Frederick Wiseman Richard Schickel - Essay

Richard Schickel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Primate] is perhaps Wiseman's most important work. It differs from its predecessors in that his camera discovers no saving human grace among the employees of the Yerkes Primate Research Center in Atlanta. What he gives us—unfairly, according to Yerkes people—is a dismaying study of what he obviously believes to be idiot savants. Wiseman sees men and women apparently devoting their lives to tormenting our closest neighbors on the evolutionary scale, apes and monkeys, for reasons he considers inadequate.

In the first, often hilarious section, they are cast as voyeurs, peering coolly into cages, stop watches and check lists at the ready, to study the sexual behavior of their victims. "Did you record that interaction?" one of them inquires in the ineffable jargon of his craft, as male gorilla approaches female. The analogy between ape and human behavior in this realm is dubious at best, the more so when the subjects are "interacting" not in their natural state but in prison. This portion of Primate makes the Yerkes crowd look like fugitives from a Woody Allen movie.

Thereafter, however, the film turns almost unbearably dark in tone….

Primate is a tough film, and like almost all of Wiseman's previous work, it is raising outraged howls from its subjects. As usual, these take the form of demands for a narration that would "explain" what they think they are doing. But Wiseman believes that showing unpremeditated behavior (plus the subjects' own dialogue) tells more about the human reality of an institution than after-the-fact rationalizations of that behavior. He does not pretend to be an objective reporter. Primate is obviously one man's honest, if controversial view of an institution. Nevertheless, this assault on scientism and social scientism, the unquestioning belief that "pure" research must—perhaps because people insist on calling it pure—be valuable for its own sake, raises an issue of extraordinary urgency. More than that, and more than any of the Yerkes experiments, it also raises questions about the nature of man and suggests disturbing answers.

Richard Schickel, "Viewpoints, Shooting the Institution: 'Primate'," in Time (copyright 1974 Time Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 104, No. 24, December 9, 1974, p. 95.