Frederick Wiseman DONALD E. McWILLIAMS - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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 between two policemen in parked patrol cars. The structure of the film becomes circular, a series of overlapping circles. One is drawn into the circles of experience and there seems to be no escape from the problems that occur within these circles. Nor, because of the juxtaposition of incidents and behavior that Wiseman places within those circles, is it easy to arrive at any black-and-white conclusions about the police or even the lawbreakers. One becomes aware that only a superficial level is the film about the institution. There is violence throughout Law and Order, but it is not large-scale. Two policemen discuss a riot, but we see no riot. Wiseman ignores the sensational and concentrates on the everyday—husband-wife quarrels, lost juveniles, car-stealing, prostitution, drunkenness. Whilst there is physical violence in the film, it is between individuals. In fact, for me, the most lasting impression is the verbal violence, both deliberate and thoughtless. Whilst some film-makers film riots, Wiseman concentrates on person-to-person relationships; for the riot is a symptom of the malaise. It is only by zeroing in on the individual that there is any hope of understanding the causes. Law and Order at the deepest level is not about police at all, but about individuals, what they do and say to each other and the ambiguity of behavior…. (p. 23)

Donald E. McWilliams, "Frederick Wiseman," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1970 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XXIV, No. 1, Fall, 1970, pp. 17-26.