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The allure of Frederick Wiseman


It’s a long title for a long movie. And I’ll be honest with you – if a 3 hour documentary about the Paris Opera Ballet doesn’t sound like something you’d enjoy, then I don’t think I could say much about convincing you to see it. I don’t have credentials to be discussing the ballet, and the idea of visiting Paris sounds punishing. So you may be wondering why I even sat down for this.

It’s because the director is Frederick Wiseman. I’ve seen a handful of his documentaries, and every time I get done watching them I just wonder why he isn’t more popular. Yes, part of the problem is that he makes 3 hour Paris opera ballet movies. That might have something to do with it. But I think the other component is you can’t find his work anywhere. Nothing’s available on netflix. His website, Zipporah Films, is the best resource – if you’re an educator and want to rent or buy prints or dvd’s. And they run a pretty penny. There are mom and pop rental houses that carry some–but not all–of his movies, which is how I got to see them myself.

I hope that someday they become more widely available. I started out with “Meat” which was completed in 1976. It’s black and white, which is probably for the best. Otherwise there’d be a lot of red. It may sound like something PETA would come up with, but actually the effect it had on me was interesting. I was compelled by the process, and the growing separation between a “cow” and a piece of meat hung on a hook, and how we interpret a piece from its whole. It has a strange effect on the mind. I got a glimpse into the process that goes on behind the scenes, from the businessmen who run the slaughterhouse to the technicians who are in charge of workflow management. Wiseman observes with a reporter’s objectivity but does not narrate or explain. He just shows. And usually, he structures each of his films centrally around a particular idea or institution. For example, here’s just a small list of his film titles: “Adjustment & Work”, “Basic Training”, “Aspen”, “Belfast, Maine”, “Canal Zone”, “Central Park”, “High School”, “Domestic Violence”, et al. You see the pattern. And he’s got a lot of films…37 are available on his website.

His set-ups are very similar. In a classic storytelling sensibility, he begins with a general periphery, a general sense of location, and then quietly moves in. He finds the most interesting people and follows them through their day. In the case of say, “Aspen” which was one of my absolute favorites, I feel like Wiseman transplanted me there for a few days and nights just to get a sense of the place during the 1980’s. One night you’re at a book club meeting, during the day you’re on the slopes, and at night you’re in some rich guy’s house who’s instructing a group of really bad, amateur painters and making them draw interpretations of his weird house to hilarious results. One of the elements I enjoy about the movies is discovering exactly what drew Wiseman towards the subjects, too. Some of them are obvious, such as his inaugural effort “Titticut Follies” about a poorly run mental instutition, but others are a little harder to grasp, like “La Danse.”

I don’t suspect Wiseman was drawn to a love for ballet. Much in the same way he probably isn’t drawn to domestic violence when he sets out to do a documentary about it. I believe that Wiseman always approaches each subject as a true outsider, which is why the documentaries are so great. And it’s why I can comfortably watch any of them, even if the subject seems really uncomfortable or in cases like “State Legislature”, potentially boring. There isn’t any attempt at convincing the audience of an argument or a way to look at things, although in his early films there is a somewhat didactic element to his editing style that disappears in later efforts – either because of maturation as a filmmaker or a desire to stay consistent in style and tone. For almost 40 movies, he’s stayed very consistent. There are no major lapses in quality.

“La Danse” was rare for me because it was the first Wiseman film that I had a chance to see in theaters. It was projected digitally, which was unfortunate, but it’s probably because a print would have been unfeasible in this economy where people won’t shell out $10 for a 3 hour look into a Parisian opera ballet troupe. Can I blame them? I dragged my girlfriend into it and avoided mentioning the running time because I knew it would have been a deterrent from going with me. When she leaned over and said “this movie is taking forever,” I nodded and feigned like I thought it would have ended an hour and a half ago.

For the Wiseman newbie, I don’t think “La Danse” is the place to start. In some ways it is too long and could have been cut by half. There’s a lot of repetition, and plenty of unanswered questions about the dancers. But if you’ve seen enough of Wiseman, there’s not a lot that can surprisingly disappoint, either. I wasn’t expecting him to detour from the opera building. Generally he’ll stay in one location. There are moments where he cuts away to the bustling city, because after all there is life outside of the ballet. But to the dancers, choreographers, agents, there isn’t. There are some brief glimpses of workers on the roof. I recall one scene that felt a bit out of place where a beekeeper works on a honey comb. But for the most part he’s in that building. Transitions from scenes will include shots of empty stairwells where you can hear echoes of voices. At a couple points we even venture down to the basement where rats scurry around in sewer water.

His transitions can turn into some of my favorite moments. And if his scenes are paced right, he knows exactly how long to stay before moving on. In “La Danse”, I think a lot of that pacing is lost. Most of the film is subtitled, lots of people are barking at each other in french. There’s a scene where two choreographers bicker, and while it’s still interesting you can’t help but feel there is something lost in the translation. The effect it has is immediately distancing. Once in awhile they speak in English. But to counter that, almost all of the time the dancers are learning how to talk through their body language. If he made a film called “Learning To Speak” it would have very similar scenes.

Learning to talk is a lot of hard work. And when they finally do speak, when you see the performances on stage with all the glory of music stacked on top, it really is stunning. There are surprising routines that I didn’t expect. My association with ballet is an amalgamation of pink ribbons, the Nutcracker, that sort of thing. But I was taken by real surprise. One show involves the dancers screaming the entire time. It’s harrowing and chilling. Another performance looks like it was inspired by The Shining. It is a scene of a mother who has finished brutally murdering her children, and she dances around covered in their blood, sidestepping their bodies on the floor. It’s weird, interesting stuff. I certainly can’t say I’ve seen anything like it before, and from what I’m led to believe, this troupe is on the cutting edge of the business, always trying different things and pushing boundaries of what audiences expect and what sells.

I look forward to the next Wiseman film in theaters. I’d like to go back through his other films that I’ve seen and share my thoughts on them. Meanwhile, I’m actively trying to track down the films I haven’t seen yet.  There’s still a lot of Wiseman out there and I hope he keeps making more.


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