Frederick Wiseman

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Frederick Wiseman
Frederick Wiseman.jpg
Wiseman discussing his work at the Herbst Theatre on June 13th, 2005
Born (1930-01-01) January 1, 1930 (age 84)
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
Alma mater Williams College
Occupation Director, producer
Spouse(s) Zipporah Batshaw (m. 1955; 2 children)

Frederick Wiseman (born January 1, 1930) is an American filmmaker, documentarian, and theatrical director.[1]

Life and career[edit]

Wiseman was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Gertrude Leah (née Kotzen) and Jacob Leo Wiseman.[2] He spent 1954–56 serving in The U.S Military. Wiseman spent a few years in Paris before coming back and started teaching law at Boston University's Institute of Law and Medicine. He shortly came to documentary filmmaking after first being trained as a lawyer. He has won numerous film awards, as well as Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships.[3][4]

In 2003, Wiseman was awarded the Dan David Prize for his outstanding films, which make us reckon with our emotions and the cost to society of marginalizing those who cannot speak for themselves. In 2006, Wiseman received the George Polk Career Award, given annually by Long Island University to honor contributions to journalistic integrity and investigative reporting.

The first feature-length film that Wiseman produced was The Cool World in 1963. He next produced and directed Titicut Follies (1967). He has both produced and directed all of his films since. They chiefly are studies of social institutions: for example, hospital, high school, police department. All have been aired on PBS, one of his primary funders.

The style of Wiseman's films is often referred to as the observational mode, which has its roots in direct cinema. However, Wiseman dislikes the term:

What I try to do is edit the films so that they will have a dramatic structure, that is why I object to some extent to the term observational cinema or cinéma vérité, because observational cinema to me at least connotes just hanging around with one thing being as valuable as another and that is not true. At least that is not true for me and cinema verité is just a pompous French term that has absolutely no meaning as far as I'm concerned. Aftab, Weltz

In spring 2012 Wiseman took actively part in the three month exposition of Whitney Biennial.[5]

In 2014 he was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 71st Venice International Film Festival.[6]

Philosophy[edit]

Wiseman's films are, in his view, an elaboration of a personal experience and not an ideologically objective portrait of his subjects.

In many interviews, Wiseman has emphasized that his films are not and cannot be unbiased. In spite of the inescapable bias that is introduced in the process of "making a movie", he still feels he has certain ethical obligations regarding how he portrays the events in his films:

[My films are] based on un-staged, un-manipulated actions... The editing is highly manipulative and the shooting is highly manipulative... What you choose to shoot, the way you shoot it, the way you edit it and the way you structure it... all of those things... represent subjective choices that you have to make... In [Belfast, Maine] I had 110 hours of material ... I only used 4 hours – near nothing. The compression within a sequence represents choice and then the way the sequences are arranged in relationship to the other represents choice. Aftab, Weltz[7]

All aspects of documentary filmmaking involve choice and are therefore manipulative. But the ethical ... aspect of it is that you have to ... try to make [a film that] is true to the spirit of your sense of what was going on. ... My view is that these films are biased, prejudiced, condensed, compressed but fair. I think what I do is make movies that are not accurate in any objective sense, but accurate in the sense that I think they're a fair account of the experience I've had in making the movie. Spotnitz

I think I have an obligation, to the people who have consented to be in the film, ... to cut it so that it fairly represents what I felt was going on at the time in the original event. Poppy

Process and style[edit]

Wiseman works only four to six weeks in the institutions he portrays, with almost no preparation. He spends the bulk of the production period editing the material, trying to find a rhythm to make a “movie.”

Present in every Wiseman film is a dramatic structure. Not necessarily a narrative arc per se – his films rarely have what could be considered a distinct climax and conclusion; any suspense there may be is at a per-scene, human experience level and not constructed from carefully placed plot points; there are no consistent human characters with whom the viewer is expected to identify. Nevertheless, Wiseman feels that drama is a crucial element for his films to "work as movies" (Poppy). The "rhythm and structure" (Wiseman) of Wiseman's films pull the viewer into the position and perspective of the subject (human or otherwise). The viewer feels the dramatic tension of the situations portrayed in the films, as various environmental forces create complicated situations and conflicting values for the subject.

Wiseman openly admits to manipulating his source material to create dramatic structure, and indeed insists that it is necessary to "make a movie."

I'm trying to make a movie. A movie has to have dramatic sequence and structure. I don't have a very precise definition about what constitutes drama but I'm gambling that I'm going to get dramatic episodes. Otherwise, it becomes Empire. ... I am looking for drama, though I'm not necessarily looking for people beating each other up, shooting each other. There's a lot of drama in ordinary experiences. In Public Housing, there was drama in that old man being evicted from his apartment by the police. There was a lot of drama in that old woman at her kitchen table peeling a cabbage. Peary

A very distinctive aspect of Wiseman's style is the complete lack of expository (narration), interactive (interviews), or reflexive (revealing to the viewer some part of the filmmaking process) elements. Regarding the lack of reflexive elements, Wiseman has stated that he does not "feel any need to document [his] experience" and feels that such elements in films are vain. (Lucia)

In the process of producing a film, Wiseman will often acquire more than 100 hours of raw footage. His ability to create a feature-length film that is engaging and interesting, without the use of any voiceover, title cards, or motion graphics, while still being "fair", is the reason why Wiseman is seen as a true master of documentary film.

This great glop of material which represents the externally recorded memory of my experience of making the film is of necessity incomplete. The memories not preserved on film float somewhat in my mind as fragments available for recall, unavailable for inclusion but of great importance in the mining and shifting process known as editing. This editorial process ... is sometimes deductive, sometimes associational, sometimes non-logical and sometimes a failure... The crucial element for me is to try and think through my own relationship to the material by whatever combination of means is compatible. This involves a need to conduct a four-way conversation between myself, the sequence being worked on, my memory, and general values and experience. Wiseman

Filmography[edit]

  • The Cool World (1963) (producer only)
  • Titicut Follies (1967)
  • High School (1968)
  • Law and Order (1969)
  • Hospital (1970)
  • I Miss Sonia Henie (1971)
  • Basic Training (1971)
  • Essene (1972)
  • Juvenile Court (1973)
  • Primate (1974)
  • Welfare (1975)
  • Meat (1976)
  • Canal Zone (1977)
  • Sinai Field Mission (1978)
  • Manoeuvre (1979)
  • Seraphita's Diary (1980)
  • Model (1980)
  • The Store (1983)
  • Racetrack (1985)
  • Multi-Handicapped (1986)
  • Deaf (1986)
  • Adjustment and Work (1986)
  • Missile (1987)
  • Blind (1987)
  • Near Death (1989)
  • Central Park (1989)
  • Aspen (1991)
  • Zoo (1993)
  • High School II (1994)
  • Ballet (1995)
  • La Comédie-Française ou L'amour joué (1996)
  • Public Housing (1997)
  • Belfast, Maine (1999)
  • Domestic Violence (2001)
  • La Derniere lettre / The Last Letter (2002)
  • Domestic Violence 2 (2002)
  • The Garden (2005)
  • State Legislature (2006)
  • La Danse (2009) – about the Ballet de l'Opéra National de ParisPBS link
  • Boxing Gym (2010)
  • Crazy Horse (2011)
  • At Berkeley (2013)
  • National Gallery (2014)

Theatrical work[edit]

In addition to his better known film work, Wiseman has also directed and been involved in theater, in the US and France.[8]

  • "Emily Dickinson, La Belle d’Amherst" (The Belle of Amherst) by William Luce. Le Theatre Noir, Paris, Director, May–July, 2012[9]
  • “Oh Les Beaux Jours” (Happy Days) by Samuel Beckett. La Comedie Francaise, Paris. Director, November – January 2006; Director & Actor, Jan–March 2007.
  • “The Last Letter” an adaptation from the novel Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman Theatre for a New Audience, New York. Director, December 2003
  • “The Last Letter” an adaptation from the novel Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman. North American Tour with La Comedie Francaise production (Ottawa/Toronto, Canada; Cambridge/Springfield, MA; New York, NY; Chicago, IL) Director, May–June 2001
  • “The Last Letter” an adaptation from the novel Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman. La Comedie Francaise, Paris. Director, March–April 2000, September–November, 2000
  • “Welfare: The Opera,” story by Frederick Wiseman and David Slavitt, libretto by David Slavitt, music by Lenny Pickett. St. Anne’s Center for Restoration and the Arts, New York. Director, May 1997
  • “Welfare: The Opera,” story by Frederick Wiseman and David Slavitt, libretto by David Slavitt, music by Lenny Pickett. American Music Theater Festival, Philadelphia. Director, June 1992
  • “Hate” by Joshua Goldstein. American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge. Director, January 1991
  • “The Last Letter” an adaptation from the novel Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman. American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge. Director, May 1988
  • “Tonight We Improvise” by Luigi Pirandello. American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge. Director of video sequences and actor in role of documentary filmmaker, November 1986 – February 1987

Sources[edit]

  • Lucia, Cynthia (October 1994). "Revisiting High School – An interview with Frederick Wiseman". Cinéaste 20 (4): 5–11. 
  • Peary, Gerald (March 1998). "Frederick Wiseman". Retrieved 2007-11-12. 
  • Poppy, Nick (2002-01-30). "Frederick Wiseman". Salon.com. Retrieved 2007-11-12. 
  • Spotnitz, Frank (May 1991). "Dialogue on film". American Film 16 (5): 16–21. 
  • Wiseman, Frederick (April 1994). "Editing as a four-way conversation". Dox: Documentary Film Quarterly 1: 4–6. 

References[edit]

  1. ^ Philippe Pilard (August 26, 2012). "Frederick Wiseman, Chronicler of the Western World". La Sept/Arte. 
  2. ^ Frederick Wiseman Biography (1930-). Filmreference.com. Retrieved on 2014-05-22.
  3. ^ New York Times
  4. ^ Iol.ie
  5. ^ Roberta Smith (March 1, 2012). "A Survey of a Different Color 2012 Whitney Biennial". NY Times. Retrieved March 5, 2012. 
  6. ^ "Thelma Schoonmaker and Frederick Wiseman Golden Lions for Lifetime Achievement". labiennale. Retrieved 7 September 2014. 
  7. ^ Fred Wiseman. Iol.ie. Retrieved on 2014-05-22.
  8. ^ "News & Events". champselysees-paris.com. Retrieved August 26, 2012. 
  9. ^ Philippe Pilard. "Frederick Wiseman, Chronicler of the Western World". La Sept/Arte. Retrieved August 26, 2012. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Barry Keith Grant, Voyages of Discovery: The Cinema of Frederick Wiseman, University of Illinois Press, 1992. (Wiseman's oeuvre: 1963–1990)
  • Thomas W. Benson and Carolyn Anderson, Reality Fictions: The Films of Frederick Wiseman, 2nd edition (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002). (Comprehensive history and criticism of the films).
  • Dave Saunders, Direct Cinema: Observational Documentary and the Politics of the Sixties, London, Wallflower Press 2007 (Contains a lengthy section on Wiseman's first five films)
  • Barry Bergman, 43 years after 'Titicut Follies,' it's Berkeley, the movie,, UC Berkeley News, Sept. 14, 2010.
  • Siegel Joshua, de Navacelle Marie-Christine,"FREDERICK WISEMAN",The Museum of Modern Art, New York,2010. ISBN 978-0-87070-791-9

External links[edit]