By Amy Nicholson
By LA Weekly critics
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Anthony D'Alessandro
Directed, edited and produced by FREDERICK WISEMAN
Photographed by JOHN DAVEY
FilmForum at LACE
6522 Hollywood Blvd.
Sunday, May 3, 7 p.m.
For information, call 213-526-2911.
Directed by BILLE AUGUST
Written by RAFAEL YGLESIAS
From the novel by VICTOR HUGO
Produced by SARAH RADCLYFFE and JAMES GORMAN
and CLAIRE DANES
Released by Columbia
Early in the second 100 minutes of Frederick Wiseman's Public Housing, there's a strangely poetic interlude - scene isn't quite the word - in which an elderly black woman silently cuts some cabbage with a knife that seems too large, too full of threat, for her slow, bony fingers. The woman is a resident of the Ida B. Wells housing complex in Chicago, where Wiseman's documentary takes place, and it takes her a long time to trim the cabbage leaves fanning over her lap. In another room, a black man, a plumber, tends to a leak under the woman's sink, while yet another black man, possibly the woman's grandson, ducks from the camera's sight. When the plumber finishes, he asks the elderly tenant to sign a work order. As she begs off, fluttering a papery hand and gently murmuring, it seems all too probable that the woman can't write her name.
Public Housing is Wiseman's 30th documentary, and far and away better than most of the commercially released nonfiction films to hit theaters in the last few years. Critic David Thomson has observed that Wiseman is "accumulating an epic documentary panorama of American systems," a project that began with the once-banned Titicut Follies, an uncomfortable film about a hospital for the criminally insane, and has continued through films about models, meatpackers and racehorses, among other subjects. As with some academic critics, Thomson has conflicting feelings about Wiseman's work, reservations that seem to stem from the filmmaker's fly-on-the-wall approach and the presumptions of objectivity inherent in that method. Wiseman's self-proclaimed neutrality, sneers Thomson, explains why so many of his documentaries end up on PBS, "a comfortable and pious institution for sedate liberalism."
Though that begs the question of whether PBS has been comfortable for a while - or especially liberal - it is true that the network has provided a periodic home for many documentary filmmakers, including Wiseman, whose Public Housing aired locally last December. And when it comes to documentaries in general and Wiseman in particular, it seems entirely beside the point, if not a matter of ludicrous bad faith, to ridicule the most important lifeline in this country between serious documentary filmmakers and their audiences - evident not just in the programming schedules of public television stations, but in the theaters currently screening Michael Moore's The Big One and Barbara Kopple's Wild Man Blues, two public-relations gambits that go a long way toward proving the degraded reality of documentary distribution.
At last January's Sundance film festival, four of the 16 documentary features in competition were about famous men (Kopple's suck-up to Woody Allen among them), one took a crudely glib view of the modeling industry, and another explored the world of B movies. In short, more than a third of the documentaries at the premier independent film festival were about celebrity in one form or another. Although its unglamorous subject alone helps to explain why Public Housing is exceptional, particularly now, it doesn't begin to explain the insinuating power of Wiseman's film.
We never find out if the old woman can read and write - as customary with Wiseman, there's no voice-over narration to let us know - and it isn't long before his camera is nosing about another corner of the complex, dropping in on a social worker and his client, a crack addict looking to get clean, whose eight-member family scrapes by on some $1,200 a month in government assistance. In another part of the complex, two men are busted for stealing a fridge ("That's an old-ass refrigerator," protests one of the suspects); somewhere else, a woman casually smacks a girl on the head, only to be hit in turn by a man standing nearby. Inside the complex, a hand puppet admonishes some children that drugs will make "your mind poison," while a counselor advises bored young mothers about safe sex as the room fills with their children's wailing. Two women compare their sewing, a man tends a garden, and the police stand patrol - keeping criminals out, or perhaps residents in.
At their best, Wiseman's films count on - force is too presumptuous a verb - a level of audience attention rarely expected by most moviemakers, who chop up their films in small bits as if believing the audience completely toothless. The interlude with the elderly woman in Public Housing is engrossing (in its formal rigor, the moment recalls a scene in Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, in which the eponymous heroine prepares a meat loaf in real time), but it seizes your attention not because the woman or her way with a cabbage is in any way extraordinary. Exactly the reverse: The woman's painstaking gestures, the cramped kitchen, the bruised cabbage, her frail humanity, are all absolutely unremarkable, which is, in the end, the modest, brilliant point of Wiseman's work.
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