Whenever an older, revered icon of the film industry dies, there are plenty of testimonials and remembrances written about that person. But it’s sad that we only take the time to fully appreciate these people’s brilliance after their passing. Hence, The Greats, a biweekly column that celebrates cinema’s living legends.
What you see is what you get with the films of Frederick Wiseman—at least that’s the assumption. Working at a steady clip for more than 45 years, he has made documentaries that are deceptively straightforward and stripped-down. No narration, no talking heads, no music, the simplest of titles—Hospital, Zoo, Basic Training, Boxing Gym—Wiseman’s movies chronicle institutions by standing back and observing. But even he rejects the idea that what he’s doing is somehow more “pure” than other kinds of art that try to capture the essence of truth. “Documentaries, like theatre pieces, novels or poems are forms of fiction,” he has claimed , and that’s why his movies deserve to be looked at from a fresh perspective. What you see is what he wants you to see, which is often quite different than what other filmmakers (documentary or otherwise) are interested in showing you.
Born on New Year’s Day 1930, Wiseman grew up in Boston, graduating from Yale Law School in 1954. After a stint in the Army, he taught at Boston University, but his mind was also on filmmaking. At the beginning of the 1960s, he bought the rights to The Cool World, a novel by Warren Miller about young African Americans living in Harlem, with an eye toward producing a big-screen adaptation. Directed by Shirley Clarke, the 1964 film was a portrait of lower-class life notable for its semi-documentary approach. Soon after, Wiseman got the idea to direct his own film, the subject matter inspired by his college students.
“At the time, I was teaching classes in legal medicine and family law,” Wiseman once recalled . “And in order to make the things more interesting for both me and the students, I took them on field trips. I thought I would make the cases a bit more real by taking them to trials, parole-board hearings, probation hearings and mental hospitals. One of the places I took them to was Bridgewater, a prison for the criminally insane. … It seemed fresh material from a film point of view and visually very interesting.”
From that came Titicut Follies, his 1967 documentary about Bridgewater State Hospital. Writing a proposal for the film, Wiseman stated that he wanted to “give an audience factual material about a state prison but also give the film an imaginative and poetic quality that [would] set it apart from the cliché documentary about crime and mental illness.” He succeeded: Titicut Follies was a harrowing look at the treatment of the prisoners, including scenes of naked inmates being force-fed, although Bridgewater’s overseers initially didn’t have a problem with the depiction of their facility. That changed once Titicut Follies began being shown to reviewers, who mentioned the inmates’ harsh treatment. It was then that the governor of Massachusetts blocked the release of the film, citing invasion of privacy for the Bridgewater prisoners and violation of an oral contract that the state would have final approval over the film. (Wiseman, for his part, insisted no such agreement was ever in place.)
“Making the film was one thing, and the litigation was something else,” Wiseman told Filmmaker in 2012. “The litigation was basically a farce, because the effort to ban the film—even though they succeeded for quite a while—was just an example of political cowardice and stupidity. I always thought of it as political theatre.” After appealing to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, he was able to show the movie in certain places, but only under incredibly strict conditions. “They decided that the film had value but could only be seen by limited audiences: doctors, lawyers, judges, health-care professionals, social workers, and students in these and related fields, but not the ‘merely curious general public,’” Wiseman recalled to Vice. “And this was on condition that I give the attorney general’s office a week’s notice before any screening and that I file an affidavit after that everyone who attended was, of my personal knowledge, a member of the class of people allowed to see the film.”
The ban remained until the early ’90s, but Titicut Follies (and its surrounding controversy) helped make Wiseman’s name. (It was also a major influence on the filming of the Oscar-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.) Wiseman didn’t let the legal headaches slow him down: In quick succession, he made High School, Law and Order (about Kansas City cops) and Hospital. The unadorned titles might lead one to suspect that Wiseman considers his movies to be definitive portraits of these institutions but, in truth, the generic monikers are meant to suggest the unadorned ordinariness of the environments. In keeping with that philosophy, he avoids central characters in his documentaries, letting the institution itself serve as the protagonist. That doesn’t mean he lacks a personal perspective on what he captures, however. He has often claimed that when he films, he’s simply getting moments on camera, but that during the editing process a particular angle to the material will present itself. “I try to look at what is going on to discover what kind of power relationships exist and differences between ideology and the practice in terms of the way people are treated,” he has said. “The theme that unites the films is the relationship of people to authority.”
Documentaries have rarely been big box office, unless they’re about popular figures (Michael Jackson’s This Is It) or made by divisive filmmakers (Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11). But Wiseman has steadfastly stuck to his routine, staying out of the way and letting his movies develop gradually, filming for anywhere between one to three months. He’s also been fortunate, finding a lifelong benefactor in PBS, which has broadcast his movies since the late ’60s. “They’ve never asked for any changes or any cuts,” Wiseman told Filmmaker. “But I took a hard line about that at the beginning. It hasn’t been challenged. And they’ve been very generous. Near Death [about a Boston hospital’s ICU] is six hours, and they ran it all at once.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the unflashy Wiseman has said that he’s “not a fan” of Moore’s showier approach. “I think he’s an entertainer” is how he explained it to Reason. “I don’t think he’s interested in complexity. I’m not against the filmmaker appearing in a film. I think some of the greatest documentaries I’ve ever seen have been made by a filmmaker who’s present in the film. … In the case of Michael Moore, I don’t see any particular filmmaking skills, and I think his point of view is extremely simplistic and self-serving. One of my goals is always to deal with the ambiguity and complexity that I find in any subject. Even the simplest human act can be subject to multiple interpretations or have multiple causes.”
That’s in part why Wiseman’s films can be frustrating to viewers raised on the more emphatic, here’s-the-moral approach of modern-day documentarians. Where other filmmakers come in with an agenda and want to make sure it’s shoved down the audience’s throat, Wiseman’s fly-on-the-wall movies ask you to soak in the experience and learn the mores of the locale on your own. (Of feature filmmakers, Robert Altman was perhaps most similar to Wiseman’s style: Both men made movies that throw you into a foreign environment, trusting that you’re smart enough to figure out the signposts as life went on as usual.) “I do not like to explain my film,” he said to Filmmaker. “I don’t think that’s my job. My job is to make the film as best I can, and what I think about the subject matter is what you see in the final film.”
Wiseman’s recent films may be less outwardly critical of the dysfunction and bureaucracy that ensnares institutions—fellow documentarian Errol Morris once called him “the undisputed king of misanthropic cinema”—but they’re hardly soft. 2009’s La Danse, about the Paris Opera Ballet, is a celebration of the human body, but it’s also a worrying commentary about the struggle between art and commerce. The following year’s Boxing Gym, a different sort of celebration of the human body, is one of his shorter documentaries—only 91 minutes—but its depiction of an Austin boxing gym unexpectedly morphs into a touching examination of post-9/11 America. And he’s still working: His latest documentary, At Berkeley—about the University of California, Berkeley campus—will be premiering at the Venice Film Festival in the fall.
The great challenge for Wiseman neophytes is that his movies aren’t so easy to find. They’re sold exclusively through his production company’s website, , and they’re not available through places like Netflix. (“Netflix never answered our letters to them,” he told The New York Times in 2012. “We must have written seven or eight times, and they never responded.” There’s actually an online petition to get Netflix to start carrying Wiseman’s films.)
As a result, Wiseman may be the most important and influential filmmaker whose movies are barely known by the public. In some ways, that’s in keeping with a man who makes it his mission to stay out of the way of the subjects he’s documenting. A dancer included in Crazy Horse, his 2011 portrait of the Crazy Horse nightclub in Paris, explained his secret to The Times. “One of his great gifts is that he makes himself forgettable,” she said. His movies themselves are hardly forgettable—but they’re certainly in need of rediscovery.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.