Truer Than Fiction

Frederick Wiseman on the connections between drama and documentary
by Nicolas Rapold  posted August 21, 2008
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When Frederick Wiseman is asked about the inspirations of his panoramic body of work, he doesn’t tend to talk about other documentaries, but often mentions literature and drama. The direct access that his films try to provide to the stuff of life and to the workings of American institutions is, he once said, “like the business of getting rid of the proscenium arch in the theater.” And he’s compared his editing technique of making the viewer think through extended, interrelated sequences to “the way a novelist might approach his material.” The literary comparisons might come as a surprise given the critical cliché of Wiseman as the ultimate in unadorned nonfiction chronicles, from last year’s State Legislature to the unforgiving Titicut Follies (1967). But they’re borne out by the careful craft of the 78-year-old filmmaker (who has, in fact, also directed for the stage).

Years back you once said that you learned a lot about putting together your movies from a collection of essays by Eugene Ionesco.

One of the things I think I said in that interview was that I thought Ionesco’s essays about playwriting were really essays about film editing. I remember that it was comforting to me that some of the things that he wrote about how he constructed his plays were precisely elaborations about the issues I was confronted with in editing the movies. And the experience of being at the place and shooting the film, rather than trying to figure out in advance what the themes were to be. The associational issues that he dealt with as he was writing plays just spoke to me. I’d have to have another look at those essays to talk about it more specifically, because it’s probably been 35 or 40 years since I read them.

In terms of issues, do you mean, for example, not imposing a psychology on the characters?

No, it was more structural and pacing issues, not psychological issues. It was technical issues of construction, and a relationship between how he was constructing his plays and the way I was trying to construct my movies. It didn’t, say, solve a problem in the editing of Welfare, but it made me comfortable with the way I was proceeding to try and solve the problems, knowing that somebody I admired was dealing with similar problems. It was like having a good conversation with a more experienced person about issues that concern me.

What were some of those issues?

Issues of pacing, passage of time, characterization, and particularly issues of abstractions. To continue with the example of Welfare, when I’m dealing with specific encounters where X comes to see Y welfare worker, X wants a certain result, Y welfare worker has to see whether X’s story corresponds with the rules and regulations—that’s the literal aspect of the encounter. But then there’s the personal aspect to the encounter: the way that X presents himself, the way that Y responds. Then there’s the more abstract connection between what’s going on in that sequence and what’s going on in all the other sequences in the film, so that the whole film goes beyond what all the X’s and Y’s who make up the specific encounters are dealing with. So that it’s a way of trying to suggest in the periphery of the film something metaphoric. Ionesco was not a manual, but it was just comforting to know that he was dealing with the same kinds of issues, and that I wasn’t completely out of my mind in trying to think of these issues.

That structure is part of what makes your movies so wonderfully hard to encapsulate or summarize.

It’s hard for me to do too. I don’t even particularly want to summarize it because if I could summarize it in 25 words or less I shouldn’t have made the movie. But it’s the idea of creating a feeling that the sum of the parts adds up to more than the specific encounters. And what it adds up to is a more generalizing statement that both extends the issues that the film has presented and makes them seem in a somewhat different light or perspective than the individual encounters suggest on their own. And I’m specifically avoiding making the generalized statement.

One impressive example in terms of construction is Near Death. It’s almost theatrical, like a stage play, in all the regular scenes of discussion, and the situations carry so much weight you listen closely to every word anyone says.

I’m glad that you’ve had that response because that’s the way I tried to edit it. And Near Death is also an example in the sense that one of the abstractions that I’m trying to reach has nothing to do with what’s going on in the hospital. One of the things I think the movie is about is the democratic process, and how the decisions are not imposed but are collaborated on.

At one point the doctor explicitly talks about their process of consensus. Scene to scene there’s this constant nudging towards a common agreement about what to do.

One of the things that impressed me about the work of the doctors and nurses in relation to the patients and families was a genuine effort to get everybody involved. That’s partially what I meant about a democratic process. It wasn’t the old-style authoritarian physician saying the patient has to die and that’s the end of it. They genuinely believed that they weren’t going to let the patient die, they could keep the patient alive till the patient or the family members recognized that there was no hope. That to me showed an enormous amount of respect for the patient and the families. And the doctors and nurses genuinely believed it, except maybe one exception or occasional irritation with the process. They were trying to make that work, with perhaps varying degrees of success, but they were committed to the idea. That’s the sort of thing that I didn’t want to state directly but wanted to suggest by the structure and the cumulative impact of the sequences.

Near Death also has a good example of how you sometimes “quote” from books. There’s the great moment where a doctor references the Black Spot from Treasure Island. And Racetrack has the Haitian worker with a copy of Invisible Man stuffed in his back pocket.

Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s very relevant. The discussion of Moby Dick in Belfast is another more direct example than that. Since you don’t know what people are going to say, it’s more recognizing what you think the significance of it is when you hear it, or even if you don’t recognize the significance when you hear it, when you have an opportunity to play it back in the editing room. When I hear it, I often will recognize how I think it is important, but the specific way it’s going to be important I haven’t worked out until I see how it fits with other things that are going on.

The title of Belfast, Maine recalls that of Sherwood Anderson’s book Winesburg, Ohio. There’s even a bit of a similarity in that both go through the individuals and places in a town, but Belfast doesn’t have the same sort of bleakness as the book.

You’re right, I did think about Winesburg when I was doing Belfast, but I didn’t really reread it. It was a book that existed in my memory in some form or another. Belfast doesn’t have the same surface bleakness that Winesburg does. In a more abstract sense, Belfast is a pretty bleak movie, in the general sense that we all decline, that we all die. But the bleakness in Winesburg was more to do with the immediate bleakness or horror of the daily experience of the people, and in Belfast it’s more a bleakness that has to do with the shared aspects of living.

In terms of literary traditions, were authors like William Dean Howells or other realists useful to you in thinking about your movies?

In fact, I’ve never read Howells, maybe one novel in college. The 19th-century writers that I’ve always been interested in are the usual: Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, James. And that’s less of a naturalist tradition.

The Confidence Man and its Mississippi steamboat come to mind.

The Confidence Man is one of the great American novels. Not that Moby Dick isn’t as well. But with The Confidence Man you can identify all the current American character types. Mike Milliken’s a character, Jesse Jackson’s a character, Jerry Falwell’s a character—they’re all there.

All on the same boat.

All on the same boat, right!

Canal Zone is interesting in that respect because the Americans in the Panama Canal community essentially try to recreate an America in miniature.

I thought a lot about Winesburg during Canal Zone too. Because being in the Canal Zone was like being in a time warp! It was small-town America of 60 years before, or small-town America around the turn of the century.

Something similar seemed to be going on among the American military personnel and contractors in Sinai Field Mission, on the border of Egypt and Israel.

In its bleakness and its comedy, somebody said to me, it was a very Beckett-like movie. In terms of its mood, I certainly thought it was a Beckett-like movie. Two years ago I directed a Beckett play in Paris. The experience of making Sinai Field Mission in a general way I was able to translate to some of the things I wanted to do with Happy Days.

What sort of things?

In terms of the isolation of Winnie. Happy Days is in one sense a very literal play and in another sense a very abstract play. Because what Winnie is concerned about is ordinary experience: how to brush your teeth, looking in the mirror, the kind of strange relationship which she has with Willie, which is a mirror of a lot of couples’ relationships who have been together for a long time. It’s a play about habit and routine and how we all get stuck in routine. In Sinai Field Mission there was the routine of [the expats] trying to recreate a small Texas town in the desert, and the routine of daily living. That experience helped me to understand what the Beckett play was about.

Sometimes in your documentaries a drama takes over the movie from within for a little while. In Essene, the monks’ rituals and the confinement produces its own drama, especially the scene in which one monk tells an allegorical story to the others. He just takes the stage.

It was the kind of thing you couldn’t cut into very much because you needed the whole allegory. One can interpret the allegory but without knowing a lot more about his mental processes you can’t be sure that you interpret it correctly. The allegory stands on its own in terms of its relationship to the monastic life. Which is one of the reasons it’s placed toward the end of the movie: its relationship to the idea of community that the monks have in their mind, or at least that the abbot has in his mind, and what you’re actually seeing. And in that sense it’s also related to the scene where Brother Wilfred swats the fly, which in my mind is one of the funniest scenes in any of my movies. But nevertheless, apart from the comedy, it has its role in the structure of the movie, because Wilfred is the anti-abbot. The abbot is concerned about everybody, and Wilfred is only concerned about himself.

It’s also another one of your movies that works against cliché. At least, I had the idea that the monastery would somehow be serene and above the cultural clashes of the era. [Filming took place in the summer of 1971.]

I did too, but the interesting thing was the extent to which it reflected—as all these places do—what’s going on outside. Here one of the principal things it reflected was not only the impact of Vatican I and II but the impact of the commune movement.

Essene is also notable for the compositions of some scenes. One striking shot of a triad of monks has the starkness of a religious painting.

That’s a kind of thing that is suggested by the material, by what’s going on at the time. It’s not so much a change of style so much as a response to what you’re seeing and the relationship between what you’re seeing and what you think you know about religious experience. The ritual is influencing to some extent how it gets shot because it is related to the way you’ve seen similar rituals in paintings. Paintings you’ve seen [from] six, seven, eight hundred years ago.

When I spoke to you last December, you were reading J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Slow Year. The way that novel is constructed, in separate storylines on each page that the reader can put together, seemed to resonate with some of your films.

Yeah, it does, it’s one of the strangest books I’ve read in a long time. It’s very complicated, because I didn’t know whether Coetzee was expressing his own opinions in the essays, whether they were meant to be the opinions of the narrator. I’d read some of those essays as Coetzee’s essays in the New York Review and they were presented as taken from some lectures that Coetzee had given on political philosophy somewhere or other. To give him the benefit of the doubt, which I think is not an unfair assumption, he was doing that deliberately. And you’re given a wide degree of latitude as to what to think about the main character and particularly about the woman. It’s a book that’s open to a wide variety of interpretations. I think if somebody looking at my movies tries to reconstruct why they think I did what I did do in terms of the choices I made, they’ll be certainly left with a degree of ambiguity, but I’d like to think that the more general points the movies are trying to express are quite clear.

No, it’s not that disassembled.

I don’t think so. Maybe a self-serving statement on my part.

For some reason Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello also came to mind when I was watching Near Death, maybe because of the structural use of the speeches.

I liked Elizabeth Costello better than Diary of a Bad Year. He’s dealing with a lot of the issues that I’m interested in. I thought that was a great novel. The whole idea of who’s the fictional character, who’s the real person, I really like that.

And he has this intriguingly flat tone.

Yeah, but the situations aren’t flat at all. It’s superficially affectless but not.

Maybe that’s why I thought of it in relation to your documentaries. In terms of keeping a certain distance from the material and structuring things on a larger level.

Well, that’s what I try to do.

And in Meat, where the metaphor is overwhelming, you find new approaches. Like how you use the sequence with the Judas Goat [a goat that’s trained to walk sheep to the slaughterhouse].

One of the things I like about the Judas Goat sequence was that I had the feeling—which might have been completely anthropomorphic—that when the Judas Goat turned left, and the lambs turned right [into the slaughterhouse], he looked very happy.

Wiseman’s next two films will be about the Paris Opera Ballet and a boxing gym (treated separately). Almost all of Wiseman’s films are now available on DVD through Zipporah Films, with the remaining titles to follow.


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Courtesy Zipporah Films, Inc.
Frederick Wiseman's Welfare
Photo Gallery: Truer Than Fiction


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