Frederick Wiseman Richard Schickel - Essay

Richard Schickel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The city] is full of poor people and old people, lunatics and junkies, and [a hospital] is one of the places where they make the transition—inevitable for those who exist on life's margin—from sociological statistics to medical ones. Some do so in agony, some in shame, many in bewilderment. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about them is how often they manage to clothe these conditions in dignity, in honorable resistance to fate….

That is the theme of the film [Hospital]. The people of Hospital can administer an emetic to a young art student poisoned by a bad mescaline pill…. But they cannot cure his sickness with life…. The people of Hospital are in no position to practice preventive medicine on an entire society.

The chief characteristic of all of Wiseman's films—and the source of their tremendous emotional impact—is his instinctive sympathy for people who must confront the specific, human effects of vast, impersonal social forces. Armed only with professional skills, some common sense and some common decency, they become, as we see them through his eyes, impressive human beings….

Wiseman's camera seems to miss nothing, but his tact is unique among the cinéma vérité people. One never feels the voyeur, no matter how intimate or revealing the scene he asks us to observe. Nor does one feel he is trying to impose upon his material some facile reforming zeal. He sees his difficult task in deliberately simple terms. He wants merely to show us the day-to-day quality of our society's institutions, thereby letting us render our own judgments of their quality.

It is tempting to come to a cheerful conclusion about Hospital ("As long as these good people are willing to undertake this good work, we have nothing to worry about"), but that is too easy. Wiseman is a gentle humanist, but he employs his humanism ironically to illuminate the gap between intentions and the job at hand. Inspiring as the staff of Hospital is, it is clearly overmatched. The whole force of the film derives from this terrible, beautifully understated fact.

Richard Schickel, "Where Misery Must Be Confronted," in Life (courtesy of Life Magazine; © 1970 Time Inc.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 68, No. 4, February 6, 1970, p. 9.