Movies We Like
Frederick Wiseman (various films)
Frederick Wiseman is one of those great filmmakers whose entire body of work has been virtually unseen by the fast majority of film lovers, even documentary nerds. That’s because for nearly 30 years, Wiseman has been “unsure” of the marketing of his films to the public. I was lucky enough to see two of Wiseman’s classics, Titicut Follies and High School at my local college library - they had a terrible VHS duplicate made from an old 16mm print. Even in these poor conditions, I was sure that Wiseman was one of my favorite filmmakers and that these films were two of the greatest documentaries I had seen or would ever see.
Titicut Follies is definitely the most well known and controversial of Wiseman’s films. Shot in 1967, the film explores the lives and living conditions of inmates at the State Prison for the Criminally Insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. The film was banned for nearly 25 years because of state privacy laws enforced by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Apparently, psychiatrists and social workers frowned upon seeing themselves on the silver screen humiliating, torturing, and straight up bullying the mentally insane and catatonic.
Titicut Follies is hard to watch. Imagine seeing One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest for the very first time, but it’s real and there’s no “Jack” to lighten the mood. If you want something a little lighter (and I do mean, only a little…), I’d recommend watching High School. I think I’m drawn to this one because of its ironic humor and its fantastic black and white cinematography. In fact, while shooting Elephant, Gus Van Sant and cinematographer Harry Savides studied this film for its natural beauty and eloquence.
Over the past 40 years, Frederick Wiseman has been interested in institutions, whether it is juvenile court or the ballet. After viewing only a handful of the 35 films Wiseman has to offer, you can see a type of formula behind them. Wiseman goes to the location and films - no direct interviews, no setups, just critical observation and exploration. He has no idea what the film is going to be about before the filming. His main concern is with capturing something real and then giving it shape and meaning in the editing process. The old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” comes to mind when I think about Wiseman’s motivation behind his consistent filmmaking style. But, others find a whole lot more meaning behind his process.
A lot of people see Wiseman as a socialist filmmaker, critiquing the corrupt and contemptible institutions that our capitalist society has to offer. And yet, many others see him as a humanist, ever capable of finding our humanity in the amorphous link that bonds us all together. But in reality, the filmmaker’s motivation belongs to neither extreme camp and remains less definable and more open-ended. Wiseman’s films have the ability to be personal statements about humanity and its institutions without preaching a singular message. Wiseman’s true genius lies in his skillful assembly of hundreds of hours of footage for each film. Like a composer, he picks just the right shots and organizes them so that intellectualism is in perfect harmony with catharsis and humor.