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The Boston Phoenix Extra Ordinary

For Cambridge filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, daily life is the stuff of high drama

By Chris Wright

JANUARY 31, 2000:  Frederick Wiseman is laughing. Not a muted titter or a cordial chuckle, but a noisy, head-thrown-back, straight-from-the-diaphragm hoot -- a-hoo-ha-ha! The source of Wiseman's merriment is the question he's just been asked: "Do you consider yourself a dramatist, or a historian?"

He finally stops laughing, looks his red-faced interviewer square in the eye, and adopts an air of somber civility. "I'm very bad at generalizations," he says. "I resist them. It simplifies things too much, a question like that."

Whether dramatist or historian -- and he is, in some measure, both of these things -- Fred Wiseman is widely acknowledged to be one of America's finest documentary filmmakers. But, though he may not suffer fools gladly, he hasn't picked up the habit of thinking of himself in grandiose terms. Even his appearance suggests a no-frills disposition: a V-neck sweater revealing a rumpled undershirt; hair that is frazzled and flyaway, looking as though it's trying to escape.

Wiseman's subjects clearly feel at ease with him, and it's not hard to see why. In his Cambridge office -- a miniature Manhattan of stacked film cases, empty cartons, and crinkled papers -- he'll offer you a cup of tea, plunk his feet unceremoniously on his ancient Steenbeck film-editing machine, and invite you to fire away with your questions.

But at the center of this benign lack of order there lies a crisp, slightly daunting intellect. As the doyenne of American film criticism, Pauline Kael, wrote in the New Yorker: "Frederick Wiseman is probably the most sophisticated intelligence to enter the documentary field." He has a wide, watchful gaze that could bore holes in a brick wall, a wit that could strip paint. When Fred Wiseman laughs at you, you know you've been laughed at.

Next week, Wiseman's latest film -- Belfast, Maine -- will air on public TV. It is his 31st film in 33 years, and very much in his characteristic style. The movies, like the man, are doggedly down to earth. They shun abstractions and generalizations, building drama and insight with the accretion of unadorned detail. The most common phrase bandied about in relation to Wiseman's films is "reality fiction," but his sardonic disdain for such pretentious terms is apparent. "I made that up as a joke," he says, "and somebody picked up on it."

However you describe them, Wiseman's films are remarkable for the way they get to the heart of big-picture issues -- emotional, spiritual, political, social -- without ever resorting to high concepts or snazzy production. They are much less slick than the films of other well-known documentarians: they have none of Errol Morris's goofy ironic flourishes, or Ken Burns's sepia-toned sentimentality.

Wiseman's films have no voice-overs and no background music. No one speaks directly to the camera. They are, in a sense, pure voyeurism: Wiseman helped pioneer the fly-on-the-wall style, in which you simply enter another person's life and watch it unfold. His stark, unwavering shots capture a level of intimacy and immediacy that no amount of commentary or interpretation could create. As Wiseman puts it, his films -- and his subjects -- speak for themselves.

His first film, Titicut Follies (1967), was set in the State Prison for the Criminally Insane at Bridgewater, Massachusetts. The movie -- which was banned in Massachusetts until 1991 -- depicts harrowing scenes of abuse and degradation, and it seemed to position Wiseman as the film world's crusading reformer. His subsequent films, however, resisted this narrow definition. In his wide-ranging career, Wiseman has found himself everywhere from a modeling agency in New York City to a public-housing development in Chicago, from the Belmont Race Track on Long Island to the Neiman Marcus headquarters in Dallas. What ties his eclectic body of work together is its single and central preoccupation: American institutions. Specifically, how institutional authority shapes the most basic human relations -- how it can serve both to stifle and to sustain the human spirit.

"I've always been interested in how people organize themselves into communities," Wiseman says. "I grew up before and during the Second World War, and so the issue of how people are organized to live together in some reasonable way was the issue of my childhood on a vast and catastrophic scale. I remember hearing Hitler's speeches on the radio when I was six or seven years old, and my parents' reaction to those speeches."

Wiseman was raised in a middle-class Jewish household -- his father a lawyer, his mother a hospital administrator -- in Brighton, Massachusetts. When he enrolled at Yale law school, it looked as though he would follow in his father's footsteps -- but for one small problem. "I couldn't stand what I had to read," he says. "I wasn't interested in the issues."

Accordingly, like many aspiring filmmakers, Wiseman skipped class and went to the movies. In the late '50s, he spent a couple of years in Paris, where he discovered the joys of 8mm moviemaking. "This was at the time when the technology was developed that allowed you to shoot these documentaries," he says. "I had the thought that since you could make movies about anything, why not try making them about ordinary experience, which is where you can get at the things that are very funny and very sad."

In the four decades since he first had that thought, accolades have poured in from heavy hitters such as Janet Maslin ("unforgettably real"), Gene Siskel ("a super super filmmaker"), James Wolcott ("visually lacerating"), and David Denby ("an intensity usually found only in fiction").

And yet Wiseman has not been without his detractors. One complaint arises from the similarity of the issues raised in his films. As one critic put it, "Fred is actually making the same film over and over." Wiseman, of course, begs to differ. "It's not unusual that one person would be thinking about the same kinds of issues," he says. "My movies are concerned with issues of control and issues of authority. Questions of the relationships of people to authority crop up in all my movies. But if there's not an infinite number of variations that are expressed in the movies, there are certainly a wide number. The abstract themes are similar, but the specifics are always different." Rather than making the same movie over and over, Wiseman says, "I am making one long movie, which is now 70 or 80 hours long."

There are those who would insist that Wiseman has made considerably more than one long movie. Belfast, Maine, for instance, has a running time of a little more than four hours; another, Near Death, clocks in at a whopping 358 minutes. An additional criticism aimed at many of his films is that they are not only long but, to put it bluntly, long-winded. Wiseman is unapologetic. "I think I have a responsibility to the people of Belfast," he says. "Even at four hours and eight minutes, you only begin to suggest the complexity of a place like that."

Belfast is a scenic if slightly shabby town tucked away by Maine's Penobscot Bay. As in many small towns, its quaint façade masks a beehive of social problems. The movie, like Wiseman's other work, unearths these problems by exploring the institutions that bind the town's disparate cast of characters together. Over the course of the film, the camera records a group of good ol' boys yammering away in a local convenience store, a health-care worker tending to the aging and destitute members of the community, a high-school teacher lecturing on the class implications of Melville's Moby Dick.

These scenes suggest a spirit of community and commonality among the people who live in Belfast, despite the hardships many of them face. The care with which one social worker rubs the feet of a withered old man provides one of the film's wonderfully touching moments. It's a fine example of how Wiseman intermingles dignity and humiliation, hope and despair.

As always, Wiseman also explores the alienating effects of institutions. A large number of Belfast's jobs, for instance, are in food manufacturing, and Wiseman's film addresses factory life wordlessly, by tracing the production-line journeys of sliced smoked salmon and stuffed potato skins. In one memorable scene, we follow a batch of sardines from the delivery truck to the tin. The sequence -- which lasts for nearly 10 minutes -- is at once depressing and hilarious, poignant and repulsive. Above all, these factory scenes hammer home the tedium and degradation suffered by the workers who spend their days performing the same grindingly repetitive tasks.

Wiseman would recoil at the perception of a Marxist critique behind his depictions of factory work. "What I'm interested in is reflecting the complexity of experience," he says, "not simplifying it in the service of some ideological purpose." Indeed, Wiseman mitigates the gloom by juxtaposing these scenes with less dehumanizing pursuits. He dwells on the nipped and bloodied fingers of those who snip the tails and heads off sardines, for instance, in much the same way he dwells on a man lovingly painting a landscape. In some strange way, the care with which Wiseman observes these two pursuits affords each an equal measure of dignity.

Wiseman's films invariably crackle with the interplay between hope and hopelessness. Whether plucking cheer from the horrors of a mental institution in Titicut Follies or despair from the glossy good-time world of the fashion industry in Model, Wiseman seems to thrive on creating a unity of opposites. "That's what I find," he says a little grumpily. "I think I would be doing a disservice if I picked one of those and excluded the other -- that would be phony, it would be false, it would be a simplification."

Yet this assertion is something of a simplification in itself. Wiseman the historian says his technique is to just show up and start shooting, but what he "finds" accounts for only a tiny part of his filmmaking. "The story is wherever he allows his camera to fall," writes one critic. But it's far more complex than that. Belfast started with 110 hours of footage before being whittled down to four. This is where Wiseman the dramatist comes in.

"I'm interested in a kind of narrative -- I guess that's too trendy a word -- in the kind of story you can tell with this kind of material, how to give it what I think of as a dramatic structure," Wiseman says. "I work very hard on the structural aspect of a movie."

The bulk of Wiseman's work takes place in the editing room. Belfast, for instance, took only eight weeks to shoot, but 14 months to edit. The sardine sequence alone took about five weeks to edit. "By the time I'm finished with a movie," Wiseman says, "I've been sitting at this machine" -- he taps his Steenbeck for emphasis -- "seven days a week, 14 hours a day, for months. It's a very difficult time. It's like a fighter after a championship fight -- it's like you're shadowboxing. I can't stop working."

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Wiseman's craft, though, is the way he is able to insinuate himself into the lives of his subjects. The editing of the scenes, the arrangement and timing may be wonderful, but what you can't help being amazed by is what he captures on camera. People chat unselfconsciously. They play, they argue, they confide. One previous subject of Wiseman's attributes this to the filmmaker's ability to make himself "invisible." But it's not as easy as all that, Wiseman insists.

"You can't stay too much in the background, because the camera is never more than seven or eight feet away," he says. Trying to hide the fact that you're shooting would be "as if you have a coffin with roller skates on it, and you're pushing the coffin around in the hopes that no one is going to see it." Then again, he says, you can't be too blatant. "The worst thing you can do is say, 'Don't pay any attention, don't look in the camera,' because then they'll look in the camera."

Whatever it is that Wiseman does, it works. In Belfast -- which is currently being screened at Belfast's Colonial Theatre -- there is a scene where a young woman discusses the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father. It seems almost unthinkable that she would assent to having these painfully intimate details broadcast before the entire country, let alone her community. In another scene, a woman sits patiently, an infant on her knee, while a health worker picks through her hair for lice. Why on earth do people do this?

"The answer to your question," says Wiseman, "is that I don't know. Naturally, I've thought about it. There are varying elements involved, in varying degrees for different people. One aspect is that people are pleased that someone's paying attention to them. Another is narcissism. Another is indifference. Another is media saturation. Another is that most of us aren't good enough actors to change the way we are simply because our picture's being taken. We all have ways of behaving. If we don't want our picture taken, we say no. But once people agree, they act in the ways they would ordinarily act. Also, most of us think that what we do is right and appropriate. Why would we ever do anything that wasn't right and appropriate? I think this helps the documentary filmmaker."

So would Fred Wiseman consent to having his life captured by a documentary filmmaker? This question he doesn't have to think about at all.

"No," he says, "probably not."

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