"Over the course of a fifty-year career, the documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman has set out to chronicle, as he's put it, 'American life as expressed through its institutions,'" writes Bilge Ebiri in the Village Voice. "His definition of 'institution' can be rather loose: His movies depict not just schools and hospitals and military bases but also race tracks, department stores, modeling agencies, art galleries, and boxing gyms. Each Wiseman picture presents a kind of ecosystem—a place with its own rules and hierarchies, its own oppositional forces, where the people attempt to play their part in the system while also not losing their own humanity."

Starting today, "the first half of a complete retrospective of his work begins at Film Forum," note A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis in an extensive overview of the program in the New York Times. "It’s a fitting tribute and arrives at a particularly productive moment for this prolific director, who in November received an honorary Academy Award. A ballet based on his 1967 film, Titicut Follies, opened last month in Minneapolis, and he has completed a new documentary, Ex Libris, about the New York Public Library, due later this year." Scott and Dargis present "a very partial introduction to some of the highlights and defining themes of his distinctive and capacious body of work."

Back to the Voice, to Peter Labuza: "The scope, specificity, and occasionally daunting length of Wiseman's films allow complex portraits of systems to emerge; time and again, he's reached beyond the obvious Foucaultian dynamic to locate indelible moments of humanity. No one will forget the LSD-tripping teen in Hospital (1970), or the workers of Welfare (1975) stepping outside their doors for a chance to breathe, or the letter from a deceased Vietnam veteran that closes High School (1968)."


"In 1968," writes Alejandro Veciana in Brooklyn Magazine, "Wiseman went to Philadelphia’s Northeast High School to shoot his follow-up to his enthralling, controversial debut, Titicut Follies, a direct cinema classic about a correctional facility in Massachusetts for the mentally insane. High School is another American documentary landmark, a captivating forthright portrayal of an ordinary American high school and the continuous familiar squabbles between teachers and students."

Cosmo Bjorkenheim for Screen Slate on Law and Order (1969): "In classic liberal newsgathering style, Wiseman is neither pro- nor anti-cop. He's said that 'it’s extremely important for the filmmaker to try at least to remain open to the material, otherwise you’re making propaganda.' In Law and Order, this material is brutal enough to leave no doubt about the fluid ethics of policework. An astonishing scene shows a detective strangling a prostitution suspect until she can’t breathe, all the while repeating 'Stop resisting.' … Wiseman wondered in an interview, 'if that cop didn’t think that what he was doing was okay, why on earth would he do that when it was being recorded?' The presence of the camera doesn’t guarantee objectivity, but at least it gives a truthful impression of how people want to be seen."

A couple of notes on the series. Tomorrow (Saturday), Laura Poitras will introduce the evening's screening of Titicut Follies. April 21's screening will be followed by a Q&A with Wiseman moderated by Film Comment editor Nicolas Rapold. They've met before. In 2010, Rapold wrote in the Voice: "The breadth and depth of Wiseman's work clashes with expectations of a slate-gray institutional tour of America. But, as the director explained over coffee at a Midtown diner, every film is intended as a calibrated, densely multilayered affair."

Another Q&A, moderated by Rich Juzwiak, follows April 22's screening of High School. And composer Leonard Pickett will discuss Titicut Follies that evening. Choreographer James Sewell will introduce the screening on April 26.


And from Film Forum: "Titicut Follies, High School and Hospital have been preserved in 35mm by the Library of Congress National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, from original camera negatives in the Zipporah Films Collection."

Update, 4/17: "Welfare (1975) is a sprawling film," writes Cosmo Bjorkenheim at Screen Slate. "Although spatially just as limited as Titicut Follies, High School, and Hospital, it deals with such a vast number of agencies, offices, legal issues, and questions of responsibility that it ceases to be a report on a single institution and becomes an encyclopedia of society’s problems and the quandaries of mortals…. The really magical thing about Welfare is that Frederick Wiseman has managed to make one of the most boring routine experiences of non-wealthy Americans (with only the dreaded DMV topping it in proverbiality) such a rich source of moral and emotional education, to reveal the numbingly ordinary as fascinating."

Update, 4/18: Once again, Cosmo Bjorkenheim at Screen Slate: "Wiseman told an interviewer, 'One of the aspects of High School that is rarely commented on is the enormous passivity of the students,' but to me they actually seem pretty entitled. When a whiny kid with glasses and an overbite declares that he’ll accept his four-hour detention, just this once, 'under protest,' you sort of sympathize with the dean in spite of yourself. But other support staff are there to dispel illusions of success. When a career counselor tells a student, 'You should have a plan for what happens if none of your dreams come true,' that cold feeling of disappointing reality that you’ve probably gotten used to since high school washes over you again as if for the first time."

Update, 4/19: "Middle America in miniature encased in a bubble of imperialism, Canal Zone is an unusually bitter, wide-ranging Wiseman," writes Jeremy Polacek in Brooklyn Magazine. "Between glimpses of a high school graduation (a la High School), the languid residents of a psychiatric hospital (Titicut Follies), and a delightful, can-do fashion show (Model), it’s not only the United States that appears to have infiltrated this little space around the Panama Canal, but whole subjects of Wiseman’s previous films."