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Cinema and Media Studies Frederick Wiseman
by
Barry Keith Grant

Introduction

A major figure in American documentary cinema, Frederick Wiseman (b. 1930) began making his extraordinary series of films during the Direct Cinema movement of the 1960s. From the beginning of his impressive and prolific forty-year career, Wiseman developed a distinctive style and approach that set his work apart from that of his contemporaries. Wiseman’s films focus on institutions of various kinds, ranging from those concentrated within individual buildings (High School, 1968) to those international in scope (Sinai Field Mission, 1978), from institutions set up and maintained by government (Juvenile Court, 1973, Public Housing, 1997) to those less tangible ones organized by principles of ideology and culture (Canal Zone, 1977, Model, 1980). Many of his films ferret out the gaps between institutional theory and practice, demonstrating the shaping force of institutions themselves, which dictate to, as much as they serve, both clients and administrators. Wiseman is also interested in these institutions as social microcosms and as interwoven parts of the larger social fabric, and through a variety of stylistic techniques he encourages a reading of each institution as a synecdoche of American society generally. More dialectical than didactic, Wiseman’s films assume a spectator attentive to film form. Though at first glance his films may seem to resemble the fly-on-the-wall approach of Direct Cinema, they often rely more heavily on elements of cinematic style such as editing and framing to express a consistent vision of how institutions operate.

Books

There are few books devoted solely to discussing the work of Frederick Wiseman. Atkins 1976 was the first and, given the year of publication, is devoted primarily to focusing on the sociological content of Wiseman’s early documentaries about publicly funded institutions. The first edition of Benson and Anderson 2002 was published in 1989, and it showed scholars seeking to grapple more directly with questions of form and style, and their relation to theme, in Wiseman’s films. Still, Benson and Anderson approach Wiseman’s documentaries from the perspective of rhetorical analysis, but Grant 1992, by a film studies scholar, provides close textual analyses of all of Wiseman’s films through Near Death (1989), proceeding from the premise that, as Wiseman has often said, documentary films can be as artfully structured and as complex as fiction. Siegel 2010 provides a comprehensive and more up-to-date overview of Wiseman’s work, including works for theater and opera. Mamber 1974 expertly places Wiseman in the context of the Direct Cinema and cinema verité movements, while Nichols 1981, by the most influential of contemporary documentary theorists, identifies Wiseman’s distinctive “mosaic” structure, a concept that has informed most subsequent discussions of the filmmaker’s work.

Reference Works

Ellsworth 1979, one of a series of reference works devoted to major directors, as of 2011 was the only reference guide exclusively devoted to the films of Frederick Wiseman. It provides a complete bibliography, but only through 1979. More up to date is the bibliography in Grant 2006. Ellsworth 1979 also provides shot lists for all of Wiseman’s films through Canal Zone (1977), but they are inconsistent in terms of format and completeness. Grant 2006 provides complete transcripts for five of Wiseman’s most-viewed films. Barsam 1992 and Aitken 2005 discuss Wiseman’s films within the broader historical contexts of documentary film history.

Career Profiles

Most career profiles tend to discuss the same points about Wiseman’s working methods, his approach to editing, ethical questions regarding issues of privacy, and thematic connections between the films. The early interview with Berg 1970 is especially valuable for Wiseman’s view about the relation between his films and mainstream fiction films, while the later interview with Robb 1983 provides much information about Wiseman’s life and reveals him as particularly amenable to commenting on specific films, which he usually resists. Friedenberg 1971, Eames 1977, and Lopate 2000 frame their interviews around perceptive understandings of Wiseman’s evolving art.

Direct Cinema and Cinema Verité

Although Wiseman’s films are very different from those of American Direct Cinema filmmakers, his work is often discussed within the context of this movement that was contemporary with Wiseman’s beginnings as a filmmaker. Barsam 1986 and Mamber 1974 provide good overviews of American Direct Cinema, the latter discussing the work of some of the major figures, Wiseman included, in some detail. Marcorelles 1973 emphasizes the importance of lived speech in observational cinema, a textual element that is of great importance in Wiseman’s work.

Scholarly Essays

Denby 1976, McWilliams 1970, and Sullivan 1972, like most of the scholarly articles about Frederick Wiseman’s documentary film work in general, focus to some degree on the filmmaker’s emphasis on examining American institutions, the theme of exposing the gap between institutional theory and practice, visual and thematic connections between the films, and their value as documentation of American culture and society. Some, such as Curry 1985, emphasize the importance of Wiseman’s films for their sociological content; others, such as Arlen 1980 and Nicholson and Nicholson 1975, are concerned with how Wiseman’s documentaries reveal to us the ordinary as well as the extraordinary in American daily life.

Interviews

Since his first, and most controversial, documentary, Titicut Follies in 1967, Frederick Wiseman has given numerous interviews in a variety of media, including newspapers, magazines, film journals, and on the Internet. Typically Wiseman is asked about his working methods, such as how he chooses institutions to film, his procedures for obtaining permissions, and his view about the effect of the camera on profilmic events. On some occasions Wiseman, for whatever reason, does not wish to open up to the interviewer, preferring instead to let the films, as he says, speak for themselves. However, he is forthcoming on all these topics in the interviews with Rosenthal 1971, Halberstadt 1976, and Spotnitz 1991, which cover production from technical questions to editing and distribution. With Westin 1976, Wiseman considers the thematic consistency of his films. He discusses his working methods in detail in Janis and MacNeil 1977, and his view of the active spectatorship required of his films is discussed in Graham and Garrett 1976 and McKay 1997. In the interview with Levin 1971 Wiseman addresses his style in relation to cinema verité.

Articles by Wiseman

During his career as a filmmaker and before that, when he was a teacher of law, Wiseman occasionally published short pieces about his work. The most sustained articles are those written on topics of law (see Wiseman 1959 and Wiseman 1961), well-researched scholarly articles that reveal much about Wiseman’s future approach to making documentary films. Shorter pieces tend to be about specific films or the controversy that they aroused, as with Wiseman 1973. The article Wiseman 1984 discusses his approach to constructing his films from his raw footage, while Wiseman 1969 and Wiseman 1976 discuss, respectively, Juvenile Court (1973) and Titicut Follies (1967) specifically. The discussion of different kinds of monologues in Wiseman 1997 underscores the filmmaker’s sensitivity to language in his work. In interviews Wiseman has often commented briefly on his relationship with the Public Broadcasting System, which has broadcast almost all of his films, and in the Wiseman 1988 op-ed piece he discusses at length his views on that institution.

  • Wiseman, Frederick. “Lawyer-Client Interviews: Some Lessons from Psychiatry.” Boston University Law Review 39.2 (Spring 1959): 181–187.

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    Written while he was teaching law at Boston University, before becoming a filmmaker, in this article Wiseman discusses the elements of interview practices with clients for lawyers.

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  • Wiseman, Frederick. “Psychiatry and Law: Use and Abuse of Psychiatry in a Murder Case.” American Journal of Psychiatry 118.4 (1961): 289–299.

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    Written while Wiseman was teaching law, before becoming a filmmaker, this article examines the difficulties and complexities involved in the process of legal decision making involving questions of sanity.

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  • Wiseman, Frederick. “Reminiscences of a Filmmaker: Fred Wiseman on Law and Order.” Police Chief 36.9 (September 1969): 32–35.

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    The filmmaker discusses how he made the film with the cooperation of the Kansas City police force, and the discovery in the process of truths about the enormous difficulties of real police work.

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  • Wiseman, Frederick. “Wiseman on Juvenile Court.” Journal of the University Film Association 25.3 (1973): 48–49, 58.

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    Partial transcript of a question-and-answer session following a screening of Juvenile Court at the 1973 University Film Association annual conference.

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  • Wiseman, Frederick. “Letters: Focusing Again on Titicut.” In Frederick Wiseman. Edited by Thomas R. Atkins, 69–73. New York: Monarch, 1976.

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    Wiseman’s blunt account of the events involving the court actions by the state of Massachusetts involving Titicut Follies. First appeared in Civil Liberties Review 1.3 (Summer 1974): 149–151.

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  • Wiseman, Frederick. “A Filmmaker’s Choices.” Christian Science Monitor, 25 April 1984, 30.

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    Brief statement which argues that documentary films are constructed texts like fiction and emphasizes the importance of editing in constructing his films.

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  • Wiseman, Frederick. “What Public TV Needs: Less Bureaucracy.” New York Times (27 November 1988): 35, 42.

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    A critique of the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) on the grounds of bureaucratic inefficiency and the failure to hire experienced staff sensitive to filmmakers’ creative needs.

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  • Wiseman, Frederick. “A Non-Scholar’s Approach to Monologue.” Three Penny Review 68 (Winter 1997): 26–29.

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    Wiseman discusses the difference between found monologues, private monologues, and public monologues with examples from Welfare and Essene.

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Films

Most of the scholarly writing on Wiseman’s documentary films concentrates on individual films or groups of films, such as the Deaf and Blind series 1986. Many use cultural theories of postmodernism and Marxist theory to interpret Wiseman’s films from the perspective of ideological control through social and cultural institutions. Film studies scholars are particularly attentive to questions of style in Wiseman’s documentaries, while scholars from such disciplines as sociology and anthropology are interested in the films, and the talk of people within them, as rhetorical constructions. Yet others are more concerned with the films’ failures as social documents, often because of the absence of narration or explication, and thus question their political efficacy. Some of Wiseman’s films have not generated substantial critical commentary, and hence are not included here.

Adjustment and Work

Adjustment and Work (1986) is the third film in Frederick Wiseman’s four-part Deaf and Blind series. The first part of this film shows the E. H. Gentry Technical Facility, which provides evaluation and personal adjustment services to sensory-impaired adults and is vocational training center. The film also shows routine work at the Alabama Industries for the Blind, the second-largest employer of blind people in the United States, where employees make a variety of products. Coles 1988 and Grant 1992 see the film and the series as expressing a more humanist, empathetic vision than expressed in many of Wiseman’s earlier documentaries, while Snyder and Mitchell 2003 oppositely view the Deaf and Blind films as being consistent with their deterministic institutional predecessors.

  • Coles, Robert. “Senses and Sensibility.” New Republic (29 August 1988): 58–60.

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    Appreciative review of the Deaf and Blind series that denies Wiseman’s films are “boring” and instead claims that they detail the range of human experience—a goal seen as ideally working to help us as spectators overcome our own perceptual “blindness.”

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  • Grant, Barry Keith. Voyages of Discovery: The Cinema of Frederick Wiseman. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

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    Includes a chapter with a detailed analysis of the four Deaf and Blind films and Essene, arguing that the films’ style and structure expresses a vision of profound humanism and sense of community.

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  • Snyder, Sharon, and David Mitchell. “The Visual Foucauldian: Institutional Coercion and Surveillance in Frederick Wiseman’s Multi-Handicapped Documentary Series.” Journal of Medical Humanities 24.3–4 (December 2003): 291–308.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1026066621961Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Disability study that compares the ideas of the philosopher Michel Foucault regarding institutional discipline to Wiseman’s documentaries, with a specific focus on the four Deaf and Blind films. Available online by subscription.

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Basic Training

Basic Training (1971), one of three films by Wiseman to focus on the military (as of 2011), follows one company of draftees and recruits through their nine-week basic training course at Fort Polk, Kentucky. The film shows various training techniques, both physical and psychological, including drill practice, weapons handling, and hand-to-hand combat. Fuller 1976 and Hecht 1972 consider Basic Training in the context of Wiseman’s earlier documentaries and their focus on institutional indoctrination, while Grant 1992 approaches the film similarly but within the context of Wiseman’s other military documentaries specifically. Bamber 2003 is sensitive to the film’s formal expressivity, while Cyclops 1971 sees the film’s aesthetic devices as violating the integrity of the subject. Slavitt 1972 emphasizes the more absurdist aspects of the film’s take on military socialization. Benson and Anderson 2002 approach the film as a rhetorical construction that deliberately challenges the viewer’s sense of narrative comprehension.

Belfast, Maine

Belfast, Maine (1999) is a mosaic of daily experience in a small New England port town, with a particular focus on various forms of work and cultural activity. Included in this variation of the classic city symphony documentary form are the work of fisherman, factory workers, shop owners, and professional workers at every level such as teachers and doctors. Featuring exquisite photography, the film ferrets out and examines issues of community and institutional functioning explored in all of Wiseman’s preceding films. In the only piece of any substance devoted to this masterwork, Cameron 2002, however, views the film as a flawed ethnographic film that fails to capture the real Belfast.

  • Cameron, Ardis. “When Strangers Bring Cameras: The Poetics and Politics of Othered Places.” American Quarterly 54.3 (September 2002): 411–435.

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    Compares Belfast, Maine unfavorably with Elizabeth Barret’s Stranger with a Camera, about the filmmaker’s home state of Kentucky, as ethnographic records. Wiseman’s approach commits the ideological sin of depicting an imaginary and nostalgic regional “Otherness” rather than the real New England. Available online by subscription.

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Blind

Blind (1986), the second film in Frederick Wiseman’s four-part Deaf and Blind series, looks at students in kindergarten through high school at the Alabama School for the Blind in Talladega, a school that aims to teach self-sufficiency to its blind and visually impaired students. The film shows various lessons, including Braille instruction as well as traditional classroom subjects such as English and science and other aspects of the school’s program, including counseling sessions and recreational programs. Coles 1988, Ricks 1989, and Grant 1992 see the film and the series as expressing a more humanist, empathetic vision than expressed in many of Wiseman’s earlier documentaries, while Snyder and Mitchell 2003 oppositely view the Deaf and Blind films as being consistent with their deterministic institutional predecessors.

  • Coles, Robert. “Senses and Sensibility.” New Republic, 29 August 1988, p. 58–60.

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    Appreciative review of the Deaf and Blind series that denies Wiseman’s films are “boring” and instead claims that they detail the range of human experience—a goal seen as ideally working to help us as spectators overcome our own perceptual “blindness.”

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  • Grant, Barry Keith. Voyages of Discovery: The Cinema of Frederick Wiseman. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

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    Includes a chapter with a detailed analysis of the four Deaf and Blind films and Essene, arguing that the films’ style and structure expresses a vision of profound humanism and sense of community.

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  • Ricks, Christopher. “Wiseman’s Witness.” Grand Street 8.2 (Winter 1989): 160–171.

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    Compares Wiseman’s documenting of institutional life to that of Dickens, but argues that unlike the novelist, Wiseman’s films transcend the burden of meaning to reveal the felicities of being. Available online by subscription.

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  • Snyder, Sharon, and David Mitchell. “The Visual Foucauldian: Institutional Coercion and Surveillance in Frederick Wiseman’s Multi-Handicapped Documentary Series.” Journal of Medical Humanities 24.3–4 (December 2003): 291–308.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1026066621961Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Disability study that compares the ideas of the philosopher Michel Foucault regarding institutional discipline to Wiseman’s documentaries, with a specific focus on the four Deaf and Blind films. Available online by subscription.

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Canal Zone

Canal Zone (1977), examines the mechanical operations as well as the ideological workings of what was then the American-owned territory known as the Canal Zone, which included not only the canal itself but an American lifestyle and ideology as well. In addition to documenting the routine functioning of the canal, the film also examines aspects of the Zonian lifestyle and the various institutions, both civil and governmental, that support it. Sourian 1977 praises the film’s complex structure and Wiseman’s appeal to an attentive viewer. More thematically, Sweet 1977–1978 understands the film’s treatment of the Canal Zone as a microcosm for American society at large, while Grant 1992 and Benson and Anderson 2002 explore the film’s examination of the cultural and ideological aspects of this social microcosm.

Central Park

Central Park (1989) examines New York City’s famous park in midtown Manhattan. The film observes the various ways people use the park as well as the work involved behind the scenes by the New York City Parks Department in maintaining it. Denby 1990 views the film as significant in Wiseman’s progressive embrace of compassion in his films. From a more formalist perspective, Schwartz 1995 considers Wiseman’s mosaic structure as a postmodern gesture that refuses totalizing meaning.

  • Denby, David. “The Real Thing.” New York Review of Books, 8 November 1990, 24–27.

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    Discusses the importance of compassion in Wiseman’s work and Central Park’s place within it. Available online by subscription.

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  • Schwartz, Richard A. “Frederick Wiseman’s Modernist Vision: Central Park.” Literature/Film Quarterly 23.3 (1995): 223–228.

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    Using Central Park as an example, argues that Wiseman’s documentary films are like modernist literary narratives that refuse to provide complete meaning to events. Available online by subscription.

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La Comédie-Française

In La Comédie-Française (1996), Wiseman examines the oldest continuous repertory company in the world, founded in Paris in the late 17th century. Included in the film are sequences showing casting sessions, set and costume work, administrative meetings, and rehearsals and parts of performances of four classic French plays (Molière’s Don Juan, Racine’s La Thébaïde, Marivaux’s La double inconstance, and Feydeau’s Occupe-toi d‘Amelie). Wiseman discusses the film’s production in Covington 1996, and in the one review of any length as of 2011, Kamiya 1996 argues that Wiseman’s distinctive style is unable to do justice to the richness of his subject.

The Cool World

The Cool World (1964) was Wiseman’s first venture into filmmaking. He produced the film and hired the New York experimental filmmaker Shirley Clarke to direct it. Adapted from the 1959 novel by Warren Miller about gang youths in Harlem, the film was notable for the documentary quality of its location photography and use of nonprofessional actors. The Cool World was shown at the 1963 Venice Film Festival, where it received generally favorable response, but when released it garnered only lukewarm critical and commercial response. Macdonald 1969 judged the film’s stylized realism as false at the time of its release, and Polt 1963, while more tolerant of its realism, still found it heavy-handed. By contrast, Hitchens 1964 found it emotionally distant. Rabinovitz 1991 discusses the film in the context of director Shirley Clarke’s career, and Grant 1992 analyzes the film’s thematic and stylistic connections to Wiseman’s documentary films.

La Danse—Le Ballet de L’Opera de Paris

La danse—Le Ballet de l’Opera de Paris (2009) follows the renowned Paris Opera Ballet, showing rehearsals and performances of seven ballets: Genus by Wayne McGregor, Le songe de Médée by Angelin Preljocaj, La maison de Bernarda by Mats Ek, Paquita by Pierre Lacotte, Casse-Noisette by Rudolph Nureyev, Orphée et Eurydice by Pina Bausch, and Roméo et Juliette by Sasha Waltz. Sequences show the work of various members of the company, including choreographers, dancers, musicians, and designers, as well as administrative meetings. Wiseman discusses his approach to making the film in Garcia 2010. Both Homans 2009 and Stables 2010 praise La danse for its sensitivity to dance and the dancers, while Sicinsky 2010 considers the film within Wiseman’s oeuvre.

Deaf

Deaf (1986), the first film in Frederick Wiseman’s four-part Deaf and Blind series, was shot at the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind in Talladega. Deaf focuses on the School for the Deaf at the institute, which employs a total communication approach. The film shows various aspects of this comprehensive education, such as training students and parents in signing, speech therapy, vocational training, and the development of domestic skills. Coles 1988 and Grant 1992 see the film and the series as expressing a more humanist, empathetic vision than expressed in many of Wiseman’s earlier documentaries, while Snyder and Mitchell 2003 oppositely view the Deaf and Blind films as being consistent with their deterministic institutional predecessors.

  • Coles, Robert. “Senses and Sensibility.” New Republic (29 August 1988): 58–60.

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    Appreciative review of the Deaf and Blind series that denies Wiseman’s films are “boring” and instead claims that they detail the range of human experience—goal seen as ideally working to help us as spectators overcome our own perceptual “blindness.”

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  • Grant, Barry Keith. Voyages of Discovery: The Cinema of Frederick Wiseman. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

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    One chapter offers a detailed analysis of the four Deaf and Blind films and Essene, arguing that the films’ style and structure expresses a vision of profound humanism and sense of community.

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  • Snyder, Sharon, and David Mitchell. “The Visual Foucauldian: Institutional Coercion and Surveillance in Frederick Wiseman’s Multi-Handicapped Documentary Series.” Journal of Medical Humanities 24.3–4 (December 2003): 291–308.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1026066621961Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Disability study that compares the ideas of the philosopher Michel Foucault regarding institutional discipline to Wiseman’s documentaries, with a specific focus on the four Deaf and Blind films.

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La dernière lettre (The Last Letter)

La dernière dettre (The Last Letter; 2002) is based on a chapter of Vasily Grossman’s novel Life and Fate. Achieving its emotional effects with a minimum of means, Wiseman focuses on a monologue by the French actress Catherine Samie. She plays a Jewish woman named Anna Semionova, a doctor in a Jewish Ukranian ghetto in 1941. The ghetto is about to be eradicated by the Nazis, and Semionova is reading the letter she has written to her son, who is safely far away, as she prepares for death. Wiseman discusses his approach to the material in Poppy 2003, while Rapfogel 2003 and Vineberg 2003 discuss the film’s style in relation to Wiseman’s documentary films.

Domestic Violence

Domestic Violence (2001) shows police responding to domestic violence calls in Tampa, Florida, and the work of The Spring, the primary shelter in the city for battered women and children. The film shows the police responding to calls, attempting to resolve domestic disputes, and intervening; it also shows activities at the shelter such as intake interviews, counseling sessions, staff meetings, and activities for children. Wiseman released Domestic Violence 2 the following year. Wiseman discusses the making of the Domestic Violence in Moss 2002. Rapfogel 2002 considers the film in the context of Wiseman’s oeuvre and his gradual move from exposé to compassion, while from a sociologist’s perspective Ford 2003 judges Wiseman’s style as failing to provide sufficient information about the subject of domestic violence.

Essene

Essene (1972) shows the life in a Benedictine monastery associated with the Episcopalian church in southwestern Michigan. The only one of Wiseman’s early documentaries to focus on a private rather than a public institution, the film shows the daily work and worship of the order, as well as the clashes of individual egos that threaten its communal ideals. Boyd 1972 and Rice 1973 appreciate the film from a religious perspective. Sullivan 1976 and Grant 1992 see the film as an empathetic treatment of the institution’s struggle to achieve a just social order, while Benson and Anderson 2002 discuss Essene along with Juvenile Court (1973), emphasizing the monastery’s rhetorical strategies for maintaining institutional control.

  • Benson, Thomas W., and Carolyn Anderson. Reality Fictions: The Films of Frederick Wiseman. 2d ed. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002.

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    Detailed analyses of several of Wiseman’s documentary films. One chapter discusses both Essene and Juvenile Court as films that use psychological double talk as a method of subverting religious faith and maintaining social order.

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  • Boyd, Malcolm. “To Worship and Glorify God.” New York Times, 12 November 1972, p. 17.

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    Appreciative review by an Episcopalian priest who argues that Essene is one of the best films ever made about religion.

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  • Grant, Barry Keith. Voyages of Discovery: The Cinema of Frederick Wiseman. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

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    One chapter provides a detailed analysis of the four Deaf and Blind films and Essene, arguing that the films’ style and structure express a vision of profound humanism and sense of community.

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  • Rice, Eugene. “Essene: A Documentary Film on Benedictine Community Life.” American Benedictine Review 24.3 (1973): 382.

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    Discusses the film as a candid examination of the struggles to achieve a spiritual community and praises the leadership of the abbot as ideal.

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  • Sullivan, Patrick J. “Essene.” In Frederick Wiseman. Edited by Thomas R. Atkins, 113–120. New York: Monarch, 1976.

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    This article, originally published in Film Quarterly 27.1 (Fall 1973): 55–57, notes that the leisurely pace of scenes in the film is a reflection of the spiritual community of the monastery and that the film is about the struggle to establish a community rather than being a muckraking exposé.

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High School

High School (1968) was shot at Northeast High School, a large, mostly white urban high school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The film documents the various classes, recreational activities, and counseling that comprise the public school routine to show how education is inseparable from socialization. Rosenthal 1971 discusses Wiseman’s working methods with a focus on High School, while Grant 2006 provides a transcript of the film’s dialogue along with stylistic annotations. Kael 1976 and Lewis 1982 are attentive to the film’s cinematic properties in discussing the film’s treatment of daily high school life, as is Grant 1992, who examines the film in the context of Wiseman’s early documentary exposés of public institutions. Featherstone 1969 similarly views the film as a depressing critique of the educational system. Benson and Anderson 2002 examine how students are given mixed rhetorical signals by teachers and school administrators to maintain their institutional control.

  • Benson, Thomas W., and Carolyn Anderson. Reality Fictions: The Films of Frederick Wiseman. 2d ed. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002.

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    Detailed analyses of several of Wiseman’s documentary films. The chapter on High School argues that the film examines the relations of power between teachers and students, and that the teachers use the rhetorical device of the “double bind,” or mixed messages, to exert their authority.

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  • Featherstone, Joseph. “High School.” New Republic, 21 June 1969, 28–30.

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    Sensitive analysis of High School as “an essay on emptiness,” with both students and teachers going through the process of socialization masquerading as education. Available online by subscription.

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  • Grant, Barry Keith. Voyages of Discovery: The Cinema of Frederick Wiseman. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

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    Provides a close reading of High School in the context of all of Wiseman’s early documentaries about institutions.

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  • Grant, Barry Keith, ed. Five Films by Frederick Wiseman. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006.

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    Detailed transcriptions of five of Wiseman’s documentary films, including High School and High School II, with dialogue and notations regarding camera movement and editing. The editor’s introduction discusses the importance of sound in Wiseman’s films.

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  • Kael, Pauline. “High School.” In Frederick Wiseman. Edited by Thomas R. Atkins, 95–101. New York: Monarch, 1976.

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    Very positive discussion of the film that praises it for its novelistic approach in revealing the details of everyday life, marking it as an advance over Wiseman’s earlier work. Originally published in the New Yorker, 18 October 1969, pp. 199–204, and also reprinted in Kael, Deeper into Movies, pp. 19–24. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973.

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  • Lewis, Jon. “The Shifting Camera Point of View and Model of Language in Frederick Wiseman’s High School.” Quarterly Review of Film Studies 7.1 (Winter 1982): 69–77.

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    Discusses the role of camera placement in determining the film’s meaning.

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  • Rosenthal, Alan. The New Documentary in Action: A Casebook in Film Making. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.

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    Discussion about Wiseman’s shooting methods focusing specifically on Titicut Follies and High School.

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High School II

High School II (1994) focuses on the progressive Central Park East Secondary School (CPESS), a successful alternative high school in New York’s Spanish Harlem. The film illustrates the school’s emphasis on the “Habits of Mind” program, which encourages student input, in stark contrast to the situation in Wiseman’s earlier High School (1968). The film includes sequences of classroom lessons, sex-education training for teachers, student conflict resolution with student mediators, and disciplinary meetings. Lucia 1994 discusses with Wiseman the multiple contrasts between the two films, while Grant 2006 provides the dialogue and stylistic annotations for both films.

Hospital

Hospital (1969) shows the daily activities of New York City’s Metropolitan Hospital, a large urban hospital that emphasizes its emergency ward and outpatient clinics. The film shows a variety of patients and cases, and the overburdened staff who try to provide the appropriate treatment for them. Grant 1992 argues that Wiseman views the hospital as a metaphor for larger social issues such as class difference.

Juvenile Court

Juvenile Court (1973) shows the complex of a variety of cases that come before the juvenile court in Memphis, Tennessee. Focusing on the decisions of the presiding judge, both in the courtroom and in chambers, the film contains scenes of children victimized by abuse and being placed in foster homes, as well as being arrested for various crimes from shoplifting to armed robbery and child molestation. In Wiseman 1973 the filmmaker discusses Juvenile Court. Boyum 1973 sees a neutrality in the film’s style as a reflection of the problems of the legal system generally, while Crain 1973 questions the film’s ethical assumptions. Tarratt 1974 raises the frequent complaint that Wiseman fails to provide adequate social contextualization of the institutions he films. Grant 1992 discusses the film in the context of Wiseman’s other early documentaries about public institutions, while Benson and Anderson 2002 discuss the film along with Essene (1972), emphasizing the court’s rhetorical strategies for maintaining institutional control.

  • Benson, Thomas W., and Carolyn Anderson. Reality Fictions: The Films of Frederick Wiseman. 2d ed. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002.

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    Detailed analyses of several of Wiseman’s documentary films. One chapter discusses both Essene and Juvenile Court as films that use psychological double talk as a method of subverting religious faith and maintaining social order.

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  • Boyum, Joy Gould. “Watching Real Life Problems.” Wall Street Journal, 1 October 1973, 3.

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    Argues that cinema verité is a particularly appropriate documentary approach for the medium of television, given its sense of immediacy and intimacy, and discusses Wiseman’s apparent stylistic neutrality as emphasizing the sense of uncertainty that pervades the legal system.

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  • Crain, Jane Larkin. “TV Vérité.” Commentary 56.6 (December 1973): 70–75.

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    Traces the focus on the everyday in Wiseman’s institutional series, but criticizes the filmmaker for sometimes violating taste and privacy just like the institutions he chronicles. Available online by subscription.

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  • Grant, Barry Keith. Voyages of Discovery: The Cinema of Frederick Wiseman. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

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    Provides a close reading of Juvenile Court in the context of all of Wiseman’s early documentaries about institutions.

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  • Tarratt, Margaret. “Juvenile Court.” Films and Filming 19.11 (20 August 1974): 43–44.

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    Lukewarm review that faults the film for treating the juvenile court as if it existed in a social vacuum and speculates that the lack of perspective by the filmmaker will reinforce viewers’ preexisting prejudices. Available online by subscription.

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  • Wiseman, Frederick. “Wiseman on Juvenile Court.” Journal of the University Film Association 25.3 (1973): 48–49, 58.

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    Partial transcript of a question-and-answer session following a screening of Juvenile Court at the 1973 University Film Association annual conference.

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Law & Order

Law & Order (1969) examines the work of the Kansas City police force. The film shows the various general social services police perform in addition to enforcing the law and maintaining order. Included are sequences showing the police handling drunks, helping accident victims, and intervening in domestic disputes. Grant 1992 argues that Law & Order emphasizes the complex and contradictory roles of the police force, a view that is consistent with the filmmaker’s account of his experience shooting the film in Wiseman 1969.

  • Grant, Barry Keith. Voyages of Discovery: The Cinema of Frederick Wiseman. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

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    Provides a close reading of Law & Order in the context of all of Wiseman’s early documentaries about institutions.

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  • Wiseman, Frederick. “Reminiscences of a Filmmaker: Fred Wiseman on Law and Order.” Police Chief 36.9 (September 1969): 32–35.

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    The filmmaker discusses how he made the film with the cooperation of the Kansas City police force, and the discovery in the process of truths about the enormous difficulties of real police work.

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Manoeuvre

Manoeuvre (1979) examines the rapid deployment of American troops from Fort Polk, Kentucky, to join NATO forces in Europe for two weeks of NATO war games. The second of Wiseman’s three documentary films as of 2011 to focus on aspects of the military, it follows a US infantry tank company during the games. Both Armstrong 1990 and Grant 1992 see the film’s depiction of the military as conveying an efficient institution of institutional indoctrination.

Meat

Meat (1976) follows the entire process of meat packing from the animals grazing to the shipping to market of packages of meat. Shot at the Monfort Meat Packing Plant in Greeley, Colorado, the film shows every step in the process of butchering and packaging both sheep and cows. The film also focuses on the relations between workers and management at the plant. Henderson and VanStavern 1977 judge the film as lacking meaningful structure or educational value, but Mamber 1976, Grant 1992, and Tuch 1978 all understand the film’s view of the meatpacking process as a supreme example of the institutional alienation examined in many of Wiseman’s other films.

Missile

Missile (1987) follows the 4315th Training Squadron of the Strategic Air Command at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, where air force officers are trained to man the launch control centers for the Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles. The third and last film by Wiseman as of 2011 to focus on the American military, it includes sequences involving the arming and delivery of the missiles, discussion of the ethical issues of nuclear war, staff meetings, and tutorials. Grant 1992 discusses the film in the context of Wiseman’s other military documentaries, seeing the film as depicting an efficient mechanism of institutional indoctrination.

Model

Focusing on the Zoli Agency in New York City, Model (1980) looks at the world of modeling and fashion photography. Sequences in the film show models at fashion shows and making ads for magazines and television for clothes and other products, as well as the business aspects of modeling, including portfolio analysis, meetings with clients, and interviews with hopeful models. Both Armstrong 1983–1984 and Grant 1992 discuss the film as a self-reflexive examination of the culture industry. Benson and Anderson 1984 discuss the film’s view of fashion modeling as exploring the signifiers of beauty, and Cholodenko 2004 understands it as addressing postmodern concepts of representation more broadly.

Multi-Handicapped

Multi-Handicapped (1986), the fourth and final film in Frederick Wiseman’s four-part Deaf and Blind series, focuses on the day to day activities of multihandicapped students and their teachers, at the Helen Keller School of the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind in Talladega. The school aims to teach students to be self-sufficient, and the film shows them learning about personal hygiene, money, and other basics of independent living. Coles 1988 and Grant 1992 see the film and the series as expressing a more humanist, empathetic vision than expressed in many of Wiseman’s earlier documentaries, while Snyder and Mitchell 2003 oppositely view the Deaf and Blind films as being consistent with their deterministic institutional predecessors.

  • Coles, Robert. “Senses and Sensibility.” New Republic (29 August 1988): 58–60.

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    Appreciative review of the Deaf and Blind series that denies Wiseman’s films are “boring” and instead claims that they detail the range of human experience—a goal seen as ideally working to help us as spectators overcome our own perceptual “blindness.”

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  • Grant, Barry Keith. Voyages of Discovery: The Cinema of Frederick Wiseman. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

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    One chapter provides a detailed analysis of the four Deaf and Blind films and Essene, arguing that the films’ style and structure expresses a vision of profound humanism and sense of community.

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  • Snyder, Sharon, and David Mitchell. “The Visual Foucauldian: Institutional Coercion and Surveillance in Frederick Wiseman’s Multi-Handicapped Documentary Series.” Journal of Medical Humanities 24.3–4 (December 2003): 291–308.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1026066621961Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Disability study that compares the ideas of the philosopher Michel Foucault regarding institutional discipline to Wiseman’s documentaries, with a specific focus on the four Deaf and Blind films.

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Near Death

Near Death (1989) focuses on four patients in the medical intensive care unit at Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital. Following the patients, their families, and the doctors and nurses, the film considers how Americans face impending death. Sequences show the complex personal, ethical, medical, and religious issues involved in making decisions regarding the termination of life-support technology. Kleinman 1990 and Wolf 1990 consider the film’s handling of the ethical questions involved in life-support decisions, while Grant 1992 offers a more cinematic analysis that casts the film’s interest in technology and mortality in the context of Wiseman’s frequent return to themes of nature and culture.

  • Grant, Barry Keith. Voyages of Discovery: The Cinema of Frederick Wiseman. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

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    The concluding chapter offers a close reading of Near Death in the context of Wiseman’s earlier documentaries and discusses the film’s consideration of mortality in terms of the conflict between nature and culture.

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  • Kleinman, Arthur. “The American Medical Way of Death: Do Not Go Gentle.” New Republic, 5 February 1990, 28–29.

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    Discusses the film in terms of medical ethics and the American culture’s avoidance of death. While it admires the emotional intensity of Wiseman’s images, it faults the film’s incomplete picture by never going outside the intensive care unit. Available online by subscription.

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  • Wolf, Susan M. “Near Death: In the Moment of Decision.” New England Journal of Medicine 322.3 (18 January 1990): 208–209.

    DOI: 10.1056/NEJM199001183220320Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Short but pointed discussion of the ethical issues involved in informed decision-making regarding life support and the film’s use value in showing a consistency between theory and practice. Available online by subscription.

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Primate

Primate (1974), one of Wiseman’s most controversial films, presents the daily activities of Yerkes Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. The film shows a variety of experiments conducted by scientists on various species of apes and monkeys involving intelligence, memory, language, motor skills, and behavior modification. Russell 1975 provides a summary of the controversies generated by the film’s production and broadcast. Kraemer 1974 includes comments from Wiseman about the film and acknowledges that it asks important ethical questions about animal research. Cunningham 1982 and Benson and Anderson 2002 discuss the film’s strategy of presenting conflicting views about primate research, the former from the perspective of film theory and the latter emphasizing its rhetorical construction. Oppositely, Sullivan 1975 views the film as one of Wiseman’s most unambiguously critical. Grant 1992 analyzes the film’s metaphoric treatment of animals in the context of his other films focusing on animals, Meat (1976) and Racetrack (1984).

Public Housing

Public Housing (1997) documents daily life at the Ida B. Wells public housing development in Chicago, Illinois. The film presents residents struggling with the ravages of poverty but struggling to maintain social order and better themselves. Sequences include the work of local groups, police patrols, and social services such as job training and after-school programs. Although there had been no substantive analysis of the film as of 2011, Wiseman discusses the making of the film in Peary 1998 and a transcription of the film’s dialogue and shots is included in Grant 2006.

  • Grant, Barry Keith, ed. Five Films by Frederick Wiseman. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006.

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    Detailed transcriptions of five of Wiseman’s documentary films, including Public Housing, with dialogue and notations regarding camera movement and editing. The editor’s introduction discusses the importance of sound in Wiseman’s films.

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  • Peary, Gerald. “Beyond Oscar.” Boston Phoenix, 19–26 March 1998.

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    Wiseman discusses his approach to documentary filmmaking with an emphasis on the production of Public Housing in an interview originally published in the Boston Phoenix magazine in 1998.

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Seraphita’s Diary

Seraphita’s Diary (1982), one of Wiseman’s few fiction films, is the story of a famous fashion model (played by Apollonia Van Ravenstein, one of the models in Wiseman’s earlier Model, 1980), who has mysteriously disappeared as a result of her struggle to be recognized for herself rather than as an image of beauty. Grant 1992 discusses how the film, in Brechtian fashion, presents a series of interviews with Seraphita and important people in her life that question society’s emphasis on images of physical beauty.

Sinai Field Mission

Sinai Field Mission (1978) focuses on the US Sinai Field Mission, the early warning system established in 1976 to help facilitate the disengagement between Egypt and Israel after the 1973 war. The film shows the routine work and activities of the diplomats and technicians who operate the buffer zone facility that monitors traffic through the Mitla and Giddi passes. Grant 1992 argues that the film shows American culture as xenophobic and insular in a foreign context.

State Legislature

State Legislature (2006) shows the functioning of the Idaho Legislature during an entire session. Revealing the difficulties and benefits of the democratic process, sequences show lawmakers, their constituents, and lobbyists debating issues ranging from school violence to mad cow disease to illegal immigration. Reilly 2007 and Hagopian 2009 discuss the film in the context of Wiseman’s oeuvre, while Arthur 2007 offers an appreciation of the values of observational documentary but questions the representative value of Wiseman’s choice of subject in this instance.

  • Arthur, Paul. “State Legislature.” Film Comment 43.4 (July–August 2007): 71–72.

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    Mostly positive review that argues for the importance of everyday observation but also questions the choice of the Idaho State Legislature as representative of the American political process. Available online by subscription.

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  • Hagopian, Kevin. “State Legislature.” Film & History 39.1 (Spring 2009): 77–79.

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    Positive review argues that the film shows Wiseman’s more recent mellower side in a film that depicts the manufacturing of consensus rather than consent. Available online by subscription.

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  • Reilly, Dave. “State Legislature.” Cineaste 32.4 (Fall 2007): 51–53.

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    Deft discussion of the film in the context of Wiseman’s oeuvre that also questions Wiseman’s style as problematically apolitical in the era of new media and its wider access. Available online by subscription.

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The Store

The Store (1983) shows the operations of the main Neiman-Marcus department store and corporate headquarters in Dallas, Texas. Sequences in the film include the presentation and marketing of a variety of luxury consumer products including furs, jewelry, perfumes, and other goods, as well as the management and sales meetings involving such topics as sales techniques and advertising strategies. Rifkin 1983 provides some production background. Rosenberg 1983, Grant 1992, and Benson and Anderson 2002 all discuss the film’s view of the store as a metaphor for the excesses of consumer culture and capitalism, and Weisman 1983 acknowledges the film’s awareness that Neiman-Marcus’s primary product is the store itself.

Titicut Follies

Wiseman’s first documentary film and still his most controversial, Titicut Follies (1967) is a grim portrayal of the conditions at the State Prison for the Criminally Insane at Bridgewater, Massachusetts. The film shows how inmates are treated by guards, social workers, and psychiatrists. Benson and Anderson 1991 offer a detailed history of the legal battle the film engendered, and a concise summary can be found in Taylor 1988. Grant 2006 provides a transcript of the dialogue in the film along with annotations about style. Coles 1968 discusses Wiseman’s career up to and including Titicut Follies, while Grant 1992 analyzes the film in the context of Wiseman’s other early documentaries about public institutions. Armstrong 1989 and Price 2002 discuss issues of voyeurism raised by Wiseman’s seemingly unflinching camera in the film.

  • Benson, Thomas W., and Carolyn Anderson. Documentary Dilemmas: Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.

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    Well-researched case history of the legal battle between Wiseman and the state of Massachusetts over the film. The authors also address important questions about the ethics of documentary filmmaking in relation to its subjects.

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  • Armstrong, Dan. “Wiseman’s Realm of Transgression: Titicut Follies, the Symbolic Father, and the Spectacle of Confinement.” Cinema Journal 29.1 (Fall 1989): 20–35.

    DOI: 10.2307/1225299Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that the film initiates Wiseman’s exploration of how institutions function ideologically while employing distancing strategies to prevent us from becoming voyeurs of the cinematic spectacle. Available online by subscription.

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  • Coles Robert. “Stripped Bare at the Follies.” New Republic, 20 January 1968, 18, 28–30.

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    Begins with a biographical sketch of Frederick Wiseman leading up to the making of Titicut Follies, followed by a discussion locating the film’s emotional power in its exposure of the horrors of the professional world rather than the asylum. Available online by request.

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  • Grant, Barry Keith. Voyages of Discovery: The Cinema of Frederick Wiseman. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

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    Provides a close reading of Titicut Follies in the context of all of Wiseman’s early documentaries about institutions.

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  • Grant, Barry Keith, ed. Five Films by Frederick Wiseman. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006.

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    Detailed transcriptions of five of Wiseman’s documentary films, including Titicut Follies, with dialogue and notations regarding camera movement and editing. The editor’s introduction discusses the importance of sound in Wiseman’s films.

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  • Price, Michael. Titicut Follies.” Senses of Cinema, no. 19 (13 March 2002).

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    A retrospective essay that considers the uncomfortable position of voyeur in which we are placed by Wiseman’s camera in the film.

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  • Taylor, Charles. “Titicut Follies.” Sight and Sound 57.2 (Spring 1988): 98–103.

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    Concise summary of the legal case and controversy surrounding the film.

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Welfare

Welfare (1975) focuses on one state welfare office in New York City. The film shows a variety of clients along with the welfare workers who try to determine the validity of their claims. Cases involve unemployment, medical and psychiatric problems, abused children, and drug abuse. Grant 2006 provides a transcript of the dialogue in the film along with annotations about style. Campbell 1988 and Campbell and Buttny 1988 consider the rhetorical strategies of speakers in specific scenes of the film. Rosenblatt 1975 and Benson and Anderson 2002 discuss how Welfare includes ambiguity and contradictory information that prevent spectators from making judgments about individual cases, reflecting the complexities of the welfare system itself. Armstrong emphasizes the film’s absurdist humor, while Grant 1992 sees the film as the culmination of Wiseman’s early phase of muckraking exposés of public institutions.

  • Armstrong, Dan. “Wiseman’s Cinema of the Absurd: Welfare, or ‘Waiting for the Dole.’” Film Criticism 12.3 (Spring 1988): 3–19.

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    Argues that Welfare employs textual strategies of black humor and self-reflexivity that place the film in the tradition of the Theatre of the Absurd.

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  • Benson, Thomas W., and Carolyn Anderson. Reality Fictions: The Films of Frederick Wiseman. 2d ed. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002.

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    Detailed analyses of several of Wiseman’s documentary films. The chapter on Welfare examines how the film exposes the gap between institutional ideology and practice, emphasizing the inability of spectators to make informed judgments about client claims.

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  • Campbell, J. Louis, III. “‘All Men Are Created Equal’: Waiting for Godot in the Culture of Inequality.” Communications Monographs 55.2 (1988): 143–161.

    DOI: 10.1080/03637758809376163Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Analysis of Mr. Hirsch’s final speech, in which he references Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, examining its rhetorical significance as part of a speech act.

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  • Campbell, J. Louis, III, and Richard Buttny. “Rhetorical Coherence: An Exploration into Thomas Farrell’s Theory of the Synchrony of Rhetoric and Conversation.” Communication Quarterly 36.4 (Fall 1988): 262–275.

    DOI: 10.1080/01463378809369730Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Close examination of the penultimate conversation in the film in terms of the conversation’s rhetorical strategies. Available online by subscription.

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  • Grant, Barry Keith. Voyages of Discovery: The Cinema of Frederick Wiseman. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

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    Provides a close reading of Welfare in the context of all of Wiseman’s early documentaries about institutions.

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  • Grant, Barry Keith, ed. Five Films by Frederick Wiseman. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006.

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    Detailed transcriptions of five of Wiseman’s documentary films, including Welfare, with dialogue and notations regarding camera movement and editing. The editor’s introduction discusses the importance of sound in Wiseman’s films.

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  • Rosenblatt, Roger. “Frederick Wiseman’s Welfare.” New Republic (27 September 1975): 65–67.

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    Reasoned review that traces Wiseman’s strategy of eliciting the viewer’s response to welfare clients and workers, only to complicate them as lengthy dialogue scenes unfold, mirroring the complexities of the welfare system itself. Available online by subscription.

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LAST MODIFIED: 10/28/2011

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199791286-0031

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