Frederick Wiseman’s latest film, Belfast, Maine, is having its New York premiere in the best possible setting, as the opening feature in a full retrospective of his work. The picture will also be broadcast on PBS on February 4, which is good news for those who can’t get to Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. But if you are able to attend at least part of the retrospective–or are willing to run one of your own, in your mind’s screening room–you will find that Belfast, Maine is extraordinary in two ways. First, it is an immensely rich and immeasurably valuable microcosm of American life at the end of the twentieth century. Second, and most unexpected, it is a microcosm of Wiseman’s art.
He is a student of institutions–the hospital, the welfare office, the housing project, the high school–and sometime during the past thirty years he became one himself. No other documentarian since Robert Flaherty has enjoyed such widespread, superlative-laced praise; few have been so prolific. Yet strangely enough, though critical opinion and public television have elevated him to the status of an official artist (or as close to such a thing as we have in America), Wiseman is an extremist.
He is extreme in the limits he sets on his filmmaking, banishing from the screen all interpretive or explanatory devices such as interviews, voiceovers, texts or archival footage, so that viewers must confront the present moment. In doing so, they may also confront themselves, taking notice of how they read the evidence of their senses. (What store of information do they draw upon? What stock of prejudices?) Wiseman is similarly extreme in his claim on your patience (at four hours, Belfast, Maine is not the longest of his films) and in his determination to make you wade neck-deep into realities that don’t rate even a splash from most other filmmakers.
These realities, at their harshest, have sometimes been the muck to Wiseman’s rake. The stuff he dragged to the surface in his first film, Titicut Follies (1967), so displeased the shamed parties–authorities of the State of Massachusetts–that they secured a court order preventing any public screenings. The legal reasoning: By recording the brutalities meted out in a state prison for the criminally insane, Wiseman had violated the inmates’ right to privacy. Needless to say, this ruling made Titicut Follies a prized item on the film-society circuit and guaranteed Wiseman’s fame; and though the ban is no longer in force, Wiseman is still known as the man who documented, in gruesome detail and at excruciating length, such episodes as the force-feeding of a crazy old man.
There has been much in his subsequent films–from High School and Welfare through Public Housing–to maintain Wiseman’s reputation as a maker of exposés. And yet: Who would have thought you could appeal to conscience by means of phenomenological contemplation? A protest film by Wiseman is like The Jungle as written by Robbe-Grillet.
Wiseman has, by the way, made a picture titled Meat, which delivers nothing less than advertised. But other films have taken him far from Upton Sinclair territory. He has looked at dance (Ballet), theater (La Comédie-Française), religious life (Essene), green space (Central Park), commerce (The Store), life with disabilities (Adjustment and Work), life toward its end (Near Death), human-animal relations (Zoo), police work (Law and Order) and the military (Basic Training). With the exception of that last subject, all these areas of life–plus welfare, plus high school, plus the criminal justice system and more–find a place in the grand synthesis of Belfast, Maine.