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.

The scene is worthy of Dickens. But once we fully register the drawn or puffy faces, the senseless voices that yet make more than sense, the film frees itself of its literary influences. The images of actual people, each observed individually in raw moments of suffering and frustration, create almost overwhelming tension. In some of Wiseman’s films, that tension is not quite satisfactorily resolved, but in Welfare the language breaks free, defining each character and situation. A few of the petitioners are visibly ashamed, others seem almost exhilarated, defiant of their innumerable disasters, proud of their messy lives their stories, and they pour out a flood of imprecation and lamentation. “What do I do tonight?” asks a tall man with a long, melancholy jaw who has been turned away, after being promised an appointment for the next morning. He is a therapist or psychic researcher of some sort who has lost his job. “I haven’t eaten for three days now—except what I steal. I can’t steal a chicken. I can’t steal a steak. It doesn’t fit in my pocket.”

No one could deny Wiseman’s extraordinary sympathy for the insulted and the injured of American society. Yet he doesn’t romanticize or politicize the oppressed. He shows the tangle and self-destructiveness of lives as they are acted out and on display in the welfare office, and the way these very qualities compound the difficulties in getting on the rolls. But in the face of the staff’s contempt and indifference, the clients’ rage and assertiveness—their incoherent complaints, their madness even—become a triumph of individuality, a revenge of temperament on power. They refuse to be quiet. They fight or try to beat the system—or at least to leave their fingerprints on it.

Welfare, along with Titicut Follies, High School, and Basic Training are early Wiseman films that are devastating portraits of institutions. For a while, Wiseman seemed a bitter critic of institutional fatuity, destructiveness, and self-perpetuation, and some of his early admirers, like Edgar Z. Friedenberg, saw his work’s power as directly proportional to the severity of his attacks.4 But as Wiseman went on working through the Seventies and Eighties, the early political estimate of his intentions began to seem inadequate—even mistaken.

In a conventional “professional” television documentary, the material is organized in tabular or chronological order; exposition of explicitly defined issues moves clearly from point to point; and the film’s attitudes are “balanced” by opinion of a contrary strain. Wiseman ignores that. Selecting and cutting material from his huge quarry of footage, he works with the freedom of a novelist; he “composes” the movie by assembling a complex mosaic whose point of view and theme emerge gradually and by means of the viewer’s interpretation.

For example, in High School, the Dean of Discipline, a stocky man with a military brush cut, uses his power in all his relations with students, for instance, bullying an unhappy and rebellious teen-ager who has been unjustly accused of stealing into accepting, and even approving of, his punishment. We then see the dean in a classroom teaching history, where he tells the students that collective bargaining began in the United States because of “a lack of communication” between employees and employers. In other words, power has nothing to do with it. Wiseman is not simply exposing the clichés of a stupid or hypocritical teacher. The movie was shot in 1968, and the school was then clearly attempting to hold off what it perceived as cultural anarchy outside its walls. Many of the teachers and administrators are exercising a bland and frightened dictatorship; their speech is deadened as if any sign of life might inspire the students to break out of control.

Meanwhile, dulled and demoralized by the teachers’ inability to bring any subject to life, many of the best students are gathered in a class of malcontents where they sit in a resentful torpor—they are also victims of the hypocrisy and authoritarianism promoted in the school.

In such cinéma-verité films of the Sixties as Monterey Pop or Woodstock, the camera was jerked this way and that, in pursuit of a spontaneous moment in a sweeping panorama: and often all that one got was isolated moments. Wiseman uses “moments” structurally. The scenes with the Dean of Discipline were shot on several different occasions; they have been pulled out of the flow of events, and they are played one against the other as the film proceeds. In Welfare, the scenes in which the clients express their sense of worthlessness are echoed, partly ironically, by later episodes in which the welfare bureaucrats petulantly argue over their status in the system. A passing emotion or idea in a Wiseman film becomes a key element in a form he seems to be devising in front of our eyes. The most tightly organized of the films can be “read” almost as texts, read for their internal life as well as their reflections of the world outside.

In Law and Order (1969), a white policeman arrests a black teenager who has been making trouble in his neighborhood; even though the boy threatens to kill him, the cop is having a good time because the neighborhood regards the boy as a menace and jeers at him as he’s taken away. In 1969, when the movie was shot, many in the audience may have been ready to see the policeman as a sadistic agent of state power. But this judgment is modified and refined throughout the film, and a far more interesting one replaces it.

As they make their rounds, the police on screen are constantly subjected to abuse (the same officer later admits to a colleague that he’s frightened of the boy, who is about to be released from jail). The police are thrown into incoherent and violent family quarrels for which nothing in their training has prepared them and in the wake of which they are invariably found at fault. Law and Order is moving, finally, as an expression of a flowing and undoctrinaire sense of life that is almost melancholy in its acceptance of confusion and loss. By the end of the movie, the police appear to be not so much overbearing agents of the state as the inadequate last resort in neighborhoods that are falling apart.

Looking for the secrets of these places, Wiseman discovered not only oppressiveness but also momentary flashes of spirit in the daily life of institutions. Hospital, made in 1970, a year after Law and Order, turned out to be less the attack on the urban health-care system that might have been expected than a sorrowing introduction to the elemental, intractable moments of life. Many of the urban poor arrive at the hospital wounded or dying, in shock or suffering with multiple problems, or terrified to face a doctor. The big-city hospital (Metropolitan Hospital, near Harlem, in Manhattan), with its patients waiting forlornly in the hallways, is overburdened and almost chaotic. The movie is not reassuring about urban health care, but it shows its staff coping with limited resources rather well. Hospital is filled with surprising, simple, and human gestures—a woman doctor, for instance, saying, “There’s nothing to be ashamed of” to an old man who has cancer and is too frightened by the physical ugliness of his symptoms to discuss them with anyone. As the hospital workers struggle to cope with the disasters pouring into the emergency room, the viewer begins to realize that he is watching not the dim events of bureaucratic procedure, but large and grave instances of suffering, courage, and endurance.

The material is so strong that it also produces moments of disgust or revulsion, and at times Wiseman’s work approaches black comedy. In Titicut Follies there is a grim sequence in which a brutal attendant is force-feeding an inmate who has refused to eat. The attendant pours something liquid into a funnel attached to a narrow hose, which is inserted down the throat of a howling and shaking old man. After twenty years I can still see as vividly as I did then that ghastly scene, in which the attendant’s cigarette is fixed in his mouth (both his hands are busy), its lengthening ash dangling precipitously over the open funnel. I remember waiting almost without breathing to see if the ash would fall in.

A “sick” joke like that has a mock cinematic suspense—and it is also truly shocking. For a while, Wiseman’s work was almost remorselessly black comedy. Meat (1976) was an elaborated joke about advanced industrial methods as applied to butchery, a visual essay on the deconstruction of a cow. Slaughtered, sectioned, sliced, chopped, and wrapped, the beasts were transformed into product. Meat is a handsome and scornfully witty film—a sly parody of those celebratory industrial documentaries we were all forced to watch at summer camp on rainy days. But the absence of people was limiting.

There are plenty of people in the three-hour Canal Zone (1977), an exhaustive study of the American colony living and working at the Panama Canal, but they are seen as examples of humanity as its meanest. Isolated, a long way from home, and threatened by extinction, the American colonials keep up morale with a nonstop diet of drills, award banquets, speeches, and flag-raising. These Americans isolated in Panama have produced a concentrated version of small-city conservatism, Babbittry raised to defensive hysteria. But the pinched faces and pinched attitudes become almost numbing in their sameness. The best case Wiseman can make for them is that they aren’t fakes. Even the rebellious gestures central to the earlier films are absent. (In Meat, a recalcitrant cow jumps the pen on the way to the slaughterhouse.)

In Model (1980), a dead-pan look at the high-fashion racket, Wiseman teases a fetish system that raises artifice above experience; The Store (1983) chronicles the snobbish appeals employed by a Dallas department store to sell luxury goods to culturally insecure Texans at ridiculous prices. Wiseman may have enjoyed exposing the very strategies that he disdains for his own work, but the wit here is colder than before, more self-contained—almost prissy. For a while, in the early Eighties, Wiseman seemed to be running out of subjects that could fully engage him.

In his recent movies, Wiseman has returned to the material of his earlier work, but without their bitter irony and the preoccupation with victimization and incompetence. One of his recent projects has been a quartet of documentaries, Blind, Deaf, Adjustment and Work, and Multi-Handicapped (1986). In Blind, which was photographed at the Alabama School for the Blind in Talledega, a pupil, Jason, a little boy of about six, carries a math paper he is proud of out of his regular classroom, down the hall, down a stairway, past many open doors, and into another classroom, where he presents it to a friendly teacher for approval. He then turns around and retraces his steps, receiving from his home-room teacher some free time as a reward. The sequence is accomplished with only a single cut; the camera trails after the boy, noting each encounter and mishap along the way, and long before he reaches his goal one realizes, against all skepticism, that Jason’s trip is an epic moment of documentary cinema.

The quartet of films records the heroism both of young children learning to make do without sight or hearing, and, in Adjustment and Work, of older people with multiple handicaps, learning to negotiate, say, the corridor of a factory by listening to the sounds coming through closed doors. These are among Wiseman’s most moving works. And last year he completed a masterpiece.

The five-hour-fifty-eight-minute Near Death (1989) takes place in the intensive care unit of a Boston hospital, where we see the largest gap yet between staff and clients: the doctors possess almost all the power, the patients, attached to some life-sustaining apparatus, have none. One of the patients, Mr. Cabra, a Hispanic with pulmonary fibrosis, is only thirty-two; the others, much older, have suffered either multiple heart attacks or strokes and are struggling for breath. If they are to have any hope of living, not merely staying alive, they must get off the machines. But once they are taken off the machines, they will probably die—if not immediately, then in a few weeks or months. Advanced medical techniques, by extending their lives, have created a remarkable situation in which the only “healthy” thing for them to do is to die. By going off the machines, the patients at least can go home, where surrounded by family and friends, they can face the end of life with some measure of dignity. 5

The subject of terminal patients and advanced medical techniques is a commonplace of news reports and soap opera. But Wiseman brings to it an intensity and gravity unknown in television. In this film Wiseman imposes a narrative, placing the stories of four patients end to end instead of intercutting them, thereby removing any suggestion of suspense—this is a film, after all, about the treatment of terminally ill patients.

The nearly dying, breathing through masks or often unconscious, lie silently in an alertly attended limbo. They are far away: visitors and doctors shout down at them as if they were lying at the bottom of a well. In this film, the clients have entirely lost their individuality. Wiseman’s attention stays fixed on the doctors. He observes in particular two of them, both young—Dr. Taylor, who is mostly seen quietly trying to explain the patients’ situations to their families again and again (the families, unwilling to foreclose on life, cannot take in what is being said), and Dr. Weiss, a lung specialist in his late thirties who, as the movie progresses, is increasingly tormented by his responsibility, and nearly breaks down.

These relatively recent graduates of medical school have been trained to recognize the emotional as well as the medical needs of their patients. Yet it is their courtesy, their sensitivity to the feelings and dignity of the patients—in contrast to an older doctor, who announces a grim diagnosis and disappears—that makes their position the more difficult. The suggestion is, of course, that they, too, will grow hardened if they are to remain sane. But for now these young doctors have to face such dilemmas as: What if the best thing for patients is to accept that any treatment beyond pain-killers and sedatives is useless? The doctors are the victims of an existential paradox: their concern for their patients often obliges them to recommend termination of treatment. But the words for such a recommendation are impossible to say.

Near Death, throughout its immense length, is shot mostly in the intensive care unit. The doctors meet with patients’ families; they awkwardly cluster together with nurses for impromptu conferences in the hallways (no room being set aside for this purpose). What is said in these anguished sessions, once, perhaps, the material of their undergraduate bull sessions, is now real and momentous: When can a patient’s condition truly be called terminal? Does life have a value in itself—or only life of a certain quality? The movie investigates the morally anomalous condition of being a healer in an age when technology has interfered with the body’s natural progress toward death. Arguments in the film are circular, since there are no answers. They are repeated, modified, particularized, extended, throughout Near Death’s great length, and the film grows in power as it goes on and on.

And in Wiseman’s characteristically bleak way, the movie is funny. As in his other films, language is key. How does a commercial and technological civilization, positive and utilitarian by temperament, speak of death? In America, the dramatic and poetic language of death has gone.6 The doctors themselves cannot speak of death in part because they are advocating it, the patients and their families cannot, because they deny it. Even more than most of us, all of them are eagerly looking for a euphemism.

In their conversations with one another, the doctors and nurses say, “If we take him off the respirator, and he doesn’t fly, I’m loathe to put him back on.” A doctor says that treating a patient dying of lung disease with antibiotics is like using “a pea-shooter against an atomic bomb.” The sports and military metaphors, morose attempts at cheerfulness as well as denial, suggest how savagely inarticulateness impoverishes us. For though the doctors clearly have considerable delicacy of feeling, they cannot express it.

When the intensive care unit revives a patient whose heart has stopped beating for a few seconds and who was technically “dead,” the doctors query him excitedly afterward. “You’ve already been there. You know death.” (We don’t hear his answer.) The doctors are curious to know their antagonist, who has become, in this case, also a secret, unmentionable friend. But words elude them.

Other words they use again and again. We hear the word “comfort” with increasing irony. The doctors want to get the patients and their families to accept “comfort measures”—meaning the withdrawal of all treatment, now useless, except for morphine and sedatives. Comfort equals death. A nurse, speaking of the man who “dies” and returns, but who will surely die for good soon enough, says, “Until he comes to terms with the fact that comfort is the way to go, I guess we can get him [back] to where he was.” Inevitably, a doctor says, “We’re comfortable with that”—i.e., we’ve done everything we can do. It is, in a way, an apology. Given the squalor and misery in which most people die, the physical ease of mortality in Near Death, a high accomplishment of civilization, is, like the doctor’s fervor, deeply unsettling: indeed Wiseman’s chaste refusal here to heighten our response with music seems almost punitive.

There are moments in every Wiseman film when the great roar of an institution stops, when the director fastens on what might be called its ecology. In Central Park the park itself is a living organism that fills and empties, a garden producing great heaps of garbage, collected in shiny black bags under a romantic moon. Wiseman is attentive to the hollows of institutional activity, the quiet hours when the floors are mopped and the walls and lights seem to hum. Do institutions have a soul? Wiseman’s camera strains to capture their mystery, much in the way Edward Hopper does in his paintings of lonely places.

His patience pays off in the astonishing things people say in almost all these films. In the wedding in Central Park, the groom, a small balding man with a black beard and wire-frame glasses, says to his bride, “I submit myself to you in love, Elaine, and give myself to you, as my wedding gift, my flesh, to exercise your authority over, that I might not deny you pleasure,” which is answered by the no less strange, “I shall uphold your honor in the eyes of others, and remember to praise you when I am with them.” The ravings of the mad and maddened in Titicut Follies, or the violent outbursts in Law and Order or Welfare, or the surreally banal social gatherings in Canal Zone—such moments, as they each become a part of the whole expressive, formal work, produce an elation unique to documentary art.

This Issue

November 8, 1990