Fred Wiseman is one of the great living filmmakers. The author of some 40 films, his films represent for me a pinnacle of cinematic achievement.
Although he sometimes refers to his technique as “woobly-scope,” his films show only a superficial connection with the pretenses of cinema verité. Yes, he works with available light, and handheld camera, but his interest is in the essential absurdity of the world.
When one of his characters in Welfare refers to “Godot” in the closing minutes of the film, the viewer is reminded that Wiseman’s roots are not in Grierson and Flaherty but in Beckett, Anouilh, Ionesco, and Sarte—the theater of hopeless irony. They are extended essays on the meaning of meaninglessness. And they are incredibly bitter and funny. Really, really funny.
Allow me, please, to provide two lists. First, a list of the most perverted sex scenes in Wiseman’s films and second, my favorite moments of utter hopelessness.
MOST PERVERTED SEX SCENES
1. Masturbating the monkey in Primate. Humans are portrayed admirably as evil primates. 2. Castrating the wolf in Zoo. A group of female veterinarians are castrating a wolf. 3. The dildo in High School II. Fred has a gift for filming condom demonstrations. Middle-class white students are provided instruction how to put a condom on a huge black dildo... 4. The dildo in Public Housing. Yet, one more condom demonstration. Black teenage mothers are instructed in condom use. This time it’s a small white dildo...
5. Semen collection in Racetrack.
Humans rarely look as depraved and as silly as they do in a Wiseman film.
GREAT MOMENTS OF QUINTESSENTIAL MEANINGLESSNESS
1. Sinai Field Mission: A man with a large push-broom is sweeping sand off a road in a windstorm. What more can you say? Oh yes, it’s about the U.N. peacekeeping forces in the Sinai. Trapped inside a windowless bunker and surrounded by chain-link fence, microwave dishes and razor wire, several nationalities and a group of Texans try to keep the peace. After a short while, they start fighting with each other.
2. The Store: In his documentary that takes place in a Neiman Marcus, the employee and employer birthday parties at the conclusion seem surreal, desperate and really funny.
3. Near Death: Terminal patients at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. One terminal patient explains how she has finally found a way to lose weight. If you don’t pay attention, you might consider it life affirming. (It’s six hours long, but I wish it were longer.) 4. Essene: In a monastery, a monk pursues a fly unendingly with a fly swatter
I could go on and on, but remember, Wiseman’s work is almost always mischaracterized.
These 40 films are not institutional studies, or sociology on film. They are highly personal and idiosyncratic works. They create a world equal to the worlds of Renoir or Hitchcock or Fellini.
For me, he is the undisputed king of misanthropic cinema.
Errol Morris is a world-renowned documentary filmmaker. His film, The Fog of War , won an Academy Award in 2004 for Best Documentary Feature. He has also directed A Brief History of Time , The Thin Blue Line , Fast , Cheap , and Out of Control and Standard Operating Procedure .