La Furia Umana
  • I’m not like evereybody else
    The Kinks
  • E che, sono forse al mondo per realizzare delle idee?
    Max Stirner
  • (No ideas but in things)
    W.C. Williams
BARRY KEITH GRANT / American Madness: The Early Documentaries of Frederick Wiseman

BARRY KEITH GRANT / American Madness: The Early Documentaries of Frederick Wiseman

In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville famously observed that social mobility and the lack of a true aristocracy in America broke the social chain of being that had characterized European society and freed the individual “links.” He found democracy therefore paradoxical and prone to instability, with the individual subsequently rendered “puny” even as he or she was empowered politically. Tocqueville attributed the amazing preponderance of institutions and organizations he had discovered in America to an attempt to counter the individual’s reduced sense of social cohesion and importance.i Many of Frederick Wiseman’s documentary films, especially the earlier ones, examine these American institutional and organizational structures and how, ironically, in serving people they have made everyone—clients, providers, and administrators all—“puny,” both individually and collectively. The recurrent images of people forcibly shaved, as in Titicut Follies (1967), Hospital (1970), and Basic Training (1971), as well as the monkeys shaved for experiments in Primate (1974) and the sheared sheep in Meat (1976), express this diminished autonomy of the individual. Shots of files and dossiers, computer cards and tape, punctuate these films, suggesting how people have been reduced to statistics. A former student in High School (1968), about to be dropped behind the DMZ in Vietnam, defines himself as “only a body doing a job.” This phrase reverberates tellingly throughout Wiseman’s oeuvre.

Wiseman has defined an institution as “a place that has certain kinds of geographical limitations and where at least some of the people have well-established roles,”ii although the films’ conception of an institution broadens over time from specific tax-supported organizations to wider, more general issues of ideology and state apparatuses. Nevertheless, as Wiseman has said, “Each film explores a different aspect of the relationship of the individual to the state in a democratic society.”iii Six of his early documentaries —Titicut Follies, High School, Law and Order (1969), Hospital, Juvenile Court (1974), and Welfare (1975)— share a common focus on public, tax-supported institutions. Wiseman approaches these institutions as, in his words, cultural “spoors,” or social microcosms. These films, while viewing their subjects with the concrete force that observational cinema is ideally suitable for, encourage a wider reading of the specific institution as a reflection of larger tensions within American society generally.

Wiseman finds the social tensions involving race, gender, and class that inform society at large reverberating within these institutions, the films’ wider view animated by a sense of personal outrage and a strongly negative vision of institutions.iv Because of this moral concern, Wiseman refuses to provide a comfortable position for viewers, often implicating the audience through a range of sophisticated textual strategies. This resultant spectatorial discomfort is abetted by Wiseman’s consistent stylistic approach wherein he avoids voice-over narration or having social actors talk director to the camera, providing no cues for viewers to contextualize what they are seeing. Instead, the films are comprised of a series of major scenes connected by what documentary theorist Bill Nichols calls a “mosaic structure” in which sequences are ordered intellectually rather than chronologically.v Thus, viewers must work through the logic of the films’ construction. In Wiseman’s own words, viewers “have to fight the film, they have to say, ‘What the hell’s he trying to say with this?’” He adds that “And they have to think through their own relationship to what they’re seeing,”vi alluding not only to the formal aspects of his films, but also to the ways that they challenge viewers emotionally and morally.

The early films, then, inaugurate Wiseman’s search for an aesthetically satisfying form for his concept of “reality fiction,” establishing the basic method and style that would characterize his subsequent work. From the outset, in Titicut Follies, the effect is provocative. The wryly ironic opening of Wiseman’s first documentary, Titicut Follies, about the Bridgewater, Massachusetts Hospital for the Criminally Insane, presents some darkened, at first indistinct faces. The camera pans from one face to the next, momentarily bringing each out of the engulfing darkness into the light, only to make them disappear into darkness again. The light itself is ghastly, emanating from harsh footlights below, as in an old Hollywood horror movie. These sickly faces sing the Gershwins’ “Strike Up the Band” as if a fanfare announcing the beginning of Wiseman’s entire institutional series. This opening sequence, a part of the inmates’ annual musical revue from which the film gets its title, inaugurates a reflexive examination of observational cinema and spectatorship that Wiseman has continued throughout his work, especially in Primate, Model (1980), National Gallery (2014), and Ex Libris—The New York Public Library (2017). It immediately establishes the filmmaker’s awareness of his chosen medium and the viewer’s position as active participant.vii

Because it depicts a performance, the sequence addresses the debate about how the camera affects the profilmic event and to what extent the people perform for the camera. The implication is that people may indeed perform, and sometimes do, but as Wiseman has said, this does not necessarily invalidate the observational method. As a teacher tells a parent in High School, “We can only judge on the basis of performance,” and here it is a literal one. This undercutting of voyeuristic invisibility typical of observational cinema is reinforced at several points in the film when the camera’s gaze is returned by patients. The most powerful example of this occurs when the camera follows the naked ex-schoolteacher Jim into his cell, who then huddles in a corner trying to cover his genitals with his hands. Jim’s futile attempt at modesty signals his awareness of the camera’s presence, as does his direct return of the camera’s gaze. Momentarily he halts in his action, as if sizing up its focus on him. Inevitably, with the return of our gaze, we become painfully aware of the camera’s (and of our) intrusive presence.

The camera views the opening performance from the audience’s vantage point, as if the performance is put on for the film viewer. This is entirely appropriate, because it is one of our institutions, after all (as Richard Meram Barsam notes, “Titicut Follies exposes more about us than it does about Bridgewater”).viii Wiseman says that “the ideas of the movie came out of the absolute sense of shock about what Bridgewater was about.”ix This feeling is, in turn, conveyed to the viewer, who is not allowed to maintain the comfortable position of voyeur. Indeed, the invisible, unacknowledged spectator that Richard Leacock called “The fly on the wall” is one that can rarely be assumed in Wiseman’s cinema for any length of time, despite first impressions based on his generally unacknowledged camera. Wiseman has jokingly objected in interviews that he likes to think he has more consciousness than a fly.

Performance is also thematically central to the film since the inmates are forever “on stage,” always under observation by the staff. As Michel Foucault has shown, the mental institution is a place where the behavior of people labelled insane is always being observed and judged by those in control, “a sort of invisible tribunal in permanent session.”x The film shows inmates in a variety of performances, the most sustained of which involves Vladimir’s hearing. Trying too hard to convince the staff that he is sane and should be sent back to prison, Vladimir overplays his role such that his request is denied. Even Eddie, one of the guards, seems to define himself more as a performer (he acts as MC of the Follies revue, and sings at several other times in the film) than a guard. After his song in the party sequence, he does an encore and exits with a theatrical flourish. The film ends with another song from the revue, the finale (“We’ve had our show/The best that we could do/To make your hearts aglow”). Like a musical, the entire film is framed within the context of a show, again demonstrating the work’s awareness of its performance aspect. In contrast to the classical musical’s vision of a harmonious, utopian community, however, Titicut Follies presents a dystopian collection of alienated individuals.xi

The film’s opening performance is confusing because it is impossible to know with any degree of certainty the status of some of the people we are shown. Are these all inmates, or are some of the men guards? We do not discover that Eddie is in fact a guard until he is glimpsed walking by the camera in his uniform in a later sequence. Critic Robert Hatch complained that the film was inept because it raised but failed to answer so many questions: “Is the show a part of their therapy, how does the audience respond (there is not a single shot into the house), is this a regular feature of the hospital life?”xii But, of course, this lack of clarity is quite to the point, adding to the way the sequence attacks our comfortable position as spectators. After the finale, Eddie, as MC, with unintentional irony asks, “Weren’t they terrific?” These are the film’s last words, leaving us to determine our responses to, and judgments about the inmates, their “performance,” their situation (Eddie declares, “And it keeps getting better and better”).

At the same time as the film forcefully confronts us with particular people in this specific institution, we are invited by the text to view Bridgewater metaphorically. One patient (identified in the transcript as Kaminsky) delivers a delirious monologue that explicitly makes an analogy between Bridgewater and America itself; the country’s military aggression is, he says, a result of frustration, of being “sex crazy”—the same opinion Dr. Ross holds of the sex offender Mitch. Several contemporary reviews of Titicut Follies compared the film to Peter Weiss’s play, Marat/Sade, made into a successful film by Peter Brook the year before Wiseman’s film and shot in a pseudo-direct cinema style.xiii Both films are set in mental institutions, both feature aspects of performance within the text, both make important use of music, and both explore the nature of madness in the context of politics and the state.

However, more resonant connections can be discerned in Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962). Kesey’s book shares with Wiseman’s film a view of the mental institution as a metaphor for what Wiseman calls the “larger cultural hues” of America. (It is probably for this reason that Wiseman inserts a shot of a cinema marquee advertising Milos Forman’s 1975 film version of Kesey’s novel in the later Canal Zone (1977). Benson and Anderson report that, according to Wiseman, Forman’s cast and crew watched Titicut Follies repeatedly before beginning production.xiv The book’s self-conscious “American theme” is suggested by Kesey’s narrator, a mute Native American called Chief Bromden, just as Wiseman’s “Titicut” is the Native American name for the Bridgewater area. Welfare, tellingly, begins with a displaced Native American protesting that he is “a person.” The man’s description of the reservation as a concentration camp echoes Chief Bromden’s fantasy in Kesey’s novel about the military-industrial complex that he calls “the combine” (the same phrase that is used by Governor Parfitt to describe the political/economic control of Zonian life by the Company in Canal Zone). Titicut Follies and Cukoo’s Nest both focus on issues of emasculation through medication (in Titicut Follies, one patient imagines that the doctors are going to remove his testicles) and other severe forms of treatment as a way of maintaining social control. (In this sense, the film anticipates Primate).

Finally, both works question definitions of madness and sanity. In Titicut Follies, Dr. Ross and the patient Vladimir have a discussion in the yard. Dr. Ross predicts that if released Vladimir will return to the asylum immediately. Then, strangely, Dr. Ross tells Vladimir that if the prediction is wrong “you can spit on my face.” Obviously as taken aback as the viewer is likely to be, Vladimir responds with the sensible question, “Why should I do that?” At this moment the doctor, like Kesey’s Nurse Ratched, seems to be the mad one. Similarly, the behavior of some of the other guards may also seem “crazy.” In Titicut Follies, however, insanity is less the seething, controlled hostility of a Big Nurse than the banality of common callousness, as when Jim is taunted about his dirty room and Albert is teased for drinking the bathtub water.

Yet there is a crucial difference between the two works. In Wiseman’s vision of the American snake pit there is no boisterous embodiment of the life principle to equal Kesey’s robust Randall Patrick McMurphy. Vladimir, like the novel’s Billy Bibbitt, can mount only a weak protest, the response to which is increased medication. His inescapable position is represented by the brick wall in the yard behind him where he talks with Dr. Ross. In Kesey’s book, McMurphy’s lobotomy serves as a sacrificial act that redeems the Chief from his muteness. In the end, Bromden escapes the institution to return to his land (“I been away a long time,” he says). But the vision of Titicut Follies is darker, for it seems that the only way out is through death. Vladimir wants to leave, but cannot, while, as far as we are shown, only a corpse is allowed to depart from Bridgewater. In the film, Vladimir may resist, but it helps neither him nor anyone else.

The film refuses to allow the viewer a comfortable experience because of its strong sense of moral indignation – a point of view clearly signalled by the word “Follies” in the film’s title. This outrage is apparent in the editing. Immediately after the opening performance, there is a quick shot of a guard ordering an inmate to get his clothes. This is followed by Mitch’s interview with Dr. Ross, who questions him in a blunt way that, while likely necessary, nevertheless seems unduly callous. As the interview proceeds, Wiseman cuts suddenly to some guards strip-searching newly arrived inmates. The film then returns to the interview, where Dr. Ross’s questions become more aggressive, perhaps even tinged with cruelty (Arthur Knight describes him as “a German-accented doctor who licks his lips over every sex question,” while Amos Vogel calls him a “Dr. Strangelove psychiatrist.”xv) Viewer sympathy here is more likely to align itself with the patient, who admits his problems and seeks help, than with the doctor, who says weakly, perhaps even begrudgingly, “You’ll get it here, I guess.” Further, the inserted shot of the stripping of the inmates offers an obvious comparison between the two procedures: Dr. Ross’s interview with Mitch is a psychological stripping, a cold, compassionless prodding that offers little warmth or comfort. As Foucault said of the science of mental disease as it developed in the institution of the asylum, it would always be observation and classification, never a dialogue.xvi

Similar is the short, shocking montage involving Malinowski, the emaciated inmate who is force-fed because he has refused to eat. Like the inmates in the earlier strip-search sequence, the man is naked, a sign of his vulnerability and powerlessness. As the tube is lubricated and pushed through one of Malinowski’s nostrils (on a wall behind the doctor hangs a calendar with an advertisement for “Perfection Oil”), Wiseman inserts several quick shots of the same man being prepared for his funeral at a later date. The shaving of the corpse connects the treatment of Malinowski to the earlier rough shaving of Jim’s face, which causes blood to trickle down his chin and, as Stephen Mamber notes, ironically suggests that Malinowski receives more attention in death than he did when alive.xvii Moreover, the inserted shots draw precise ironic parallels between the two procedures: when the tube is put into his nose, a shot is inserted of the dead Malinowsky being shaved; when Wiseman’s camera pans to the watching eyes of the guards holding him down, there is a shot of the dead man’s eyes being stuffed with cotton; when Ross removes the tube from Malinowsky’s nose, there is a shot of the shaving process completed; and when Malinowsky is led away, there is a shot of the body being stored on a sliding tray in the morgue. The contrast between these two events is emphasized even further by the editing of the sound track, for the feeding procedure is accompanied by a clutter of ambient noise and voices while each of the embalming shots is starkly silent (an absolute silence that can only have been achieved by turning off the sound during filming or excluding the synchronized sound track during editing).

High School, Wiseman’s second film, was shot at Philadelphia’s Northeast High School, a relatively “good” school in the system (unlike Bridgewater, neither underfunded nor understaffed) and chosen because Wiseman felt an inner-city school would be too easy a target.xviii Elements of the film’s style, particularly the numerous close-ups, retain the heavily didactic quality of Titicut Follies and obviously portray the teachers at Northeast negatively. High School relies on these close-ups to a greater extent than any of Wiseman’s other early films, with the exception of Essene (1972), where they function differently. In High School, the close-ups appear consistently, beginning immediately with the first teacher who announces the “thought for the day.” With few exceptions, they are of teachers’ faces rather than those of the students. When the vice-principal speaks to a boy who does not want to take gym, for example, the camera zooms in to a big close-up of his mouth. The image of the mouth, isolated from the rest of his face and magnified in close-up, implies that he is talking at rather than with the boy. Moreover, the mouth’s unnatural bigness on the screen gives it a menacing quality wholly appropriate in context; the camera zooms out, as if recoiling, when the vice-principal rises from his chair and ominously approaches the boy.

By contrast, close-ups of students’ faces are almost always accompanied on the sound track by a teacher’s voice, and so tend to suggest passivity. As in Titicut Follies, there is very little real dialogue in the film; we almost never see the kids communicate with each other, as the students do frequently in the Deaf and Blind series (Multi-Handicapped [1986], Deaf [1986], Adjustment and Work [1986], Blind [1987]). Twice teachers ask, “Any questions?” but there are none, and we see nothing of the promised discussion of Simon and Garfunkel’s appropriate “The Dangling Conversation” listened to in one English class. As the vice-principal so aptly puts it to the boy who does not want to participate in gym: “Don’t you talk and you just listen!” (The later High School II [1994], which focuses on students at a different school three decades later, in retrospect adds a further layer of irony to the earlier film. It covers many of the same topics and situations, such as sex education, but now it is the students who are allowed to talk—and talk they do, volubly, as teachers struggle less to control students than to grant them agency.)

Some critics have reacted to this aspect of High School’s style as heavy-handed manipulation, perceiving the close-ups as “cheap shots.” “Take the scene with the counselor, an older woman with bottle-glasses. Those extreme close-ups of the woman make her look grotesque, which prejudices us against her in a certain way,” objected G. Roy Levin, for example. Like Gulliver’s response to the Brobdignaggians, some viewers are inevitably repulsed by the details of common faces with all their blemishes magnified on the movie screen. Close-ups of the teacher with the thick glasses or the guidance counsellor with extremely puffy eyelids are perceived from this point of view as degrading images rather than as ironic found expressions of the school’s narrow, myopic vision. Wiseman countered Levin’s interpretation by claiming that it is one conditioned by Hollywood’s reliance on beautiful stars, and that the shots are thematically motivated.xix His contention may be true, but it is also the case that he employs these close-ups quite emphatically.

The film’s editing is on occasion similarly sardonic, as, for example, when an English teacher’s painful reading of Ernest Thayer’s classic poem “Casey at the Bat” (the last line is “Mighty Casey has struck out”) is followed by girls swinging at T-balls in a gym class. Somewhat subtler is the placement of the sequence with the vice-principal and the boy who is avoiding gym. Wiseman edited it in between classroom scenes of foreign languages, an ironic suggestion about the remote relationship teachers and students. As far as the student who wants to be excused from gym is concerned, it is as if he and the vice-principal are speaking two different languages since it is only after he agrees to put on his gym outfit that he is suspended. Such moments of playful or ironic montage construction, however, may obscure the film’s more thoughtful design wherein, as the English teacher says of the Simon and Garfunkel song, “all the various poetic devices reinforce the theme.”

High School is structured according to two organizing principles. The first is the conventional “day in the life of” approach. Thus, the film opens with the camera riding in a car, as if on the way to school in the morning. The first classroom shots contain announcements and the “thought for the day” that clearly mark it as the beginning of the school day, and about midway through the film there is a sequence of the teachers having lunch. The second aspect of the film’s organization, frequently mentioned by Wiseman in interviews, is his presentation of the school in a manner similar to a manufacturing process (indeed, there are several links between this film and, for example, Meat). Wiseman has said that when he first saw the school, he was struck by how much it resembled a factory, like a General Motors plant, and so he integrated this perception into the film’s structure.xx Shown in the opening sequence from the car, the exterior of the building, with its smokestack and fences, looks at least as much like a factory as it does a school. The idea of the school experience as a factory-like process, with the students becoming socialized “products,” assumes an ideologically-informed view of the institution (a view more pronounced in such later films as Canal Zone, Sinai Field Mission [1978] and In Jackson Heights [2015]) informs a more complex thematic structure than the day-in-the-life format and gradually subsumes it.

After the opening shots in the car, the camera stays inside the school until the third from last sequence in which the returning Vietnam veteran talks with the gym coach in the schoolyard. The initial movement from exterior to interior space suggests, as in the beginnings of Hospital and Canal Zone and many of the subsequent documentaries, that the film will take a penetrating look into this institution rather than merely observe (from the outside) its surface phenomena. The first words spoken in the film, by a teacher’s “thought for the day,” is, on this level, an appropriate aphorism: “Life is cause and effect. One creates his tomorrow at every moment by his motives, thoughts, and deeds of today.” This sentiment is echoed by the teacher in the girls sex education lecture, who says that boys are impulsive for they “never connect what they are doing today with what happens tomorrow,” and by the counselor’s remark to Rona that “The only thing that you can do is try to do better in the present so that the future will be better.” All three comments emphasize the relation between present and future, which is to say, between earlier sequences and later ones, and how film sequences are read in terms of their context, their position within the text.

This idea is borne out by the dialectical manner in which the sequences are ordered. After the homeroom announcements, the first lesson shown is the Spanish class discussing existentialism. Here Wiseman immediately establishes the film’s ironic attitude by beginning with a rote lesson about a philosophical worldview that champions individualism, that claims “existence precedes essence.” The content of the lesson is ironic in the context of its presentation for the teacher’s approach is to have the entire class droningly repeat in unison everything she says. The Spanish lesson scene is significant because of its placement as the first class shown, and because Wiseman cuts from it to a percussion lesson, with the music teacher’s conducting hand, emphasized by the framing of the shot, keeping the beat for the students. Here, as in the Spanish class and everywhere else in the film, there is no room for a different drummer (the few of them we are shown are safely contained in an isolated discussion group).

The school’s claim for the importance of individualism, consistently denied in practice, is only one instance of the institution’s use of contradictory messages, what Thomas Benson, citing Gregory Bateson, calls “the double bind.”xxi On a formal level, these double binds are expressed by a motif of paired sequences: there are two language classes, two English classes, two sex education classes, and two scenes with Rona’s parents (one profilmic event separated by editing). Frequently, these pairs relate in terms of strong contrast, further emphasizing the

double bind. One of the English classes, for example, features the stiff recital of “Casey at the Bat,” while the other contains the more contemporary Simon and Garfunkel song (a “Rock with Shakespeare” display is visible on the back wall of this classroom).

As many commentators have noted, most of the film’s sequences in one way or another emphasize depersonalization and ideological indoctrination. (“You have had practice in controlling your impulses and feelings ever since you have been a baby… You have learned by now that it’s part of being human, that you can’t have what you want when you want it,” the teacher in the girls sex education lecture declares.) The similarity of the row houses glimpsed in the opening drive to the school foreshadows the impersonal conformism that dominates the school’s activities and approach to education. The girls in the fashion class are identified by numbers, as are the three “astronauts” in the Project SPARC scene. In the girls gym class the camera focuses not on their faces but on their bodies, clad in identical uniforms, their group calisthenics anticipating similar scenes of regimented exercise in Basic Training and Juvenile Court. One teacher explains to the girl who wants to wear a short dress to the school prom that “It’s nice to be individualistic, but there are certain places to be individualistic,” although we see no such places in the film, and the girl is forced to apologize (“I didn’t mean to be individualistic”). Bob Walters, the former student and author of the letter read by the principal in the last sequence, describes himself as “only a body doing a job.” For Wiseman, he is the logical end of the process, the final product of the assembly plant, an unquestioning, obedient person, the “Chevrolet rolling off the GM line.”xxii

The school lessons and activities tend to focus particularly on issues of sexual identity and gender definition. Wiseman has referred to the film’s emphasis on sexual issues as its “unisex theme,” although it is more accurate to describe it as the learning of sexual difference according to dominant ideology. On the back of the dairy truck in the opening sequence we see a “Penn Maid” logo, accompanied by a caricatured contented cow featuring prominent painted lips and a fulsome, pendulous udder. The image puns in two ways. “Penn Maid Products,” as Benson has noticed,xxiii refers to the students as products of this Pennsylvania school and as prison inmates. The cartoon image also graphically expresses the simplistic yet strong sexist attitude that pervades the school and which is one of High School’s dominant motifs (as made clear in the rally scene where boys dress as cheerleaders complete with large breasts).

The film’s final few sequences draw this view to a logical conclusion, suggesting the implications of this specific school’s process of socialization by progressively connecting it to another national institution, the military (which had particular significance for students in 1968 and a subject to which Wiseman devoted three subsequent films: Basic Training, Manoeuvre [1979], and Missile (1988), as well as Sinai Field Mission). Wiseman’s strategy of pursuing the larger implications of Northeast’s ideology follows from the vice-principal’s definition of manhood early in the film as being able to take orders, and several critics have noted the strong connections between High School and Basic Training.xxiv The first major sequence after the former student on leave from duty in Vietnam visits the gym teacher involves the simulated landing of the three student astronauts as part of Project SPARC, an activity endorsed by NASA. (The teacher reads a letter of congratulations from real astronaut L. Gordon Cooper). The next and last sequence is the reading of the letter from Bob Walters, who at the time of writing was waiting to be dropped behind the DMZ. The order of the sequences reminds the viewer that space research exists in a military context, much as the scientists’ idea of “pure research” in Primate is undercut by the subsequent experiment aboard a U.S. Air Force jet that concludes that film. Even the short sequence shot in positioned between these last two important sequences in High School, showing the school color guard carrying the flag and dummy rifles, possesses a pronounced militaristic quality.

In the scene where the boy who has not dressed for gym is suspended, a photograph of an American flag on the wall behind the vice-principal recalls that the teacher’s attitude reflects national ideology and thus that the school is a representative social microcosm. In the second sequence in the office, where Michael is forced to take a detention against his principles, the flag photo is again featured prominently in the frame, directly above the vice-principal’s head. Later, the vice principal himself unintentionally contextualizes his own role in the larger social context when, teaching a lesson on the history of organized labor in America, he explains that workers felt it necessary to unionize because there was a lack of communication between employers and employees.

Over the opening car ride sequence, Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” is heard on the soundtrack. The song does not emanate from the car radio but was added to the sound track. Like the absence of sound in the shots of the dead Malinowski in Titicut Follies, this is a rare instance of Wiseman’s “twisting” of the material, or altering some aspect of the profilmic event, which in this case he has defended as observationally true to the experience since he in fact did hear the song every morning during the five-week shoot while driving to the school).xxv Wiseman has interpreted the song’s thematic significance as being about the death of the American Dream, for its narrator has removed himself from the world by turning away from civilization: “It’s about a guy who has left Georgia and gone to California in search of America. . . . He’s at the end of the continent. He’s traveled all over and it doesn’t mean a thing to him!”xxvi Like Huck Finn, he has lit out for the territory, and so from the very beginning the viewer is encouraged to read the film for its larger social implications.

The principal’s remark after reading Bob Walters’s letter, while grammatically a declarative statement, functions like a rhetorical question, addressed as much to the viewer as to the assembled teachers. “Now when you get a letter like this,” she says, “to me it means that we are very successful at Northeast High School. I think you will agree with me.” The fact that the film ends abruptly as she concludes her reading leaves the viewer to contemplate the extent to which one agrees with her assessment of the letter. Like Eddie’s evaluation of the inmates’ performance at the end of Titicut Follies, explicitly phrased as a question, the viewer is left to consider the implications and consequences of the high school experience as depicted in the film.

After the gynecologist’s lecture comes a sequence from a sex education film that the students are also watching. The narrator discusses gonorrhea and its affect on pregnant women, concluding with the statement that “When the baby is ready to be born there is danger that she may transmit the disease to the child when it passes out of her body.” The transmission of disease to the young who emerge into the world in this context acquires a social meaning, for students who graduate and enter the world of adulthood, especially since Wiseman follows this sequence with the former student, now a soldier, visiting the gym coach. Hospital, Wiseman’s fourth film, picks up on this metaphor, examining New York City’s Metropolitan Hospital as a symptom of larger social ills. One doctor’s remark that “Man is not born with disease. He acquires these disorders when he tries to adapt to a certain level of civilization,” articulates the film’s thesis.

As in Titicut Follies, with Hospital’s very first image—a high angle shot of an anaesthetized patient—Wiseman again seeks to grab viewers and shake them out of a voyeuristic complacency (“watching the tides roll away”) by moving beyond, as it were, a “gut response.” Hospital is a clear example of what Nichols has called Wiseman’s “tactlessness,”xxvii for in the surgery images or the lengthy sequence of induced vomiting of a young man who had taken mescaline, the film deliberately violates “good taste.” The psychiatrist’s apparent appeal to the camera (actually he speaks to a resident in the room who is kept out of frame) that the appositely named Miss Hightower at the Welfare office “hung up on me” directly connects the viewer to the film.

As Brian Winston has noted, Hospital “is structured around sequences of normal, emotionally uncharged activities crosscut with sequences of distress, whereby the former become shorter and the latter longer and more distressful as the film progresses.”xxviii Yet despite the many unpleasant sights in the film, Hospital in fact generally avoids a sensationalistic approach. The film neither condemns the staff of Metropolitan Hospital by showing them brutalizing patients, in the manner of Titicut Follies, or presents them in uncomfortable close-ups as in High School. Indeed, one doctor who has commented on the film asserts that if any criticism is to be levelled at Hospital, it is that the staff is depicted as impossibly positive.xxix

The biggest gap revealed in Hospital is not between the ideology of the institution and its practice, but rather, as Harry M. Geduld notes, between the rich and The film emphasizes that this economic disparity—what one of the teachers in High School calls, after Michael Harrington, “the other America”—is but a symptom of social illness. Certainly, there is a gross irony in the fact that the horses in Racetrack (1985) receive better medical attention than many of the human patients in Hospital. Unlike High School, which Wiseman chose to film in a “good” public school, Hospital was filmed in a large, overburdened public health facility located near Harlem and Spanish Harlem. The film concentrates almost exclusively on the hospital’s emergency room, where the need for immediate medical attention heightens the sense of the place itself as a site of crisis. Many of the patients suffer from drug-related problems, injuries received in fights, or from family abuse or social neglect—problems not restricted to a particular class but certainly more prevalent among the economically underprivileged. Economic issues are therefore inevitably foregrounded, since these patients are obtaining medical services at this hospital not by choice but because of economic necessity. Wiseman himself says that the film is not a critique of this particular institution:

It’s too much of a liberal’s thing to say, “If only we had more doctors, if only we had more nurses, the situation would be different.” The problems are so much more complicated, so much more interesting. You see people who have never been to doctors in thirty years, who can’t read or write, who live in crappy houses, who don’t have jobs, are recent immigrants either from other countries or from rural or urban areas. And you see the staff trying to deal with them as best they can—but they can’’ correct the conditions that led to these people walking through the hospital door in the first place.xxxi

Toward the beginning of the film, Dr. Schwartz calls another hospital that has transferred a female patient to Metropolitan. He complains about the sloppiness of the procedure; no information was sent with the patient or in advance, even though her condition may require emergency surgery. It is as if she had been regarded as so much baggage, a situation that is apparently all too common. With stoic resignation in his voice, Dr. Schwartz concludes his phone call by saying, “This is the sort of thing that we see all the time, and whenever it happens, I make it a habit of calling the administrator and voicing my complaint.” Near the end of the film, similarly, an ambulance driver and a policeman discuss a woman just brought into the hospital. The driver had searched several hours without success for a hospital to admit her. He says repeatedly that “It don’t make sense” (a phrase also used earlier to describe a situation in which a neglected boy who has fallen out of an apartment window cannot be kept in the hospital overnight until social services investigates because he is not injured), but the policeman diagnosis the problem as an economic one: “I guess that’s what happens when you don’t have no money at all. You have to take what comes.” These two sequences bracket most of the medical procedures in the film, lending them all a sense of economic constraint.

Perhaps the film’s most visually striking instance of this theme is the sequence of the psychiatrist’s interview with a young, gay black man. Throughout the interview the man is seated against a wall, at one point the camera pulling back slightly to incorporate within the frame a picture of then-mayor of New York John V. Lindsay hanging above him. The picture, originally a cover from Life magazine, features the caption, “The Lindsay Style.” The gay man and the image of Lindsay together within the film’s image offer a striking contrast: one is black, the other white; one is poor, “freakish,” and disempowered, unable to obtain welfare assistance and rejected even by his mother; the other is wealthy, glamorous, and politically influential. The gay man describes himself as “not a normal human being,” while the specter of Lindsay hovering above him expresses much of society’s masculine ideals from which he is excluded. The contrast between them is amplified by the fact that the gay man’s body, arm, and head are arranged in a manner almost identical to Lindsay’s pose in the photograph. These two nevertheless radically different male images graphically express the examining psychiatrist’s diagnosis of the man as a schizophrenic. He can never attain the cultural ideal literally hanging over his head in this scene, because of his skin color, economic status, and sexual orientation.

The film extends its social criticism to the viewer as well, particularly in the conclusion, one of the most powerful yet understated moments in all of Wiseman’s work. The last sequence of the film shows patients praying in the hospital’s chapel. There is a cut to a long shot of the hospital building taken from a nearby highway. The hospital seems to recede with the slow reverse zoom of the camera while cars traveling on the highway enter the frame and then fill it, moving across the image between the camera and the hospital. The voices of the patients singing a hymn in the chapel can still be heard, but they gradually diminish in volume and are replaced by the “whooshing” of the automobiles driving past the camera. The moving cars express the peripatetic rush of contemporary life. Their growing domination of the image visually (filling the foreground of the frame) and aurally (their sounds replacing the hymn on the sound track) suggest how, in Wordsworth’s famous phrase, the world is too much with us. In the immediate concerns of everyday experience, we forget spiritual values, just as when we are healthy we prefer not to think about illness—whether physical or social. While it is true that the sound track is here manipulated (“twisted”) beyond the limitations of synchronization, like Wiseman’s use of the Otis Redding song at the beginning of High School, the effect is consistent with the film’s point of view and provides an effective summation of its social concerns.

Both Law and Order (1969) and Juvenile Court (1973) also deflect their social criticism back to the spectator by presenting a deliberately shifting view of institutional authority. Both employ a similar symmetrical design, but to different ends. Law and Order avoids a simplistically negative treatment of the Kansas City police by instead showing them from a double perspective. The sequence where one policeman becomes a father figure to a lost little girl, bringing her to the station and giving her candy, may be, as Mamber asserts, the most annoying scene in all of Wiseman’s work because it is both obvious and cloying.xxxii But it functions as only one instance in a series of sequences that systematically presents the police as alternately kind and cruel. The policeman himself provides the perfect emblem of his “parental” position by taking out a pipe and smoking it as he drives the patrol car with one arm wrapped protectively around the child, and Wiseman clearly encourages this view of him by shooting the policeman from a low angle. But elsewhere in the film we see events that are likely to make us angry, such as the scene where a detective seems excessively violent to a prostitute, choking her even as he denies doing so. For every scene in which a policeman does something like find a lost purse for an elderly woman, there is another such as the one in which a detective seems inexplicably to ignore a man who wants to report someone with a gun.

Thus, viewers are placed in a double position in relation to the police, their torn response analogous to the position of the police themselves. The film suggests that the sometimes inadequate or excessive responses of the police are, in turn, symptomatic of the impossible demands—as in High School, a double bind—made upon them as a result of larger social problems. The police can neither solve domestic crime nor prevent it. Often, all they can do is inform people that “there’s nothing we can do about it,” the response they give in both the opening and closing sequences. Indeed, most of the Kansas City Police Force’s activities in the film involve handling drunks, accident victims, and domestic conflicts. The domestic emphasis of routine police work is expressed by the number of sequences in the film that refer to family and social tensions. In addition to the two domestic arguments that bracket the film, there are also, among others, a man charged with having molested a boy, a man who threatens to kill another man for molesting his niece, and a runaway boy. (Family and spousal abuse is another subject to which Wiseman returned, in this case with Domestic Violence and [2010] and Domestic Violence 2 [2002]).

As well, the fear of a recent race riot permeates the dialogue, and racial tension is evident throughout the film. A white woman who has been arrested makes a point of specifying the racial identity of the arresting officers, for example, while black youths arrested in the clothing store blame their fate on racial prejudice. Richard Nixon’s campaign speech near the end of Law and Order, in which he says voters are faced with a clear choice between rising crime and reestablishment of “respect for law and order in this country,” makes explicit these social tensions that infuse the film. Just as Wiseman developed a more complex view of police work during the shoot, so the viewer is challenged to do so as well even as society itself is shown to be torn by racial hate and fear.

Law and Order is bracketed by scenes of family arguments which the police attempt to mediate. Wiseman has described the film’s design as circular, saying that when the “guy runs off at the end of the film he’s running off to the beginning of the film.”xxxiii The film is “circular” in the sense that it differs from the structure of, say, Titicut Follies and High School, both of which can be seen as “linear” (to the extent that this is possible within Wiseman’s overall mosaic structure) since both show beginnings and ends to their respective institutional processes. By contrast, Law and Order presents an accumulation of events, an ongoing process, and so is closer in this sense to Juvenile Court and Welfare as well as Hospital. This structure is appropriate, given the film’s view of police work as a combination of routine and danger, a situation that Wiseman has described as being “like a taxi driver playing Russian Roulette.”xxxiv Both aspects of police work are shown at once in the sequence of Howard Gilbert’s arrest for auto theft. The camera waits with the youth and the arresting officers, who must listen to his string of racist insults for over five minutes of screen time until the paddy wagon arrives. Later, we hear two references to the fact that Gilbert has been released because he is a youthful offender. Thus, the film’s structural symmetry suggests futility rather than closure; indeed, over the final credits, a voice from the police radio speaks of yet another dangerous suspect in a seemingly endless parade.

Juvenile Court examines the legal process for youthful offenders, in a sense picking up where Law and Order leaves off, after the arrest procedure. The film shows an institution ministered by well-intentioned judges, lawyers, parole officers, and social workers (two children of a woman discussing her case sit on the lap of Judge Turner, another seemingly benevolent patriarchal authority), but, like Hospital and Welfare, the juvenile courts of Memphis are besieged by a constant flow of clients, many of whom have problems beyond the ability of the institution to handle. Juvenile Court suggests the continuous flow of cases by concluding almost every major sequence in the courtroom with the bailiff announcing the next case. As well, the film is punctuated several times by a courthouse receptionist answering a barrage of phone calls and by shots of people waiting around on benches, as in Welfare. Judge Turner himself remarks on the large number of child abuse cases he has seen. The film’s relatively lengthy running time at 144 minutes, as with Welfare, speaks of how much work the courts must handle.

Given the heavy volume of cases, those who minister the institution try their best to move them through the system as swiftly as possible—sometimes at the expense of the clients themselves. This view of the juvenile court system becomes chillingly clear in the final, lengthy sequence concerning the case of Robert Singleton. The sequence acts like a summary of the entire film and is chilling in large part because it presents the gap between the institution’s goals and its practice in such an understated way (although one suspects that the filmmaker, himself a lawyer, could not but have responded with outrage to the situation). Singleton is charged with armed robbery although he only drove the getaway car, had no weapon himself, and did not enter either of the places that were robbed. He claims that his life was threatened by the man who actually committed the two robberies if he refused to act as the man’s accomplice. His claim is apparently supported by the unsubmitted testimony of the other man involved. Singleton’s defense lawyer, who can hardly be adequately prepared since he had taken on the case just that morning, claims to believe that the boy had no intention to go along with armed robbery, and that a trial might exonerate him. Judge Turner decides, however, that in the boy’s best interests Singleton should plead guilty in juvenile court and serve several months at a youth training school rather than face trial, which might result in a penitentiary term of twenty years. In a private discussion with the family in chambers, Singleton’s lawyer explains that in his view neither society’s nor the boy’s best interests would be served by having him tried as an adult, and so he is willing to enter a plea of guilty if the court were to decide in favor of retaining jurisdiction. But because Singleton wants to “fight it out in court and prove that I’m innocent., the lawyer’s view, as he reports to the Judge, is that “The boy has lost all control over himself” and that he is “not in condition to make a decision.” The Judge agrees, even though he took the opposite position in the earlier abuse case.

The film, though, shows no evidence of irrationality in Singleton, only his fervent, emotional wish to have his day in court, and his sobbing when he is refused and sentenced. During the time in chambers and for most of the time in the courtroom, the camera omits Singleton from its view, just as he seems to be excluded from the undue process that is deciding his fate. In one brief shot we see him sitting alone on a bench against a wall, isolated both visually and aurally from the proceedings. In the plea-bargaining process, the question of guilt is pushed aside, displaced by the question of jurisdiction (just as Michael’s principles become less important than the fact that he take some form of detention in High School).

Singleton’s lawyer attempts to console him by encouraging him, again reminiscent of High School, to “handle this like a man,” and by telling him that in time his record can be erased because “This is America.” Wiseman establishes this larger connection early in the film through several different short but nevertheless significant shots suggesting an analogy between other institutions he has previously examined and juvenile court. In one of these, for example, a detention center guard searches a boy, an image that refers back to the strip searches in Titicut Follies. There follows a shot of three boys getting haircuts, an image that also appears in Basic Training and that echoes the shaving in Titicut Follies. Shortly after this we see boys doing calisthenics, followed by a shot of the court files; the uniform exercises are reminiscent of similar shots in High School (“Simon Says”) and, again, Basic Training, while the files remind us of the impersonal treatment of clients that culminates in the paperwork and bureaucracy of Welfare. When Singleton is led out of the courtroom (“An injustice has been done,” he cries), the shot holds on the courtroom door as everyone files out, and then the door closes, an image of the boy’s now-sealed fate. Wiseman follows this with two concluding shots of the exterior of the courthouse building and the street, exactly reversing the film’s two opening shots. Unlike Law and Order, the fearful symmetry of this structure here expresses less a sense of futile continuation—although this is suggested elsewhere, in the cutaways of the receptionist, the bailiff, and the people on the benches—than a closed system that “traps” people, as Singleton says, as often as it provides justice.

The ironically titled Welfare is the closed system par excellence, a nightmare vision of institutional bureaucracy out of control. In this film, Wiseman sums up all the institutional and social problems explored in these early documentaries. It is no accident that, chronologically, Welfare comes between Primate and Meat; the titles of these films express how far, for Wiseman, living has become objectified, commodified, a matter of mere existence. Phrases like “Nothing we can do about it” and “It isn’t our responsibility,” heard in the earlier films, insistently return in Welfare. Here, social and economic relations are reduced to exchanges between welfare workers and clients, the clients seeking the money that the workers have the power to dispense. Welfare foregrounds the economic disparity shown in some of the earlier films, since everyone seeking help from the welfare system is penniless, many seeming on the verge of starvation. As Mr. Hirsch, the final client shown in the film, says, “There’s no middle class any more. There’s just the rich and the poor.”

John J. O’Connor is, of course, correct when he says that Welfare is the most pointless of Wiseman’s films, for we are all aware of the entangled mess that this system has become.xxxv But such a criticism misses the essential point of Wiseman’s cinema. It is also the case that most everyone who views High School has suffered through that experience—it is, as Pauline Kael notes, “an obvious kind of film to make,”xxxvi but for her the film’s power derives in good measure precisely from this fact. For Wiseman’s documentaries heighten our awareness of routine life in America or, perhaps more accurately, present us afresh with aspects of this life that we think we already know. It is no coincidence that Wiseman would go on to make films entitled Deaf and Blind, films that urge us to regard our world more closely than we normally do. Wiseman’s camera looks intently at aspects of daily life that, exactly because they are so common, we in fact often overlook, as in our daily rush past Metropolitan Hospital. So, just as Titicut Follies depicts life in Bridgewater with such power that it cannot be ignored, Welfare is at once obvious and revelatory—in a sense, anticipating what I have called the transcendental style of Essene and the Deaf and Blind films.xxxvii

In Welfare, the camera leaves the building just once, at the beginning. After this we remain confined within, unlike most of Wiseman’s films which at the very least offer periodic exterior shots as rhythmic pause or release (even the enclosed world of Missile is relieved by the occasional outside shot of Vandenberg Air Force Base). Here, though, our physical point of view remains claustrophobically confined within the harsh walls of this one New York City welfare office. When the white racist is tossed out of the building by uniformed guards, the camera moves into a close-up of one of their nightsticks wedged between two door handles, preventing the man from entering—and us from leaving. This place is an absurd huis clos, and we must wait it out along with the system’s needy clients.

The first words we hear in the film, the receptionist’s “Please have a seat,” is thus not only a self-reflexive acknowledgement to the viewer that the film is now beginning but also an ironic invitation to sit through a long ordeal, as the applicants themselves must. Welfare was Wiseman’s longest films at the time (167 mins.), its running time an expression of the labyrinthine, self-contained system of procedures and paperwork through which welfare applicants must navigate. Even at the end of the film, the ambient sounds of the welfare office carry over into the final credits, as if interminable. This film is Wiseman’s Bleak House, but instead of the pervasive symbolic fog with which Dickens’s novel opens, Welfare is ironically characterized throughout by the artificial harshness of what James Wolcott aptly calls a harsh “firmament” of fluorescent lights.xxxviii

Entrapping the viewer within the building, Wiseman refrains from making its physical layout clear. The geography of the place is confusing to the viewer, just as the procedures are to many of the clients. Physical space is subordinated to cinematic space, as within the welfare center Wiseman suggests, again, a circular structure similar to that of Law and Order and Juvenile Court. The first couple interviewed in the film are shown again at the end, still waiting. Clients are frequently trapped in a variety of Catch-22 situations, the circular logic consistent with the film’s structure. One client, for example, wants to move but cannot because there is no record of housing violations, but she is unable to get a buildings inspector to come and formally record the necessary violations. Another client becomes ineligible for benefits because he missed his appointment at the welfare office while attending his fair hearing required by welfare procedures. Toward the beginning of the film, a man seeking immediate help says that he is getting a “runaround.” The phrase is echoed periodically by several other clients. Toward the end of the film a woman who, speaking for her mother, angrily complains that she is caught in a never-ending “vicious cycle.” Even Miss Hightower, who had put off the psychiatrist on the telephone and finally hung up on him in Hospital, claims she is getting a “fast shuffle” by the institution. Thus, things have come “full circle,” as Hightower has changed roles from that of victimizer to victim.

During the first interview with the couple seeking emergency benefits, they are instructed to proceed first to the housing office on the fifth floor and then to return to the fourth floor. But most of the interviews seem to hover in an indeterminate space, a Kafkaesque world in which people never seem to get their case heard. Like Mr. Hirsch in the film’s final sequence, everyone appears doomed to wait for Godot.xxxix Indeed, as in Beckett’s work, reality in Welfare seems unsettlingly indeterminate. Some applicants have multiple names and so even their identities are unclear. Welfare, in fact, depicts a world where meaning has crumbled. All of Wiseman’s films reveal people speaking naturally and spontaneously, so that their discourse is frequently confused, hesitant, inaudible, vague.

Observational cinema, because of its unscripted quality, captures la langue so well. As Louis Marcorelles insightfully perceived, in this kind of filmmaking, “It is possible to forget the written word in favor of the living, lived word, flung out by man [sic] en situation.”xl Welfare certainly contains its share of living language flung out—what Walt Whitman called the “barbaric yawps” of the American people. One client, for example, complains that he is being required to “relocate instamatically,” while the white racist speaks of how quickly blacks “progenerate” and how they are inferior to whites “biologically and nomalogically and pharmanoloty.”

Wiseman clearly is attentive to the expressive possibilities of sound, as already suggested by, for example, the montage of Malinowski in Titicut Follies discussed above.xli As already noted, the shots of the inmate being force-fed are thick with ambient noise, while the shots of his corpse are completely devoid of sound, evoking the stark reality of death. On occasion Wiseman uses dialogue rather than the image to provide the logic for his editing, as in the cut from the teacher reading “Casey at the Bat” to a close-up of girls swinging at T-balls. Wiseman has spoken of rare moments of speech that provide greater insight in his films as “found eloquence,” a kind of auditory equivalent to ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch’s notion of the privileged moment of behavior observational filmmakers seek to capture with the camera. But in Welfare, to a greater extent than in any of Wiseman’s other films, while language proliferates, it is often drained of meaning. The welfare workers speak of “reentertaining applications” and “financial servicing” for the clients, their language anticipating the euphemistic discourse of military indoctrination in Basic Training and the “linguistic detoxification” of nuclear weapons explored in Missile. “When I say ‘you,’ I don’t mean you,” explains one client to a worker. One woman, according to a case worker, is “using a loose term, but broadly,” with the result that she is accusing herself of child abuse.

Welfare is the culmination of the institutional tendency to, as T. S. Eliot puts it, fix people in formulated phrases, as with the dismissive diagnosis of Vladimir in Titicut Follies (“This is known as Ganser Syndrome,” a staff worker triumphantly concludes about him). Welfare emphasizes the wielding of language for institutional control as explored in High School and Basic Training (“it depends on the language,” as one teacher declares to Rona’s father). The film, like the welfare center itself, is swamped with various kinds of forms, filled with the language of the institution: we see or hear about application forms; referral slips; notarized, registered, and certified letters; verifications of pregnancy; marriage licenses and driver’s licenses; bills and receipts; change of address forms and prenatal forms; written budgets and pay stubs; food stamps; Medicaid cards and social security cards; housing deeds, disability checks and pro-ration checks; carbon copies and photocopies. The film is also punctuated with shots of files and records, timeclock cards, computers and printouts. One client complains, she has to “get a notarized letter for this, a notarized letter for that.” Another client, standing aimlessly against a post, launches into a monologue about the “rigamorole of forms” he must fill out. “Papers, papers, papers,” he says, finally dropping them on the floor and leaving in frustration. Even the woman on the telephone, who has provided “every goddamn thing they’ve asked for,” still cannot get “serviced.” Valerie Johnson has become, in effect, a nonperson in the Orwellian sense. Her friend remarks with resignation that “if they don’t have your record, they don’t know nothing about you. You could be Jane Doe.”

This enclosed world of Welfare (“We go to court, from the court to the hospital, from the hospital to Social Security, to Welfare, back to Social Security, to the court,” states an angry client) is like a pressure cooker that inevitably reaches the boiling point. So after over two hours of seeing clients being frustrated in every possible way, we are not surprised when two of them, Mr. Rivera and Mrs. Gaskin’s daughter, can contain themselves no longer. They go around the desk, traversing the boundary that separates workers and clients, just as their emotions have spilled over, to confront the welfare worker Elaine, who also loses her temper (“Get a job,” she snaps at Rivera). The anger and frustration of both worker and clients in this climactic scene are the understandable result of everything that has come before. Then, after the climax, comes the denouement, the calm after the storm: Mr. Hirsch, made to sit and wait alone on a bench, looks up and addresses the neon firmament and an absent God, saying he will wait as long as He deems it necessary.

As in Hospital, the workers have become inured to the pain and misfortune of the clients and, perhaps to maintain their own sanity, many have adopted a “strategy of withdrawal.”xlii Just as the nurse in Hospital who, concerned about the neglected child who has fallen from the window and thinking of taking him home with her, is warned not to get too involved, so the welfare workers constantly dismiss clients by sending them to “39 Broadway.” In one problematic case, the supervisor instructs the worker to reject or accept the client, “either one,” not wanting to become involved any further. Wiseman discovers a found irony (which Wiseman uses again in The Store [1983]): Christmas decorations bedeck the welfare center, a counterpoint to actual social relations. The regulations and procedures have overwhelmed all that is human (hence the spiritual quests of Essene and the Deaf and Blind films). “Void this 913,” says one worker, using a kind of newspeak to avoid the reality of the client’s fate. Like the split between morality and technology in High School (“Scientifically and technologically, Northeast is an advanced school… morally, socially, this school is a garbage can,” says one insightful student in the discussion group), in the welfare center, complains one client, “You give me technicality. I’m telling you about a condition.”

Welfare also brings to a head the racial tensions in American society touched upon in several of the earlier films, especially Law and Order. At one point in the film, the black guard who is taunted by the white supremacist responds to the claim that black people are out to “get Whitey” by saying “What goes ‘round comes ‘round.” This is the ultimate expression of the film’s circular motif, for it returns to us the prejudice and social inequities documented in the earlier films. For Wiseman it is significant that the alienated, disillusioned singer of “The Dock of the Bay” in High School is a black man, for he sees it as expressing nothing less than the black experience in America. The black guard, understandably, trusts no one, and from his point of view we all act like savages; “That’s the way this country was founded,” he observes. He has fought in a war and killed for a country from which he feels alienated, like the persona of the Redding song. He is, he says, just surviving (a phrase echoed in Basic Training). How ironic it is, then, that at a time when the welfare center is particularly understaffed, one worker is obliged to take the afternoon off for her biannual “disaster training.” They prepare for fire, flood, even the atomic bomb, according to Elaine—but the disaster is, clearly, right here, right now. “Man, it’s getting late,” is the dire prophecy of the white racist; “The streets are gonna run with blood.” In the final scene Mr. Hirsch predicts that if things don’t change fast, in fifteen years there will be no more United States of America.

The native American at the beginning of the film likens the reservation to a concentration camp. Wiseman’s early documentaries show that we have created our own penal colony, for just as the inmates of Bridgewater in Titicut Follies are literally incarcerated, so the people in High School, Law and Order, Hospital, Juvenile Court, and Welfare are, in a variety of ways, imprisoned. America, these films suggest, is in some ways a social bedlam. In a letter submitted as testimony in the Titicut Follies litigation, Wiseman said the film is “about various forms of madness”xliii —a claim that, in a sense, can be made about all of these films. People in these six films have become disillusioned, broken, made hopeless by the failure of the American dream. Democratic ideals have crumbled in a world where the American promise of equality has become, in Mr. Hirsch’s words, “when somebody has and somebody hasn’t and the one who hasn’t tries to rip off the one that has and the one that has tries to keep what he’s got.”

Barry Keith Grant

i Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. J. P. Mayer and Max Lerner, trans. George Lawrence, New York, Harper and Row, 1966, II, 478ff.

ii Eugenia Parry Janis and Wendy MacNeil, eds., Photography within the Humanities, Danbury, N.H., Addison House, 1977, p. 67. See also Alan Rosenthal, The New Documentary in Action, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1971, p. 70.

iii Alan Westin, « ‘You Start Off with a Bromide’: Conversation with Film Maker Frederick Wiseman », Civil Liberties Review 1, n° 2, Winter/Spring 1974, p. 52.

iv For a discussion of Wiseman’s early but dwindling hope that his films might generate changes to unconscionable conditions, see my Voyages of Discovery: The Cinema of Frederick Wiseman, Urbana and Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 1992, p. 28-29.

v Bill Nichols, Ideology and the Image, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1981, Chap. 7, “Frederick Wiseman’s Documentaries: Theory and Structure”, p. 208-236.

vi John Graham, « How Far Can You Go: A Conversation with Fred Wiseman »,Contempora 1, n° 4, October/November, 1970, p. 32.

vii Dan Armstrong also discusses this aspect of the film in his essay, “Wiseman’s Realm of Transgression: Titicut Follies, the Symbolic Father, and the Spectacle of Confinement”, Cinema Journal 29, n° 1, Fall 1989, p. 20-35.

viii Richard Meran Barsam, Nonfiction Film: A Critical History, New York, Dutton, 1973.

ix Quoted in Christina Robb, “Focus on Life,” Boston Globe Magazine, January 23, 1983, p. 29.

x Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. Richard Howard, New York, Pantheon Books, 1965, p. 265.

xi On the classical musical and the theme of community, See, for example, Richard Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia,” Movie 24 (Spring 1977): 2-13. This idea in relation to Titicut Follies is also explored by Armstrong, “Wiseman’s Realm of Transgression”. Interestingly, Wiseman worked on a musical stage version of Welfare with writer David R. Slavitt in the early 1990s.

xii Robert Hatch, “Films”, The Nation, October 30, 1967, p. 446.

xiii See Barsam, Nonfiction Film, op. cit.,p 274 ; Beatrice Berg, “‘I Was Fed Up with Hollywood Fantasies’” New York Times, February 1, 1970, sec. 2, p. 25 ; Brendan Gill, “The Current Cinema,” New Yorker, October 28, 1967, p. 167-168.

xiv Thomas W. Benson and Carolyn Anderson, Reality Fictions: The Films of Frederick Wiseman, Carbondale and Edwardsville, Southern Illinois University Press, 1989, p. 331.

xv Arthur Knight, “Cinema Verite and Film Truth”, Saturday Review, September 9, 1967, p. 44 ; Amos Vogel, Film as a Subversive Art, New York, Random House, 1974, p. 187.

xvi Foucault, Madness and Civilization, op. cit.,p. 250.

xvii Stephen Mamber, “The New Documentaries of Frederick Wiseman”, Cinema 6, n° 1 (n.d.), 34 ; and Mamber, Cinema Verite in America: Studies in Uncontrolled Documentary, Cambridge, MIT Press, 1974, p. 219.

xviii Alan Rosenthal, The New Documentary in Action, op. cit.,1971, p. 70.

xix G. Roy Levin, Documentary Explorations: 15 Interviews with Film-Makers, Garden City, New York, Anchor/Doubleday, 1971, p. 322.

xx Donald E. McWilliams, “Frederick Wiseman”, Film Quarterly 24, n° 1, Fall 1970, p. 24-25; Rosenthal, The New Documentary in Action, op. cit.,p. 72 ; and Berg, “‘I Was Fed Up with Hollywood Fantasies’”, op. cit., p. 25-26.

xxi Thomas Benson, “The Rhetorical Structure of Frederick Wiseman’s High School”, Communications Monographs 47, November 1980, p. 238. See also Benson and Anderson, Reality Fictions, op. cit.,Chap. 3.

xxii Westin, “‘You Start Off with a Bromide’”, op. cit., p. 56. See also Rosenthal, The New Documentary in Action, op. cit.,p. 73.

xxiii Benson, “The Rhetorical Structure of Frederick Wiseman’s High School”, op. cit., p. 236.

xxiv Stephen Mamber, “Cinema Verite and Social Concerns”, Film Comment 9, n° 6, November/December 1973, p. 12-13 ; Mamber, Cinema Verite in America, op. cit., p. 234-240 ; Harry M. Geduld, “Garbage Cans and Institutions: The Films of Frederick Wiseman”, The Humanist 31, n° 5, September/October 1971, p. 36-37 ; Edgar Z. Friedenberg, “Ship of Fools: The Films of Frederick Wiseman”, New York Review of Books, October 21, 1971, p. 19-22 ; Richard Fuller, “‘Survive, Survive, Survive’: Frederick Wiseman’s New Documentary: Basic Training”, The Film Journal 1, nos. 3-4, Fall/Winter 1972, p. 75 ; and Thomas R. Atkins, “Wiseman’s America: Titicut Follies to Primate”, in Thomas R. Atkins, ed. Frederick Wiseman, New York, Monarch Ress, 1976, p. 12. I explore these connections in detail in Voyages of Discovery, Chap. 3.

xxv Levin, Documentary Explorations, op. cit.,p. 323.

xxvi Rosenthal, The New Documentary in Action, op. cit.,p. 73.

xxvii Bill Nichols, Ideology and the Image, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1981, p. 209, p. 235.

xxviii Brian Winston, “Documentary: I Think We Are in Trouble”, Sight and Sound 48, n° 1, Winter 1978/79, p. 4.

xxix Victor W. Sidel, “Hospital on View”, New England Journal of Medicine 282, n° 5, January 29, 1970, p. 279.

xxx Geduld, “Garbage Cans and Institutions”, op. cit.,p. 37.

xxxi Levin, Documentary Explorations, op. cit., p. 316.

xxxii Mamber, “The New Documentaries of Frederick Wiseman”, op. cit., p. 35-36 ; and Mamber, Cinema Verite in America, op. cit., p. 224.

xxxiii McWilliams, “Frederick Wiseman” op. cit., p. 23.

xxxiv Janet Handleman, “An Interview with Frederick Wiseman” Film Library Quarterly 3, n° 3, 1970, p. 7.

xxxv John J. O’Connor, “TV Review: Wiseman’s Welfare Is on Channel 13 Tonight” New York Times, September 24, 1975, p. 91.

xxxvi Pauline Kael, “High School”, New Yorker, October 18, 1969, p. 202.

xxxvii See my Voyages of Discovery, op. cit., Chap. 5.

xxxviii James Wolcott, “Welfare Must Be Seen” Village Voice, September 29, 1975, p. 126.

xxxix Dan Armstrong details the film’s similarities to Samuel Beckett’s play in his essay “Wiseman’s Cinema of the Absurd: Welfare, or ‘Waiting for the Dole’”, Film Criticism 12, n° 3, Spring 1988, p. 2-19.

xl Louis Marcorelles, Living Cinema: New Directions in Contemporary Film-Making, London, George Allen & Unwin, 1970, p. 123.

xli For a more detailed discussion of Wiseman’s use of sound, see my introduction to Five Films by Frederick Wiseman, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2006, p. 5-9.

xlii J. Louis Campbell III and Richard Buttny, “Rhetorical Coherence: An Exploration into Thomas Farrell’s Theory of the Synchrony of Rhetoric and Conversation”, Communication Quarterly 36, n° 4, Fall 1988, p. 269.

xliii Carolyn Anderson, “The Conundrum of Competing Rights in Titicut Follies”, Journal of the University Film Association 33, n° 1, Winter 1981, 18. Titicut Follies became the focus of a lengthy legal battle that unfortunately displaced the institution itself as the subject of much media coverage. For details of the case, see Anderson and Thomas W. Benson, Documentary Dilemmas: Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies,Carbondale and Edwardsville, Southern Illinois University Press, 1991, which includes Anderson’s essay.