Skip to main content

Reality Fictions: The Films of Frederick Wiseman

By Mark Harris Guest

Reality Fictions: The Films of Frederick Wiseman
By Thomas W. Benson and Carolyn Anderson
Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989

In a country where surviving as a documentary filmmaker is an art in itself, Frederick Wiseman has not only flourished but created a body of work more imposing than any other independent documentarian in American history. In more than 30 years of moviemaking, Robert Flaherty made only five major films. In contrast, Wiseman has already produced 23 documentaries since he began filming Titicut Follies in 1966, and a 24th, Aspen, will be released this spring. That is approximately one feature-length documentary each year for almost a quarter of a century, an unparalleled accomplishment.

Reality Fictions is a preliminary history and criticism of Wiseman's work. It examines nine of his films in detail, each from a slightly different perspective. The authors describe their overall approach as a rhetorical one in which they explore the responses Wiseman's films seem to invite in their audiences and examine how the filmmaker constructs his documentaries to bring about that experience. The authors' approach is useful, their readings of the films intelligent and fre­ quently perceptive, but, as a whole, the book is frustrating and unsatisfying. Ironically, it suffers from some of the same structural problems as Wiseman's later films.

Beginning with Titicut Follies, a study of the horrifying prison hospital for the criminally insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, Wiseman has set out to explore American institutions. His style of filmmaking is by now familiar to most documentary viewers. As Benson and Anderson describe, he begins by obtaining permission to film from a particular institution. (In the case of the Massachusetts Correctional Institute, this negotiation, and the resulting court case, was more complex than the making of the film itself.) Once permission has been obtained, Wiseman, a cameraman, and an assistant (Wiseman records sound himself) spend from four to six weeks photographing what they encounter. Although they may spend 12 to 15 hours a day observing the institution, they record at most about two hours of film a day. In the process they shoot about 100 to 120 thousand feet of film. Back in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Wiseman edits the film with an assistant, selecting the best sequences from the 50 to 60 hours of footage and assembling them into a final film of one-and-a-half to three hours.

An important characteristic of Wiseman's style that separates him from most other contemporary documentarians is the way in which he structures his films. As the authors point out, Wiseman's documentaries are not traditional narratives, but mosaics—speculative, paradoxical, dialectical. Their lack of traditional narrativity forces viewers to work harder than they have to in most films to form their own attitudes and make their own judgements about the material presented. The looseness and openness of Wiseman's work often elicits contradictory responses from viewers.

The authors devote a considerable part of their book to examining the structure of Wiseman's films, the most problematic aspect of his work. Generally uncritical of the filmmaker, they comment that, "It is a mark of Wiseman's gifts that his films are full of seemingly anomalous details, bits of human oddity, and yet that nothing seems wasted... Somehow, the films maintain a felt coherence, in which these details seldom seem simply extraneous or self-indulgent on Wiseman's part, and yet the coherence is not ever merely tidy or neatly symbolic. "That may be true of Wiseman's earlier films, but it seems less and less true of his later work, which has become more repetitive, redundant, and arbitrary.

Wiseman's early muckraking films were tightly structured, building, particularly in High School, to a fitting climax which powerfully summarized and reinforced the film's themes. In his later films, which became more and more bloated, the presence of many scenes are inexplicable, the pace numbing, and even the cutaways between the scenes are extended to excessive lengths. The cautious authors refrain from making any negative comments about the films or comparing one to another. Their prose is balanced, carefully qualified, as restrained as their judgements. Although they acknowledge that a lesser film like The Store was perceived by many critics as trivial and dull, they defend it by comparing it with the banality of prime-time network TV programs broadcast at the same time.

Their reluctance to criticize Wiseman, or discriminate among his films, weakens their analysis. All Wiseman's films are not equally effective. As David Denby pointed out in his recent New York Review of Books essay, "in the early eighties Wiseman seemed to be running out of subjects that could fully engage him. "

Interestingly, the book's organization reflects some of Wiseman's own structural weaknesses. Each chapter focuses on a separate film or films and a slightly different aspect of the filmmaker's work. But the authors don't make much effort to link the themes of the chapters or to build to any strong conclusion. The book rambles and is often redundant, becoming less rather than more interesting as it proceeds.

Much of Wiseman's strength as a filmmaker, like that of all good artists, is the vision of the world he presents—what he makes us see. And despite the seeming variety of subject matter he explores in the almost 48 hours of documentary he has produced, Wiseman's vision has a remarkable consistency. As Marcel Proust astutely commented about Tolstoy, "in spite of everything... (he) repeated himself in his apparently inexhaustible creations; apparently he had at his disposal only a few themes, disguised and renewed, but always identical." The same is true of Wiseman. Whether he is documenting a welfare department or a modeling agency, a high school or a department store, he frequently records the same kinds of experiences.

Whatever setting he visits and whatever camera­ man he takes with him—he has used four in his documentaries -he carries the same basic interests : a concern for power, authority, and control and the way institutions shape both the people they serve and those who administer them. Though he finds occasional moments of competence and courage, mostly he records frustration, callousness, suffering and indifference. For all the thousands of feet of film he shoots, he repeatedly shows us the same kind of behavior: bureaucratic doubletalk, the debasement of language, hypocrisy, the dehumanizing effects of bureaucracy and what he calls the "surrealism of the normal." "The great subject of documentary filmmaking," he has said, "is normalcy, and sometimes normalcy turns out to be more bizarre than anything else. It may even be true surrealism."

As a preliminary assessment of Wiseman's career, Reality Fictions has merit, but it is too reverent, too uncritical and lacks the bite of the filmmaker's own work. Fortunately, since Wiseman continues his remarkable productivity, there should be ample opportunity for another, more definitive book about him in the years to come.


Mark Jonathan Harris is an Academy-Award winning documentary filmmaker. He co-directs Advanced Documentary Production at the University of Southern California.