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Eugene Hernandez: Frederick Wiseman = The Greatest

Eugene Hernandez: Frederick Wiseman = The Greatest

Amsterdam, The Netherlands, November 23, 2009 — This 15th weekly column begins with why I love Frederick Wiseman and concludes with why I love documentary cinema. Since seeing “La Danse” a few weeks ago at New York’s Film Forum, I’ve been wanting to make the following statement: Frederick Wiseman is the greatest documentary filmmaker working today.

Sitting here in Amsterdam, home of the world’s leading documentary festival – IDFA – I realize that’s a bold pronouncement to make with the great Albert Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker, Agnes Varda and others, still actively making movies. But, watching more Wiseman work lately – here in Amsterdam and back in NYC – I’ve found myself increasingly fascinated by his observational, anti-ideological cinema.

In fact, at times in awe.

Frederick Wiseman’s films offer an enticing window into micro worlds and he has developed a filmmaking process that almost sounds like science. Long takes observing, rather than interrupting a moment. He pursues, as he said yesterday here in Amsterdam, “the dramatic aspects of ordinary experience.” By spending hours focusing his subjective gaze on people and their environments, he constructs rich essays that reveal dramatic human experiences. By letting his camera run, he captures incredible moments and then shapes them to make a point about the people and places that he’s witnessed.

“The overall goal is to make as many movies about contemporary life as I can,” Wiseman said at IDFA over the weekend. “My interest is in making a movie that has a dramatic structure, that is dramatic, funny, sad and all those cliches that a movie is supposed to be. And I also resist explanation and didacticism. But, that’s my choice and other people make wonderful work using opposite techniques.”

Peter Rainier once wrote in New York Magazine that “no other director has given us as many overpoweringly expressive close-ups of faces in moments of undisguised agony and endurance. Wherever Wiseman points his camera, people’s lives bubble up, as if the intensity of their experience was there all the time, waiting to be grasped.”

Wiseman’s films – he seems to avoid calling them documentaries – are always set within a generally familiar entity: a hospital, high school, modeling agency, prison, department store, military base, ballet company, welfare office, or even a small town. The boundaries of the institution provide just enough structure to catalyze a project. Asked what sort of research he does for a movie, Wiseman responded, “The shooting of the film is the research.”

His self-described “insatiable curiosity” drives him to explore new places each year and Wiseman typically spends just one day orienting himself to the geography of a site before shooting for a few weeks, always on film. He and his two-person crew observe situation after situation, typically yielding more than 125 hours of footage that he edits himself on a Steenbeck (although he used an AVID for the first time with “La Danse”).

At an IDFA masterclass yesterday, Frederick Wiseman discussed his work. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

A frequent IDFA attendee, Frederick Wiseman came to Amsterdam this week for a retrospective. Branded a living legend by festival head Ally Derks the other night — he’ll turn 80 on New Years Day 2010 — he quipped with a wry smile, “It’s better than being a dead legend.”

Writing from here in Amsterdam one year ago, I pondered the moment that my own intense interest in documentaries began – in April of 1998 while watching Bennett Miller’s “The Cruise” at the Los Angeles Independent FIlm Festival.

This month, my own passion for non fiction film was re-ignited by the chance to see a few Wiseman films on the big screen and then spending hours listening to him talk about his movies and his approach to the work in New York and Amsterdam. Yesterday, with every seat filled and people on the floor in the aisles, Frederick Wiseman showed extended clips from a number of his films and deconstructed specific sequences. I had to skip a subsequent festival event to let it all sink in.

While watching Wiseman’s work recently, I’ve been marveling at his mastery of observation, photography, sound and editing.

Even though documentaries often probe real people and events, I explained in last year’s personal IDFA dispatch, the reality of a non-fiction film shouldn’t obscure its subjectivity. Docs are often judged in relation to the term ‘truth’, but it’s the distinct perspective of non-fiction films that make them so compelling for me. Even more so when the filmmaker manipulates all the tools of the cinema – image, narrative, and sound together – to explore a real story, person or event.

As much as I’ve loved Cinema Verite and Direct Cinema for years – Wiseman rejects both terms – in an era of extensive reality programming and ideological infotainment, I am even more amazed by the fact that he doesn’t interact with his subjects.

“I don’t like to intervene, I never intervene,” Wiseman said yesterday, during an IDFA masterclass. Instead, he added, “Editing is an intervention.” He has developed a precise process for making his movies: shoot for a few weeks and generate about 125 hours of footage, edit for six to eight months to get to a rough assembly, then cut about 30 – 40 minutes to create the final work.

Including his exceptional 1967 directorial debut, “Titicut Follies,” Wiseman has made 36 feature documentaries in just over 40 years. I’ve seen just a handful of them, so far, but my cinematic resolution for the new year is to see as many as I can. A timely, complete retrospective of Wiseman’s films is on tap for the Museum of Modern Art next year (opening on January 20th and continuing all year) and he’s releasing films on DVD, there’s an exclusive section for his films at Kim’s Video in the East Village. I can’t wait to dive in.

Finally, it’s inspiring that at nearly 80, Frederick Wiseman seems so vibrant and excited by his life and work. He’s just finishing “Boxing Gym,” his new feature, set in Austin, TX, that he says has a lot in common with his recent films about dance.

The modern era of documentary cinema arguably began with Frenchman Jean Rouch asking Parisians – in the late 1950s – the simple question, “Are you happy?” (leading to the stunning, subjective document of contemporary life, “Chronicle of a Summer”). Near the end of the IDFA masterclass, Wiseman was asked what interests him. He may has well have been asked what makes him happy.

“Having fun. Making movies,” Wiseman responded quickly, then paused briefly before saying, “Because it’s a passionate way of life. It’s really interesting. I get to travel. I get to try and think about different subjects every year. You now, it beats working for a living.”

Cheers, Mr. Wiseman.

Eugene Hernandez is the Editor-in-Chief & Co-Founder of indieWIRE and can be reached on his blog, through Facebook or via Twitter: @eug.

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