Society, Exposed: Frederick Wiseman’s Films @ MoMA in 2010

Interrupting Infinity Exclusive Commentary. © 2010 by David St.-Lascaux


From Titicut Follies. © 1967 Bridgewater Film Company, Inc., All Rights Reserved.

Frederick Wiseman Retrospective
The Museum of Modern Art, 20 January – 31 December 2010

WHOEVER SAID LEARNING IS FUN hasn’t sat through a Frederick Wiseman hat trick. Watching Titicut Follies (1967), High School (1968) and Basic Training (1971) in chronological progression gives new definition to the concept of pain, or, more precisely, searing psychological torture with a generous helping of deep, irreversible societal despair. Your eyes on this sentence are your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions, etc., and absolve this reviewer of all liability and indicate that you are voluntarily reading this, having abandoned all hope.

Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t watch these groundbreaking, profoundly important films. Just that you can skip the popcorn and any plans for post-cinematic lovemaking. And hide the razor blades.

First, a bit of context. The Museum of Modern Art has recently acquired 36 “newly-struck prints” of Wiseman’s films and is thus mounting a Wiseman retrospective throughout 2010. All three of the documentaries shown in January were made in quick succession during the celebrated decade that brought us the Space Race, the Pill, the Civil Rights and Women’s movements, and the Vietnam War, among other seismic cultural shifts. If you think this recitation tedious, perhaps some closing dialog from Basic Training will help clarify your mind: “America,” the officer tells the newly-minted troops, “has never lost a war.” In fact, all three simmer with the social issues of their day, issues unresolved forty years later (astonishingly, the Equal Rights Amendment is stone dead, with no public protest), and which continue to define our “free market” culture of complexity, chaos (Schumpeter’s “creative destruction”) and amoral directionlessness. As the Sixties unfolded, American had been confident of its destiny, its exceptionalism, until Wiseman captured the first post-Pax Americanan hints of uncertainty on film, magnified them to terrifying undeniability, and presciently implied that the system’s dysfunctional unsustainability would lead to the its future unravelment. “The Beat Goes On,” meanwhile, topped the charts in ‘67. And so it does.

Besides the profound insight above, Wiseman’s achievements in these films are several and significant. First, and most remarkable, that he was permitted by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the City of Philadelphia and the United States Army to make them. None places the employees – doctors, nurses, administrators, teachers, counselors, drill sergeants or officers – in a positive light (although it seems that the depictions are even-handed and at times even quite objective). Second, the situations themselves, which Wiseman documented, framed and presented with brutal (there really is no better word) eloquence (ditto). The unwatchable treatment of the “criminally insane,” the explicit respect-and-conform high school messages and regimentation, and the you-will-do-what-you’re-told-while-we-teach-you-to-kill eight-week indoctrination of Ft. Knox – all while the cameras were rolling at close range, in the mix. Third, Wiseman’s direct cinema technique of providing no commentary permits the real people in these films to “speak for themselves” in words and actions (the sound quality is so acoustically ambient that subtitles should be added), and the viewer to draw her/his own conclusions, understanding that Wiseman methodically shot and edited to make his points. And fourth, the clever, faux amateur, in-joke cinematography – all three industrial black and white, all three public-institution 16 mm format (think frame-story film-with-his-film high school boys’ sex education class animated illustration of fallopian tubes inflamed with gonorrhea – “can lead to sterility”).

As impressive as the above achievements are, Wiseman’s primary achievement is one of cultural discovery: the revelation and depiction of 60’s American society, by quick extrapolation from the filmed microcosms, as coercive, conformist, stultifying (this a euphemism far too kind in context) and hidebound – but perhaps you already knew that. Wiseman’s mental health practitioners, led by a Vaudevillean chief (who majordomo’s the “Titicut Follies” song-and-dance party performed by him, his ghoulishly footlight-lit inmates and staff), seem to revel in the sadistic treatment of the mentally ill at the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. Inmates include catatonic old men, a reciter standing on his head in the exercise yard, a ranter railing against the Pope, and a young man sent “for observation” from a prison, whose protests that he doesn’t belong at Bridgewater are met with a diagnosis of increasing paranoia and thus the prescription to increase his dosage of 1960’s-style tranquilizers (think chlorpromazine). One could easily be forgiven for not being able to distinguish between staff and inmates (let’s not mince words: in solitarily confined cells with three-inch square solid windowlets in the solid doors, they were hardly patients on a path to recovery or treatment in any meaningful sense of those words).

Because of its unsparing camera and graphic depictions of interactions with naked, mentally-ill old men, some may not be able to watch Titicut Follies, which is the most extreme film this correspondent has ever viewed. Pasolini’s Sadean Salò, most gut-wrenchingly similar in its institutional madness, and Tod Browning’s disturbing Freaks, are, after all, only fiction. Closer Robert Frank’s bleak photographs in The Americans, almost a decade earlier. But it’s not the content that disturbs: It’s the wretched quality of life of those who are employed in the system as much as the plight of the inmates that breaks one’s heart. This is our, not just their society: this is who we are – oppressors, newly-aware deniers, indifferent Darwinians – but providers of balm, amelioration? solutions? Aren’t we too busy taking care of ourselves to be our brothers’ keepers? Are there no prisons?

In Philadelphia’s middle class Northeast High School, the theme shifts from systematic debasement to stultifying conformity, magnified visually and physically by the universal crew cuts (or alternate flat-tops) and roaming administrator (“Do you have a pass?”), but even more auditorially by the instructions to “respect” and “obey,” and the remarkable conversations of miscreants (e.g., one who threw a book at her teacher, compassionately counseled to realize her better, maturing angel) and rebels (a brilliant writer who refuses a major college scholarship because she wants to go to beauty school) and others ahead. (Not unremarkably, a viewer of High School [not this correspondent] found the identically depicted and remembered scenarios from the same period too accurately painful, despite this watching to the end.)

The military culture of Basic Training isn’t anything new to someone who has participated or has seen Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket or Stone’s Platoon, unless one observes that Wiseman’s is the precursive model from which those films were derived. Basic Training is also the first to look “the purpose of the exercise” with an unflinching eye: to train men to kill with weapon (“don’t call [the M16] a gun,” the instructor intones), bayonet or hands. In an interview in Reason, Wiseman says that

“Basic Training [shows] the ease with which civilians can be turned into soldiers prepared to kill in the service of the state. It’s a form of education, and the Army is very good at offering that form of education. And most people are willing participants.”

Wiseman in a single stroke discredits the entire war movie genre as propagandistic trash, exposing Owen’s “Dulce et decorum” set as blatant cultural disinformers cultivating cannon fodder. On the other hand, the Pentagon’s permission makes perfect sense as matter-of-fact disclosure:Yes, this is exactly what we do, and here’s how we do it.

The Sixties were highly militaristic times: Young men were drafted, didn’t go to war by choice; every night the TV news broadcast the reality of the war in Vietnam. Today, the military’s domination of the economic and societal infrastructures continues. As to the implications of this model, the American public is simply uninformed: in the last two U.S. invasions in the Mideast, embedded journalistic sanitizers inexcusably and irresponsibly glossed the physical results of “weapons” as used. HBO’s commercially sequestered Baghdad Hospital is a notable exception.

Under the straight-on surface of these films, a society in the throes of profound change emerges: A lecture by a matron to the girls on birth control (sex education segregated in public school America, explaining everything) opens severely with a critique of promiscuity, but proceeds with a candid description of the newly available pill (to all married women in 1965 following Griswold v. Connecticut and to all unmarried women in 1972 [!] following Eisenstadt v. Baird) and its effects, and ends with the position that a young woman now has unprecedented freedom and responsibility to make informed reproductive and lifestyle choices. To the boys, a male (of course) gynecologist gives straight, often jocular answers to submitted questions (he gets paid to finger them, he demonstrates and winks, to appreciative laughter) from an auditorium-filled crowd of young men, providing the admonition that sex can lead to the responsibility of parenthood, which he says is also every bit a young man’s responsibility.

On the racial front, Northeast High seems to have – surprise – few African Americans. The assertive young man in the front row isn’t shy: Northeast’s culture, he says, is that of “a garbage can.” In Basic Training, a black recruit disdains his white officer in casual conversation, saying “this isn’t my country.” In fact, the first challenge in the first weapons training session comes from a skeptical young black man who questions the notion of killing – period (a quaint Old Testament concept that persisted in the New). His white trainer has an answer, but it’s pretty clear that he doesn’t believe the logic behind what he preaches, being, as he says the enemy will be, “just as scared as you are.” His stated view: it’s him or you, the universal rationale for statist murder of the Other Tribes.

A discussion of these films would be incomplete without a history of their banishment and legal battles. A Massachusetts judge banned and ordered Titicut Follies destroyed (the negatives burned, per Wiseman’s recollection; he failed), although it was shown in New York in 1968; it wasn’t until 1991 that it was cleared; it was shown on PBS in 1992. Wiseman’s version of the story includes betrayal by the ACLU and Elliot Richardson, both venerated icons of free speech. High School, which entered into the National Film Registry in 1991, was banned in Philadelphia until 1994. Astonishingly, Basic Training lacks a Wikipedia page as of this writing. All of which begs the question of social benefit: How can we make needed improvements to society if we have to wait 25 untimely years for actionable information to be disseminated (and then only to a privileged few in the æsthetic community)?

With Titicut Follies the shocking outlier, High School and Basic Training dovetail as a continuum. In 1968, the military required submissive and malleable recruits, which the high school system was efficiently producing. That this was so was eloquently illustrated by the approximately 2.6 million who served “in country,” and by the closing speech in High School. In it, an administrator enthusiastically, even wistfully read to assembled students (we assume: we only see her face at the podium; it could’ve been parents and/or faculty) a letter from a recent graduate about to go to Vietnam who had hoped to become a chef, expressing his pride in serving his country. Letters like his, she said, showed that “Northeast has succeeded.” Precisely Wiseman’s point – or is it?

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For more information about the Frederick Wiseman retrospective at MoMA, visit

Frederick Wiseman’s films, which include the dance-themed La Danse, are available in DVD from Zipporah Films, Inc., at

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