Bright Lights Film Journal

On the Level: The Films of Frederick Wiseman

“The wonderful paradox of the Wiseman films is that what allows the layered complexities to unfold is the leveling of everything we are shown.”

We hovered over the teacher’s shoulder as she read verse after verse of “Casey at the Bat” to her students. When the camera is in front of her, the blackboard in her classroom and the blackboard in my classroom are both in my students’ fields of vision. From the seventh-floor windows, if the shades hadn’t been drawn, we could have seen down onto the massive Seventh Regiment Armory which takes up the entire block between Lexington and Park Avenues and 66th and 67th Streets, and, fifteen blocks south and west, to the six-story red letters saying ESSEX HOUSE on top of the forty-four-story Essex House, just below Central Park.

My undergraduate class at Hunter College was watching Frederick Wiseman’s 1968 documentary High School, set in what the filmmaker’s website does not name but calls “a large urban high school in Philadelphia.” Another English teacher, not much older than my students, wants her class to hear Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Dangling Conversation.” She shows them the album cover and emphasizes that Simon is the poet. She apologizes for the quality of the sound, which she has recorded from vinyl onto tape, and which was then, presumably, re-recorded with the Philadelphia classroom acoustics by Wiseman’s sound man. We hear the song through the speaker on the TV set as we watch the school library’s VHS copy of the black-and-white film. “It’s a still-life watercolor / of a now-late afternoon / as the sun shines through the curtain lace / and shadows wash the room.”

The lyrics and the equipment seem about equally dated; the film is a time capsule. “Yes we speak of things that matter / with words that must be said. / Can analysis be worthwhile? / Is the theatre really dead?” The classroom TV is mounted near the ceiling, in the corner between the end of the blackboard and the wall of windows. Its screen is filled with a long close-up of the reel-to-reel tape recorder in motion. The layering in Wiseman’s films emerges out of the straightforwardness with which the filmmaker presents complexity.

Artists tend to reveal the concerns of their own work when they comment on the work of others, and Wiseman has written several short essays about photographs for the Berkeley-based Threepenny Review. In that magazine’s symposium on Walker Evans’s Cuba photographs (Winter 2002), Wiseman writes, “I don’t trust my reaction to the content” of the photographs. “I know nothing about Cuban life,” he explains. “The implications of dress, architecture, movies, food, cooking, the lottery, the relationships between men and women, class, newspapers, religion, laundry, poverty, crime, homelessness, art, politics, transportation, police, soldiers, the family, electricity, and agriculture are unknown to me.” The pleasure for the Wiseman fan in this list is that it’s practically Wiseman’s own (American) filmography. He told the Boston Phoenix, “My goal is to make as many films as possible about different aspects of American life.”

Everywhere in Wiseman’s work, there are earnest performances: funny, touching, disturbing, riveting, boring, in various combinations. In High School, the football players do a drag show. In Belfast, Maine, an adult acting class does Death of a Salesman. In Canal Zone, a high-school valedictorian reads the Gettysburg Address. In Titicut Follies, of course, the inmates at the State Prison for the Criminally Insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, put on the show that gives the film its title. The “actors” become even more themselves in these scenes, like children playing. This is possible because Wiseman doesn’t shoot these scenes in a way that sets them apart from those in which the same people are just “being themselves.” In his most recent, the 2010 Boxing Gym, a Mexican man explains the difference between salsa and merengue to a white man by tapping out the rhythms with his hands and feet. Both men are sitting. When the white man can’t get a handle on merengue, the Mexican stands up to demonstrate the Dominican dance. The sounds of slapping and shuffling that fill the gym are a perfectly natural accompaniment to his easy movements. His buddy calls out, “All right!” The scene, like most good Wiseman scenes, ends abruptly, not because what’s happening is finished but because it’s cut.

A Wiseman film is decentralized: there is no buildup to a fight in Boxing Gym, for example. That would miss the point, or rather, impose a point where there is none. Late in the film, a sparring match is shown, but it’s more of a denouement. The highlight for me is a long scene consisting mostly of the New-Balance-sneaker-clad feet of a man working out, and the purple sweat pants on the legs of a woman in the ring with him but working out separately. There’s a lot of audible breathing. Boxing Gym is “also a dance film,” Wiseman told The Guardian‘s Jason Solomons. The friend I was with at the Museum of Modern Art’s October screening liked the scene less than I did because he found the two people on camera to be too conscious of the camera. But how would one sense that?

In 2009, reviewers raved about La Danse, Wiseman’s film about the Paris Opera Ballet. It was more interesting than 99 percent of the documentaries I’ve seen and the least interesting of the two dozen or so Wiseman films I’ve seen, which is why it sheds some light on what this great American filmmaker is doing. The main flaw in La Danse is that its subjects, who are almost all performers or ex-performers, often seem to be performing. Even at their most candid, in conversation or rehearsal, they seem somehow aware of the camera. At least two other audience members at the Film Forum screening in New York got the same feeling, and one of them shared his impression with Wiseman, who was there for a Q&A. Wiseman seemed, I thought, slightly defensive, or at least annoyed, or maybe just brusque. He asked the questioner what “evidence” he had. (Wiseman graduated from Yale Law School in 1954.) As I recall, the exchange quickly fizzled.

The second reason for the comparative weakness of La Danse is that it consists of rehearsals and actual “performances,” lending a kind of predictable build-up to and heightening of the staged productions. The wonderful paradox of the Wiseman film is that what allows the layered complexities to unfold is the leveling of everything we are shown. It is because everything is “on the level” that there has to be abruptness in the cuts. Each scene and subject seems treated with an equality of attention. (Well, not all: I have been puzzled by some of the extremely brief shots, such as a “still life” of equipment in Boxing Gym that doesn’t give us time to look.) On-the-level means, as Wiseman’s audience knows, that there are no narrators, no voice-overs, no explanatory titles, no soundtracks but ambient music. High School shows a high school. Boxing Gym shows a boxing gym. The Store shows a department store. Aspen, Central Park, Domestic Violence, Hospital, Juvenile Court, Public Housing, Racetrack, Zoo: everything matters, but everything is what it is without label or annotation.

When my mother was growing up in Laredo, Texas, there were no fixed movie showtimes. You went to the theater when you felt like it, and when the part you’d first seen came around again, you knew you had seen the whole thing. Wiseman’s films would work quite well that way. But they do begin and end, and Wiseman often uses exterior shots to mark these moments because nothing internal to the films could do it; the sky and the streets outside often frame our time with the particular institution being shown.

But there is also another kind of outside in these documents. In moments that can’t be predicted, the claustrophobia or containment will suddenly open up, precisely because the camera doesn’t go elsewhere. The world comes in, through radios or TVs or people talking to each other. In Missile, there’s Muzak in a hallway at Vandenberg Air Force Base. In Meat, a slaughterhouse worker has a small set tuned to a football game. Sometimes the conversation is about what was on TV. Two different scenes in the Austin gym show men discussing the Virginia Tech shootings. In a third, gym owner Richard Lord talks to a customer he’s working out with about an episode of Crime Stoppers. Texas entrepreneur Richard Garriott’s West Austin estate has been vandalized by drunk kids who were caught because they left behind cell phones with trophy pictures of themselves on the property. Lord mentions that Garriott was building “a whole little miniature township,” and that it includes “some Shakespearean theater, like a replication of the Globe theater.”

Students are dressed as astronauts for some theatrical production or science project in one High School scene. In another, students can see the moon on a small TV set; it’s apparently the news from an early Apollo space mission. In the final scene, at an assembly at Northeast High — the school’s name slipped in somewhere — more news is read aloud by a woman, maybe a teacher. It has come in a letter from a former student now in Vietnam. Forty-two years go by. I only raise the blinds a little at first, to ease the transition. A few students will admit to having been bored; another one wants to borrow the tape so she can watch the whole thing again.