Too good to win an Oscar.
By Gerald Peary
MARCH 23, 1998: It's like a broken record: the cry of "foul" each year when the Academy announces its nominations for Best Documentary. Do the voters -- generally imagined to be a bunch of male industry retirees with time on their hands -- have their heads in close range of their prostates? Hoop Dreams and Crumb are two of the most egregious recent non-nominations; and Cambridge's Errol Morris has been virtually blackballed by the Academy, denied nominations for The Thin Blue Line, A Brief History of Time, and this year's Fast, Cheap & Out of Control.
Frederick Wiseman, the dean of American documentarians, thought for a moment that he might try to qualify this year, after his more-than-three-hour opus Public Housing played so successfully at last October's New York Film Festival. Was it worth it to open Public Housing for a week in LA or New York, expensive prerequisites for an Academy Award nomination?
Astutely, he decided it wasn't. Wiseman has done perfectly well -- even receiving a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant -- without once being an Oscar candidate. He's made 30 nonfiction features in 30 years, starting with his two incendiary classics, Titicut Follies (1967) and High School (1969). The Cambridge resident and former BU law professor has long been celebrated for scrutinizing American institutions in such rich, multilayered works as Hospital (1970), Juvenile Court (1973), and Welfare (1975), and for the corrosive humor of films like Primate (1974) and Meat (1976).
Public Housing, which aired on PBS in December, is among the finest of all his works. To discuss the film and other documentary matters, we recently visited Wiseman's office at Zipporah Films, in Cambridge, and squeezed in next to the nondigital Steenbeck editing machine that Wiseman bought used from WGBH, and on which he is editing his 31st film, Belfast, Maine.
Q: Why the subject for Public Housing?
A: It's consistent with what I've done before, looking at American institutions that affect a lot of people. Public housing has been around in the US since the mid-'30s, and I was interested in what daily life is like in a public housing development.
It seemed a subject that lent itself to the technique I use. I try to immerse myself, to the extent I can, in the life of a place of which I have little prior knowledge. I don't go in with a thesis I try to prove or disprove. The shooting of the film is the research. My response to that experience is what the final film is about.
Q: Why Chicago?
A: I picked Chicago not as a result of a search or a survey, but because in my mind Chicago was synonymous with public housing. The Chicago Housing Authority [CHA], the city agency responsible for operating public housing, has always had difficulties, and what happens in Chicago has always been national news. That's probably what led me to Chicago -- knowing that public housing there had a lot of problems, that there wasn't money for renovation, that many buildings were rat infested, that a high percentage of residents were unemployed and on welfare, that some people used drugs, that other people sold drugs, and that there was often gang warfare.
Q: Once you picked the city, how did you proceed?
A: A friend of mine introduced me to Vincent Lane, who was the CHA head, and Lane made arrangements for me to be taken around to a number of developments. There's a four-mile area on the South Side of Chicago where there's just one black housing development after another, separated from lower-middle-class white suburbs by a 10-lane highway, deliberately placed there by the late Mayor Richard Daley to separate the black and white communities.
I knew that I didn't want to do a movie solely about a high-rise development, because it would be difficult to get to the people. I settled on the Ida B. Wells development because it was a combination of low-rise, medium-rise, and high-rise, which constituted the different architectural styles associated with public housing. Wells is spread out over 75 acres, and there was good likelihood of meeting people on the street. Some apartments were ground-level, and I thought that would be easier for access.
Q: Many amazing scenes in Public Housing involve interactions between the citizens of Ida B. Wells and the police. How did you arrange to film these episodes?
A: The CHA has its own police force, whose members have exactly the same training as regular Chicago city police. Vincent Lane introduced me to the chief of the CHA police. I told him I was interested in making a film, and that in order to do it, I'd need his cooperation. Through the chain of command, he informed the lieutenant who was in charge of the station at Wells, and the lieutenant notified the police working at Wells that a movie was being made. Any time I wanted to ride in the patrol cars, I would just go in and say, "Can I ride today?" Word was out among the officers who patrolled Wells that it was okay to let me film, so I didn't have to ask permission every time.
Q: Did the police put you to a test?
A: I was conscious of the fact that they would be sizing me up, but that's not just true of the cops. It's true of everybody.
Maybe the cops were more self-conscious, but there's no difference in the validity of the material. You see many policemen in Public Housing. I went out with different cops on two-cop patrols, different one night than another night. In my experience, neither the police nor anyone else had the capacity to act for the camera.
Q: How do you compare your documentary scenes of police and those in the "reality-based" cop shows that proliferate on American TV?
A: I've never seen those shows, so I'm really not able to respond.
Q: Do you socialize with the people you are filming?
A: I deliberately try not to do that. I try to be friendly, and I hope I am friendly, but not phony. I try not to convey the impression that we're going to be friends for a long period of time, because it's not going to happen. I mean, with Public Housing, we live in different cities. It's a professional situation. I was there in Chicago to make a movie. That didn't mean I wouldn't have a sandwich when I was riding around in a cop car. But to make plans, so to speak -- I wouldn't do that, because it's misleading.
Q: Do you look for "drama" while shooting?
A: The first thought: I'm trying to make a movie. A movie has to have dramatic sequence and structure. I don't have a very precise definition of what constitutes drama, but I'm gambling that I'm going to get dramatic episodes. Otherwise, it becomes Andy Warhol's movie on the Empire State Building. So, yes, I am looking for drama, though I'm not necessarily looking for people beating each other up, shooting each other. There's a lot of drama in ordinary experiences. In Public Housing, there was drama in that old man being evicted from his apartment by the police. There was a lot of drama in that old woman at her kitchen table peeling a cabbage.
Q: What did you see in that cabbage scene?
A: I saw a woman alone, in a very sparsely furnished apartment, who once was independent. The way she examined and peeled the cabbage -- there was an element of control. The patience and endurance suggested to me the way she led her life. When she talked on the phone, she was clearly disappointed that someone I took to be a member of her family was not going to show up. I read into that a whole history of family relationships. She was disappointed, but she accepted it as stoically as she'd examined the cabbage. I found that dramatic -- not in a shoot-'em-up sense, but dramatic in a sense of the expression of feeling.
Q: In both High School II and Public Housing, you've had sex-education scenes in which someone demonstrates the use of condoms. In High School II, the demonstration is to an eager audience of concerned liberal teachers. In Public Housing, it's a lecture, probably too late, to a group of lost-looking young girls, many of them already mothers. Do you include these scenes as a sneaky way to give the audience your own sex-education lesson?
A: No, I was interested in the contexts of the sex-education talks. In Public Housing, there was maybe 5 percent social consciousness on my part in the scene. There was something funny about the nurse giving a lecture on using condoms in the foreground, the babies crying and those young girls reacting to the talk, especially their reaction to a female condom! With a scene like that, which operated on many levels, the trick was to identify the combination of what was really going on with the unintended effect of what was going on.
Q: Though many pass through Public Housing, you focus especially on two people with disparate philosophies of government. There's an old lady who is a veteran of Ida B. Wells, and she's a world-weary pragmatist about the hard life there. She battles for tiny improvements, but she's skeptical of government promises about real opportunities for the denizens of the housing project.
She's contrasted with a young black man bursting with optimism, who gives speeches to the people of Ida B. Wells telling them they can start their own businesses -- that Bill Clinton's America is filled with economic opportunities for black people, even those with arrest records.
First, who are they?
A: Mrs. Finner was head of the Ida B. Wells Tenants Council for 20 years, for which she was paid a very small amount, more a stipend than a salary.
The guy is Ron Carter, a former point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers. He started off as a private developer, then went to work for the Department of Housing and Urban Development under Clinton as an economic development expert. At the making of Public Housing, he'd just come to Chicago, checking to see what programs he could try out. He was trying to familiarize himself with Wells and some other developments. He had a key federal job connected with training people and finding them work, and helping start new businesses.
Q: Did you choose them as protagonists before shooting?
A: I didn't choose them in advance. I chose them in the editing because of the meetings they were in, and because the things they said were important expressions of themes that I felt were in the material.
Mrs. Finner, to me, represented old-time politics in the Tammany Hall sense. A Tammany captain who knew her territory, helped her constituents, and expected them to support her, vote for her. "You do this for me, I do this for you." She liked exercising power, and she was very effective in representing the residents. She's a strong woman.
Ron Carter represented outside ideas, some kind of government hope. I was interested in the language he used, the educated explanation of economic ideas at the first meeting, the street language at the midnight basketball-court meeting. Were the changes in language made consciously or unconsciously? There's also the interesting issue of him, a middle-class black, coming out of an environment similar to Wells, who now wanted to do something. What kind of interventions could he make?
Q: They come together only once . . .
A: In the scene where Ron Carter talks to the Tenants Council, and Mrs. Finner makes the complaint to him that people from Wells get job training but afterward there are no jobs.
Q: Did you show the completed Public Housing to the residents of Ida B. Wells?
A: I wanted to, but I got caught in a power struggle at the Tenants Council. There's no movie theater in the neighborhood, so I needed the cooperation of the council to arrange a screening. I was going to rent buses and bring people to a showing. But Mrs. Finner is no longer the head of the council, and the interim head didn't want the movie shown to the tenants. This woman was somewhat fearful that screening it would enhance Mrs. Finner's prestige. So I couldn't get anybody to help me.
Q: Did anyone at Ida B. Wells tell you that they watched Public Housing when it aired nationally on PBS?
A: I did hear from a couple of people there who liked it. The response I've had from black people in general has been very enthusiastic. The film shows a lot of competent black people, and people really trying. I have great admiration for people like the drug counselor I show, or some of the social workers, who do their best to work the issues, day in and day out. These people never get attention: the patience that's required to be a drug counselor is just extraordinary.
Q: Maybe the greatest scene in Public Housing is where that very savvy drug counselor listens to the chronic drug-taker's tale of woe and decides whether to recommend to a judge that the drug-taker get help instead of a jail sentence.
A: He was really good! I have an hour and three-quarters of that interview edited down to 10 minutes in the film, which only begins to suggest the complexity of that man's life.
Q: Public Housing seems to me to consistent with a softening toward humanity in your more recent films. I detect a desire, without getting sentimental, to show more of your subjects in a better light. Earlier, there were stretches where your films were deeply cynical.
A: I don't agree with that at all. I think what's shown in any of my movies is not a reflection of my attitude toward humanity in general, which I'd be hard pressed to express, but my response to a particular place. In Hospital , my fourth movie, the nurses come off quite well. Even in Titicut Follies, the guards, in their own way, were more tuned to the needs of the inmates than the so-called helping professionals. The principal guard, Eddie, was a nice guy who responded to the inmates as human beings.
Law and Order, which was made in 1968 after the Democratic Convention in Chicago, is not a film that, in my mind, "does in" the police. They do some nice things as well as horrible things. There's the cop who takes the little girl who is lost to the police station. On the other extreme, there's the cop who starts strangling the woman accused of prostitution. And you have lots of police in between.
To me it's too complicated to say that one group of films is more cynical than another. I cannot make sociological generalizations about human behavior.
Q: What do you think of the view of documentary as a reformist vehicle?
A: A lot of people think the purpose of documentary films is to expose injustice, or that the films are made to correct the filmmaker's idea of injustice. I think that's a strand of documentary, but it's certainly not the only use.
My first films, High School and Titicut Follies, were partly an example of that strand, somewhat didactic. The correctional institution at Bridgewater [Massachusetts] was a horrible place in Titicut Follies, but even within that horror, there were people who worked hard and well. And since making Law and Order, to the extent that I've been trying to do anything, it's to show as wide a range of human behavior as possible, its enormous complexity and diversity.
But even High School is somewhat open-ended. When it was first shown in Boston, in 1969, one of the people who saw it was Louise Day Hicks, a very conservative member of the Boston School Committee. I thought she'd hate the movie. But she came up and said, "Mr. Wiseman, that was a wonderful high school!" I thought she was kidding me -- until I realized she was on the other side from me on all the value questions. Everything I thought I was parodying, she thought was great.
I don't think her reaction represents a failure of the film. Instead, we have an illustration that reality is ambiguous, a complex mirror -- that the "real" film takes place where the mind of the viewer meets the screen. It's how the viewer interprets the events.
With Public Housing, some people think the film represents hope, others that it's pessimistic.
Q:What about High School II? It seems obvious to me watching it that, this time, you chose an exemplary secondary school, where progressive, humane education really works.
A: I deliberately picked a high school that was different in a variety of ways from that first high school. In the first school, there were 4000 white students and only 12 black students. This one was 45 percent black, 45 percent Hispanic, only 10 percent white.
[With the second film], I believe that some people seeing it might ask whether the students are getting a good education. I'm not suggesting I think that, but people who see High School II could complain, "Where's the Latin? Where's the Greek? Where's the discussion of the contexts of language? Why is everything turned into a sociological text?" I mean, those are legitimate questions about that kind of education.
Q: I found little drama in The Store , Aspen , and La Comédie Française . I couldn't understand what you found interesting about the goings-on at Neiman-Marcus. The yuppies of Aspen, Colorado, seemed passive and uninteresting. I got very tired of watching play rehearsals by the Comeacute;die Française. Could you say something about what you were attempting in those three films?
A: La Comédie Française is, in my view, a very abstract movie, and I disagree with you about there not being a lot of drama. It's drama of a different kind. What I think I'm doing in the movie is playing around with a lot of ideas about what constitutes love, and that informs all the sequences, both the rehearsals and the performance.
Aspen, I think, was a little mean on my part. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is a discussion of Flaubert's story "A Simple Heart" by an adult-education group that meets once a week. They're talking about this great story about a poor woman who sacrifices herself for a family and then gets dumped by the family. The discussion by the people is very revealing of their values, this echo between the life of this poor woman in the story and these people's lives in Aspen.
As for The Store, think of it on a double bill with Welfare or Public Housing. I'm interested in class in American life, and movies like Aspen and The Store give an opportunity to look at people from a different walk of life.
We're back to the question of what's a legitimate subject for a documentary. Some people think the only subject is to show poor people and how they are victims. But I'm interested in showing all classes of American life, how rich people live as well as poor people. Racetrack  is another movie about class, from Haitian immigrants who work at the track to some of the richest people in the world, who own the horses. I don't just take the more obvious subject of people who haven't made it, but I show the people who have made it. What their values are seems just as important. My goal is to make as many films as possible about different aspects of American life.
Q: How much do you listen to television executives who want you to make films at "normal" length?
A: I have an obligation to the people about whom I make a film that it be my report on what I've learned. I have a responsibility to myself to make the best film I can make out of the material. I feel less of an obligation to a network that is basically looking for product. I don't ever want to put myself in a position of making product.
Some of my films are short. High School is 73 minutes. Near Death (1989) is six hours, but even at that length I just suggest some of the complexity surrounding termination of medical treatment. There's no way, at least for me, to boil down the four medical cases I followed.
When my technique works, the audience becomes involved because they are placed in the middle of the sequences and are asked to think through their own relationship to what they are seeing and hearing. But I don't know how to think ahead about them, and I believe that it is presumptuous to do so. If I did tailor my films to an audience, I'd get into the Hollywood way of diluting the work to reach the lowest common denominator. That doesn't interest me. Happily, Near Death ran complete and uncut on American TV, a Sunday afternoon in winter a week before the Super Bowl, and it had a very big audience. And it ran complete until two in the morning on French TV, and it had a very big audience.
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