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
From the novel by VICTOR HUGO
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.

In 1939, Lillian Hellman tried to persuade Sam Goldwyn to buy John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. The producer demurred, saying he was put off by “the gloom and the sordidness of the background and the people.” Twentieth Century Fox's Darryl Zanuck felt differently. Zanuck paid Steinbeck $100,000 for the rights to his novel, and hired Nunnally Johnson to write the script and John Ford to direct. The Grapes of Wrath wasn't the first time Zanuck took a novel about the disenfranchised and turned it into studio gold. Five years earlier, he shot a version of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, which the producer saw as “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang in costume,” noting that its story of a man forced to steal bread was “the theme of today.” The film, released in 1935, was directed by the Polish/Russian, Stanislavsky-trained Richard Boleslawski, and featured two brilliant actors in the lead roles: Fredric March as the reformed thief Valjean and Charles Laughton as his long-term tormentor Javert.

Zanuck's Les Miserables wasn't Hugo's Les Miserables, which was no doubt to the good of the film. As with The Grapes of Wrath, what lingers in the mind about the 1935 Les Miserables is the rich, atmospheric detail of the photography and set design, as well as the leads, whose ferocity makes the script's betrayal of the novel irrelevant. What lingers just as strongly is the realization that once upon a time Hollywood thought poor people were not just interesting subjects, but necessary as well. Zanuck's Les Miserables was the first of at least seven screen versions of the Hugo novel, three of which have been made by Hollywood. The newest version has been directed by Bille August, the Danish director who started out with small films like Twist and Shout before transforming The House of the Spirits into a house of wax and Smilla's Sense of Snow into slush.

August's Les Miserables stars Liam Neeson as Valjean and Geoffrey Rush as Javert. Rush is quite good in the role, and in his final scene, the most alive and forceful in the film, begins to approach Laughton's wild-eyed zealot, whose obsession with Valjean carried a tinge of sexual menace. That menace is absent from August's film, as too are Valjean's erotic feelings for Cosette, which, ironically, were more acceptable for post-Code Hollywood than the Hollywood of the late 20th century. Neeson, who tends to emote through his looming physicality – he's pantherlike in Schindler's List, an ox to slaughter in Ethan Frome – is directed to either charge through a scene like a bull or hesitate meaningfully midframe, as if signaling a shift in his emotional register. His Valjean seems less haunted – and hunted – than slow on the uptake. Claire Danes, as Cosette, the orphan Valjean adopts from Uma Thurman's terminally stricken whore, snivels through her role well enough and, like everyone in the cast, speaks her lines with an English accent. Perhaps that explains why the Parisian mob looks so polite when her love interest, Hans Matheson as Marius, squeaks, “To the barricades!”

LA Weekly