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Frederick Wiseman’s Cosmic Joke

The Old Master of documentary film talks about tantrums at London’s National Gallery, his curiosity, and his love of janitors

Jeremy Sigler
December 15, 2014
Larry Busacca/Getty Images
Frederick Wiseman poses at the Guess Portrait Studio during 2013 Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 7, 2013.Larry Busacca/Getty Images
Larry Busacca/Getty Images
Frederick Wiseman poses at the Guess Portrait Studio during 2013 Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 7, 2013.Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Never before has such a mixed bag of “documentaries” been so instantly available through digital streaming. But Frederick Wiseman’s films are still hard to find, and equally hard to ingest. Other documentary filmmakers associated with the Cinema Verité movement are inclined to stalk a charismatic subject until something truly unprecedented is caught on film; Wiseman, however, lets the true drama of his subject speak, even if nothing especially dramatic happens. His mastery is in capturing the uneventfulness of everyday life. (Ironically, his films are a treasure trove of mind-boggling, often hilarious occurrences.)

Wiseman is now in his eighties (born in 1930) and has made more than 30 full-length feature films, mainly ingenuously non-opinionated accounts of American institutions (public high schools, factories, the military, and hospitals), most of which originally aired on PBS. His historic contribution to the art of 20th-century cinema is a given, yet each new film retains an innocence and curiosity that thrusts us yet again into a new context. There we may witness another collection of performances by “normal” people who often don’t realize they are “acting” in a movie. In his latest slice of reality, National Gallery, Wiseman immerses his audience in a cinematic “behind the scenes” choreography of the London museum’s blockbuster Leonardo da Vinci show, as well as its magnificent collection of Old Master paintings. Never before has da Vinci been upstaged by painfully long administrative meetings; verbose docents; framers; restorers; museum workers erecting and breaking down galleries, painting walls, installing paintings, polishing floors, tilting lights, and even tending bars—and I almost forgot: hordes of art-loving, googly-eyed museum-goers.

When I asked Wiseman “Where are the curators prancing around throwing temper tantrums?” he replied, “What you see of human nature in the paintings is infinitely more troubling than any diva performances among the staff.” In other words, the film documents the silent acting of the paintings themselves, even as they are crowded and cramped by all the noise and nonsense of the art world. I recently met up with Wiseman at Film Forum in lower Manhattan. I would have preferred to set up a camera and sit with him for three or four hours, so to let his body language speak for itself. Instead, I have to admit, I did what he so skillfully refrains from doing in his movies: I asked questions.

Have you ever missed a great opportunity?

That always happened with film, because the roll would run out every 11 1/2 minutes.

But do you ever just say: “I wish I had this on film, I wish I was working right now.”

All kinds of things go on that you wish you could include in a film. Absolutely. Documentary film can ruin your life—because you see everything in film terms. Particularly right after a shoot. Then it calms down. When you’re shooting, you tend to think you’re super alert.

Your films teach us how to be alert to certain things. Like, when I came to Film Forum just now to meet you, I walked through the lobby, past the box office and popcorn machine, and I heard the sound of a vacuum cleaner, and I saw a man all alone cleaning the theater, and I thought: “That’s a Frederick Wiseman Moment, right there!”

That’s a shot. It’s in all the films!

Are you fascinated with janitors?

It’s a joke!

Maybe it’s your way of suggesting to us that you are maybe the custodial engineer of art. In your work, your premise is not to ask questions, but to let your subject, whatever it may be, speak for itself. And here I am rattling off questions. It’s a sacrilege! I am disappointed that I can’t do a film of you and present you the same way you present people.

If you did a documentary of me, it wouldn’t necessarily reflect anything about me. It would be your film, and it would reflect the way you see your subject.

Also it would appear as an imitation of your work. I could try to somehow not imitate you. It’s like the art academy students in National Gallery who sit sketching the Old Masters’ paintings. I still don’t understand why an art teacher would make someone do that.

It forces them to look at the original work more closely and to understand the choices the artist made and the deeper structural issues. I don’t think that it’s a wasted exercise, actually.

The skill of your editing is almost subliminal. I don’t think people realize how much choreography, musicality, and rhythm is involved in what you present.

Well, I’m glad you see it!

I said to my students the other day: “Don’t rush me!” They were dumbfounded. Your films seem to state this implicitly. They say, “This might take a while, and I’m not going to jump to the chase just for you.”

I don’t think of it that way. In the films that are long, the subjects are very complicated, and I’m obligated to reflect the complexity of my subject matter.

A typical scene in one of your film seems to run much longer than one would expect—it’s kind of a form of generosity. But I’m sure some people find it exhausting. People expect to have everything summed up and packaged.

That’s not the style that interest me really. I don’t see how you can do that when you’re dealing with the kinds of subjects I’m dealing with.

Like showing the entire inner workings of a high school. I’m describing the anxiety of others, I guess—the live audience—when I go off on a tangent. I feel like the audience is generally worried that they might be led astray. But I guess that’s what “winning them over” is all about.

I don’t show the work to anyone until it’s finished so I don’t have to deal with anyone’s anxiety while I’m working. But the only safe thing, for me, is to assume that the audience is either as smart or as dumb as I am. Because otherwise it’s condescending.

How do you know when you’ve shot all the footage you will need, and that you are ready to begin the editing process?

It’s an intuitive judgment. For this recent film, I shot the National Gallery for 12 weeks. I kept track of the major sequences, so I had a sense of what I had. Maybe after so many months I was just ready to go home.

My favorite scene in National Gallery is when the woman is applying gold leaf to these very ornate frames, and you take the time to show each leaf being lifted from this little velvet corduroy pillow with tweezers and carefully applied. Detailed moments such as this are your trademark—how do you capture such intricacy?

It’s based on experience. And my experience, in the early films, was often not having what I needed. So, in the gold leaf sequence, I knew in advance—and this is true of any sequence—that I needed wide shots, and shots that followed the action. I knew I was going to want close-ups with hands, and close-ups with the gold leaf. That sequence probably took an hour and half to shoot.

Repetitive sequences like that, or like the ballet rehearsal I filmed in La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet

… or the scene in Missile, where these two soldiers go through a 20-step rehearsal to launch a missile—

… or the sardine factory in Belfast, Maine can be shot in a variety of ways so that I have options later in the editing. When there’s a mechanical process that I know is going to repeat, I have the luxury of shooting it in a variety of ways. But usually the action only happens once.

That sardine factory in Belfast is really powerful. You create so much compassion for the factory workers. Their cold, tired hands. You show us the hordes of slimy sardines as they come down a shoot and turn a corner and fall onto the conveyor belts. We follow the sardines, and the noisy tin cans, down the line and through this whole labyrinth.

That sequence in Belfast is about nine or 10 minutes. There are 270 shots in it, I think. But it was reduced from about five hours.

At first it reminded me of something I might have seen when I was kid, on Sesame Street—but then I was hit with this very strong emotional content—empathy for the factory workers cutting the sardines the way they do—slicing off the heads and tails—with this remarkable back-and-forth flip of the scissors.

That sequence is an example of what I hope is true of all my films. They have to proceed both in a literal and an abstract track simultaneously. And the movie exists in the relationship between these two tracks.

At the end of National Gallery I found myself laughing out loud in the theater. It was specifically during the modern dance choreography that takes place in one of the galleries. But it wasn’t really that funny. I think I was laughing because I was nervous that the two dancers were going to back up into one of the billion-dollar paintings. Your humor is deadpan.

I’m glad you got the joke.

But I was the only one laughing. And I started to think I was ruining the ending for others. I assume an audience that hasn’t really been exposed to your work might not get it.

Well, I’m not concerned with those people. I make the films to meet my own standards, I don’t know how to do it any other way. I don’t mean that to sound arrogant. If I tried to do it any other way I’d be involved in the typical Hollywood business of diluting the material to reach my fantasy of the lowest common denominator.

Your films just unfold and open up. But at the same time they are so tautly edited, and refined. How do you find that balance?

Everything about the movies is an illustration of compression. I mean, National Gallery is compressing 170 hours of rushes, three months experience… an average of 90 days, 12 hours a day, around 1,000 hours… all into a 3-hour film. That’s compression.

You’ve left us. Now you live part of the year in France.

Well, it’s nice there!

But you’ve consistently presented an American audience with a study of America. You are integral to this place. Isn’t America your source of inspiration?

Oh, it’s still a major part of my work. I mean, I made my art museum film in London’s National Gallery because they gave me permission. I actually tried to get permission from the Met way back in the early 1980s and they wanted to get paid, so I had to pass.

I wonder whether you’re more appreciated in France.

I’m in France because I like living there, and because I’ve had several projects that I’ve wanted to do there. Besides, Paris is a beautiful city. And the food is good.

One film you made in France recently is called Crazy Horse. It was not typical of your work because it was so sexy. I think your films challenge us with things that are if anything unsexy—like being kept alive on life support, or getting balled out by a high-school detention officer. But you could almost say this film is erotic.

I think it’s a movie about eroticism, but I’m not sure the movie is so erotic. Personally I find the dancers much more attractive in rehearsal than in performance.

My favorite scene is the one where all the girls are huddled around watching this funny compilation of ballet dancers seen falling, or “failing.” Each fail, the girls erupt in laughter. It makes me think of the 1976 Cassavetes film, The Killing of the Chinese Bookie, because he is able to bring out the humanity and kindness of people who are stereotypically thought to be pretty thick-skinned and jaded.

I think the girls are much prettier without their make-up on, and when they’re not wearing wigs. They become individuals. I mean, I got to know the dancers quite well, and sometimes when they were all lined up on stage, like in this number “Baby Buns,” I’d find it difficult to tell them apart.

Yeah, the scenes where they are rehearsing are filled with personality. It radiates through the fetishism and brings a smile to your face.

In terms of my own sense of who I was attracted to, I found the rehearsals far more sensual—and sexual—than the performances.

I think it was a new kind of film for you, in a way. But it also comes full circle back to your earliest film Titicut Follies. It is a return to the theme of the cabaret, the “show within the show.” Titicut Follies was banned for a very long time. Are you still willing to take on such controversial topics?

The Follies was a difficult film. I had to wait over a year and a half for permission. Getting permission has been relatively easy ever since. Plus it was my first film. But I’ve never shied away from anything that I thought might be controversial. I think that must be evident from what I’ve done since then.

It is evident. But then again, who knows what films you may have wanted to make but never got permission to make.

I view the Follies as kind of a cosmic joke. Although maybe “cosmic” is too pretentious a word.

Well, the premise of a light-hearted follies inside an insane asylum is a fairly dark joke. We watch these “criminally insane” men singing and dancing in very stylized rehearsed numbers. It’s hard to tell if anyone is having fun or feeling any joy.

I didn’t take it personally when it was banned. I mean I thought they were fools to go after the film the way they did. I was pleased to subsequently win the fight and make the film available.

After 23 years! That’s a long fight. Many artists would have given up.

I was doing plenty of other stuff, so I didn’t dwell on it. I figured that over the long run I would prevail.

But in the Follies, you really did touch a nerve. National Gallery, by comparison, doesn’t touch a nerve. It won’t piss off the art world, for example. No one will protest it being shown, or fear being exposed. I would have loved to hear the voices and words not just of the docents and administrators and talented artisans, but to hear more of the cynicism and conflict within the institution—voices of discontent or disillusionment. I guess I also want the art world to be seen as a cosmic joke, to borrow your phrase.

Well, it depends on whether you include the subject matter of the paintings in your evaluation. If so, it is perhaps a less positive view of human nature.

I like the occasions in your films when I think you are winking at the audience. You show a detailed closeup of a man being lynched from a tree in The Witches, by Salvator Rosa. For me that was a wink.

Well, it’s a question of not being too heavy handed.

You really go into quite a lot of detail about showing the cosmetics—the makeovers, the facelifts—of the paintings. There is far more science and expertise that goes into the restoration and even maintenance of so many old master paintings.

My personal impression is that the people in the restoration department are extremely competent, particularly Larry Keith, the chief restorer, who was in the film a lot.

I loved the intensity of the work they were doing and how high the stakes are, of course. It takes a lot of composure to mess with a Rembrandt.

That’s the crucial detail really. I think Larry Keith points out that months of work can be erased in 15 minutes because everything they do is done on top of a thin layer of varnish, which can be removed very easily without doing any damage to the painting. And that they are guided by the premise that future generations can erase all the work they have done if they choose to. I was quite startled to discover that.

There must be a point when people in your films just let go—when they are no longer self-consciously performing for the camera, or even aware of the camera in the room.

No. That is generally not how it works. My experience is that people never perform for the camera, even at the very beginning. Besides, keep in mind, in most of my films I only see people once.

Would you consider the “condom” scene in High School II a performance for the camera?

That’s one of the funniest scenes in any of my movies.

I guess that is an example of you documenting the way people “perform” in their daily lives. But I’ve always assumed, I guess wrongly, that there was a historical moment in the early 1960s when people were naive about being in front of a movie camera—where maybe they didn’t realize there was a telephoto lens being used, or a tape recorder. And that maybe attitudes have changed with our exposure to this technology.

It’s a complicated question. There are a variety of possible explanations. I don’t know if there’s one single answer. There’s indifference, there’s vanity, there’s narcissism. Maybe vanity and narcissism are the same thing. There’s also the fact that most of us can’t suddenly change our behavior. Most of us aren’t good enough actors to become somebody else.

There’s another element to it too—that most of us think what we do is OK. We don’t think that there’s anything wrong with the way we are behaving. Nor do we not think we’re going to be judged by others.

So, we’re totally oblivious by nature.

I’ll give you an extreme example, which I think highlights the issue. Have you seen Law and Order? It’s a film about the Kansas City police. In order to make an arrest for prostitution in Kansas City at that time, the vice squad cops had to have a price and an act. So, somebody in the vice squad picks up a woman, goes back to the hotel, gets undressed, or still has his shorts on, and they have to just about get into bed, and she describes what she’s going to do for him, and there’s a mention of a money transaction, And then he arrests her! And he leads her down the steps of the hotel. But she knocks him down, and flees to the basement. He gets on a walkie-talkie and calls the vice squad car; they come to the hotel and the bellhop says she’s fled to the basement. We go to the basement—there’s no light in the basement but I have my sun gun with me. The cops then drag her out from under the furniture where she’s hiding and one of the cops starts to strangle her in front of the camera. And he holds her neck for about 20 or 30 seconds and then lets her go. She says to the other cop who’s holding her hands, “He was trying to strangle me!” And the second cop says, “Oh no, you were just imagining that.” Meanwhile my camera recorded it and the audience will see it.

Do you ever get discouraged or confused while editing and actually fail at putting it all together?

Sure, there are days when I think it’s a disaster. Editing is a manic-depressive cycle. There are days where I think it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever done, and there are days when I despair that I’m never going to get finished—and neither is true. The trick in editing is to sit in the chair until it’s done.

Well, also in editing text, you have to take one sentence at a time, you can’t get ahead of yourself, or get overwhelmed. Like combing tangled hair. Eventually the comb will glide through smoothly.

Yeah. Right!

I think I’ve been lucky, I’ve gotten some really funny or sad sequences, and there are unexpected moments for sure. The projectile vomiting scene in Hospital comes to mind. The young man’s lines are so great. He says, “You can’t do nothin’ with art; you can’t do nothin’ with nothin’. I think I should go back home to Minnesota.”

In Near Death you show a man in a hospital bed fighting for his life. And there is also a total disconnect between the horror of the situation and his wife’s choice of words and tone of voice. I learned years ago that you actually work by ear—does this mean that you’re not looking, but just listening?

No, you have to have good pictures and good sound to make a movie. You have to pay attention to both. Sometimes I feel I can tell the story better with pictures; other times I am more dependent on sound.

Well, there’s a beautiful sequence in High School, where the woman gives this lecture on a Simon and Garfunkel song. But then you switch modes, and visually go through this portal of looking and listening. And you begin to express everyone’s isolation and loneliness. On the one hand, there’s the poetry of people’s voices and dialogues. And then there’s also the way you use sound to put us in a trance.

I’m not saying I always figure it out correctly, but I have to at least think I know why people are using the words they’re using, when they’re saying what they’re saying, and what the significance is of their expression. This way I can examine a shift in their body language, or when they ask for a cigarette.

In National Gallery, there are a few moments that I loved where the camera wandered over to a shadow on the wall of some scaffolding. It caught my eye.

I’m always looking for good shots. In National Gallery I was looking for shots that could resemble paintings.

So, that was your painting! You are the Old Master.

Jeremy Sigler’s latest book of poetry, Goodbye Letter, was published by Hunters Point Press.

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