Frederick Wiseman Margaret Tarratt - Essay

Margaret Tarratt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 closes with an exterior shot of the Court House. Otherwise the camera never moves from the confines of the building. In terms of the predicaments of the offenders or victims, the court, as observed by Wiseman, exists in a vacuum, clinical, bureaucratic, and ultimately irrelevant to those forces and conditions which have brought such institutions into existence. The tongue-tied child swathed in a fantastic turban of white bandages unable to relate the story of how his uncle poured hot grease on him, the hysterical seventeen-year-old who cannot believe that a casual escapade has become classified as armed robbery, the groups of expressionless boys being drilled in the cathartic rituals of PT all crystallise this problem in dramatic terms. (p. 44)

Margaret Tarratt, "Juvenile Court" (© copyright Margaret Tarratt 1974; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 20, No. 11, August, 1974, pp. 43-4.