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Reality DVD: The Films of Frederick Wiseman

Frederick Wiseman
Courtesy of Zipporah Films

The year 2008 marked the 40th anniversary of High School, Frederick Wiseman’s simple 75-minute documentary about a large public high school in Philadelphia. Hailed at the time as a landmark of the emerging American “direct cinema,” or “cinéma verité,” High School has retained its iconic status: In 1989, it became one of the first films selected for preservation by the Library of Congress.

Over the past four decades, Wiseman has continued to make almost a film a year. Most of these documentaries have been praised (though the filmmaker has never been nominated for an Oscar), but actually seeing them is another matter. Until now, Wiseman’s films have never been released on home video — making PBS airings and occasional museum or art-house screenings the only way to catch them.

But last year, Wiseman finally started releasing his documentaries on DVD through his Zipporah Films, and as of this month, 33 of his docs (plus his sole narrative feature, The Last Letter) are available for purchase at $29.99 a pop.

In the years since High School, the American documentary has evolved dramatically, but Wiseman’s style has remained much the same: long takes, no musical score, no interviews. While it may make one wince to hear Wiseman’s name mentioned in the same sentence as tawdry pop entertainments like The Hills or The Real Housewives of Orange County, those shows are descendants of the style he originated. Today we call them docu-soaps or reality shows, but Wiseman early on described his own technique as “reality fictions.”

Wiseman’s innovation was the nonfiction close-up. Documentary cinema from Robert Flaherty on usually consisted of medium or wide shots. Interviews, à la TV news, might feature a medium close-up (provided there was a microphone), but true close-ups were strictly the realm of Hollywood movies.

Wiseman — and the invention of portable zoom lenses — brought the intimacy of the close-up into the world of nonfiction film. He did this famously in his 1967 debut, Titicut Follies. The film — banned for years by the Massachusetts Supreme Court — showed the inhumane treatment of inmates at a prison for the criminally insane, but it was one bravura sequence that stood out, in which Wiseman crosscuts between shots of a man being force-fed and close-ups of the same man being groomed by an embalmer for his funeral.

The use of clever montage is an exception in Wiseman’s films; the hallmark of his style is using a zoom lens to hone in on a person and then simply hold on him or her. In High School, this is done to ravishing effect in a five-minute scene showing a teacher reading aloud a letter from a student in Vietnam. The intimacy of the shot, tight on her face, filmed from a low angle, allows us to feel her triumph in reading this message from a wayward former pupil who found himself in the Army. The close-up crowds out objectivity — and it is this tool that allows us to empathize with the subjects of Wiseman’s films, even when they are deluded, cruel or insane.

Watching these Zipporah DVDs is a documentary lover’s dream. Highlights include impossible-to-turn-away-from scenes showing a man who used to work at Social Services applying for welfare himself, in 1976’s Welfare; a Kansas City prostitute almost strangled to death by the police, then calmly chatting with them as they arrest her, in 1970’s Law and Order; and a director maniacally demanding perfection for a 30-second Evan-Picone pantyhose commercial, in 1980’s Model.

None of the films is as succinct or says as much about America as High School (though 1997’s sprawling Public Housing comes close), but each of them contains moments of revelation, which make most of what airs on Bravo and Discovery seem like hastily churned-out fluff. A show like How It’s Made reduces the making of a hot dog to a tidy five minutes, whereas Wiseman’s Meat (1976) goes from cattle to ground chuck in a leisurely two hours. The process is, of course, the same; but with Wiseman, we see the complex humanity that accompanies everything — the meat cutters looking away to catch a glimpse of a college football game on TV, or management discussing the meatpackers’ pension plans.

As the pace of life in America has accelerated, Wiseman has slowed down. His first three docs were all less than 90 minutes, whereas his past three have each been around 200. These long-anticipated DVDs, like the films themselves, are no-frills — no audio commentaries or deleted scenes — but are definitely worth the wait.


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