Walker Art Center

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Filmmakers Frederick Wiseman: A Sense of Place

Dialogue: Frederick Wiseman and Jim McKay

  • Retrospective: November 2–21, 2003
  • Regional Premiere: La dernière lettre (The Last Letter)

If the ultimate value and beauty of cinema is its ability to open up our worlds and provide us with a window through which to experience previously unencountered people, places, and stories, then Frederick Wiseman is certainly our most accomplished and important filmmaker. The diversity of his subjects, places, and people is unparalleled. In the span of his 36-year career, his camera has peered into nearly every corner of the United States and recorded the daily dramas of people from every walk of life. No American filmmaker, living or dead, has assembled an oeuvre that even approaches this depth and diversity. And no one else has honed their style and craft to such a point of near perfection.

Much has been made in recent years about the “narrative nature” of documentaries, as scores of eager young makers dive into reality moviemaking, often as simply a stepping-stone to a future in Hollywood. They mold their documentaries to “tell stories,” which more often than not means the vigorous following of a heroic (or tragic) main character until said character reaches an often predetermined or predicted “climax.” It’s simple, spoon-fed, crystal clear and, for all its “drama,” boring, really. A much greater challenge is to find in the often mundane moments of our lives the qualities that define and celebrate us.

In a world slathered with text messages, insert shots, flying logos, and headline crawls, Wiseman’s films allow you to watch, to feel, to experience—as much as that is possible on a movie or television screen—real life. They ask you to participate as you watch, to think and to discover. With no narrator to tell you what to think or where to look, no titles to guide you, no music, no cross-cutting, no graphics, nothing but real-time life reconstructed, you are given this blessed opportunity to peer though the window and live with someone else through…their operation, their walk down the runway, their arrest, their morning cup of coffee—their fears, their confusion, their boredom, their everyday lives.

What is a story? Does it have to have a beginning and an end, main characters, three acts, a predetermined running time, a “plot”? Wiseman creates stories that are not of the “once upon a time” variety, stories that tell us not one tale, but many, that build and build upon themselves until we fit all the pieces together and understand. Long takes, quiet moments, meditative, drawn-out scenes—it’s some of the most exciting filmmaking you’ll ever see. And oh, did I forget to say how funny he is? Not knee-slapping funny, but the funny that appears as a smile, a raised eyebrow, a wink, or a nod. The funny that doesn’t shout but whispers—the kind you can share.

What is perhaps most wonderful about Wiseman’s work is that, for all its uncompromising, challenging uniqueness, it is also some of the most populist work around. How many millions of people have switched on PBS one day and gotten sucked into one of his films, only to emerge hours later and realize that they’ve just watched something radical, something unique and experimental. The sheer determination and lack of compromise in the filmmaking makes you sit up and take notice. It’s one of those rare and epiphanous moments when something in the media actually surprises you, engages you, wows you. By not trying to pander to what are inevitably low expectations about our citizenry, Wiseman ends up creating work that, simply because it’s so honest, compelling, and familiar, breaks through the boundaries. Because in it, in the end, we can see ourselves.

My only hope is that the United States’ master time capsule contains a copy of each of these films (and a projector!). Years, generations, civilizations from now, one will be able to watch them and know who we were.

—Jim McKay

Jim McKay cowrote and directed Girls Town, his first feature film, in 1995. His second feature, Our Song, played at New Directors/New Films at MoMA and his latest feature, Angel was released last year. McKay also coproduced the documentaries American Movie, La Boda, and Escuela.

Frederick Wiseman