Frederick Wiseman Essay - Critical Essays

Wiseman, Frederick


Frederick Wiseman 1930–

American documentary filmmaker.

Wiseman is best known for his documentaries on institutions, such as prisons and hospitals, which expose, in his words, "the complex ambiguous feature of human helplessness." He intends to examine social and cultural values using an objective style which allows viewers to draw their own conclusions.

Wiseman is a follower of the cinéma vérité school. Cinéma vérité is a filming method employing hand-held cameras and live sound, but it also reflects a filmmaker's attitude toward the world he films. Wiseman's style follows in the tradition of the Drew Associates, the first contemporary American filmmakers to develop a style utilizing uncontrolled, spontaneous shooting while dealing aesthetically with their topic.

Wiseman had no film experience prior to making documentaries. He was an urban planner and a lawyer before producing The Cool World, directed by Shirley Clarke, in 1963. While a law professor at Boston College, Wiseman frequently took his students on field trips to Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where he filmed Titicut Follies. This experience helped develop Wiseman's interest in the documentary as a form of exposition. Titicut Follies is perhaps the most controversial film Wiseman has made. It provoked the ire of Massachusetts legislators, who banned it in the state. As in most of his films, Wiseman does not use voice-over narration to explain any situations to the audience, feeling that "it would provide a false security for the viewer." Later films examine the welfare system and the police (Law and Order) and high school life (High School). Hospital again explores social issues within an institution, while Essene examines a monastery in relation to the changing mores of the outside world.

Though critics generally admire Wiseman's work, the subjects themselves do not always agree with Wiseman's treatment of them, accusing him of creating misleading cinema. While Wiseman feels that his audience can be credited with the intelligence to make its own decisions, opponents attack him as unwilling to take a stand. Though viewed by some as a muckraker, Wiseman does not consider himself a crusader, stating that he is merely "trying to see if you can pick up reflections of the larger issues of society in the institutions."

Robert Hatch

As far as content is concerned, Mr. Wiseman is relentlessly explicit [in Titicut Follies]. His documentation amply confirms what one had suspected—that Bridgewater, and presumably dozens of institutions like it across the country, are Gothic anachronisms…. The resemblance [to an old-fashioned zoo] is heightened by the life of the place: the inmates spend a large part of their time naked in the airless warmth and the large, slow-moving guards treat them with the indulgent informality of keepers for their charges. However, I can't recall ever seeing a zoo custodian bait the animals, as some of the guards ride their prisoners….

The film makes clear—what we already know—that institutions like Bridgewater are ill-equipped and understaffed (except for the guards, who seem to congregate like elephants in the cramped alleys). Recreation is almost nonexistent (a bare exercise ground where monomaniacs harangue their fellows, a birthday party, a tense little woman trying to get men in their 50s and 60s to play a game suitable for 5 year olds). It is shameful, but that it is a snake pit, I'm not prepared to say. That is a matter of context, and Titicut Follies offers no more context than the typical TV network one-hour "controversy." I feel expected to express outrage, and am willing to do so—something is obviously very wrong. But before I begin yelling I need to know the quality of the iniquity and the identity of the villains.

Robert Hatch, "Films: 'Titicut Follies'," in The Nation (copyright 1967 The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 205, No. 14, October 30, 1967, p. 446.

Robert Coles

Ironically [Titicut Follies] is so effective because it is not another Snake Pit, another brutal and unrelenting exposé of life behind the closed doors of a mental hospital. Yes, there are some scandalous and disgusting moments, but by and large they are not those that offer us the standard "backward" scene, with its shrieks and groans and hilarious desolation or grim excitement. I have seen much worse in other state hospitals that Massachusetts maintains.

Something else is at work to give this film its power, and to unsettle its critics, many of whom are objecting to the nudity allowed or demanding to know why the faces of inmates are used, in clear violation of the right to privacy…. If Frederick Wiseman has offended the sensibilities of his fellow citizens he has done it I believe by making them nervous about far more than nudity (in this day of bikinis and miniskirts) or the individual's right to privacy (in this day of wire-tapping, of cleverly manipulative advertising, of espionage that has been into so many things that any number of people can reasonably doubt whose purposes they have served and with whose money).

After a showing of Titicut Follies the mind does not dwell on the hospital's ancient and even laughable physical plant, or its pitiable social atmosphere. What sticks, what really hurts is the sight of human life made cheap and betrayed…. But much more significantly, we see...

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Nancy Ellen Dowd

The editing patterns in Titicut Follies are the unheralded and monstrous discoveries in the small of the mind. Two men become one, and two unrelated incidents form one episode as the intricately structured and highly organized madness reveals itself to an initiate. Perceptions and time are constantly regrouping—yet not in order that they should become credible or recognizable or even be given a name—simply changing. The film seems to have been cut as the hospital was perceived and the editing is touching and personal….

[The] words in Titicut Follies almost never advance a story or even refer to some uncompleted action or to anything we ever expect to see again; when they do, (the TV screen and the suicide remark), they are underplayed, almost inaudible. The warden who jabbers on endlessly about Eddie Mitchell having been gassed is part of an open-ended scene which is never completed. We never see or hear anything about Eddie Mitchell again.

[There] is comparatively little dialogue in the film. Speech is most often in the form of a litany …, hypnotic, and like most speech not really saying anything. There are no hackneyed exposition techniques in Titicut Follies. (p. 30)

[Speech] is rarely directed at anyone. People are usually talking to themselves. There is still competition with background noise, and several people are often talking at once. There is also a lot of singing in the film—yet, unlike opera, unrelated to any action or plot. Performances abound. (pp. 30-1)

[Titicut Follies] has no conventional hierarchy of character importance necessitating that one of the principals be on screen at all times for a reason—a reason the audience can guess and incorporate into a theme; nor is there a self-conscious departure-from-conventions attitude.

Moreover, the film is not sensationalist …; nor does it try to make a succinct statement about mental hospitals. The film reveals. To its credit, Titicut Follies defies interpretation. (p. 31)

Nancy Ellen Dowd, "Popular Conventions," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1969 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. 22, No. 3, Spring, 1969, pp. 26-31.∗

Joseph Featherstone

Frederick Wiseman's remarkable documentary film, High School, is worth seeing. For it shows that our most serious educational problems aren't only in slum schools. What people think of as the good schools are failing their children, too….

[Wiseman] sets out to portray a reputable high school, not a blackboard jungle. High School suggests no remedies. In words alone, its message can be reduced to a string of cliches: the schools are authoritarian, repressive, and so on. On film—on this film, anyway—the cliches take on density and complexity, carrying us beyond slogans into artistic truth. Scene after scene builds to a powerful cumulative effect—not of anger, but of immense sadness and futility: this is how we live. High School is an essay on emptiness.

Though far from sympathetic, the camera eye is not cruel. The teachers seem decent and well-meaning. What they say doesn't matter much. What counts are the numbing lessons the whole institution is teaching its students about themselves and life. (p. 28)

All hopes and dreams are dented, those of parents as well as students. I felt tugged in different directions watching an interview between some parents and a counsellor. The regal father is ambitious for his daughter, perhaps too ambitious…. [Why], one wonders, is the message at Northeast [High School] so insistent, and why is there so much bitter joy in the work of denial?...

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Paul Bradlow

[Wiseman's] technique [in Titicut Follies] is that of the avantgarde direct cinema. Homo homini lupus—man is a wolf to man. The text could have many names, but for the moment let me choose the cleanest: "How Not to Run a Mental Hospital."…

From the very beginning, the camera is handled as a surgical instrument, a slāshing knife, to jolt us from our complacency and indifference to ourselves. The blade of morality, with its fine point of compassion and biting edge of righteous indignation, cuts deeply. One feels, amidst the crude hilarity of the patients' chorus that introduces the film, a haunting sense of inner turmoil….

The film's faults have perhaps been...

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Pauline Kael

High School is so familiar and so extraordinarily evocative that a feeling of empathy with the students floods over us. How did we live through it? How did we keep any spirit? When you see a kid trying to make a phone call and being interrupted with "Do you have a pass to use the phone?" it all floods back—the low ceilings and pale-green walls of the basement where the lockers were, the constant defensiveness, that sense of always being in danger of breaking some pointless, petty rule. When since that time has one ever needed a pass to make a phone call? This movie takes one back to where, one discovers, time has stood still. (p. 21)

High School seems an obvious kind of film to make,...

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Pauline Kael

[Hospital] was made at Metropolitan Hospital in New York, but although the hospital conditions are not pretty, it is not an exposé of man's inhumanity to man. The revelation of Hospital is the many surprising forms of man's humanity to man…. It is a melting-pot hospital, and the film demonstrates that the melting-pot dream has to some degree been fulfilled. There are so many human gestures within the misery, such as the solemn "Thank you"s of aged poor patients for whom speech is no longer easy. The general decency of the staff toward the patients may shake cynics…. Their occasional crudeness, even roughness, seems to be part of a recognition of the facts of life for the poor in a big city. Only...

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Richard Schickel

[The city] is full of poor people and old people, lunatics and junkies, and [a hospital] is one of the places where they make the transition—inevitable for those who exist on life's margin—from sociological statistics to medical ones. Some do so in agony, some in shame, many in bewilderment. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about them is how often they manage to clothe these conditions in dignity, in honorable resistance to fate….

That is the theme of the film [Hospital]. The people of Hospital can administer an emetic to a young art student poisoned by a bad mescaline pill…. But they cannot cure his sickness with life…. The people of Hospital are in no position to...

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Stephen Mamber

High School, in addition to its other considerable merits, should lay to rest once and for all [the] mystique of "interesting personalities" in direct-cinema films….

Frederick Wiseman's films are about indispensable institutions in conflict with the people they are supposed to be serving…. Each of his films has an episodic structure, a lack of emphasis on individual personalities, and a general diffidence about verbal information. What matters in a Wiseman film is not necessarily what people say to each other, but the tone in which they are speaking and the degree of emotion behind their words. Attitudes rather than factual information are the substantive content of his films. (p. 49)...

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[To say] that a Wiseman film is about the institution or is primarily about the institution is to be superficial and ignore the complexity of his films. There are many levels at which his work can be examined. This arises in good part out of the non-narrative structure of his films, which makes his films both more complex and open to many interpretations. Repeated viewing of his films underlines the importance of structure. To take Law and Order as a case in point, one is aware that time is passing, but it is not chronological. The film does not seem to have any beginning and development to a climax. Yet the film has unity. Throughout the film, there are recurrences of voices on police radios and discussions...

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E. Michael Desilets

Titicut Follies is a very important film because its impact touches areas of law regarding private rights and public rights, and the final legal fate of the film will be of extreme importance, as a step forward or backward, to the future of documentary film-making. (p. 30)

The film is not as exciting or lurid as I had been led to believe, nor is it especially dramatic. Its main force must lie in the viewer's awareness that he is watching real people in an institution that exists as fact. This is not Marat/Sade. This is the reality of the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Bridgewater—at least as much of that reality as Wiseman chooses to let us see…. Wiseman is not guilty of...

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Edgar Z. Friedenberg

The delayed development of hostile reactions by the subjects of Wiseman's films is one of the more revealing social responses his work evokes. Titicut Follies is, indeed, a disturbing document, but not for quite the reasons I, or presumably Bridgewater's directors, had expected….

Having gone to see Titicut Follies expecting to be shocked by the exotic horrors of the snake pit, I emerged with a much sadder sense that what I had seen differed only in degree from everyday life. These patients were afflicted, certainly, but the nature of their disorder was clear enough, very common in America, and serious indeed. They suffered from disastrously low status compounded by poverty, which had...

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Patrick Sullivan

[Essene] pays its attention to an Anglican religious community which on the surface has little or no connection to the urgent social and economic problems of [Wiseman's] previous films. A monastery in a rural setting—what could constitute a more radical departure from the concerns of those earlier visions of institutional inhumanity? In Essene we watch instead the rituals, routines, exchanges among a group of men committed to a life which secludes them from the deterioration of cities, the profanities of schooling, the anxieties and paralysis of so many institutional roles….

With Essene Wiseman focuses our attention on the quite specific collisions between a quite limited...

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Stephen Mamber

While [Basic Training] is open to individual analysis apart from the director's other work, a more sophisticated argument can be developed in terms of Wiseman's selection of material with clear affinities to concerns in his other films. The most certain connections in this case are between Basic Training and High School, although I think a more complex web of connections between all the films could be explored (dealing with, for instance, such things as the function of the church services in both Basic Training and Hospital). Wiseman is not only sensitive to the similarities between institutions, but also to the neat matrix of inverse influences—the ways institutions take on the...

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Jane Larkin Crain

[The] first thing to be remarked of [Wiseman's] movies is that they possess, for the most part, a style and verve that put Dragnet and Emergency! to shame. Where they do not, where the air of pointlessness and tedium we normally associate with institutional life takes over, it is in the case of institutions whose very reason to exist is saturated with ambiguity.

The most extreme instance of this sort of tedium arises in Essene, Wiseman's study of monastic life, in which a great deal of the monks' time seems given over to trying to figure out just what the meaning and justification of monastic life are in the first place. The insecurity and confusion of the monks in Essene...

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Margaret Tarratt

For Juvenile Court [Wiseman] spent over a month in the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County, Tenn and shot 62 hours of film, four per cent of which is used here. There is no narrative overtly manipulating the audience's responses and despite the choice involved in the shooting and editing of the material, a film of this length which does not incorporate an analytical structure may well serve to reinforce the prejudices and attitudes which the audience already brings to it. It is not possible to assess the extent of the effect on those filmed…. No-one ever speaks directly to the camera and the film functions as an outsider's exploration of an institution. (p. 43)

The film opens and...

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Chuck Kraemer

The style [of "Primate"] is typical of a Wiseman film: leisurely, flat, unnarrated, often repetitive, utterly free of polemic. But the subject matter is intensely emotional. Not only is it grisly, with enough vivesection, exotic behavior modification, implantations, vomiting and probing to turn the strongest stomach, but also profound in the questions it raises about science, compassion and the eternal tension between the rational and spiritual sides of man's nature.

Wiseman raises these questions simply by observing scientists as closely as scientists observe primates. In the process, he exposes their callousness, their obsessiveness, the little games they play with one another and with their...

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Richard Schickel

[Primate] is perhaps Wiseman's most important work. It differs from its predecessors in that his camera discovers no saving human grace among the employees of the Yerkes Primate Research Center in Atlanta. What he gives us—unfairly, according to Yerkes people—is a dismaying study of what he obviously believes to be idiot savants. Wiseman sees men and women apparently devoting their lives to tormenting our closest neighbors on the evolutionary scale, apes and monkeys, for reasons he considers inadequate.

In the first, often hilarious section, they are cast as voyeurs, peering coolly into cages, stop watches and check lists at the ready, to study the sexual behavior of their victims. "Did...

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Karl E. Meyer

At its best, [Welfare] is very good indeed, if one can use the word good about a film whose subject is appalling and depressing. Shot in black and white at a New York welfare center, the documentary confronts us with the quotidian miseries of the poor as they are shuffled through the corridors of the welfare bureaucracy. We are in effect at the elbow of the bureaucrat as we hear tales from purgatory told by the often subliterate applicants for welfare money. We are in the world of the misfit and the mendacious, of the addict and the whore, of the crippled and the partly insane, and of the normally invisible poor.

It is strong stuff, unflinchingly presented. Without a word of narration,...

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James Wolcott

To reverse the Faulknerian rhetoric, the people in ["Welfare"] (as in "High School," "Juvenile Court," and "Titicut Follies") don't prevail but endure—barely. Anger hangs in the air and not all of the anger belongs to the welfare petitioners…. It is Wiseman's most tendentious film, hard-bearing and bitter-edged, and those who expect comprehensiveness or balanced-scale fairness are going to be infuriated.

And they'll have a good case, for Wiseman makes no attempt to show the Other Side (e.g., welfare chiselers, or people who escape from poverty because of welfare assistance); he's interested only in the victims … that Wiseman is unfair to the welfare system is like complaining that Charles...

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Stephen Mamber

Frederick Wiseman's extraordinary new film Meat is and is not about slaughterhouses. From the first shots of cows on an open range there is no doubt blood will flow, yet by the time the actual slaughtering arrives, it has already taken its place within a more involved process…. This isn't just meat, it's the meat industry—mechanized, scientific, diversified.

The connection between the packing house workers and the animals they're doing in is not pressed too hard, but the similarities of their plight is interesting. (p. 21)

A nightmare vision, Meat is one of Wiseman's studies (like High School and Basic Training) of things going far too well. Scant...

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Shepherd Bliss

[Watching Canal Zone] must be disturbing for people who know little of the Zone. I can testify that it is also an intense experience for an old-line Zonian…. Much of Wiseman's film confirms and illuminates my memories….

I recall the Panama of my childhood as a spontaneous outburst of lush vegetation, sleek black panthers, huge boa constrictors, Latin hospitality, panoramas charged with such vivid hues that surely any filmmaker would want to capture them in gorgeous tropical color. Not Wiseman. He photographed the Zone, more appropriately, in black and white. (p. 286)

As an exposé of the US imperial presence in Panama, Canal Zone is effective. As a prescription for...

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Louise Sweet

[Canal Zone is] a deliberate summation of Wiseman's previous work…. Its slow pace encourages the audience to consider Wiseman's long-standing preoccupation with the way institutions preserve order by demanding individual obedience. (p. 59)

Respectful of ambiguities, Wiseman brings a compassionate as well as a critical eye to the Canal Zone. Drawn to society's victims, he focuses on a wide range of flotsam and jetsam…. (pp. 59-60)

Wiseman ably demonstrates the complex system of values and symbols which wed self to community. The unexamined but much felt ideology is emphasised [in the portrayal of speakers] at public functions…. To dismiss or ridicule the rhetoric of...

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Mary Frazer

[All Frederick Wiseman's films] have had as their subject a particular aspect of American society: an organization, a profession or an occupation. Model observes the world of fashion in all aspects—agencies, photographers, commercials, techniques. Here as elsewhere Wiseman aims not to present a point of view but to show his subject as it is (or as it appears to be)….

This absence of a point of view makes the film more, not less, interesting: we have all the fascination of looking into another world and none of the annoyance of being told what to think about it. Nevertheless an attitude emerges; one in which, somewhat surprisingly, everybody involved comes out quite well. The models and...

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