Playback: Frederick Wiseman's 'Hospital'
When I was 16, I'd drive my parents' Volkswagen Beetle through the shimmering heat of the District of Columbia to M Street and the air-conditioned refuge of the Biograph Theater, where I'd see whatever was on offer: Godard, Bellocchio, Fellini...and Fred Wiseman's documentaries, like Law and Order and High School. But it wasn't until my 40s that I saw Hospital, set in the Metropolitan Hospital, a public facility in Harlem. Up near the front row at New York City's Film Forum, I experienced it as a near-religious work-from the opening shot of the patient, face invisible, arms spread as in a crucifix, to the closing shot of the highway, with the voices of the congregants in the hospital's chapel floating over the hum of cars.
I was slack-jawed at the filmmaker's perspective: deeply present, yet also as lofty and removed as if from Mars. Here was a film not just about modern science, or the risks of poverty, or what today's public health experts would call "health disparities." Hospital is a soaring portrait of humans working to ease the suffering of others--why they do it, and why they often fail.
What's so tricky about Wiseman is that he leaves you room to think. His thinking--so present in his editing, his framing, his choices--challenges you to think back at him, to answer by figuring it out yourself. In a second viewing, my mind went in new directions, to the portraits: the bare-chested young black man bathed in blood and his girlfriend hunched over him, her hand on his; the bewildered elderly patient who can't decide whether to disrobe for the female nurse; the overworked doctor who calls the private hospital to protest a patient's discharge, though he knows his call will have no effect. I think I knew what Wiseman thought about them. But what did I feel?
No film is free of its time and place, and, made in 1969, Hospital seems innocent today: No competitions to see which person will be voted out of Metropolitan Hospital, no savvy "performances" by the people being filmed, no off-the-shelf "narrative arcs" supplied by filmmaker or subject. The pleasures of Hospital are subtler, harder earned. But then, on a desert island, I'll have time to burn, wouldn't I? All the time to tease out the layers of meaning in the film.
I see that on Wiseman's website (www.zipporah.com), you can buy a DVD collection of everything this artist has made--36 films all told--and as much as I love his work, I have barely seen half of them. I wonder if on the desert island, the authorities would agree that Wiseman's entire body of work is really a single film, and let them all through in my bags. Then I'd get to know modern America and its mysteries more intimately than I could ever hope to in my daily life here, regardless of how remote the island. Only Wiseman's films? No others? Not a worry; I'd be set for life.
Thomas Lennon's documentary work has nominated for five IDA awards; he won once in 2007. That same year, he and Ruby Yang won an Oscar for "The Blood of Yingzhou District."