NYFF On The Scene: "Public Housing" in "Washington Square"
by Andrea Meyer
Fred Wiseman has made thirty films in thirty years. His unique method involves dropping a camera in the midst of a location — a group of people, a situation — and simply observing. The result is a complex portrait of its subject matter, be it “High School,” “Central Park,” or in his most recent film “Public Housing,” a unflinching look at the various tenants living in the Ida B. Wells Housing Development in Chicago. “Public Housing” poses questions that it does not purport to answer.
The film keeps its slow and careful eye focused on the various stories that comprise the lives of the residents of Ida B. Wells. We visit a tenants council meeting, meet an addict on the run from a gang, an old man being evicted from his apartment. Never is there any judgment. Never do we learn Wiseman’s agenda. Wiseman’s art lies in the choice and structuring of the material. He says, “each cutaway was chosen, so each cutaway represented or at least suggested a story.” And then each story plays into the larger context of the film.
Wiseman shot “Public Housing” in six weeks. The residents all gave consent to being filmed. For this reason, Wiseman considers his film in no way voyeuristic. When in the past he’s resisted filming something for moral reasons, he’s always regretted it afterwards. He says, “anytime people think that films like this are voyeuristic, they should stop looking.” Wiseman has made thirty films. He has received innumerable fellowships, honors, and awards. Yet when asked what he has gotten out of his experience as a filmmaker, he says simply, “I’ve gotten older…I’ve learned how to make these films, and what I’ve learned gets translated into the films.”
[In addition to its NYFF screening, “Public Housing” will be broadcast Monday, December 1 at 9 P.M.(ET) on PBS.]
A REMAKE TO REMEMBER
Agnieszka Holland has created a new version of “Washington Square,” Henry James’ 19th century novella that was adapted for the stage by Ruth and Augustus Goetz and for screen in William Wyler’s 1949 film “The Heiress.” Why has the celebrated director of “Europa, Europa,” and “Oliver, Oliver,” decided to retell this familiar story? Holland says that it’s “like asking why make Hamlet again and again.” With an outward simplicity concealing its complexities, the classic tale of Catherine Sloper, a shy, young heiress who is transformed by the attentions of a beautiful but poor suitor, is open to an array of interpretations.
Holland feels that “James sounds more contemporary today than twenty years ago because society becomes more conservative.” Holland read the screenplay by Carol Doyle, a young actress from Ireland who is making her screenwriting debut with “Washington Square,” and was inexplicably moved. When asked why she had chosen this particular project, she paused as if she hadn’t quite understood the question. “It is so instinctive for me why I’m attracted to one story. I never analyze it.”
Holland’s primary inspiration was James’ book. With Jennifer Jason Leigh (Catherine) walking around with a script in one hand and James’ book in the other, Holland felt that she returned to the original novel. As opposed to the stage and previous screen adaptations which followed Catherine’s personal development from ineptitude to confidence to vindictiveness, Holland made the characters more sympathetic. She feels that while a story of revenge pleases crowds, she had little desire “to follow for two hours someone who just kicks someone in the balls.”
Due to the popularity of the material, Holland had access to many great actresses. Jennifer Jason Leigh was one of the first auditioned. Holland had expected a fireball like the angry women she often plays, but Jason-Leigh surprised Holland with her gentleness and modesty. Of the other actors cast, a special thrill was working with Albert Finney. Holland says she saw “Tom Jones” when she was around thirteen and “the thought that I could have him gave me a great satisfaction.”
“Washington Square” is in the unique position of being the only studio film in the 1997 New York Film Festival. Agnieszka Holland is one of those European arthouse directors who has crossed over into the American studio system. With a budget falling between $14 and $15 million, Holland has created an elaborate film that is both emotionally and visually complex. Wyler’s 1949 version was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won four, including the award for Best Actress for Olivia de Havilland. This “Washington Square” for the 90’s, with its unique blend of generosity, feminism, and ambiguity, has a lot to live up to.