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…

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