“If I should be someone else, who should be me?” —Yiddish saying
The 500-mile distance across multiple systems of public and private infrastructure that separates me from Frederick Wiseman seemed particularly resonant and daunting this August, when I made arrangements to see the 87-year-old director on the occasion of his 41st documentary film, Ex Libris, an examination of the New York Public Library, which recently debuted in competition at the Venice Film Festival and opens tonight at New York’s Film Forum. From Philadelphia, where I live, up to Belfast, Maine, near where Wiseman often spends his summer with his family, I rely upon cab, train, shuttle, plane, and car to make my way north, which is to say I require the help and services of some three dozen or more employees and agents with whom I interact, some for 45 seconds, others for 30 minutes or more, and who in each of their own ways embody the rules, protocol, agenda, and anxieties of enterprises as varied as the private security firm in the AirTrain of Newark Liberty International Airport and the Portland, Maine, cab company wilting against the force of Uber and Lyft. The kinds of interactions, in other words, that are easily and often dismissed as among the nuisances of daily modern life.
I arrive in Belfast late in the afternoon. As I eat a sandwich in the window of a deli I watch the vacationers stroll by, young, good-looking families in Patagonia windbreakers and Black Dog T-shirts who eschew the crowds on the Cape in favor of the slightly less populous coastal hamlets much farther north. Amidst these prosperous clans with red plastic trays of root-beer floats and $20 lobster rolls, I try to subdue my loneliness with thoughts of the encounters I had with the clerks and managers, where I played the role of customer and client. The details of the moments are already elusive, their possible suggestion of greater meaning now seems inaccessible, if it was ever available to me to begin with. It is of these very surface interactions that Frederick Wiseman has made films for 50 years, a body of work that stands up against any other artist as the most comprehensive exploration of the American condition.
Since 1967, when Wiseman was 37, he has made roughly one feature-length film a year—almost all documentaries, and some as long as six hours—primarily focused on the subject of power within American institutions in places as varied as a public high school, meatpacking plant, city zoo, juvenile court, and a Neiman Marcus department store in Texas. He’s also made films about the ballet and boxing, and physical places, like Aspen, Colorado, and Jackson Heights in Queens. At different times Wiseman has described his films as reality dreams, cinéma vérité, reality fictions, and new documentaries. The last label is not often used by others to categorize Wiseman’s work, but in certain aspects it is the most helpful in that it signals the similarities in process and sensibility between his films and midcentury New Journalism, which was created by writers who infused their form with innovations of character, structure, plot, and style more common to works of literary fiction.
Wiseman’s films share in common a lack of any voice-over narration, soundtrack, titles, or interviews with the film’s subjects. All notions of plot, context, and dramatic tension are realized in the scenes he has first captured on film and microphone with his skeleton crew and then spent upward of a year editing, alone, a process of creative isolation he has characterized as being a sometimes-lonely monologue.
For decades, critics in high and low places have been taking turns missing the point of Wiseman’s films, not being right or wrong in their assessments of quality—even the most critical acknowledge that Frederick Wiseman is a genius of some kind—but rather failing to assess Wiseman’s work by his own ambitions. As one film critic wrote in the 1980s in a matchbook summary of Wiseman’s efforts, “[T]he theme of the picture is usually so infused or unemphasized (or perhaps anti-thematic) as to be almost nonexistent.” In response to Near Death, one of Wiseman’s most affecting films, a six-hour black-and-white soul-punch at the ICU of Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital, a doctor writing in the New England Journal of Medicine criticized the absence of a tidy takeaway message about end-of-life care: “The film provides no overarching commentary … to put into perspective the practices it depicts.” In a generously polite rebuttal, Wiseman and doctors from Beth Israel “suggest [the doctor] may have misinterpreted the purpose of this film. … [The] criticism fails to appreciate that the film seeks to convey the spadework involved in the tilling of a rocky field rather than the ultimate plantings.”
Over time an audience has coalesced of viewers, film critics, filmmakers, and those in the larger art world who meet Wiseman at eye level. Wendy Lesser, the founder and editor of the literary journal Threepenny Review, which has published Wiseman’s writing, told me: “Fred has shaped the whole mode of documentary—he made the form into a personal expression.” Comparing Wiseman to Henry James, she added, “James assumes when he writes a complicated sentence the reader can pick it up, and Fred is like that with his audience members. His films have the capacity to let the viewer be smart.” The filmmaker Errol Morris has held up Wiseman as one of his heroes, describing his body of work as a vision of the world, saying that “no one has exceeded in scope and intensity” the films Wiseman has made.
It wasn’t until last year that Wiseman won his first Oscar, an Honorary Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In 2014, he was awarded a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Film Festival. Cannes has presented him with the Prix Consécration, and universities—including Princeton University and Williams College—continually present him with honorary doctorates. The Library of Congress has arranged to preserve Wiseman’s films and negatives and has expressed interest in collecting his papers. Despite all this, Wiseman is perpetually struggling to fund his films. Occasionally, he’s borrowed money against his negatives to cover production. In 2014, he ran an unsuccessful Kickstarter campaign to finish the production of In Jackson Heights, tallying $20,576 toward a $75,000 goal on a film Manohla Dargis in the New York Times would later call an “an epic,” using the review to draw comparisons between Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and Wiseman’s “catalog of everyday Americans,” 50 years in the making.
Notwithstanding the yachts in the marina and hybrid BMWs in the co-op grocery parking lot, Belfast is an economically struggling community. Not far outside of downtown, tall trees and deep black sky background trailers with plywood windows perched on cinder blocks. Heading out of Belfast to a tiny efficiency studio I’m renting 30 miles inland, I miss my turn at a gas station advertising Mountain Dew and Camel Lights. While backtracking, I buoy myself with a recollection of the opening sequence to the 1986 Blind, one of my favorite Wiseman films.
It begins at the Talladega race track for a NASCAR Winston 500, where a NASCAR driver practices by revving up his car and zooming down the track, the brutal volume drowning out the announcer, who was just about to introduce something, to instruct or give context; a voice of reason from above. But the omniscient speaker is drowned out by the loudness of man’s machines. A few teenage boys in bright-red concert jackets step off a school bus. The camera lingers and then another young man steps off, drum sticks in one hand. The drummer walks slowly, tapping the bus as he goes on.
Cut to the concert group warming up their instruments, a boy playing the flute. For a snap moment, you see the bus in focus in the background, part of the school name in all caps, one word visible: “BLIND.” Quick cuts of the band in twos and threes. Then you start to gather, by the way they stand close together, heads atilt, that they’re perhaps blind. Cuts then to what surrounds them, young women in tank tops drinking from yellow solo cups, a group of men in the back of a pickup truck, drinking beers, carrying a Confederate flag.
An older man who looks world-beaten and recently put back together stands before the band to take a moment of their time. He’s from Race Track Ministries, which “believes that Jesus Christ is for all people, at the race track or wherever we are. A lot of people look to a lot of things for happiness in life, and they look for different kind of pleasures.”
The young musicians politely endure him. “But Christ can, no matter where you are, no matter where you’re at in life, bring you the happiness you need,” he adds. “Even as you’re blind or whatever, Christ sees through all that.” Cut to a portly balding announcer at the microphone running through a series of sponsor advertisements (the official pain reliever of Talladega, etc.) as beautiful women in pageant sashes lean out of souped-up cars slowly crawling down the track, waving to the crowd. Cut to the band performing, adequately, the theme from Rocky; people walking by, not really paying attention; the sousaphone player, a young man terribly contorted with his head almost parallel to the ground, seated, overwhelmed by his instrument that looks like it’s about to topple him.
The sudden visual is startling. There’s a subtle black humor to it, warped and odd. Then the band bus pulls out of the grounds, absent any traffic, presumably because the blind kids aren’t going to stick around to watch cars race around in a giant circle. There’s a terrific density in these 10 minutes, from the audience’s initial uncertainty about who is blind and who is not, the preacher warning of the vices of the world, of the sin and sex that surrounds the young men, and urging them to find redemption in the Lord savior, a kind of hard-sell reverberated in the announcer pushing the race sponsors, undercut by the black humor, which isn’t unsympathetic.
It’s jolting to see the world’s peculiarities lined up so close together. You catch your breath, and all the while you’re trying to ascertain the reality of what it is to be blind, to watch them navigate the world, which by dint of you watching them is entirely unknowable to you. You are fundamentally unlike them, because you are watching them, and they can’t see. You can see them, except you can’t. They can’t see you either, of course. Except, their way of not-seeing is different.
This is surely part of what Wiseman wants to suggest, an explicit metaphor for the gulf that separates all humans from each other, how we can never know another’s experience. We from the outside watch the blind being watched as performers trying to play this brief song, which no one in the crowd pays much attention to, occupied as they are by drinking and socializing, and all the trucker-hatted shirtless men and beautiful crop-topped women who glide around the infield, which we can see, too.
This film, in one way then, because it’s just begun, is going to be about how the students of this school are taught to separate the world into what is dangerous and what is safe, what will tempt them or try to undo them or try to save them or try to sell them or try to trade them product for their money. Impossible as it is to separate these things, they come through the screen rapidly, blurring nearly together, wobbling like an off-kilter drum beat, just as they do for all of us, every day. Within this scene, the band tries to find their rhythm and play their own song.
I meet Wiseman in the morning at Chase’s Daily, a brick-walled, wood-floored coffee shop that could have been craned out of Park Slope and neatly deposited on Belfast’s main thoroughfare. Wiseman arrives wearing a black fleece, chinos, and hiking sneakers, with his eyeglasses hung around his neck on an orange cord. He apologizes; he has to get his wife a biscuit before returning to our booth with a cappuccino. The French indie band Stereolab plays softly in the background. Around us, a few work on their MacBooks at tables beside the tall glass windows, but the place is mostly quiet. At 87, Wiseman is sharp, quick to joke, and thoughtful.
Wiseman was born on the first of January 1930, the only child of Jacob and Gertrude Wiseman. His father emigrated with his family from Kiev, Russia, to Boston in 1890. Jacob would put himself through Boston University law school while delivering newspapers. Gertrude had grown up and lived around Boston all her life. Wiseman’s parents were highly active in the local Jewish community, both members of multiple organizations. At the Jewish Welfare Board, where Jacob was a trustee, a young Wiseman set up tables and served meals on Shabbat for the Jewish soldiers stationed in Boston.
At home, Wiseman’s parents tuned into the news on the radio and explained the significance of the world’s events to their son. Although an adolescent then, Wiseman vividly recalls his father’s grave concern listening to Hitler’s speeches. “Obviously, I couldn’t understand a word of German—they were translated—but I remember the timber of Hitler’s voice,” he tells me. Wiseman had only Jewish friends in Boston, but that did not completely insulate him from the anti-Semitism that surrounded him. “Some kiddo I was buddy-buddy with came up to me, accusing me of killing Christ. I was sure I wasn’t guilty,” he says. “But it was in the air. Father Coughlin was on the radio. Jews couldn’t buy homes in certain neighborhoods. In the city, the Jews were entirely ghettoized.”
Wiseman’s father would go on to practice law for 60 years, establishing for his son a model of a kind of long and highly engaged career. During the war, Wiseman’s father helped immigrants flee persecution by coming to America. Not infrequently those refugees would spend time at the Wiseman house. One woman from Greece lived with them for a year. “I learned a lot from her in retrospect, once I became conscious of what learning a lot meant.” Wiseman and his family ate dinner with the Greek refugee, a time spent figuring out how to communicate with someone who spoke little English while coping with the terrible anxiety of having her own family still back in Europe.
In the evenings, Wiseman and his parents patronized the Boston theater, catching musical comedies as well as touring Shakespeare companies. Wiseman’s mother had aspired to be an actress, and at the age of 17 she’d earned a place at the American National Theater and Academy, but her father felt acting was beneath her and prevented her from going. Her propensity for performance manifested itself in the Wiseman home, where she’d entertain her son with fanciful impressions of the butcher, neighbors, and other members of the community. When Frederick was 11, his mother began working as an administrator at the James Jackson Putman Children’s Center, which was at the vanguard of implementing Freudian theory in the treatment of psychologically disturbed children in the United States. Her enthusiastic impressions of her colleagues exposed Wiseman to yet another domain of society: degreed professionals who staff institutions.
As an undergraduate at Williams College, away from the protective embrace of his family circle in Boston, Wiseman had a more direct encounter with New England’s anti-Semitism. “Growing up, I’d had all my Jewish friends, so it didn’t directly intrude,” he tells me between sips of his coffee. “But at Williams, it was much more concentrated. The whole social life was organized around fraternities, and a week before freshman year everyone was required to show up to pledge. But no Jews were taken, and if they were it was because they were so good at concealing their Jewish identity [that] the fraternity didn’t know. One of the fraternities wanted me to pledge, and then they found out I was Jewish, and that was the end of it. That was very painful for a 17-year-old kid who’d never left home.”
Wiseman lived with the other fraternity outcasts in the Garfield Club, often feeling “like second-class citizens” and enduring a discrimination “that was crude, crass, and had no subtlety” to it. It was during Wiseman’s junior year that he found some solace, taking literature and poetry seminars and cultivating a nascent love for books. He wrote for the campus newspaper and became friendly with members of the English faculty, excited to discuss his encounters with Yeats, Cummings, Eliot, and Pound, the latter two of whom were committed anti-Semites, and the last of whom was committed against his will to a mental institution.
Following his father into law, Wiseman went to Yale law school, where his studies of the intent and substance of words furthered his appreciation for literature rather than any enthusiasm for the law. He continued to write, taking a class “with a professor who didn’t like being a professor but was interested in writing,” he says. Every week he turned in essays and short stories, harboring a desire, “like so many of my generation,” to be a writer. “Back then, everyone wanted to be Fitzgerald or Hemingway,” he recalled. “Few of us succeeded.”
After a stint in the Army as a court reporter, with stops in Georgia and Philadelphia, Wiseman was accepted to study law in 1956 at the Sorbonne, where he says he spent little time going to class and more time absorbing a foreign culture. He lived in Paris with his new wife, Zipporah Batshaw, a Yale Law graduate whose father, Judge Harry Batshaw, was a representative at the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem and the first Jewish member of the Canadian high court. Her mother, Dr. Anne Tarshis Batshaw, was the first woman to graduate from McGill University’s medical school.
Working briefly for a lawyer in Paris, Wiseman mostly lived on the $135 a month he received from the GI Bill, which afforded him a car, an apartment, and tickets to theater and movie houses, including a memorable viewing of Ionseco’s The Bald Soprano” at the Theatre des Noctambules. With an 8mm camera, Wiseman made films of his wife shopping and little scenes of Parisian life. “Paris was, and still is, the most beautiful city I know,” he says. The Wisemans soon returned to the Boston area and had two sons. Zipporah would go on to teach law at Northeastern University. Frederick continued to live his life in the early 1960s along a rather straight path, playing tennis every day, teaching law at Boston University, and beginning a consulting practice with an academic named Donald Schon. Responding to government-agency RFPs, Wiseman and Schon created reports and studies relating to urban economic, transportation, and crime issues, similar to the policy research pumped out by consultants and urban planners nationwide. Wiseman would later reflect upon these as a “grand boondoggle.”
It was during this time that Wiseman began to live a parallel life as an artist. Enamored with Warren Miller’s novel The Cool World, Wiseman found Miller’s number in the phone book, called him up, and bought the film rights to the story for $500.
With no experience making films other than those he’d shot in Paris, Wiseman took on the role of small-budget producer for The Cool World, working with Dizzy Gillespie on the soundtrack, with the writer, director, and editor Shirley Clark, and with mostly nonprofessional actors on a movie that explored the life of African-Americans in Harlem. Wiseman was able to get the film into competition at the 1963 Venice Film Festival, where his wife and young son joined him for his first foray into the international film-festival circuit. Later, Wiseman would co-write a script for The Thomas Crown Affair starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, but that would be his only brush with the Hollywood moviemaking apparatus. Having worked on The Cool World, he tells me, revealed to him the possibility that he could make a movie entirely on his own.
With ambitions to shoot another film but with no apparent way to make a living in the arts, Wiseman continued his work in the academy with an appointment as a research associate in sociology at Brandeis University in 1963, and in the consulting firm with Schon.
Wiseman’s first solo film would prove to be as foundational to the rest of his career as it was controversial. In his proposal to the administration of the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Bridgewater, outside Boston, a prison that housed a section of criminally insane inmates Wiseman wished to film, he hints at the possibility of seeing society at large through a single institution. “[The] prison itself becomes a metaphor for some important aspects of American life,” he writes. By using a variation on the documentary form, Wiseman thought he could “give an audience factual material about a state prison … [imbued with] an imaginative and poetic quality that will set it apart from the cliché documentary about crime and mental illness.”
In 1966, Wiseman and his cameraman, John Marshall, shot a massive volume of footage, 200 rolls of 400-foot reels of film, that Wiseman would edit into Titicut Follies, a film that revealed the horrible, degrading conditions for inmates who were kept naked in cells and suffered myriad humiliations. It won two film-festival awards but divided critics because of its startling imagery of nudity, prompting attacks of voyeurism and a protracted legal battle between Wiseman and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which was successful for decades in preventing Wiseman from showing his film.
Unsure if they’d be able to make the nontraditional film Wiseman had originally envisioned, with Wiseman handling the boom microphone, cameraman John Marshall said during a later interview that they’d collected talking-head interviews with members of the MCI staff. The material proved to be unnecessary, and Wiseman would never again shoot interviews. Wiseman was able to realize the form that became his signature entirely by editing, which he describes to me as a practice with elements that are “highly rational and perhaps nonrational. Part of it is deductive, part of it is associative, and part of it is mysterious. I don’t know that I’m aware of all aspects of it, and I’m not sure I want to be aware of all aspects of it.”
For the next four films, Wiseman would support his habit by continuing to work at the consulting firm, taking a leave to shoot footage with a cameraman before he’d edit alone at nights and on the weekends. In 1970, he left the firm and began supporting himself full-time with filmmaking. After a partnership with a distributor went sour, Wiseman formed his own company, Zipporah Films, named after his wife, in December of 1970. It was in 1971 that Wiseman began a particularly fruitful relationship with the public television network WNET, signing two consecutive deals for five films over five years under the network’s executive producer, Robert Kotlowitz. Hailing from Harper’s, where he was a managing editor, Kotlowitz saw something “so unique in his approach,” he once said, that he wanted to protect Wiseman’s vision by providing him funding and almost total freedom. Wiseman would call up Kotlowitz, he tells me, and say, “Hey, Bob, I’d like to do a juvenile court, and he’d say, ‘OK,’ and that’d be it.”
Wiseman soon moved away from the didacticism of Follies, where in one iconic scene of a guard force-feeding a prisoner as the guard’s cigarette dangles over the funnel, the ash about to fall at any moment, there are alternating cuts to another man being prepared in the morgue. With a more patient form of storytelling, Wiseman was able to explore the nuances of living with and among institutions ingrained in our daily lives. In her review of Hospital, Pauline Kael wrote: “It is as open and revealing as filmed experience has ever been,” noting that Wiseman’s films seem “to put us back in contact with our common experience.” Speaking of the audience that began to emerge around Wiseman’s work as early as 1969’s Law & Order, where Wiseman followed a Kansas City police squad, the critic David Denby told me that “anyone who thought Wiseman was just a left polemicist after that was simply missing the point.”
Wiseman spent 400 hours riding around in squad cars for Law & Order. One notable scene provokes questions about the nature and intent of a police force, as they’re called into a domestic squabble between two very young lovers smoking cigarettes on the porch of a boarding house. With little to be accomplished by arresting anyone or enforcing any law, the police are largely there to bear witness to whichever social forces conspired to leave two young people, who are also parents of a new baby, in such a vulnerable state of being. They are clearly in need of the shelter provided by the boarding house owner, an older woman who wants to help them but doesn’t seem to know how.
The young man says to an officer, “I’ve got about a week-and-a-half rent paid here, and it’s not due till next Saturday.”
“Well, the thing is, you’re gonna have to calm down and stop raising Cain,” the officer says. “These people here will have a right to put you out if you’re raising Cain. Work your problems out without getting that carried away. Or that loud.”
From behind a screen door, the boarding-house owner says, “You see, her brother and his girlfriend took the baby away. During a big fight, they slipped the baby out. And they took it away some place and then,” she says, coming out onto the porch to point out the girl to the helmeted policeman, who’s not 5 feet away. “She threw the knife at him, and there’s a big hole in the wall where she tried to get him with a knife in the face, and it stuck up in the wall.”
“That’s not it, that’s not it,” the boy says. “That’s not right.” The boy and the older woman proceed with a shouting match about the veracity of the knife-throwing tale. The police do what they can, which is to say, not much.
In 1978, the cinematographer John Davey was recommended to Wiseman by his third cameraman, William Bryne, and Davey, an Englishman, has been with Wiseman ever since. The process they’ve used to make the films is a well-established routine. After Wiseman has arranged access to an institution, usually by sending a letter to the person in charge and following up with a visit in person, Wiseman calls Davey to schedule the shoot. Along with an assistant who carries film cartridges and gear, it’s Wiseman and Davey working six- or seven-day weeks, upward of 12 to 16 hours a day, shooting footage on location for anywhere between eight and 12 weeks. They usually take up rooms in a hotel but occasionally stay in a rented house or apartment. In the mornings, Davey will eat breakfast with his assistant. Fred, who’s careful about staying in shape, does exercises with a medicine ball or on a machine. In the evenings, Davey and Wiseman review rushes to see what they missed or to review technical problems of light and composition.
When I spoke with Davey, he described an informal style and collaborative intimacy that he and Wiseman have developed over the years, relying on facial expressions and subtle movements to signal positioning for the camera and microphone. Wiseman is driven, Davey says, to have as many options as possible for edits. “After five or six weeks, it’s going really well, and I’ll say, ‘Hey, Fred, we’ve got a great film here,’ and he’ll always want to continue shooting, and more often than not he’s absolutely right. We’ll shoot 200 sequences, and he’ll use 20, but those other 180 are perfectly good sequences, and only for the smallest reason, one thing or another, it’s not reflective to what Fred will ultimately need when he’s editing.”
After a week or two to recover from the intensity of the shoot, Davey will continue on to his next project as a cinematographer, often nature and wildlife films in Africa and Asia. Meanwhile, Wiseman will begin to edit, either up in Maine, where he keeps an editing room, or in his office in Cambridge, where he and his longtime business manager, Karen Konicek, run Zipporah Films.
Wiseman will sit down and look through every frame, sometimes as many as 250 hours of rushes. “That can usually take me six or eight weeks, seeing what’s there and taking notes,” he tells me. “By the time I’ve gone through the material, I’ll have put aside 40 or 50 sequences to edit. At that point I’m not thinking much about structure, only creating good-candidate sequences. Going from one hour of a sequence to four minutes, it’s rare that I get what I want in the first pass. Say it’s a group of people in a meeting. I’ll isolate all the parts of the exchanges, edit it verbally, edit it for language, and keep reducing it and reducing it until it’s exactly the verbal exchange that I want it to be. Then I’ll go through and pick out the cutaways, which allow me to edit the sequence to appear as if it took place the way you’re watching it until I get a rhythm that’s internal in the sequence. Then I begin to work on the structure. Different people work in different ways, but I’m not very good thinking about the structure in the abstract; I have to look at it. So after seven or eight months of editing the sequences, I know the material—every word spoken, every part of the frame—and I make an assembly relatively quickly, in three or four days. Then it’s six or eight weeks to polish the structure, so the internal rhythm within a sequence and the external rhythm of the sequences are working together. I’ll also tune up the shots between any of the major sequences. I’ll go back through all the discarded material and sometimes find things that solve some editorial problem, to connect this sequence to that sequence. And a lot of it, even after 50 years, is still trial and error. But once you begin, it’s totally consuming because you’re on the hunt for the film.”
As we’re talking a woman comes up to our booth and apologetically interrupts Wiseman. She’s Jackie McFarrow, the director of a film festival in the Hamptons. They’ve been trying to get Wiseman to appear for the last few years. “And we would die to have you, really,” she says. “Well, I don’t want you to die,” Wiseman replies. He is often in France in December and has already made plans to be there this winter, when the festival runs. “We’ll keep trying,” she says. “Thank you for all that you do for documentaries.”
As she walks away Wiseman leans in. “An actor. I hired her.”
Wiseman and I break for the day to resume later in the week. I head out to explore the town, which Wiseman shot in 1999 for his three-hour film, Belfast, Maine. Although it’s almost 20 years later, many of the structures stand just as Wiseman and Davey captured them—the movie theater, certain homes, a church. The film Wiseman made of Belfast was in one respect a summary of his work to date, with long, fluid scenes of a sardine factory, social workers visiting people in their homes, a series of sequences in the hospital. Watching the film is not unlike reading a novelist late into his career, echoing to characters and scenes that are now more richly layered. In Belfast, Maine, there’s a pronounced sensitivity, creating space for gentle moments and easy gestures within the power dynamics that have always been on display in Wiseman’s work.
During one sequence, a social worker stands in a client’s kitchen, slowly picking the lice out of the client’s hair. She’s methodical, teasing out of the other’s scalp the terrible things that seem to breed only to do harm. The client is missing teeth and talks about the challenges of raising her children. The social worker and the client discuss together how to approach the subject of sexual maturity with her eldest daughter, and it’s a thoughtful conversation about a difficult transition in a child’s life. It’s suggested in their diction and locution that the two women are from different backgrounds of education and class, but here in a cluttered kitchen they’re absorbed in the generous process of community, removed from their backgrounds, and considering each other only as peers. It reminds me of a passage from Ted Cohen’s book on metaphor, Thinking of Others, in which he says, “Understanding one another involves thinking of oneself as another, and thus the talent for doing this must be related to the talent for thinking of one thing as another; and it may be the same talent, differently deployed.”
As I walk in and out of the stores and buildings to find what Wiseman had made in the film, I realize it’s impossible to see what’s invisible, in the sense that the abstract ideas of power and community and human spirit are visible only when drawn into a frame of tension or balance, where one element is realized by its relation to another. That Wiseman is able to conjure this out of the daily moments of human life by only editing the sequence in which it occurs seems like some form of magic. As Richard Brody, the New Yorker film critic, said to me when we discussed Wiseman’s films: “Wherever he goes, he sees certain big factors at work, whether it’s boxing or in a model agency or a hospital or a mental institution or a school. No matter what he films, he sees systems. He’s like a man with a kind of intellectual X-ray machine in front of his eyes, perceiving the hidden structures, the conflicting lines of power, the conflicting interests, the different ideas and ideologies at work in physical phenomenon.”
Wiseman and I meet again in the same booth at the same time, and we talk about the influence of other forms of art on his work. The writers Wiseman returns to often are Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman, and Poe, as well as Henry James and Laurence Sterne. He’s read Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet and Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater many times. Patrick Modiano is on his nightstand now. “It’s not a literal one-to-one relationship, where I stole this from that,” he says. “It’s in how I’ve seen a character presented, or the passage of time. Because the abstract issues in all art forms are the same—characterization, metaphor, abstraction—and those are all the issues that I’m dealing with in editing. When a movie works, it proceeds on two tracks: on a literal track and an abstract track. The real movie is where the literal and abstract meet, and they go back and forth between each other in the course of the editing. I try to provide enough of the literal so someone can understand what’s going on in the sequence. The abstract is the idea or ideas suggested by that literal encounter, which is what any good novel is doing.”
If fiction has proved to be a model for him, the theater has become his second mode of expression. Wiseman wrote the script for The Last Letter, which adapts a section from Vasily Grossman’s epic Life and Fate. The film debuted in Paris at La Comédie-Française in 2000. Wiseman filmed Catherine Samie in the role of Anna Semionova, who, living in a fictional Ukrainian ghetto occupied by the Germans in 1941, is writing a final letter to her son, a physicist who lives safely in Moscow, before she and others are slaughtered by the Nazis. Using multiple cameras and bands of shadows, Samie’s small gestures and careful inflections are heightened and shaded by the proximity of the camera and the distance between her and darkness.
Empowered by the explicit context of brutal, unchecked fascism and violence, Semionova describes how the horrible nature of some of her neighbors was revealed as the Jews were forced into the ghetto, and how she and others clung to the routines of life knowing that their death was imminent. With so little time left to live, her affection for her Jewish identity is rekindled, which is entwined with her affection for her son. “But now, during these terrible days, my heart has become filled with a maternal tenderness toward the Jewish people,” she writes. “I never knew this love before. It reminds me of my love for you, my dearest son.”
When Wiseman staged the play in the theater, Samie addressed the audience that Wiseman positioned carefully around the stage, so that the actress could make eye contact with various people in the crowd who might have the sense that the letter had been written to them. In the filmed version, the camera comes at Samie from the side or just off-center, as well as head-on, and you imagine that she is both talking to her son and talking to you, the viewer. Semionova’s routines take on a charged, heightened meaning. “And I’m busy myself from morning till night—visiting my patients, giving lessons, darning my clothes, doing my washing…” As if to suggest, among many things, that the routines are what we absorb ourselves in when we don’t want to directly face, or need to take refuge from, the larger forces that dictate our lives, the lack of control we have, or of the control we can have if at key moments we are able to break away from the comfort of our routines to face hard and difficult realities. In his films, Frederick Wiseman has given his audience a model to achieve this freedom, through an honest confrontation with who we are and how we live.
Sean P. Cooper is a staff writer at Tablet and co-editor of The Scroll, the magazine’s afternoon newsletter. For alerts about his work, sign up for his newsletter here.