Frederick Wiseman (born 1930) was an American documentary filmmaker whose "fly-on-the-wall" films revealed what happens in a hospital, school, meat-packing plant, police department, modeling agency, department store, zoo, and other public institutions. Many of his films focused public attention on problems in the places he portrayed.
Frederick Wiseman was born in Massachusetts on January 1, 1930. He graduated from Williams College and Yale Law School. Wiseman was a graduate fellow at Harvard for a year and was then drafted into the army. He worked for a short time as an assistant to the attorney general of Massachusetts, then lived in Paris for two years (1956-1958). On his return to the United States he taught at Boston University's Institute of Law and Medicine, often taking his students to visit law courts and prisons.
Increasingly bored with the abstractions of the law, Wiseman bought the film rights to The Cool World (1963), a novel about Harlem delinquents, and produced the film, which was directed by Shirley Clarke. After taking his law students to the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Bridgewater, a prison for the criminally insane, to show them the conditions there, Wiseman decided to make his own film. Titicut Follies (1967) is a brutally realistic, extended gaze at the oppressive conditions at Bridgewater, offered without any commentary.
Titicut Follies was widely celebrated by critics and academics, but was attacked in courts by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In 1968 Judge Harry Kalus ruled in Commonwealth v. Wiseman that Wiseman had breached an oral contract with the state and had invaded the privacy of one of the Bridgewater inmates. Kalus ordered the film banned in Massachusetts. On appeal, the Massachusetts Supreme Court softened the decision and permitted showings of the film to special audiences; in 1991 the injunction was lifted completely.
In Titicut Follies and the documentaries that followed, Wiseman used a small, unobtrusive crew, including a cameraman using lightweight equipment and no additional lights. Wiseman recorded sound, while an assistant supplied fresh film and tape. His straightforward films contain no on-camera interviews or commentary by the filmmaker. All scenes are unstaged to achieve what Wiseman called "a natural history of the way we live." His films are shot in black and white with no music. Wiseman's method gave the films the feel and texture of reality, but they were deftly and slowly edited in a way that encouraged the viewer to make connections, to speculate about social themes, and to reflect about the subject. "The whole point of this technique is to put you right into the middle of things so you have to think through your relationship to them," Wiseman said in 1993 to Vogue magazine.
Wiseman called his films "reality fictions," acknowledging that he was employing his own perspective. "All the material is manipulated so that the final film is totally fictional in form although it is based on real events," he explained. Wiseman's films have both the gravity of reality and the pleasures of art. They examine the oppressive, silly, and mundane procedures of human institutions, but they are not cynical, depressing, or vicious. Wiseman's wry, detached tone, accompanied by the patient's probing curiosity of his films, resulted in a humanistic focus on the quality of our everyday lives.
After Titicut Follies, Wiseman produced High School (1968), filmed at the middle-class Northeast High School in Philadelphia, a widely admired exposure of the oppressiveness and boredom imposed on adolescents and their apathetic response. After the angry tone of Titicut Follies and High School, Wiseman turned increasingly to a more complex interest in cultural issues, in which problems and victims are seldom clear-cut. Wiseman's subsequent documentaries were produced under contracts with New York City Public Television station WNET and were often shown on TV's Public Broadcasting System, but rarely in movie theaters.
Wiseman's Law and Order (1969) follows police procedures in Kansas City. Hospital (1970) explores the routines of an urban hospital. Basic Training (1971) shows a group of young draftees being prepared for infantry service in Vietnam. Essene (1972) focuses on a group of Benedictine monks. Juvenile Court (1973) explores a juvenile justice system in Memphis, presenting the paradoxes of attempting to combine justice and therapy. Primate (1974), one of Wiseman's most controversial films, shows the destructive results of human curiosity on a colony of captive apes at the Yerkes Primate Research Center in Atlanta. The PBS broadcast of the film brought viewer complaints and a bomb threat.
Many consider Wiseman's Welfare (1975) to be his most effective work; it shows the frustrating interaction of a New York City welfare center and its clients. Meat (1975) is a dark comedy about a meat-packing plant in Colorado, where bleating animals are reduced to stacks of neat plastic packages for supermarkets.
Institutions Laid Bare
Wiseman said his goal in his films was to "discover what kind of power relationships exist and differences between ideology and the practice in terms of the way people are treated. The theme that unites the films is the relationship of people to authority."
Wiseman ventured outside the United States in Canal Zone (1977), which shows how American residents of the Panama Canal Zone try to keep their American cultural routines intact. In Sinai Field Mission (1978) Wiseman explored American soldiers on a peacekeeping mission in the Sinai Desert. In Manoeuvre (1979) Wiseman watched a National Guard unit participating in war games in Germany, rehearsing for a war with the Soviet Union.
Model (1980) extended Wiseman's analysis of American culture by looking at how images are constructed in the advertising business. In The Store (1983) Wiseman moved from modeling to merchandising, choosing the Neiman-Marcus store in Dallas as his setting.
Wiseman released one fiction film, Seraphita's Diary (1982), which explores the theme of self-awareness. He went to Belmont Race Track in New York to film Racetrack (1985), then in 1987 released a pair of films on people with disabilities: Blind and Deaf. Also in 1987 he released Missile. In 1989 his Near Death chronicled the intensive care unit of Boston's Beth Israel Hospital. In 1990 he returned to New York City to shoot Central Park. In 1993 his look at Miami's Metrozoo, Zoo, was widely praised. In 1994 he returned to an earlier subject with High School II, about Central Park East Secondary School in East Harlem, New York. In 1995 he chronicled the American Ballet Theatre in Ballet. In 1996 Wiseman released La Comedie-Francaise Ou L'Amour Joue, a tribute to a three-century-old Paris theater. "Wiseman at last has made a totally positive case for a human institution," wrote Robert Brustein in the New Republic.
For his work, Wiseman won three Emmys. Melissa Pierson noted in the June 1993 Vogue, "Under Wiseman's steady, perseverant gaze, these almost banal institutions yield fascinating information on their customary play of power, or what happens to individuals venturing into their works, or the gap between what society professes and what it ends up doing. His films require patience, but the viewer is rewarded with crucial truths about the way we live—and lie."
Wiseman told Pierson that he considered his earlier films, Titicut Follies and High School, too "didactic." Thus, in his later years Wiseman tried to avoid being too partisan. "There's a lot of heavy freight connected with the documentary," he said. "It's supposed to instruct us, uplift us, right a social wrong. But it can be other things; it doesn't have to be an exposé. That's too simpleminded. Why bother?"
Further Reading on Frederick Wiseman
Wiseman's films are the central texts that he has produced, and they are available for rental or lease from his distribution company, Zipporah Films, in Cambridge, MA. A standard reference work is Liz Ellsworth, Frederick Wiseman: A Guide to References and Resources (1979), which provides descriptive material, and in some cases transcripts, of the films up to 1977, as well as an extensive bibliography. Tom Atkins, Frederick Wiseman (1976), contains several useful interviews and reviews. Several books provide material on Wiseman in the context of documentary film in general; see Richard Meran Barsam, Nonfiction Film: A Critical History (1973); Lewis Jacobs, The Documentary Tradition, 2nd edition (1979); G. Roy Levin, Documentary Explorations: 15 Interviews with Filmmakers (1971); Stephen Mamber, Cinema Verite in America: Studies in Uncontrolled Documentary (1974); and Bill Nichols, Ideology and the Image (1981).