Film: A Wise Man

Veteran documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman discusses his long career

Apr 18, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Zipporah Films

Fighting off the Grim Reaper: Frederick Wiseman, whose Near Death will screen at the CAC beginning Sunday.

Frederick Wiseman is one of America's greatest documentary makers. That he seems less well known than such peers as Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens), Errol Morris (The Fog of War) and Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, U.S.A.) is principally due to his never having had a huge theatrical success.

One factor is this: His movies are sometimes extraordinarily long. Belfast, Maine, a study of a fishing community, ran four hours; Near Death, a film about issues surrounding the terminally ill, clocked in at six. Consequently, Wiseman's work finds its most congenial home on public television. (Near Death screens at the Contemporary Arts Center April 22-May 3.)

Often dealing with public institutions in their various stages of function and dysfunction, Wiseman's films offer little overt expository on the frequently Kafkaesque situations they present. Wiseman unquestionably has a point of view — evident in the way he meticulously structures his films — but, foregoing a Michael Moore-styled sledgehammer, he leaves the viewer to decipher each scene's significance within the framework provided.

A practitioner of the so-called "direct cinema" form, Wiseman has made more than 35 feature-length documentaries since he emerged as a fully formed artist with his debut masterpiece Titicut Follies (1967), an expressionist study of the conditions of Massachusetts' Bridgewater State Prison for the Mentally Insane.

CityBeat: When you spoke at Full Frame (Documentary Film Festival in 2002) you responded to a question about how you are able to gain access to your subject matter by pointing out that you're often dealing with public institutions, and the filmmaker has a legal right. Could you elaborate?

Frederick Wiseman: Well, you still have to get permission. You can't make the movie without the full cooperation of the participants ... but I was referring to what happens when the film is shown. When you are dealing with a public tax-supported institution, what goes on in that place is news. If a privacy question exists, generally the courts have found that the public's right to know and the First Amendment are the more important values. Public institutions are meant to be transparent.

CB: What do you think it says about our society that viewers of your films are amazed that you're able to make them?

FW: It's hard to generalize why people are amazed. I don't know if they're amazed that I received permission or because they thought the state would prevent me.

CB: I'm amazed that they're willing to let you in. This is supposedly a "free society" — that's what we've been told to believe — but we, the viewers, are amazed to be allowed to get into (these sometimes public institutions) through your films.

FW: In many ways — on a relative basis — we are a free society. Where that appears to be changing is a consequence of everything that's going on as a result of the manipulation of the terrorism issue. I just made a new film about the Idaho state legislature, and they gave me complete access. Certainly, the legislature is supposed to be transparent — but it's one thing to have a theory of transparency and another to actually get access.

At the same time, all these new aspects of surveillance that are beginning to become prominent in American society are partially a result of the response to 9/11, but they're also a result of the easy access to information that technology offers, which has absolutely nothing to do with terrorism. Now there is the assumption that government or big business has access to aspects of our lives which they did not previously have available. This does not necessarily mean that government is less transparent; it means the technology exists for the transparency to work in the other direction — i.e. from the citizen to the government or to corporations that are interested in knowing more about our consumer or spending habits, or whatever.

But in terms of getting access, I don't have any more difficulty getting access now than I've ever had.

CB: That's interesting, because I personally doubt that today you would be able to make Titicut Follies...

FW: Well, that I don't know. I haven't asked to go into a prison for the criminally insane. It may or may not be the case, because so much depends on personal relationships and the way you present the project. It's hard to deal with that in the abstract. Whether or not I could make Titicut Follies today, I just have no idea ... and the only way to answer that question would be to go to some prison for the criminally insane and see if I received permission.

CB: In the late 19th century, Max Weber was concerned "that the world could one day be filled with nothing but ... little cogs, little men clinging to little jobs and striving toward bigger ones." I think this describes some characters in your films perfectly.

FW: I think it's more complicated than that. Certainly there are people who are little cogs striving to be bigger cogs, but there are also people just trying to make a living and may not want to become managers but mainly are just looking for a paycheck every week. I don't know if you saw the movie I made, Belfast, Maine — there's a sequence in the film in a sardine factory. I don't know if those people ... working on the assembly line where they cut up the sardines had any ambitions to become managers of the assembly line or the factory. They were mainly interested in supporting their families — or supporting themselves.

There's something slightly pejorative in (Weber's statement). Weber's obviously a man I have enormous respect and admiration for, but that particular statement suggests that they should be doing something else, or that they have a choice. Many people do not. They want to get a job, and they'll take a job that comes their way for a variety of reasons. They may not be ambitious or there may not be employment in the area — who knows? There should be no expectation of loss of dignity in becoming a cog in a wheel. I'm not suggesting that there may not be a loss of dignity or partial loss of dignity, but Weber's statement leaves out the necessity to survive.

CB: Maybe we're talking about class. What made me think of the Weber (statement) was watching Meat (1976), the sequence with the beef salesmen hawking different cuts. When people have more choices, more power or control, your camera seems more jaundiced.

FW: Ah, I don't know. I don't know if those salesmen had a lot of choice. They liked what they were doing — it was a game, they knew how to sell beef. And as long as we want to eat beef, we've got to sell it, and as long as there's more than one source there's going to be competition. It may be funny, but there's also an underlying situation where someone needs a job — the basic thing, they're trying to make a living. It's not that some of those salesmen are not without ambition, and they might want to become the chief salesman. But I think there's more to it than just being a cog in a wheel, and wanting to be a bigger cog. That assumes that the people we're talking about as a class don't have the same sensitivity to the issues that we think we do. When you go around making these movies, what you often see is the struggle for existence.

CB: Speaking of those beef salesmen, from a contemporary perspective it's interesting how pervasive smoking is in your films from the '60s and '70s. In fact, in Titicut Follies, a lit cigarette becomes one of the film's strongest indictments when we see it dangling from Dr. Ross' mouth as he force-feeds a patient. I was wondering if you smoke.

FW: No.

CB: When you were making these movies, did smoking seem an interesting component to you?

FW: Well, it seemed an interesting component, but the sequences aren't in there to emphasize the smoking, it just happened that the sequences I chose had people smoking. Now in retrospect it's certainly become more interesting. It struck me at the time — I did smoke once for a very short time, and I'm the only person who understands Bill Clinton because I never inhaled — but, as I say, I was conscious of the fact that people were smoking. Also, smoke looks nice on film, when they blow the smoke or the smoke curls up into the air, but I didn't use those sequences to illustrate the fact that everyone smoked. Sometimes I might have used a sequence because I liked how the smoke was spiraling in the air, but that was a decision based on the look of the shot, rather than the content.

CB: When you were watching the patient being force-fed by Dr. Ross...

FW: The whole tension in that is the smoking. It's very important in that scene. The tension in that scene is whether the ash is going to fall in the chicken soup. (Laughter) And it would be a different scene if he didn't have a cigarette in his mouth. The smoking in that scene is an illustration of his complete indifference and insensitivity to the patient, the man being force-fed. In that scene, the fact that the doctor is smoking is key. Sometimes the existence of a person smoking will have thematic importance as well as visual value.

CB: Errol Morris has complimented you by saying that you might be "the most perverse filmmaker of all time." He calls you the "king of misanthropic cinema." Do you consider yourself a misanthrope?

FW: (Laughter) No comment.

CB: What are the elements that draw you to a subject?

FW: There's got to be some combination of action, emotion, comedy, tragedy and sadness. It's got to be a subject where there's a rather full expression of the major aspects of human behavior. I think that's true of any situation thing where you have people brought together over a period of time.

CB: A lot of your early films like Titicut Follies, High School and Basic Training dealt with the American involvement in Vietnam. The war seemed to permeate the culture in late '60s. Do you have any plans to explore the effect of the Iraqi war on the American consciousness?

FW: Well, the last film I shot (State Legislature) was in 2004 and there was just some slight beginnings of some rumblings about Iraq, but I suppose if I make a movie this year my guess is I'll pick up on some of that.

CB: Any interest in getting into Guantánamo Bay?

FW: (Laughing) Do you really need any answer to that question?

CB: Well, this goes back to my first question: I would be amazed if Mr. Wiseman gets into Guantánamo Bay.

FW: Well, I would be amazed if Mr. Wiseman gets into Guantánamo Bay, too.

CB: What are you working on now?

FW: I just finished the movie about the Idaho legislature; it's going to be broadcast on June 12. I've been in France because I directed and acted in a play there. I've been quite busy with that.

CB: Is it a big part?

FW: No. It's a Beckett play called Happy Days. I have a small part. It's fun. I've enjoyed it. It's the first time I've acted. I made a documentary about the Comédie-Française (Comédie-Française ou L'amour joué) 11 or 12 years ago, and as a result they've asked me to direct two plays there. And this is the second one.

CB: Wonderful. Doesn't sound like you're slowing down.

FW: No. I decided that the only way to deal with getting old is to work even harder. It takes my mind off the Grim Reaper.

Frederick Wiseman's NEAR DEATH screens daily at the CAC on Sunday through May 3.