Director Frederick Wiseman, still working at 83, was talking about his documentaries at LACMA's Film Independent program this past Friday night after a screening of his 2011 film "Boxing Gym." He sat with Elvis Mitchell who announced at the program's start that after the film, Wiseman would appear and answer questions--from Mitchell. (Note to Mitchell: Next time, it would be nice for the LACMA audience, many of whom are knowledgeable about film and fans as well, to have an opportunity to ask questions too.)
"Each movie is like a chapter in a book about contemporary human life." Wiseman said. "The work will never be finished, but it will provide a trace of life over the last 40 or 50 years." If any movies can accurately and consistently claim to reveal the human condition, it must be Wiseman's. Starting as he did with "Titicut Follies" in 1967, shot at Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane, the film's release was fought by the state of Massachusetts, and its release was delayed and restricted for many years. The name comes from a talent show put on by the hospital's inmates and the film shows unflinchingly what life is like inside the walls of the hospital. Its release was fought by the state of Massachusetts and was delayed and restricted from wide release until years later when it was released to the general public.
In all of Wiseman's films there is no exposition, no narration and no external storyline, other than what is unfolding in front of the camera. What some might call "cinema verite" is a term Wiseman has dismissed in interviews as a pompous French term that has absolutely no meaning. The power of his films comes from what is revealed through deft editing and the unrelenting eye of the director. He is the ultimate fly on the wall. A partial list of his film titles gives a vivid idea of what Wiseman has attempted to do in documenting institutions over the course of his career: "High School," "Law and Order," "Hospital," "Basic Training," "Juvenile Court," "Welfare," "Model," "Racetrack," "Deaf," "Multi-handicapped," "Near Death," "Public Housing." "There is a tension between the internal and external," he said Friday. "Between the world inside the institution and the world outside, the micro and the macro. All societies have need for these institutions. They exist everywhere."
Wiseman acknowledged that liberals and activists are sometimes upset with his films because he feels they have a "naïve view of the simplicity of social change." In fact, he says, "social change is not simple. It is complicated, and my films reflect that complexity. They show that it is tougher to change than you think it is." To illustrate that point, he talked about his film "Near Death," which was filmed with patients and doctors at the Intensive Care Unit of Boston's Beth Israel Hospital as doctors and families dealt with life and death issues and the ethics and expediency of administering care. "The doctors really cared about the patients," he said. "It was a very democratic process and everyone participated in the decisions about how to treat the patients."
In making his films, he will shoot about 100 hours of footage over 3 or 4 weeks. In the editing room he is constantly making choices and honing down his material. He makes no apologies for the process by which he decides what stays and what goes. Documentary notwithstanding, he is telling a story and edits and compresses material for dramatic effect but nothing is staged.
Wiseman began his filmmaking career at 37 after working as a lawyer and teacher. His films, he said, are influenced by his favorite writers and poets--Ionesco, Cummings, Eliot, and Frost, and each one "starts in mid-sentence." He is currently editing footage shot at UC Berkeley for his next movie.
Photos by Iris Schneider