Some call Frederick Wiseman the greatest living American filmmaker, and if he's not, he's certainly one of our most essential. Since his 1967 controversial classic "Titicut Follies," which documented the mistreatment of mental health patients at Bridgewater State Hospital, he has examined institutions from a modeling agency to a New York City welfare office to Central Park, always with a focused, unobtrusive eye, weaving together dramatic sequences and raising vital questions.
His new film, "Crazy Horse" (out in limited release now), documents Paris' legendary nude revue as it revs up to premiere a new show. It is his 40th film, and at 82, he shows no sign of slowing down.
We spoke to him about his process, "Crazy Horse" and what he's working on next.
How do you feel about the Crazy Horse today? What is its relevance in Paris today as compared to in the past? We've got porn everywhere and it seems like the idea of a nude revue seems outdated, despite its cultural legacy..
Well, first of all, people still go to the Crazy Horse. It's a successful night club at a time when the other standard, traditional clubs, like the Moulin Rouge or the Folies Bergere, aren't doing as well as they did. The Crazy Horse survives.
One important question is the nudity in the film. You've worked with PBS throughout your career, but as I understand it, this is the first time PBS hasn't been involved at all.
I haven't even shown it to PBS. I just assumed they wouldn't run it. The whole idea of nudity on television is fascinating, because there's no problem with male nudity. The old naked man in "Titicut Follies" wasn't an issue for PBS. There wasn't any prurient interest in seeing them naked. But then there was the furor that started when one of Janet Jackson's nipples was on screen for two seconds. Everybody knows what a naked body looks like. It's not a surprise. I don't know why it would be shocking. It's nice to see the naked bodies of attractive women, of course, but… I don't know what to say.
It seems like often when the issue of excess spending is brought up, Republicans in Congress bring up PBS and NPR and the NEA and all these important programs that aren't all that expensive as far as the federal budget goes.
PBS is worried about funding. Republicans bring it up because there's a view – which isn't necessarily correct – that it's liberal. I think it's generally part of the political cultural wars. PBS becomes a symbol. I almost think the objection is about right or left wing terms. I think it's because it's thoughtful. There's a movement now to get rid of the humanities in colleges because it's apparently not cost-effective. I think what's behind it is a goal to create a society of people who don't think. It doesn't have much to do with political ideology.
How is it different to shoot a nude revue compared to a ballet or something? Does it make any difference to work with naked girls?
Oh, no, not at all. The difference is really between a performance film and a non-performance film. A performance film like "La Danse" or "Crazy Horse," you can shoot the same thing many times from different angles. But with "Welfare," you only have one shot. A person comes in and talks to the welfare worker for a half hour, and then they leave and you never see them again. The dancers at the Crazy Horse perform twice a night, so you can shoot it from every angle every night, and when I'm back in the editing room, I can cut it like a Hollywood movie. This was possible for performance films and for "Meat." When they kill cattle, they kill it the same way every time. That's the principal difference; otherwise it's the same. The dancers didn't care about being photographed naked. I waited for a few weeks to go into the dressing room, and the nudity is no difference there. Nobody had any objections. You're not gawking. You're there to make a movie.
You've moved into using digital cameras.
The transition itself was easy. "Crazy Horse" was digital because it was so much cheaper. There wasn't much money. You can shoot 48 minutes of HD for forty dollars. That amount of time on film is so much more expensive. I usually shoot about 150 hours, so it represents a big difference. It's just a cost thing. It's horrible. Kodak is bankrupt. It's not even easy to get film processed anymore.
I look at a lot of your work as archival. Films like "Blind," for example, belong in time capsules. Do you think your films serve a purpose in that sense?
Well, I would use the term "natural history." I would like to see a film of a hospital during the Civil War or of police in New York in 1812. If these negatives last, they're going to provide a much more intimate look at the way our lives are led than any documents from before film. Of course. I've seen "High School" with people who graduated high school in the 1920's up to the present time, and they all tell me it's exactly what their school was like. And a hundred years from now, you'll be able to see some kind of truth. You'll be able to see what a welfare office was like in New York in 1973. I hope it will have value. Maybe it will support my great-grandchildren.
Do you watch much contemporary film?
When I'm not making a movie, I don't like to go to the cinema very often. I like to read and I go skiing. I wouldn't be good at talking about the cinema, generally.
So, when you make a movie like "Welfare" and "Domestic Violence," and you're photographing people who come in with serious business, how do you deal with their comfort levels are far as being photographed?
You ask for permission in advance.
Do you ever find that your presence with a camera in a welfare office, for example, creates any kind of drama that wouldn't be there before?
That's a big question in this kind of filmmaking. The short answer is no. I can give you a longer answer. In 1968, I did "Law and Order" in Kansas City. Back then, in order to have an arrest for prostitution, the police had to have a price and an act. The undercover cop had to pick up the woman, get undressed, negotiate the price, and at the last moment, they would arrest her. In "Law and Order," the cop arrested the woman and was leading her down the stairs of the seedy hotel, and she knocks him down and flees. He calls for the vice squad car, which is where I am. The woman at the desk says the prostitute is in the basement. We go down to the basement, where there is no light, and I happen to have a sun gun on the camera. The cop finds the woman under some furniture, drags her up and starts to choke her. The second cop holds her hands. The first cop lets go after about twenty seconds. The girl says to the second cop, "He" – meaning the first cop – "tried to strangle me." The second cop says she was just imagining it. We, the audience, have seen it. The cop thinks his behavior is the appropriate response.
That's an extreme example. We all act the way we feel is acceptable, but we don't always see our behavior. The other aspect of it is I don't think that people are acceptable actors. The pool of actors would be much bigger than it is. If they agree to be on camera, they act the way they think are the right way to act in the situation they're in. And that's what you want. Anybody who meets a lot of people has to decide whether they're being conned or bullshitted. It doesn't matter if you're a journalist interviewing me, or a filmmaker or someone buying a used car. Anybody that meets a lot of people has to have a good bullshit meter. If I notice someone's being insincere because of the camera, I stop filming, and if I don't notice it until later, I don't use the sequence. In my experience, it happens so infrequently that it's a non-issue.
What is next for you? Do you have any interests in today's world as far as institutions?
My next project is a play. I'm doing "The Belle of Amherst" in Paris this spring, and we start rehearsals in March. As far as institutions, I always have a list of movies I'd like to do, but often something that hasn't occurred to me pops up. "Crazy Horse" came up because of conversation with a friend of mine. Sometimes it's deliberate, and sometimes it's chance.