For those accustomed to being spoon-fed our messages at the movies the documentary films of Frederick Wiseman can be a little hard to swallow.
He takes a distinctly austere approach to making films. Working in the style of observational cinema, Wiseman depicts the unscripted lives of real people and places using only natural sound and available light, and without the use of music, commentary or direct interviews.
Nearly half of his films have been collected in a rare retrospective now at the Pacific Film Archive on the Berkeley campus.
For 35 years Wiseman has churned out films as gripping and memorable as any tightly plotted thriller, and a good deal more provocative.
Wiseman, however, has always kept a low profile. He’s never been nominated for an Academy Award, and his movies aren’t available at any video store. But last week Wiseman, who lives in Cambridge, Mass., spent five days at the Townsend Center for the Humanities at UC Berkeley.
The majority of Wiseman’s films explore quintessential social and public institutions. His documented subjects range from public high school and life on a military base to the daily routines of a hospital, domestic violence shelter, welfare processing center, police precinct and public housing complex. His films are both exemplary journalism and meditations on American idealism.
To hear Wiseman tell it, his film technique is little more than a kind of happy accident of timing. Working with just two other people — a cameraman using a 16mm handheld camera, an assistant and himself handling the sound — Wiseman spends a few months immersed in his subject’s daily life.
He said he does little prior research, relying only on his instincts, chance events and meetings, and his innate belief that the story will reveal itself over time. Rather than follow a single individual or small group of people for the entire film, Wiseman makes location his center.
“The place is the star,” Wiseman said during his week in Berkeley. “In addition, the technique I use is that I wander.”
Very few of Wiseman’s films come in under the two-hour mark, and a great many are three hours. “Near Death,” Wiseman’s 1989 study of an intensive care unit, runs six hours.
Wiseman’s controversial first film, “Titticut Follies,” released in 1967, provided an explosive glimpse at the conditions inside a hospital for the criminally insane. Throughout his career he has displayed an interest in the condition of people struggling with powerlessness.
“Meat,” Wiseman’s 1976 anatomy of a massive, automated, beef and sheep processing plant, takes the audience step by step through the process by which an animal is transformed into an object packed into a cardboard box.
Wiseman taps into the viewer’s curiosity about how things work.
In the film “Meat” all the sensory details and rhythms that define the meat packing plant are present.
There is the comforting hum of the assembly line, the cutting equipment in action and at rest, the precise ritualized cuts made by workers at each station, a crowded lunchroom, a worker napping in the sun atop a stack of cinder blocks, a pile of rubber boots, the clean-up crew hosing down floors slick from the day’s work.
Wiseman always finds the right details to tell the story, even in the seemingly mundane environment of an office building.
In “Welfare,” a three-hour examination of a New York City welfare office, Wiseman devotes equal attention to individuals seeking services — angry people, stunned people, desperate people, amusing people — and staff. Here is the detached office director, strolling in late and leaving early with his newspaper and hat; here are the case workers, as fallible as the people they’re trying to serve, but on the whole remarkably skilled and patient in their efforts to make sense of a bewildering bureaucracy; here is the security guard who treats his antagonist with supreme forbearance; here, even, is the janitor sweeping the halls, an oasis of calm in the storm.
“There’s a lot of drama in ordinary experience,” Wiseman has said.
Wiseman’s films offer lessons about reserving judgment. “Domestic Violence,” a 2001 film about a domestic violence shelter in Tampa, Fla., contains scenes of abused women recounting their experiences.
The movie is not so much a condemnation of a social scourge as a wrenching study of the complexity of people’s emotional lives. In one scene, a woman tells her story with sorrow, fear and self-blame. She then explains the tenderness she still feels toward her husband.
Wiseman has objected to being labeled as a practitioner of cinema verité, the French film movement that sought to present life exactly as it is. The term suggests all events have equal value; Wiseman, on the other hand, has said he selects constantly among events, shuffling through reels in search of the moments that conform most closely with his sense of truth.
Seven films remain in the Frederick Wiseman retrospective at the Pacific Film Archive. Among those scheduled at the theater for this weekend are “Racetrack,” a 1985 study of both high- and low-stakes gambling at the Belmont Stakes; “The Store,” a microcosm of the wealth and materialism at the Neiman Marcus headquarters in Dallas, and the 1995 “Ballet,” which documents the rarefied artistic world inside the American Ballet Theater.