On September 27, 1985, I made a quick run to the corner grocery while Hurricane Gloria blasted through the streets of Cambridge. Documentary film-maker Frederick Wiseman was in the store, apparently enjoying the dramatic weather. I wanted to say hello to him, tell him how much his films had meant to me, but I was too shy to do anything except stare at him. I never knew that Frederick Wiseman lived in my neighborhood, and now here he was , right across the street from my apartment, making his stand against the biggest storm to hit New England in 25 years.
I had been working a temporary job at WGBH in the Development department, keeping records of the donations that filled the mailbags during the pledge drive. There were always a lot of film-makers hanging around the cafeteria, where it seemed most of their meetings with WGBH heads took place. Henry Hampton had been holding court there recently, talking about who knows what with who knows who now that he had his “Eyes on the Prize” in the can and readied for its Public television debut. One day I came into the cafeteria to find him sitting there alone, but I was too shy to say hello.
Just as I was too shy to say hello to Frederick Wiseman during the hurricane, although the circumstances certainly would have justified such an intrusion upon his privacy. During disasters, people will start conversations with all kinds of strangers. In fact, it is kind of rude not to. But I had recently attended a Wiseman retrospective at the Harvard Film Archive, where a weekend of seeing “Titicut Follies,” “High School,” “Welfare,” Meat,” and “Primate” had taken me on journeys right up into the ass of public institutions, and there was no way I could approach the creator of those films as if he were just some old guy making sure he had enough bottled water on hand in case his roof blew off the top of his shack.
Although Wiseman’s movies are categorized as documentaries, they are really something else, something entirely new. All the action is unstaged, but he cuts his footage with dramatic intent. There is no narrator on hand to interpret the images and events for the audiences, who are free to interpret what they see and hear as they wish, although the director maintains a dramatic hold on them through the decisions he has made while assembling the film, which generally requires the compression of one hundred or so hours of footage into less than four hours.
“Titicut Follows” takes place in a hospital for the criminally insane. Made in 1967, it did not receive general distribution until 1991, due to privacy issues regarding the rights of both the inmates and the institution. It had been the first film in the United States to be banned for reasons other than obscenity, immorality, or national security. The film is no less shocking now than it was in 1967, even though it now concludes with the assurance that changes have been made in such institutions, and events such as those depicted in the film no longer occur.
“High School (1968)” invites us into a blackboard jungle in which the teachers and the administration are the real hoodlums. The school is more like a prison than an institution of learning , where the students are harassed for personality flaws and punished for minor infractions. One kid, who refuses to be punished with detention on account of having done nothing wrong, is persuaded to accept the punishment as a gesture of respect for the authoritarian figure who abuses him. Wiseman’s indictment of public education as an institution in which anything less than total submission is judged rebellion, makes its case in the corridors and classrooms of a high school in Philadelphia, which threatened to sue Wiseman over the psychological atrocities he recorded there.
But these abuses of authority by school teachers were petty compared to the high crimes against animals used for medical research in the nauseating “Primate (1974).” Want to see a gorilla vomiting over itself after having been skinned alive? Interested in how research scientists make slides from a living chimpanzee’s brain? “Primate” is not easy to watch, and I kept wanting to leave. At times, it felt sickening to be sitting there, watching this, almost like snuff pornography. But the impact and effect of such a film never wears off, and once you see it, you will never be able to shake off the horror of what goes on inside such research facilities as the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, where this was filmed. Some few years after seeing “Primate,” I had a job at MIT’s Geophysical Library. to get there, I had to cross through a building where animal research was being done. the screaming of the animals and the stench of their excrement was crippling, especially after learning from Wiseman’s film of the hellish atrocities being committed in such places.
The bureaucratic war against the poor is examined in “Welfare” (1975), where those seeking assistance with housing, food, medical attention, and other essentials, are bounced from one office to another in New York City to wait and wait and fill out forms. submit to interviews, and face life-threatening denials from bored sadists behind the great desks. At nearly three hours. ‘Welfare” is the first of Wiseman’s epics, but length is never a detriment to watching his films. The longer they get (and 1989’s “Near Death” runs for over six hours, the more immersive they become.
Fortunately, we are not forced to immerse ourselves so thoroughly in “Meat” (1976), which devotes less than two hours to its depiction of the stages a cow goes through from being living livestock to dead, packaged meat. While not as cruel as “Primate,” “Meat” pulls no punches when it comes to recording what goes down in the slaughterhouse.
When the worst of Hurricane Gloria had passed through the Boston-Cambridge area, Frederick Wiseman picked up his bag of groceries and left the store. I’ll always regret not having spoken to him. While it might not seem like such a big deal to spot a documentarian in your neighborhood grocery store during a hurricane, it was an event of great significance to me. Wiseman is no celebrity. He is something much rarer that that; he is a raiser of awareness, a man with a movie camera who searches for the truth and finds it, then shares it with those who are willing to see. At he age of 85, he is still going strong, having made 44 films in 52 years, his latest being a 3 hour 10 minute survey of the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, New York, where the largely immigrant population speaks over 162 languages. Most hurricanes blow themselves out within a couple of weeks. Wiseman’s ferocious cinema spans two centuries. I only wish he could live forever.