There were many significant developments in the field of documentary filmmaking in the decades following World War II. The nature documentary pioneered by Robert Flaherty was followed shortly after his death with the color masterpieces of Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau, The Silent World and World without Sun. As we have seen in our series, the political polemics of Emile de Antonio (Point of Order) and social concerns of Lionel Rogosin (On the Bowery) provided a new perspective on filmic truth. As a counterweight to this was the cinéma vérité movement, the offshoot of the Soviet documentarian Dziga Vertov. In France we had Chris Marker (Le Joli mai) and Jean Rouch. In America, we had Richard Leacock (formerly an assistant to Flaherty), D. A. Pennebaker, Robert Drew, and the Maysles brothers. In a few weeks, we’ll take a look at the increasing impact of television on this field.
Last week, in his column in The New York Times, Joe Nocera wrote about “the grand old man of documentary filmmaking.” He was referring to Frederick Wiseman (who will be 84 in two weeks), and Nocera was writing about the director’s latest film, the four-hour At Berkeley. Titicut Follies, his first film, runs only 84 minutes. If one had to categorize Wiseman, he probably belongs with the vérité directors, but there is a special flavor to much of his work. No other filmmaker seems to totally immerse himself in whatever subject he is dealing with, whether it’s theater, dancing, boxing, animals, schools, or small towns. His cinematic world seems to encompass all of reality, all of our world. At times, I have personally (half-jokingly) suggested that Wiseman perhaps goes too far, possibly is too inclusive. Part of me (perhaps overly addicted to Hollywood storytelling) longs for a stronger editorial voice, somebody who provides a more personal touch, like the great auteurs of narrative film: Renoir, Chaplin, Ford, etc. Still, Wiseman’s output is unique and, ultimately, to future scholars of our time, a treasure trove of documentary images on “how we live now.”
Titicut Follies grew out of Wiseman’s visits (while he was studying law) to Bridgewater Hospital in Massachusetts, a facility for the criminally insane. The director had produced Shirley Clarke’s The Cool World, shot on the mean streets of New York, four years earlier, so he was not a complete novice at filmmaking. The denizens of Bridgewater, of course, provided rich and charismatic subject matter—too rich for contemporary tastes, it turned out. Lengthy court battles ensued in which the state of Massachusetts prevented the film from general release until 1991. Lawyer Wiseman had secured permission from the inmates at the time of filming, but the nudity and the brutal treatment of the inmates were deemed unacceptable in certain political and judicial circles. Much of this (like force-feeding) has apparently become standard practice after 9/11. In any case, Wiseman’s film documents, in what is referred to as “direct cinema,” what is happening in front of his camera without any narrative comment. In the case of Titicut Follies, perhaps more than in his later films, nothing needs to be said. Wiseman has explicitly attacked cinéma vérité as a “pompous French term.”
Lest Wiseman be accused of simply turning on his camera (as Andy Warhol, of whom Wiseman is critical, sometimes seems to do), he argues that he is highly selective about what he releases in the final versions of his films. For example, he shot more than two dozen times the final footage of his four-hour Belfast, Maine. Wiseman argues that, although he has a point of view and unavoidably manipulates through the editing process, his distillation is “fair” to his subjects. This is echoed by critic David Denby: “Wiseman…is free of the usual vanities and delusions. His clarity is temperamental and pragmatic; he’s sure that he can’t afford to be stupid. Yet this toughness is not accompanied by the usual cynicism and derision expressed by people who pride themselves on never being taken in. Hope lies in the underbrush of his movies too.”