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Wiseman Series Filling a Year at MoMA

Wiseman Series Filling a Year at MoMA

“Smile like you did when you got your draft card.” A freshly picked recruit is getting his photo taken at Fort Knox in the summer of 1970, and smile he does. At this point of Frederick Wiseman’s 1971 film “Basic Training,” laughter arose from the packed house at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Whether it be at a basic training camp or mental hospital, a high school or a juvenile court, Wiseman has a talent (or the good fortune) of finding moments like this in the everyday life of institutions – moments that force one to recognize the often frightening insular logic, humor, or understandings of these institutions.

Late last month, a whole year of Wiseman films at MoMA kicked off and the master filmmaker was on hand to celebrate the beginning of the series, which was facilitated by the museum’s collection of all of new prints of thirty-six of Wiseman’s films. “Basic Training,” a beautiful film with images and scenarios that have the ability to scare and haunt when remembering that these young men will soon be sent off to Vietnam, opened the series.

Wiseman, who just turned 80 earlier this month, took to the stage for an hour-long discussion of his filmmaking with MoMA Associate Curator Joshua Siegel. He was eager to answer questions that intrigued him, and was quick to dismiss questions that he found trite (Question: “What do you think of reality TV?” Answer: “I watched it once for a few minutes”). Siegel pushed him to talk about his craft. “You pick it up through the course of shooting. Ninety to one hundred hours of material. The choices are made in the editing room,” Wiseman said, detailing his signature process.

As the hour went on, Wiseman’s approach became more clear, though he was frequently at a loss when asked to describe his style. While consistently rejecting the documentary genre label of ‘direct cinema’ so often attributed to him, Wiseman answered one question about how he made certain scenes so effective by ending with, “Honestly, I don’t know.” While he often considers his films non-fiction rather than documentary, his comments on the presence of the camera were revealing.

Frederick Wiseman at IDFA in Amsterdam back in November. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

“The presence of the camera doesn’t really change people’s behavior. When someone doesn’t want to be photographed, sure. When cameras are around, people act the way that would be appropriate for the situation – that’s what you want. People like to be photographed! If not, there wouldn’t be such a range of behavior exhibited.”

The event was his first time seeing “Basic Training” in twenty-five to thirty years, and his response? “It’s a great film.” On his motivation for making the film, he said, “The army is extremely good at teaching a civilian to be a soldier. The army knows how to strip the civility from a civilian to make them killers.” Sarcastically bragging about his highest rank, specialist E2 clerk typist, Wiseman said that basic training was toned down due to the anti-war movement shortly after the film was shot. He was not, however, sure that this was a good change. After all, these new trainees would be less prepared for the horrors of war if basic training was more hand-holding. Though the film had to pass by Pentagon censors to prevent any breaches in national security, the few higher-ups that thought there was too much swearing were overruled by others who said that no one would believe the film without the swearing.

Joking that he never gets questions about how he gains access to the institutions he profiles he simply said, “I ask.” The courage to ask and to know who to ask is certainly one of Wiseman’s strong suits. He’s also a master of editing. While he recently learned AVID, he holds a fondness for film. “It sounds pretentious, but I like the idea of handling film…editing is a long haul. There are days when you think it’s the worst film ever made and days when you think it’s the best. Neither is true. I leave the editing room to take a walk when I get stressed.” And, who can blame him? He’s often not sure of a film’s structure until six or seven months into the editing process. His schedules in the editing suite often run from 6:30 AM to 7:30 PM, seven days a week.”

Wiseman’s talent is difficult to ignore. Each scene in his film disorients for a few moment, but when you finally realize what’s going on, you’re amazed, often shocked. It’s why indieWIRE Editor-in-Chief Eugene Hernandez said, “Frederick Wiseman is the greatest documentary filmmaker working today.” His talent for making consistently compelling bricolage is unsurpassable. The 2010 series provides a chance to see this living legend’s greatest work.

— on page two is the schedule of Wiseman screenings continuing in February and March at MoMA —

Wed Feb 17, 4PM
Sun Feb 21, 6:30PM

“Domestic Violence”
Wed Feb 17, 6:45PM
Sat Feb 20, 7PM

“Domestic Violence 2”
Sat Feb 27, 6PM
Sun Feb 28, 6:30PM

Thurs Mar 4, 8PM
Mon Mar 22, 4PM

Sat Mar 6, 1:30PM
Fri Mar 12, 4:30PM

“La Danse–The Paris Opera Ballet”
Sat Mar 13, 1:30PM

“Juvenile Court”
Thurs Mar 18, 4PM

Complete List of Film’s Acquired by MoMA

Titicut Follies (1967)
High School (1968)
Law & Order (1969)
Hospital (1969)
Basic Training (1971)
Essene (1972)
Juvenile Court (1973)
Primate (1974)
Welfare (1975)
Meat (1976)
Canal Zone (1977)
Sinai Field Mission (1978)
Manoeuvre (1979)
Model (1980)
The Store (1983)
Racetrack (1985)
Adjustment and Work (1986)
Blind (1986)
Deaf (1986)
Multi-Handicapped (1986)
Missile (1987)
Central Park (1989)
Near Death (1989)
Aspen (1991)
Zoo (1993)
High School II (1994)
Ballet (1995)
La Comédie-Française (1996)
Public Housing (1997)
Belfast, Maine (1999)
Domestic Violence (2001)
Domestic Violence 2 (2002)
La Dernière Letter (The Last Letter) (2002)
State Legislature (2006)
La Danse—The Paris Opera Ballet (2009)
Boxing Gym (2010)

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