Frederick Wiseman Karl E. Meyer - Essay

Karl E. Meyer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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, it makes dismayingly clear how our present welfare system degrades both the supplicant and the donor….

Wiseman's cinéma verité technique is here wholly suited to his subject, the hidden cameras cunningly eavesdropping on people who only occasionally—with a flicker of the eye—show any awareness of the intruding lens….

The film's pace has the deliberation of a danse macabre….

It is overwhelmingly clear, from the film, that the welfare system brings out the worst in all who are implicated in it…. A monotonous refrain in the documentary is the bureaucratic jargon of buck-passing, the clients being described as "conversion cases" or "referrals." By indirection, and without a word of commentary, Wiseman has made his case. With more weight than a bale of editorials and articles, Welfare argues powerfully for a fresh approach to the problem of poverty—and for a new look at the idea of a guaranteed annual income.

If Welfare has a blemish, it is that the case is overargued. By training, Wiseman is a lawyer, the calling most given to repetition. As in his other films, such as Hospital (1970) and High School (1968), Wiseman tends to amass rather than distill his material, a bit like an attorney reluctant to let a single witness escape from the stand. It can be argued that Welfare would have twice the impact if it were half as long. Yet the offense is excusable.

Karl E. Meyer, "Report from Purgatory," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 2, No. 26, September 20, 1975, p. 52.