(NOTE: I tried valiantly, but to no avail. This post will mean most to those who have already seen a Frederick Wiseman film. Checking out his Wiki entry will help, however.)
Frederick Wiseman is a documentary filmmaker who got started during the glorious days of the 60s, known as the era of cinéma vérité (though he’s staunchly opposed to that term). His films are narration-free, score-less glimpses into the daily life of American institutions and facilities. These include a hospital, a high school, an army training camp, a juvenile court, etc. These unblinking presentations are seemingly free from judgment, and they tend to be pretty damn bleak.
(Until recently, these films were very difficult to see in a theater and impossible to find on video. Gratefully, that’s all changed. Wiseman’s gotten with the program. Visit his website to see his prolific roster of films—all affordable on DVD, in wonderful transfers–and for those in the Williamsburg/Greenpoint area, you can rent these at the wonderful Photoplay on Manhattan Ave., near Greenpoint Ave.)
Williamsburg, Brooklyn, last week. Since our son will begin pre-K this fall, my wife and I are touring local schools. We’ve been to three, and they have ranged in quality, sure, but I could easily see Harry attending any of them. There’s a fouth, however, that is pretty damn bleak. Debbie frowned upon it immediately and before I knew it, I said, “Yeah, that’s a Wiseman school.”
And it felt so perfect a description. True, he’s frequently showing us depressing situations (i.e. forgotten inmates at an institute for the criminally insane), but I’m talking about the look of his early films. There’s a joy-free heaviness created by the combination of B&W 16mm film stock; low-light situations, including a preponderance of fluorescents; and economically-depressed locations. The way the light falls down the porous walls, the way the backgrounds—it can only be described as…Wiseman.
Naturally, my instinct would be to affect it with a suffix, such as Runyonesque or Dickensian, but, no, this time around I don’t see the need. Just Wiseman does the trick.
To me, Wiseman places include:
•any Post Office in Brooklyn
•Greyhound bus stations
•Chinese take-out restaurants
And let’s not limit this expressive word to just places. It could be any number of things. Who here has had a Wiseman job? Or a Wiseman date? I know I have.
And what about feet? They’re Wiseman. So’s my hairline.
I’d say anything that’s not completely lifeless, but dying nevertheless—well, that could adjective could do the trick.
Food? Shoot. Fishsticks are Wiseman. And so are Necco Wafers. And if you’ve ever taken the bun off the top of a plain McDonald’s hamburger, then you’ve seen the fastfood equivalent of a Frederick Wiseman film.
I’m going to stop before I become the Jeff Foxworthy of Documentary Film Analysis.