Skip to main content

Lost in Transcription: '5 Films' Nonetheless a Valuable Resource

By Tom Powers

5 Films by Frederick Wiseman
transcribed and edited by Barry Keith Grant
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006)
432 pages


There is an image in Frederick Wiseman's 1967 film Titicut Follies that no viewer is likely to forget. An inmate at the Bridgewater State Prison for the Criminally Insane in Massachusetts is being force-fed through a tube in his nose. A doctor, standing on a chair, holds a container of liquid nourishment in one hand and a funnel connected to the tube in the other. The doctor is smoking a cigarette, and as he pours the liquid into the reluctant patient, his cigarette ash grows longer and dangles over the funnel, threatening to fall in. The image is horrifying, suspenseful and almost comic--yet it is nowhere to be found in Barry Keith Grant's meticulous transcription of the film in his new book, 5 Films by Frederick Wiseman. What we do get is a guard's taunting dismissal of the inmate: "Okay, you've had your dinner."

Grant has transcribed all the dialogue in Titicut Follies, High School, Welfare, High School II and Public Housing, a selection of films that spans 30 years of Wiseman's extended investigation into American public institutions. In accomplishing this daunting task, however, Grant has eschewed a more conventional screenplay format in favor of minimal descriptions of shots and settings. Characters are not described--in some cases they are not even introduced, seeming to pop up out of nowhere--and scene transitions are inconspicuously bracketed at the ends of passages of dialogue. In his valuable introduction to the book, Grant, the author of the 1992 study Voyages of Discovery: The Cinema of Frederick Wiseman, says his goal was to maintain a "neutral" tone, providing necessary descriptions but avoiding anything that would smack of interpretation. It is easy to compose a litany of the shortcomings of this approach.

Wiseman is one of the great documentary film editors, and as the filmmaker himself notes in the book's forward, his process is one of "compression, condensation, reduction and analysis." The power of his films lies not only in their dialogue but also in their shifts in ambience--from public spaces to more intimate settings; from classroom discussions in High School to the meting out of discipline in the vice principal's office; from an open forum of the "Men of Wells" (an activist group in Public Housing) to a nun's one-on-one conversation with a recovering drug addict she has encountered at a rummage sale. Wiseman knows when to linger on quiet scenes, such as the sequence in which Simon and Garfunkel's "The Dangling Conversation" plays during a High School English class, and it is hard for Grant to convey the duration of such scenes, though he avows that he has tried to capture the rhythm of the films. (Some of that rhythm can be observed on the printed page as the transition from lengthy dialogues to briefer interactions.)

Wiseman's seemingly effortless observational style captures key visual details, such as an inspirational motto discovered in the mise-en-scne of a boys' sex education lecture in High School: "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might." More broadly, in Wiseman's films physical posture and individual personality and race and age expand the context of what is being said. 5 Films includes 74 stills from the films, but many speakers are left undescribed.

Perhaps most crucially, what is missing from Grant's approach is the reaction shot. Drama in a documentary can be imbedded in a situation (the general powerlessness of the public assistance recipients in Welfare) or a confrontation (the police arresting a pair of refrigerator thieves in Public Housing), but in Wiseman's documentaries the drama most often is delivered through conversations, and to appreciate that drama we need to see both sides. In Grant's book we get only the speakers, not the listeners, so the impact of what is said is inevitably diminished.

Simply put, Grant has not given us a whole sense of the filmmaker's artistry, and for those who are new to Wiseman's documentaries, this book is not a good place to start. Among other things, the lengthy, fragmented conversations can be slow reading. But for Wiseman's admirers, the book will trigger a barrage of memories and it will prove a valuable resource for documentary scholars--particularly in light of the relative inaccessibility of Wiseman's films, which are distributed by his self-operated company, Zipporah Films, and are too rarely found in video stores.

Most Wiseman fans will remember the ending of High School, in which the school principal reads a letter from a grateful graduate who is now facing combat in Vietnam. ("I am only a body doing a job.") But Grant's book reminds us that a similar moment occurs in Titicut Follies, when a nurse mentions a letter she has received from a former inmate. "Well, it makes you feel good that you're doing a little something for 'em," she says, "even at the time you don't think you're helping them, because they have such a problem." The book provides numerous points of contrast between High School and High School II, particularly in terms of the students' willingness to question authority and challenge racism (a lingering preoccupation in Wiseman's films).

5 Films by Frederick Wiseman also should find a home on the shelves of linguists and cultural anthropologists--Wiseman is a great chronicler of American democracy--and it will provide an aid to all those aspiring screenwriters and playwrights who want to capture the nuances of American spoken English during the years of its decline. (It is remarkable how infrequently the characters in a Wiseman film complete a well-formed grammatical sentence.) Grant's transcriptions give us the voice of America, evoking class and social status, as well as the gentleness of aimless conversation, the aggressiveness of those in authority and--Wiseman's recurring theme--the futility of words in resisting that authority. As a client says at the end of Welfare, "Sure. I'll sit down. Shut up. Why not? You're the law, man, you're the man. Everybody's the man when you don't have anything. Everybody's the boss when you're broke."

That kind of citation would be nearly impossible without a book like this. And Wiseman is certainly a worthy subject. As Grant convincingly argues, and demonstrates with this book, "Wiseman has shown on film more of American life--how Americans dress, behave and, most crucially, talk--than any other filmmaker."


Tom Powers teaches cinema studies at Illinois State University.