Anyone seeking a comprehensive portrait of what civilization has been like this past half century should maybe just sit down and watch as many Frederick Wiseman movies as possible. For five decades, this living legend of documentary cinema has been dutifully filming the major and minor institutions of modern society, training his camera on such everyday settings as police stations, boxing gyms, department stores, college campuses, housing projects, and even strip clubs. People and places are the man’s life work. But where should the uninitiated start with a career this sprawling? If they live in the New York area, they can start at the very beginning: In honor of the filmmaker’s 50th anniversary of making movies, the Metrograph is presenting three of his earliest features—all shot on black-and-white celluloid—on new 35mm prints. They’re proof that Wiseman’s creative gestation period was a quick and fruitful one.
It isn’t often that a filmmaker’s first feature remains his most famous and controversial work, especially when said filmmaker has close to 50 features to his name. But Titicut Follies, Wiseman’s 1967 directorial debut, remains the movie he’s best known for all these years later. For 29 days, the lawyer-turned-documentarian was granted access to the inner workings of Bridgewater State Hospital, a Massachusetts facility for the criminally insane. What he discovered within its walls was disturbing: orderlies taunting their patients, force-feeding them through tubes, and leaving them unclothed and unwashed in rooms that were basically bare cells. The government of Massachusetts tried hard to get the film banned and even destroyed; for years, it was available to watch only in legal or educational environments, with the state claiming that it violated the privacy and dignity of its plainly abused subjects. It wasn’t until the late ’80s, during a long reform period for mental health facilities, that the film became widely available to the public.
Titicut Follies created a stir and launched a career. It also established many of the stylistic principles Wiseman would adhere to for the rest of his filmography—specifically a total absence of interviews, narration, and onscreen text. (In a Wiseman movie, the imagery provides its own context.) What the director was still getting down was the fine art of giving his hours and hours of raw footage a dramatic shape. Heavy on scenes of institutional cruelty and the ravings of the inmates, Titicut is primarily just shocking; it’s an angry polemic about the state of the mental health care system, not a multifaceted portrait of an environment.
For that, look to Wiseman’s follow-up, High School (1968), where the director wanders the halls, classrooms, gymnasiums, and administrative offices of Northeast High School in Philadelphia. This is where he started to truly discover his gift for juxtaposition, learning to create meaning from the proximity of one fly-on-the-wall vignette to another: Here, a casually sexist classroom lecture about how America has become a matriarchy gives way to rehearsals for a school-sanctioned fashion show, run by a teacher who just as casually pinpoints the physical imperfections of the girls on stage. If Wiseman has always resisted the cinema verité label that’s often put on his work, it’s because he understands that selecting what to include and not to include from the raw footage—five weeks worth, in this case—bends the very reality a film depicts.
In High School, Wiseman returns again and again to scenes of adult authority figures proving that they don’t know best. The film is filthy with the kind of revealing behavior that a documentarian can only hope and pray to capture on camera: There’s a cringeworthy scene of a well-meaning teacher trying to use Simon & Garfunkel lyrics to teach her students about poetry, and even funnier (and much less appropriate) footage of a guest-speaking gynecologist flat-out lying to his captive teenage audience about healthy sex lives, even as he gets uncomfortably graphic in his descriptions of the female anatomy. Beyond all the minute-by-minute highlights, High School accumulates a larger purpose. Wiseman seems to understand high school as a kind of audition for adulthood, and he sees in the faculty a knee-jerk attempt to program the student body—through the reinforcement of social norms, the encouragement to conform, and the strict insistence on obedience.
What he discovers, too, in this cloistered academic setting, is a microcosm for the cultural warfare happening all over America in the late ’60s. High School gradually morphs into a quiet depiction of clashing generational values, with the instructors as torchbearers for a general worldview on the wane and the students as the voices of a new country being born in their image. References to Martin Luther King’s assassination, the NASA space program, and—most damningly—the Vietnam War creep into the banal day-to-day activity Wiseman documents. They’re a bracing reminder of what was happening just outside of the educational bubble—the world these adolescent subjects were being (perhaps insufficiently) prepared for.
There’s also an element of cultural collision in Hospital (1970), set chiefly in the emergency room of New York’s Metropolitan. An overtaxed staff treats a full spectrum of demographics, attending to the medical needs of drunks, junkies, prostitutes, lost children, single fathers, and tripping college kids. (“Can you play music or something?” one of the latter asks, while coming down from a traumatically bad high.) Does working in this field make someone clinically detached or more compassionate? Wiseman entertains both sides of the argument, alternating scenes of rough bedside manner—as well as one unnerving instance of med students nonchalantly handling human brains—with others showing how nurses and doctors sometimes go the extra distance, even attempting to back-channel around bureaucratic obstacles to get their patients what they need. Hospital understands its titular setting as just a single part of a larger system, one that these medical professionals often bump up against.
Speaking of the setting, the ER provides Wiseman with a never-ending supply of high drama: sobbing medical emergencies; a psychiatrist arguing over the phone with someone in a welfare office (an institution the filmmaker would later explore in another doc); and some unflinching, hard-to-watch surgery footage. There’s a raw, almost antagonistic power to these early Wiseman procedurals; his later films, like last year’s In Jackson Heights, are both much longer and less confrontational—although that may have more to do with the buildings and systems the director has recently chosen to investigate. All three features offer a snapshot of not just an artist rapidly coming into his own, but also of the specific era during which they were produced. If they look at all dated, that’s partially a sign of progress: Whether our schools and hospitals have really gotten better is a matter of perspective, but what failures have been addressed are spurred by public demand—the kind of response a strong, unforgettable documentary can itself ideally provoke. By showing the modern world as it is, Wiseman does his part to improve it; he’s a great filmmaker and a pretty good citizen, too.