Frederick Wiseman Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."