Frederick Wiseman: Pro and Con

This year’s honoree of the ASC’s Award of Distinction is Frederick Wiseman. American Cinematographer‘s appreciation of his career is worth a read, and there are some great photos of Wiseman editing on his Steenbeck 6-plate. Wiseman’s a great filmmaker — probably one of the five or six greatest living American filmmakers. If you’ve not seen High School or Titicut Follies, add it to your to-see list.

Of course, if you haven’t seen any Wiseman films it’s not like I can blame you. Unless you’re friends with bootleggers, your best bet for seeing one is to go to a university library, which is about the only kind of institution that could remotely afford one of his movies: $400 per title. (That’s $400 per VHS tape, folks.)

This is the way Wiseman wants it, apparently. Here’s a quote from his company’s website:

I am a student/filmmaker/individual without the resources to rent or purchase a film. How can I see a particular Wiseman film?
We have the Wiseman films on deposit at several public libraries and archives throughout the United States. One of the largest collections is at the Museum of Television & Radio in New York City and Los Angeles. Patrons may not remove the films from the premises but there are video booths available to view films and television programs free of charge. If New York and Los Angeles are not convenient please call us and we will let you know if there is a library in your area with any of the films.

Wiseman is, of course, entitled to do whatever he wants with his work, but it seems at least a little hypocritical that the people he’s trained his camera on (the poor, those living in remote areas, etc.) are those that have the least access to his movies. I guess I expect more from a filmmaker who’s otherwise so sharp at seeing the relationships between people and institutions.

3 Responses to “Frederick Wiseman: Pro and Con”

  1. Jeff Kreines Says:

    I just took a peek at the American Cinematographer piece about Fred, and was pretty shocked to see no mention of the late, great John Marshall, who shot “Titicut Follies” (and was not a fan of how it was edited by Wiseman).

    To read about “Wiseman’s use of the camera” in that film is an outrage — especially given that John Marshall had been making ethnographic films since the ’50s. (My favorites are his Pittsburgh Police series, especially “Three Domestics” and “Vagrant Woman.”) When John Marshall was on, his shooting was amazing. (Another favorite of mine from the 60s that’s underappreciated for great shooting is William Klein’s “Muhammed Ali: The Greatest” — the B&W part, anyway.)

    Fred is a clever businessman, and never sold his films to libraries, only leased them — meaning the prints were returned after, I believe, seven years. That adds to the difficulty in seeing his older films.

    My favorite Wiseman films are the earliest ones — and really should be considered collaborations between Fred and underappreciated cameramen (always men) like Marshall and Dick Leiterman. Things went downhill a bit with Bill Brayne (mostly known as a director of episodic Brit TV) and have declined steadily since, IMHO.

  2. Paul Says:

    Thanks for the interesting post, Jeff. I had no idea about Marshall, but then, I guess that’s the point of your writing — to give credit where credit is due. I’ll definitely try to find the Pittsburgh Police films. They sound fascinating.

  3. Jeff Kreines Says:

    Here’s a link to the John Marshall Pittsburgh films.

    I’d think Temple would have prints, but then again there’s the Jay Ruby factor — I doubt John Marshall ever deigned to kiss the ring. Marshall’s family were all anthropologists — funded by his father, who was a founder of Raytheon. They started making films in the Kalahari in 1951.

    We showed the Pittsburgh films in a seminar we taught at MIT in the mid-70s — we were showing ostensibly “good” videos of the era and their far superior but perhaps more obscure film counterparts. The seminar was called “Independent Filmmakers vs. Public Television” (far more prescient a title than we realized, given what happened to us with “Seventeen” a few years later) and our students included Mark Rance, Ross McElwee, and Michel Negroponte. A fine time was had by all…