Frederick Wiseman's unblinking eye

For 33 years, the great documentary filmmaker has peered into everyday places to produce unforgettable images.

January 30, 2000|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

Belfast, Maine--Many years ago, the already legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman wrote a screenplay for a feature film based on Anne Tyler's novel "Celestial Navigation." He was quite taken by Jeremy, Tyler's tragically withdrawn central character, an artist who created sculptures from everyday objects.

Wiseman is self-aware enough to recognize why he was drawn to the character. Through 30 documentaries over the last 33 years, no American filmmaker has devoted more of his art to the everyday than Wiseman. The films have been shot in such diverse settings as a prison for the criminally insane, an intensive care unit, a welfare office, a public housing project and a monastery. Together, his documentaries may well create a fuller and more vivid portrait of American life during the latter half of the 20th century than the works of any other artist -- working in any medium. In his meticulous, unblinking recording of the everyday, Wiseman has captured the complexity of contemporary existence, a rare accomplishment in popular culture.

"His films take you on a phenomenal journey," says Barbara Kopple, an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker. "And the way they do that is by putting you in the middle of incredibly intimate scenes of life, be they difficult or heartbreaking or funny. For me, what Fred does is the most penetrating, moving and truthful way of making films."

Within the subculture of documentary filmmaking, Wiseman has long been regarded a pioneer, an inspiration to others working in nonfiction filmmaking. His work has not gone unappreciated by those outside the fraternity either. Writing in the New York Times recently, film scholar Phillip Lopate declared that Wiseman merits consideration as the greatest American filmmaker during the last 30 years, equating him with such feature film directors as Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and Stanley Kubrick.

"He has created some of the most powerful images in all of cinema," says the documentary filmmaker Errol Morris. "He's not just a great documentary filmmaker. He's a great filmmaker, period."

Wiseman never did make that Anne Tyler movie, he said one recent frigid afternoon in the remote coastal community in Maine that is the subject of his latest film. He was sipping pineapple juice in a quiet restaurant while in a movie house two doors down, a local audience was getting a sneak preview of "Belfast, Maine." The documentary will be broadcast nationally on PBS Friday. (Locally, it can be seen on WETA at 10 p.m. WMPT plans to broadcast "Belfast" in the spring.)

"In the language of Hollywood, it was too soft, which meant that it was not commercial," Wiseman said without rancor. "But I also didn't want to take the three- or four-year slog that it would take to get it done because in those three or four years I could make more documentaries. Making documentaries is fun, and I don't have to get involved with hassles with a lot of other people."

There's much to deconstruct in that statement, much that is essential to Wiseman's career. In a medium that requires the raising and spending of other people's cash, Wiseman has managed a degree of autonomy and control almost unparalleled in documentary filmmaking. He has made the films he wanted to make, without giving thought to commercial viability. "So far, I've had the freedom to do what I want," he says. "I've never done a subject that anybody else wanted me to do or asked me to do. I've been able to maintain my independence."

A vigorous life

"So far" is a long time in Wiseman's case. He turned 70 recently, an elfin-looking figure, slightly hunched at the shoulders with stringy hair that is still sandy-colored and ungovernable. For an artist renowned as uncompromising, Wiseman is a man of unexpected warmth who seems willing to give thoughtful consideration to any question. He also suggests the vigor of someone with a long way to go before retirement.

Which is fortunate for Wiseman, considering his current schedule. In conjunction with Friday's airing of "Belfast," last week New York's Lincoln Center kicked off a monthlong Wiseman retrospective, during which all of his films will be shown. On the opening day, he was presented with a lifetime achievement award from Human Rights Watch.

On Tuesday, he's leaving for Paris to direct a stage production of "The Last Letter." The play is his own adaptation of a chapter from the novel "Life and Fate" by the Soviet journalist Vasily Grossman.

Meanwhile, Wiseman is also at work editing his 31st film, the subject of which he won't disclose.

However that film turns out, it is no slight to presume that it, like every other Wiseman film, will never displace his very first, "Titicut Follies" (1967), as his most famous and most startling.

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