For 50 years, Frederick Wiseman has been making thought-provoking, visually stimulating films. He’s a maverick who consistently uses his skills and talent to help us understand each other. Wiseman is the best living filmmaker in the United States, perhaps the world.
Wiseman was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1930. He is 87 years old and a graduate of Yale Law School. He recently won an Honorary Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He has made more than 40 films. He usually makes one each year. A few times, he’s made more than one film in a year.
His first film is Titicut Follies, a documentary about inmates at the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane in Massachusetts. It was hugely controversial, showed briefly in 1967 until a judge recalled it from distribution, and was finally allowed to be seen again by the general public in 1992. In 1970, he sought relief from the U.S. Supreme Court, but the justices refused to hear his case.
Frederick Wiseman’s other documentaries include Basic Training (1971), Canal Zone (1977), Missile (1988), Central Park (1990) Belfast, Maine (1999), State Legislature (2007), La Danse (2009), Boxing Gym (2010), At Berkeley (2013), and, most recently, Ex Libris, which will be released later this year.
As one can gather, Wiseman is a documentarian. He visits a town or an institution or a place for a few months, shoots a lot of film, then spends the next several months meticulously editing the film into shape. There’s never narration, and he uses ambient sound as a film’s soundtrack — take note in Boxing Gym, for example. The names of people in his films are never formally introduced.
As a result, one is quickly brought into a place or institution with little explanation, as if you’re pulled off the street and ushered into the middle of a high-level meeting at the University of California, Berkeley, or a closed rehearsal at the Paris Opera Ballet. You’re thrown into things, and you need to keep your wits. His films can be three or four hours long, but they are never boring.
Because of the constant creativity and artistic quality of Wiseman’s films, he is not just a documentarian. He is a filmmaker who comfortably stands alongside, if not higher, all the great directors — from John Ford to Ingmar Bergman to Roberto Rossellini to Steven Spielberg to Martin Scorsese, among others.
At Berkeley, an immersive, serious, dryly humorous, four-hour-long study of the University of California, Berkeley, is one of our favorites. We also keep going back to Boxing Gym, an unsentimental, but sympathetic portrait of boxing trainer Richard Lord of Austin, Texas. That’s 90 minutes long.
These films, and the others, change the way one looks at people and the world. Frederick Wiseman, in other words, changes our world with his art. It takes exceptional skill, talent, and hard work to pull that off. What is most noteworthy is that somewhere along the line Wiseman decided to use his talent that way — and then stick with it.