What Wiseman Knew

Frederick Wiseman, at work on a new film about higher ed set in Berkeley, embraces complexity to capture the way we live.
By Liza Gross

A few minutes into Frederick Wiseman’s 1974 documentary Primate, the camera trails two conspicuously hirsute scientists discussing mating behavior in great apes, as they walk past the animals’ cages. Stroking their beards, the scientists stop to consider a photo of two gorillas in flagrante.

“Gorillas are not nearly as sexy as chimps or orangs,” the senior scientist says. His junior colleague wonders if their lack of interest relates to population control, since they’re big animals.

“Well, it’s a possibility,” allows the senior scientist, “but I somehow don’t think it’s the whole story.”

“I don’t think it ever is the whole story,” the younger man says. “That’s what makes it so good. Complexity.”

The exchange couldn’t have captured Wiseman’s worldview any better had the director written the dialogue himself. For nearly 45 years, the 81-year-old Boston native has explored the confounding contours of modern, mostly American, life through our institutions, reflecting the world as he sees it, in all its squalor and splendor.

But Wiseman, who came to Berkeley in August 2010 to film his 40th documentary, uses no scripts. His method, as always, will be to unearth a story as he combs through the 220 hours of footage he and cameraman John Davey recorded during their 11 weeks on campus. And the final film will use few of the standard tools of his trade. You’ll find no conventional “voice of God” narrations, talking-head interviews, sound tracks, reenactments, or anything else that might dilute the immediacy of the experience—or tell you what to think.

“Somebody once asked me after a screening of Welfare, what Welfare was about. It was the first question after the lights went up,” he recalls. “I said it was about three hours long.”

The venerated filmmaker—his numerous honors include a Guggenheim, a MacArthur, and most recently the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences lifetime achievement award—works out of a cluttered office in a secluded apartment complex in a residential Cambridge neighborhood just north of Harvard Square. The only indication that Unit #4 houses the studio of the man Errol Morris (himself a critically acclaimed filmmaker) calls “one of the greatest [filmmakers] we have” is the tiny label, taped above the doorbell, bearing Wiseman’s company logo: Zipporah Films.

But inside, evidence of a life in film abounds. Film canisters cover the floors, hang from peg-boards, and tower precariously atop metal storage shelves crammed with well-worn briefcases, bearing the initials of one award-winning documentary after another. A vintage RTI film-inspection machine checks returned rentals and loans. Some have been used for research by the likes of Stanley Kubrick, Milos Forman, and Martin Scorsese.

Titles such as The Store, Juvenile Court, Zoo, and 2010’s Boxing Gym suggest it is the institutions themselves that captivate Wiseman. But as Morris (who studied philosophy as a doctoral student at Cal in the 1970s) notes in Frederick Wiseman, the companion book to the 2010 retrospective of Wiseman’s films at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, “Fred likes institutions like Fellini likes the circus. They are a backdrop or metaphor for something else.”

Wiseman has long rejected efforts to classify his unique documentary style, from cinéma vérité (“a meaningless, pompous French term”) and observational cinema (“It connotes just hanging around with one thing being as valuable as another, and that is not true.”), to fly-on-the-wall (“As far as I know, a fly is not an intelligent, sentient being.”). As for “reality fictions,” widely reported as his preference, “I just made that up as a joke.”

Operating more in the realm of what 20th-century absurdist playwright Eugène Ionesco called “imaginative truth,” Wiseman reshapes the ordinary details of daily life into metaphor-rich dramas about the way we live. To create drama from unstaged events, he makes hundreds of decisions about how to edit each sequence before finding the story buried in the rushes. For the Berkeley film, choosing the 1 or 2 percent of material he expects will make the final cut might mean cutting an hour-and-a-half meeting down to five seemingly continuous minutes. Whatever broader implications that meeting may convey will depend on where it appears in the film. When the structure works, Wiseman says, “one thing illuminates another.”

When pressed to name his influences—”I think critics decide what influenced you, because I surely don’t know”—Wiseman names 19th century American novelists (Henry James is a favorite) and an abiding love of the theater, especially Beckett, Ionesco, and the Royal Shakespeare Company of the 1960s. Ionesco’s essays on the theater helped Wiseman clarify what he was trying to do with film, particularly in terms of reconciling the literal and abstract tracks of story structure.

In the introduction to Frederick Wiseman, a quote from James’s What Maisie Knew suggests the enormity of the artist’s endeavor: “The effort to see and really to represent is no idle business in the face of the constant force of muddlement.”

Wiseman likes the metaphor. “One of the things the editing is about is trying to make some sense to me of the muddlement I’ve observed in making the film.” He revels in mirroring life’s confounding complexity while giving it a form that reveals a clear point of view to the careful observer. He assumes that we’re sharp enough to follow along.

Born in 1930, Wiseman came of age amid rampant anti-Semitism, which he first encountered as a child: “I was 4 years old when someone accused me of killing Christ.” He remembers listening to Hitler and the anti-Semitic rants of Father Coughlin on the radio with his father, whose dream of becoming a judge was destroyed when his appointment to Boston Municipal Court was vetoed by Henry Cabot Lodge Sr. Such personal experience with exclusion offers an easy explanation for the son’s artistic vision.

Too easy, as always, for Wiseman.

“Maybe there’s the old cliché of the Jew as an outsider, but in my case that’s bullshit,” he insists. “I was taught by my parents to be observant, not in the religious sense but in the sense of looking,” he says with a sly smile. “And if you’re a documentary filmmaker, being a good observer is useful.”

At the outset, Wiseman realized that institutions provided a wealth of opportunities to study the human condition. “Anytime you’re dealing with a lot of people in situations where there’s something important going on for those people, you’re going to learn a lot,” he says.

Wiseman uses the word institution loosely. Most any enterprise that captures his interest is fair game, from the rarefied world of his beloved Paris Opera Ballet, to the maddeningly bureaucratic New York City welfare office—where no one’s case is ever heard and everyone might as well be waiting for Godot. That metaphor is eventually made explicit as a man’s frustrations erupt in a raving monologue in the film’s final scene.

Wiseman, who left a career as lawyer and lecturer to make movies—”I always liked movies and didn’t like law school or teaching law”—often discovers a painful schism between an organization’s purpose and practice. The result can prove difficult to watch. A New York Times reporter called his first four films—Titicut Follies, High School, Hospital, and Law and Order—”a 16mm camera passage through hell.” (Wiseman described them as “four of the most depressing documentaries ever made,” but says he was joking.)

Joking or not, it’s clear from Wiseman’s considerable body of work—much of which is anything but depressing—that his artistic choices are guided by the nature of his subjects, not the potential reactions of his audience. Audience reaction is not Wiseman’s concern. As he pulls us into worlds we wouldn’t ordinarily see, with an approach designed to discourage passive viewing, he asks us to consider our own relationship to the material. Are we comfortable with what he’s found? Is this the best we can do as a society? He doesn’t mind if we squirm a little.

Take Primate. Wiseman acknowledges it’s a “tough film to watch.” (Excruciating is more like it. Try watching without flinching as technicians remove the brain and organs of a squirrel monkey.) “It’s also quite funny.” (In a particularly absurd scene, a scientist swings from a trapeze, trying in vain to entice a young orangutan to do the same.)

But the implications of Primate are not funny, he allows. Researchers were trying to figure out how to electronically control sexual and aggressive behavior. “Presumably they weren’t trying to figure out how to control rhesus monkeys’ sexual and aggressive behavior because of a vast interest in rhesus monkeys.”

Primate offers a variation on a principal Wiseman theme: how the individual interacts with figures of authority in a democratic society. He has a knack for choosing subjects ideally suited to exploring this question at defining moments in American history. Basic Training shows the army turning young men into combat-ready soldiers—just as resistance to the Vietnam War reaches its peak. Law and Order, set in a poor black precinct in Kansas City, follows mostly white police officers after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination sparked nationwide race riots.

Had Wiseman been looking for a university at a crossroads, he could hardly have done better than Berkeley. Yet he insists it was “total chance” that his schedule coincided with the fiscal crisis. He chose Berkeley because it’s such a good school, and so offers the complexity he’s after.

To seek approval for the film, Wiseman simply wrote to Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who invited him for a meeting and lunch with Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer. Wiseman described his technique and requested access to as many aspects of university life as possible. He sent them six films, including Titicut Follies, Welfare, and Law and Order. Neither Birgeneau nor Breslauer commented on the films, “other than that they liked them,” he says. “However they sized me up, they came to the conclusion that they could trust me to make a fair film.” Wiseman retains complete control over the final film, as he does with all his work.

Claire Holmes, associate vice chancellor for University communications, served as liaison between Wiseman and campus leaders, including Chancellor Birgeneau. “He convinced us that he was very interested in depicting the complexity of higher education and the challenges it faces, as well as the value of UC Berkeley to the state, the nation, and the world,” says Holmes. “We trusted him with that obligation.” The Chancellor watched Titicut Follies when he was back in Cambridge, she adds, where his neighbors raved about their hometown director.

Just back from Paris, where he finished his latest film, Désir, about the City of Light’s famous Crazy Horse cabaret, Wiseman will devote the next year to Berkeley. He’s already started studying and editing the footage, shot in HD video. “Everything is right here,” he says, patting the external drives next to his computer. “It’s absolutely amazing. This is editing now: typing.”

Wiseman typically avoids doing background research—filming is his research. He knew before he arrived about the controversies rocking the campus, from the budget battles and fee-hike protests, to the gene testing program and BP-funded Energy Biosciences Institute.

Wiseman captured most of these issues on camera, from many points of view, along with numerous private top-level administrative meetings. He caught a flavor of Berkeley’s rich activist past through a lecture on the history of student protest by emeritus Professor Leon Litwack. But whether the lecture or anything else he shot makes the final cut, Wiseman can’t say.

“I don’t see any point in making a film if I knew how it was going to come out before I started,” he says. “To the extent that I get into any of those issues, I will try to explore them without concluding who’s right.”

Wiseman says the Berkeley film will succeed if it approaches the ambiguity and complexity of what he observed while making the film. Just don’t ask him what that means.

“The real film,” Wiseman says, “takes place where the mind of the viewer meets the screen.”

Liza Gross is a freelance journalist and senior editor at PLoS Biology who lives in Kensington. She flirted briefly with a future in film theory, studying documentary and French New Wave film at San Francisco State, before returning to journalism. Her stories have appeared in High Country News, San Francisco Chronicle, Wine Spectator, and other national publications.
From the Fall 2011 The Good Fight issue of California.
Image source: Liza Gross
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