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How Frederick Wiseman Shot The Great American Novel

They may never get around to writing the Great American Novel, but in the meantime if people need to get a sense of what it’s like to live in this country, they could do a lot worse than to have a close reading of the films of Frederick Wiseman.

Since the late 1960s, the indefatigable documentarian has been chronicling the country by filming its institutions, from mental hospitals to universities to entire cities. While this premise may strike some as dryly sociological, Wiseman is a natural storyteller, creating surprising, intimate portraits of individuals and their communities. Taken together, his films amount to a great repository of American life — call it the Fred Wiseman Cinematic Universe (which has now expanded into France and Great Britain as well). As a reflection of the sheer variety of strangeness of the United States, his work can take on a certain quasi-encyclopedic value, not unlike, say, “The Simpsons.” And like that particular American institution, it is also frequently very funny.

“I’m not the first to recognize that many aspects of human behavior are quite funny, my own included,” Wiseman told me. I met him at Film Forum, where his newest film, “Ex Libris — The New York Public Library,” will be playing from September 13 to September 26. A retrospective of films from the middle third of his career will conclude on September 14. Wiseman has been so steady in his output that the complete retrospective of his work has to be split into three parts. He waited until he was already 36 to make his film first, the 1967 “Titicut Follies,” but he’s more than made up for it by remaining prolific well into his 80s.

“I was bar mitzvahed a few years ago, so I have to stay in shape,” he explained. “I mean, that’s one of the nice things about making these movies, it demands all of your resources. You have to be in shape in order to run around 12 hours a day with the equipment, and to be reasonably alert. The movies are both intellectually and emotionally demanding.” Filmmaking alone, though, is an insufficient guarantor of longevity. When I asked Wiseman what else he does to stay sharp, he asked, “You want my exercise regimen?” with an incredulous chuckle, then kindly volunteered it: “I ride an Exercycle 40 minutes, probably at least six times a week. I work out with weights and do various stretch exercises. I’m quite diligent about that.”

Wiseman grew up in Boston in the 1930s, which he describes as “a time of blatant anti-Semitism.” His father, a lawyer, was part of the group that founded Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital, which came into existence because Jewish doctors were discriminated against at the city’s reigning major hospitals. “I still remember the power of Hitler’s voice,” he said. “Obviously I couldn’t understand the German, the words weren’t translated, but the hypnotic power of his voice was something that stuck with me.”

Wiseman continued to experience discrimination after the war as well. As a student at Williams College in 1947, he made the unpleasant discovery that Jews weren’t accepted to the fraternity system that dominated the school’s social life. “I was a very innocent 17-year-old,” he admitted. “I was asked to come to college a week in advance of classes to rush, and I had no idea that Jews weren’t taken. I had no idea what fraternities were. And it was a very unpleasant experience; and as a result, I hated Williams. It was worse for the non-Jews who weren’t taken in fraternities, because they had no excuses.”

As unpleasant as college may have been, it was there that Wiseman first developed a skill that has served him profoundly throughout his career. “In those days it was called close reading,” he explained. “Not only in my so-called regular personal life, but also when I’m editing the movies, because the implications and the connotations of the words are important. So I try to listen carefully… I pay as much attention to the words people use as I do when I’m reading a novel.”

Image by Zipporah Films

“Ex Libris” provides the clearest and most potent exhibition yet for Wiseman’s reverence for the word. For a film about libraries, it has remarkably little to do with books. Instead, the director fills a healthy portion of the film’s luxuriant 197-minute runtime with extended, spoken discourses. The viewer is invited to grapple with the words and ideas of Ta-Nahisi Coates, Patti Smith and more. A lecture comparing Karl Marx’s work to the anti-capitalist thought of pro-Slavery American reactionary George Fitzhugh rubs up against an impassioned reading by Miles Hodges of his own poem about the black experience. Wiseman doesn’t organize these torrents of speech into a clear argument reflecting his own views on the country, but invites the viewer to engage with them contrapuntally. Even a single text can be considered in multiple ways. At one point, we watch a showcase of American Sign Language, showing how signers make the library’s offerings accessible to the deaf. The translator demonstrates how the Declaration of Independence can be signed in two different ways. First we see how she works with an angry, impassioned reading, then and pleading one. Wiseman asks us to consider how the meaning of the words is transformed by the language of emotion and physical movement.

Wiseman’s care for language is immediately evident when speaking with him as well. As a rule, if he feels that he can respond to a question in an illuminating and productive way, he will provide an exceedingly clear and generous answer. He’s extremely good with words, and he speaks in paragraphs, often offering multiple examples that elucidate what he’s talking about. But when Wiseman feels that a question would lead him to fall short of his own high communicative standards or, worse, interfere with a viewer’s experience of his work, he will politely decline to answer. Fred Wiseman does not engage in speculation, conjecture or colorful musings. He does not go in for profligate speech. When I asked him how he feels the country has changed over the course of his long career, a topic of evergreen curiosity within the media, he replied: “I can’t make that kind of generalization. It would be bullshit.”

He prefers to bring one’s attention back to the films themselves. When I asked him about the role that humor plays in his films, he responded, “You answered your own question: Humor plays a role because you see funny sequences in the movie.”

Wiseman does his grappling with his subject matter within the filmmaking process. Like the very different but similarly prolific South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo or, for that matter, Cezanne, Wiseman has found a repeatable method that produces widely variable results. He doesn’t do much research beforehand, preferring to figure things out on set. (“I’d be very unhappy if there was something interested going on and I was there doing quote, ‘research,’” he told me. “So the shooting is really the research.”) Then he creates the film’s story only in while editing. Regarding this aspect of production, he said, “In order to make the choices about what to use and how to use it in the editing — whether I’m right or not is another matter — I have to think I understand what’s going on, and the implications not only of the choice of words but of the choice of actions. So the editing is in large part an analysis of human behavior.”

It is in this process of analysis that Wiseman’s work comes to take on something of a writerly quality, like that of the essayist who takes to the page to figure out exactly what she thinks. Of course, this is true to some extent of all worthwhile films, which by necessity trace their makers’ ideas in movement, light and montage. Where Wiseman’s are exceptional is in their directness and transparency, in the rigorous elimination of anything that might interfere with his search for the story in what he sees and, by extension, the viewer’s attempts to find the same. There’s a pronounced note of humility in this way of working. Though never neutral, Wiseman preserves an element of indeterminacy, never letting his own conclusions get in the way of the viewers’ ability to create their own meaning.

Recently, Wiseman has found inspiration for his knotty studies of human behavior in a place that might have seemed unlikely upon the release of “Titicut Follies,” his harsh look of the brutality inside Massachusetts’s Bridgewater Hospital for the Criminally Insane, which was banned until 1991 following a lawsuit by the state government of Massachusetts. Alongside the last two films he has made in the United States, “At Berkeley” (2013) and “In Jackson Heights” (2015), “Ex Libris” forms a triptych on American liberalism. Each runs for at least three hours, and explores in depth a coastal bastion of liberal values and thought. In keeping with the director’s willingness to allow his viewers to make up their own minds, people will draw their conclusions, likely in keeping with their prior thought about liberal America. Some will see the subjects of these films as heroes doing the work that allows society to function, while others will perceive only rank hypocrisy.

To my mind, these films are fascinating as studies of a certain kind of idealism forced to come to terms with the concrete realities of a changing world. Each uses extensive scenes of meetings, where people painstakingly hash out questions of how their beliefs can be transferred into action. We’re given an opportunity to reflect on both the power and the limitations of good intentions. In real time, we watch as the country’s poetical and paradoxical Enlightenment-era founding ideals come up against the day-to-day imperatives of 21st-century institutional power. The substantial durations of these films is not the result of the director self-consciously courting an epic mode of storytelling, but rather a question of practical necessity, the need to capture the fits, starts and repetitions that determine the pace at which bureaucracy and activism alike move. Throughout, Wiseman eyes his subjects with significant sympathy and formidable skepticism.

Wiseman is notoriously coy about his future films, so for now it’s impossible to know whether he’ll continue this project or leave it to remain a sort of trilogy. But he did name some places where he knows he’ll never be able to film but sorely wishes he could: the CIA, the FBI and the White House.

Of the latter he remarked, “That would be a great comedy.”

Daniel Witkin is the Forward’s culture intern. Reach him at [email protected] or on Twitter, @dzwitkin

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