Every year for the past 30, it seems, documentarian Fred Wiseman has flung another deceptively shapeless film profile of one major institution or another onto the PBS screen, where it has stuck like taffy for three hours one night and then disappeared, seemingly forever. (His most noted film was perhaps his first: Titicut Follies, a searing look at a Massachusetts mental institution.) Sans narrator, sans viewpoint characters, later Wiseman films make little of the impression on today's viewers that zippier documentaries like Hoop Dreams, Crumb, or Errol Morris' gentle freak shows do. The last of the hair shirt cinema verite filmmakers of the 1960s, Wiseman truly believes, like Godard did at the time, that photography is truth and that cinema is "the truth 24 times a second." He believes as well that he and his camera crew can melt into the walls for the six or so months they take to shoot one of their works. Mounting skepticism about the revealed truths of photography or the concept that camera crews can be truly invisible has apparently made no impression on him. In retrospect, we can see how Wiseman guides our reactions through parallel editing of the mass of material he compiles: The teachers and administrators in the white, working-class school in the Wiseman classic screening at the Outdoor Cinema Tuesday, High School (1968), all look like conformist zombies, and the kids who buy into their rhetoric are their victims, not just because the raw material is there but because Wiseman has shaped it to get that point across. Everything you hated about high school is caught by Wiseman's camera -- the gray walls, the petty tyranny, the dreary routines that made education a chore and not a joy -- yet one suspects that someone else editing the same miles of footage might have found a very different picture. Surely someone cared: Here, the voice of tolerance is represented by the English teacher trying to inspire students with the poetry of Paul Simon, and she looks like an idiot.
Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!