Frederick Wiseman Louise Sweet - Essay

Louise Sweet

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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 these speakers is to miss the wider context of which Wiseman is acutely aware…. Wiseman's gift is to reveal the connection between general language and specific sympathetic responses—the process of 'socialisation' which explains how people can be united by an abstract idea, a sense of community which helps sustain them in times of personal crisis and here during the larger trauma of a transfer of power.

Wiseman is particularly adept at showing how language can reveal what it is intended to conceal…. [In] a memorable scene, a ham operator makes contact with a stranger 3,000 miles away…. Wiseman shows him sitting alone with his equipment, talking in a matter-of-fact way about loneliness. His position becomes indicative of a kind of abandonment which faces everyone at moments when decisions are out of their hands, and Wiseman clearly intends that this sequence should be integrated with more fundamental questions of decision-making.

By revealing how individuals are not entirely contained by the rules and laws of institutions, Wiseman repeatedly returns the audience to the gap between individual and institutional requirements, the point where socialisation remains incomplete. The audience is invited to reinterpret events in terms of its own experience. Canal Zone generates questions and leaves the attentive, uncynical viewer, like the participants, profoundly disquieted. (p. 60)

Louise Sweet, "'Canal Zone'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1978 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 47, No. 1, Winter, 1977–78, pp. 59-60.