There are certain people, protean creative forces, who are underappreciated while they’re alive and in their working primes. Given that he’s celebrating a half-century of moviemaking this year, with a 40-film career retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts and a freshly gilded honorary Oscar on his mantel, Frederick Wiseman — at 87, the grand old godfather of documentary filmmaking — would not seem to be one of those people.
But how many of you reading this have actually seen one of his movies lately, if at all?
I thought so.
And, honestly, I understand. We live in a golden age of nonfiction filmmaking, where documentaries are readily available and often more dramatically compelling than the scripted stuff churned out by the studios — and still our lizard brains hear the D-word and wrongly assume it has to be homework. That Wiseman’s documentaries tend to run three or four hours in length makes them even more forbidding. They’re hard to find, too, since the director’s Cambridge-based Zipporah Films holds on to distribution rights and often only releases the movies commercially on DVD.
But, as is true of all great artists, Wiseman deserves more than celebration. He deserves to be seen. The MFA retrospective, Frederick Wiseman: For the Record, began in February and runs through June 4, with many of his finest recent works, like 2013’s “At Berkeley” or 2015’s “In Jackson Heights,” yet to screen. Many of his films can be ordered through your library’s inter-branch lending system. Maybe start with “National Gallery” (2014), about the London museum; it’s one of the few that can be ordered through Netflix. Whatever movie you pick, the consistency of Wiseman’s output is such that you can’t really go wrong.
Or you can do as I recently did, although I don’t necessarily recommend it: stock up on Wiseman’s work as a way to get through six weeks of post-ankle-surgery recuperation. This actually turned out to be an experience of magnanimous serendipity. Confined by cast, crutch, and winter weather to my home, I came to see the films as a form of virtual reality, a window to the outside world — long soaks, sometimes blissful, sometimes troubling, at all times revelatory and compassionate, in the ways the human animal behaves when organized into groups.
A Wiseman documentary is usually named with deceptive blandness for its subject. “Meat” (1976) is about a giant cattle lot and meat packing plant in Colorado, and it unblinkingly shows you where your hamburger comes from. “Blind” (1987) is about a school for the blind in Talledega, Ala. “Racetrack” (1985) is about a racetrack, “Zoo” (1993) about a zoo. When I say these films function as virtual reality, I’m thinking of “Central Park” (1989), which observes every conceivable aspect of that man-made oasis, from birdwatchers to boardroom planning sessions. The movie is about how this particular public space functions, and about how people function within it, and to these home-bound eyes it was a deep steep in a summer day.
Wiseman’s subjects can be as specific as an upscale Paris strip club (“Crazy Horse,” 2011) or as broad as an urban neighborhood (“In Jackson Heights”). They can focus on a town (“Belfast, Maine,” 1999), a department store (“The Store,” 1983), an art form (“Ballet,” 1995), a civic system (1975’s “Welfare,” 1971’s “Basic Training,” 2006’s “State Legislature”). One of his most harrowingly humane projects is “Domestic Violence” (2000), set in the homes and women’s shelters of Tampa. Without editorializing, the film bears witness to the damage men can visit upon girlfriends, wives, and children, and to the victims’ astonishing resilience and courage. It’s a movie to make you weep with sadness and gratitude.
What you immediately notice about a Wiseman film is that we’re on our own. There’s no narrator, no explanatory titles, nothing to hold our hand. The power of his approach is the steady accrual of moments that, taken at length, come to form a mosaic of how our species works (or doesn’t). His movies are often the product of more than a hundred hours of filming, followed by a year of editing to find the rhythms, moments, and patterns that tell a larger story. He sculpts reality into a narrative we discover as we go, and if you call what he does “cinema verite” or “fly-on-the-wall” filmmaking, he will tell you off in no uncertain terms. “I would never claim my films to be the truth,” Wiseman told an interviewer in 2010. “My films are a report on what I’ve learned. I am quite content to have [them] called ‘movies.’ ”
He got started late. Born in Boston, Wiseman earned a law degree and was teaching at B.U. Law School when he decided to film what he saw when he took students to the Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. The resulting film, “Titicut Follies” (1967), so powerfully exposed the mistreatment of patients that the state of Massachusetts banned general audiences from seeing it for 23 years. At the age of 37, Wiseman was on his way.
It would be easy to say his films show how institutions dehumanize the humans within them. Wiseman might be the first to respond that he’s after something more complicated. Many viewers look at his second film, “High School” (1968), as Exhibit A in the way the US educational system snuffs individuality out of young people and trains them for societal lockstep. In fact, the students and teachers in the film felt they had been portrayed fairly and positively. A Wiseman movie refracts all the available light into a picture that shifts and alters as you watch.
They’re like life in that way. Wiseman’s are the films to show the aliens when they arrive, to explain how homo sapiens, the monkeys that got smart, work in groups and alone, for better and for worse, while building something beautiful — like a park, a museum, or a dance — or while pulling it all back into chaos.
A scene I keep coming back to in my memory is an early moment in “Blind,” as a sightless 5-year-old boy in a classroom is tasked with delivering a message, on his own, to another teacher in another classroom on another floor. The camera follows this small, determined soul as he works his way there and back, down long corridors and up flights of stairs, teaching himself the arts of navigation and independence on the fly. The sequence is nearly 10 minutes long and every second of it is gold, with more suspense, drama, and payoff than a year of Hollywood films.
That’s what Wiseman’s movies give us: life, when we should be watching but aren’t.
(In addition to the MFA retrospective, Wiseman will be giving a talk on May 3 at 6:30 p.m. in the MFA’s Remis Auditorium as well as appearing at WGBH’s Yawkey Theatre at 7 p.m. on May 5 for a Q&A with myself on the legacy of “Titicut Follies.” The MFA talk is sold out; the WGBH event is free to the public.)