Minneapolis, Minn. — Wiseman makes documentaries examining everyday Americans living their lives. The Walker Art Center is presenting a Wiseman retrospective this month, which culminates in a visit from the director.
In the late sixties, American documentary films were mainly straight forward history lessons or profiles of great men. Then, in 1967, one film changed all that: Titicut Follies.
It was Frederick Wiseman's first film. It documents the dire conditions for inmates held in a Massachusetts prison. There's no scolding voiceover pointing out the terrible treatment of the men and no interviews with outraged reformers. There's no fancy editing; the scenes unfold in real time. It's a disturbing world to observe and powerful filmmaking.
In the 30 years since, Wiseman's technique has not changed much. Neither have his subjects. He chronicles America's everyday institutions: hospitals, juvenile courts, religious organizations and even department stores.
He says it's important that his films reflect the true complexity of reality. He's not into propaganda. When he followed police officers around Kansas City in the late nineteen-sixties for the film Law and Order, many of his contemporaries called the cops "pigs".
"I probably started the film with that idea," Wiseman says. "But after you ride in a car for 30 seconds, you realize the piggery is not restricted to the police. Just as goodness and kindness is not restricted to the people the police come in contact with. And you realize that police behavior is like other forms of human behavior. They often do good things, and occassionally do very cruel things."
A Frederick Wiseman movie examines what he calls small worlds. He says his films can help you can learn how American democracy works in our everyday lives.
There's an abbott managing a community of twenty monks in Essene. His film Near Death, set in a hospital, follows the doctors and nurses trying to help a terminally ill patient accept death. Wiseman remembers a 32 year old man who was dying of testicular cancer. The hospital staff kept him alive until they knew his family was fully prepared.
"I was fascinated with the fact that they were so sensitive to the emotional needs of the family, that they would have the extra expense and time incurred to reconcile the family to the death of a husband and father," he says
The Walker's Frederick Wiseman retrospective will culminate with a visit from the director. He'll be interviewed onstage by director Jim McKay. McKay says Wiseman's purity of vision is rare in a film world filled with cartoon violence, snappy comebacks and car chases.
"His films quietly and subtly portray American life as no one else does," McKay says.
That subtly can be a bit trying. Wiseman doesn't pull away from interminable scenes that reflect the tedium of everyday life, but McKay says Wiseman expects you to think and won't tie up the film in a neat package.
"You kind of have to figure out as you go along, 'What is the story?' 'What is the filmmaker trying to say?'" he says. "To me the more open ended things are, the more complex they are, the more gratifying the experience is. and that's a very special thing, especially today."
If you're up for that challenge, you have until November 21st to check out the Walker Art Center's Frederick Wiseman retrospective.