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‘The World According to Frederick Wiseman’

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Filmmaker Fredrick Wiseman attends the 53rd New York Film Festival at The Film Society of Lincoln Center, Walter Reade Theatre on October 4, 2015, in New York City.

“Visions & Voices” is a terrific USC-sponsored arts and humanities initiative. The series features theatrical productions, musical and dance performances, film screenings, lectures and workshops by critically-acclaimed artists and distinguished speakers.

Most of the events are free and open to the public, though seats must be reserved. On Aug. 26, the series will feature world-renowned documentarian Frederick Wiseman. Tickets are available online.

At 2 p.m., the conversation will be “The World According to Frederick Wiseman: Beyond Documentary, Into History.”

That evening at 6 p.m., Wiseman — who is 86 — will screen and discuss his most recent film, “National Gallery.”

“Titicut Follies,” Wiseman’s second documentary, remains one of his best-known. In the spring of 1966, he spent 30 days at the Massachusetts Correctional Institute at Bridgewater, a maximum-security prison for the “criminally insane.” The film was released in the fall of 1967, and though Wiseman had acquired releases from all the depicted patients and staff, an injunction was obtained and the film was not available to the general public until 1989.

Vincent Canby of the New York Times called it “a small, black-and-white picture, laconic, abrasive, occasionally awkward and always compelling.”

Like all of Wiseman’s films, “Titicut Follies” has no narration and no commentary. He simply presents certain carefully-selected scenes and sequences, then leaves the viewer to his or her own reflections, questions and conclusions.

It’s a testament to Wiseman’s genius that a film about the horrors of a maximum security prison is an evocative, even poetic, cinematic work of art.

Prisoners are stripped naked and left in empty cells to howl, stomp, pound the window frame or despair. Vladimir, diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, very reasonably observes, “Your test asks me, ‘How many times have you been to the toilet? How often do your friends go to the toilet? Do you believe in God?’ That is not the business of any physiologist or doctor!” In a later scene, the staff prescribes him a larger dose of tranquilizers.

In one notoriously harrowing sequence, a doctor force-feeds a strapped down inmate, nonchalantly dangling his cigarette ash over the gurney. The sequence is intercut with the same inmate being prepared for his burial and lowered into the ground while a Catholic priest officiates.

One conclusion to be drawn is that this antiquated, crumbling institution treated its inmates better in death than in life. But in today’s prison culture of 24/7 isolation, where inmates are often released for only a single hour a day and then into a cage, the large yard at Bridgewater where the prisoners could dance, cavort, rant, mingle and sing seems downright humanitarian.

We see a birthday celebrated noisily around a large table, the inmates exhaling smoke from their ubiquitous cigarettes over the cake. The title, Titicut Follies, alludes to the New Year’s Eve variety show put on by the prisoners, complete with costumes, mics, banners and decorations, and, if the ham director of the place tries to steal the show, well at least there was a show.  

As a result of the film, conditions for the criminally insane in Massachusetts were eventually improved.

Since then, Wiseman has made over 40 more films, including “High School,” (1968), “Model” (1980), “Domestic Violence” (2001) and “In Jackson Heights” (2015). 

He describes his work as more novelistic than journalistic. “I’m interested in human behavior and I have to find a framework where that can be explored.”

His process has remained essentially the same over his 50-plus-year career. His crew is small. He does no research: “The shooting is the research.” He shoots “a lot” — from 75 to 250 hours — of film.

Discussing the 12- to 14-hour days that went into making “At Berkeley” (2013), Wiseman explains, “In order to make these kinds of films, you have to stay in shape. It’s a sport. You can’t allow yourself to get tired. If you get tired, you make mistakes.”

He doesn’t even begin to think of structure until seven or eight months into editing: all of which he does himself. He shares the film with no one until it’s done.

“I don’t know how to think about whether a film’s going to be seen by a lot of people. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I make the film to meet my own standards. Once you start thinking about [the market], you get involved in the traditional Hollywood trap … of diluting the material to meet your fantasy of the lowest common denominator.”

This refreshing refusal to compromise, and a wry sense of humor, make Wiseman a captivating interview. 

He doesn’t pretend to be objective. He does believe he has a responsibility to be fair.

“All aspects of documentary filmmaking involve choice and are therefore manipulative. But the ethical ... aspect of it is that you have to ... try to make [a film that] is true to the spirit of your sense of what was going on,” he says. “The crucial element for me is to try and think through my own relationship to the material by whatever combination of means is compatible.

 

Heather King is a blogger, speaker and the author of several books.

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