseman examines the moral and spiritual life of an institution, revealing the way people are mauled, pounded into shape, ignored, or even ennobled by passing through or working in one of these places; that is, the way people react to authority.

The individuality and eccentricity that appear as a protest in his other films appear as a right in his new film, Central Park. Shooting in color, and in natural light softened by summer, Wiseman and his cinematographer, John Davey, photograph fantasists, lunatics, and cranks; birds and fields and nuzzling lovers; politicians and conservationists debating over the fate of the park. The movie is slow, uninsistent, rather pretty, at times wordless, without Wiseman’s usually embattled characters and moral sense of urgency. He ignores the history and aesthetics of Olmstead and Vaux’s peerless creation, celebrating instead the stubborn flow of life through the park, the open-armed welcome it offers in the midst of the sullen colossus.

Even if this uncharacteristically sensuous film interests us less than many of Wiseman’s more relentless portraits, his structural inventiveness is much in evidence. Early in the film, a minister conducting a wedding in the park evokes the opening of Genesis and speaks of “This beautiful garden in the midst of one of the most awesome cities in the world.” In the work of another filmmaker, this remark might seem random. But in Wiseman’s films, which have many minor characters but no central ones and no narrative, language and imagery are the key structural elements, and the sentence, as the movie proceeds, takes on weight.

Wiseman is one of the remaining practitioners of “direct cinema” or “cinéma vérité”—the documentary method, originating in the early 1960s, of entering a situation or event with lightweight camera and portable tape recorder and shooting whatever is going on, without script or rehearsal or agreed-upon direction. Such surrender to the subject is the pure form of cinéma vérité, more honored in the breach than in the observance. Other famous vérité filmmakers, such as Donn Pennebaker and Richard Leacock, who worked on Monterey Pop (1969), or the Maysles brothers in their Salesman (1969), Gimme Shelter (1970), and Grey Gardens (1975), have photographed formal events, such as rock festivals, or have imposed a narrative or other fictional structure on the material in advance (as in Salesman). Wiseman, working without a preconceived plan, shoots and takes sound for many weeks, and then spends months editing the raw footage. The finished film typically represents about one twenty-fifth of the footage shot.

The minister’s sentence, it turns out, is emblematic. As the film unfolds, Central Park emerges as a specialized Eden—protected and shaped and argued over by city people guarding an illusion of nature in the midst of one of the most violently urbanized environments in the world. Wiseman observes the self-consciousness of city dwellers heavily aware of their distance from nature, anxiously cultivating their patch of ground—the volunteer gardeners tending cautiously to clumps of shrubbery, students of butterfly migration peering intently into the air. People project onto the park their dissatisfaction with city life: the determined women of the Central Park Conservancy, a successful private organization that has raised and spent millions of dollars since 1980 restoring and beautifying the park, are the most fervent of all believers in the idea of the park as a garden—but the garden they have in mind, we begin to see, is that of a country house, or an English park. “It’s safe, it’s comfortable,” says a Conservancy fund raiser, a description half of which is demonstrably false. “You don’t see loitering or grafitti,” says another.

But what is the park for if it’s not for loitering? What we see in the film both is and isn’t the Conservancy’s vision of the park—clean and handsome now, but also overflowing with disorderly life. By concentrating on the protest groups and religious acolytes, on the ranks of sunning homosexuals and elderly women doing push-ups, Wiseman, who was a law professor and city planner before becoming a filmmaker, appears to be presenting something like Jane Jacobs’s vision of the city, in which the polyglot vitality of the park serves as the vessel of our careless democracy.

Many of Wiseman’s early films were outraged exposés of humiliation and resistance. The criminally insane locked up in filthy pens and mistreated in Titicut Follies; the young draftees in Basic Training (1971; a near companion piece to High School), inadequately prepared for the war in Southeast Asia that almost no one believed in—these people were plainly victims, trapped or stunned by bureaucratic routine, though their tormentors, bullying or merely dulled and inept, were revealed as hardly less defeated.

Institutions are made up of two classes, the inmates, who usually need or want something, and the staff, who are so habituated to the ways of the institution as to be no longer separable from it. They are a natural place to observe the effects of power in America. The classic Welfare (1975), still Wiseman’s most powerful film, takes place entirely in a Manhattan welfare office, in which exhausted and dazed petitioners for aid surge forward to make their pleas to be put on the welfare rolls. A few of them are imperious, or enterprising, or shrewdly manipulative, but most of them are just confounded. They want money and shelter, but they also want something that they cannot articulate: dignity or sympathy, perhaps, but also a reasonable explanation of their “case.” But this is precisely what the staff at the center—timid, self-obsessed, and obtuse, and themselves victims of the rigid and absurd rules of the welfare system—cannot possibly provide.

Wiseman concentrates on the relations between staff and clients, building up a rhythm of complaint and rebuff that has a ritualistic power. The welfare workers can only woodenly repeat the rules. For the young, educated, mostly female social workers on the staff, as well as for the older, male, supervisors, the desk that separates them from the clients is an essential barrier. It is as if, were they to react at all, to “understand” too much, they could be infected by the dismay and defeat on the other side. What seems like bureaucratic coldness is also a form of guilty panic.

Watching these scenes, one senses that Wiseman has been influenced less by sociology than by literature. In Welfare, two bent, quavering old men, having made their way through the city to the center—the wrong center, it turns out—are sent off again, with a curt command, to another office many blocks away. Wiseman holds the camera on their retreating backs as they shuffle to the door. A furious black woman with large eyes and a wall-slamming voice who has been waiting on line for several hours with her confused mother, whom she has been taking care of for many months, launches into an intense and angry aria of frustration and of contempt for the mysteries of bureaucratic regulation that have forced the two women to rush from social security office to court to hospital, and to arrive at last at the head of the line as the welfare office is closing for the night.

  1. 1

    Central Park was shot in the summer of 1988, almost a year before the gang sexual assault on a female jogger in the park.

  2. 2

    All of Wiseman’s documentary films, with the exception of Titicut Follies, were broadcast on PBS. The films were financed, in varying combinations, by WNET-TV in New York, by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the BBC, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a variety of foundations. They are available in 16mm format for rental only, and in both 16mm and cassette formats for extended lease, from Zipporah Films, 1 Richdale Avenue, Unit #4, Cambridge, MA 02140.

  3. 3

    Usually only a cameraman and his assistant; Wiseman takes the sound.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print