An Evening with Frederick Wiseman

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Frederick Wiseman in conversation with MOMI chief curator David Schwartz.

Last week, I was lucky enough to attend An Evening with Frederick Wiseman at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image, hosted by MOMI’s chief curator, David Schwartz. Over a couple hours, the fleet and sharp-witted 85-year-old held forth on his practice and experience, focussing, in line with MOMI’s current season, on his New York-focussed films. In the process, he elucidated the deceptively benign assertion that seems to have driven his 40-film and almost 50-year career – that “human behaviour is strange and fascinating.”

Wiseman presented and discussed clips from five of his New York-focussed films, Hospital (1969), Welfare (1975), Model (1980), Central Park (1989) and his latest, In Jackson Heights (2015), although early on he made clear this geographical theme in his work was purely happenstance. The discussion, therefore, encompassed his entire career, even briefly touching upon his decision at 30 to abandon a career in law to explore filmmaking. Some of the more salacious gems gleaned in the two or so hours at MOMI:

  • Wiseman declined a request to send Stanley Kubrick a complimentary print of one of his films, making him pay to rent it. Later he found Kubrick had cribbed the first half of Full Metal Jacket (1987) “shot for shot” from his Basic Training (1971).
  • Wiseman then drily drew the audience’s attention to the similarities between Arthur Hiller’s drama The Hospital (1971), which won an Oscar for writer Paddy Chayefsky, and Wiseman’s own Hospital (1970).
  • He quipped dismissively that Errol Morris’ description of him as “the undisputed king of misanthropic cinema” (from a Paris Review article reprinted in MOMI’s hand-out) was “classic projection”.

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A question from the audience, however, drew perhaps the most interesting response of the evening. Wiseman was asked if, in his 40 year-career, he’d found his camera affected the behaviour of those he pointed it at. He described an instructive event from the filming of his 1969 documentary Law And Order, where cops were forced to chase a prostitute they’d been attempting to shake down. While the cameras rolled, one of the cops began to strangle the woman, though he eventually let her go. Would the woman have been killed but for the presence of Wiseman and his small crew? No, the director thought not, since he saw that the cop only intended to punish the woman for daring to buck the standard shakedown protocol. That he allowed the cameras to capture the moment was because, to him – to them – the action was perfectly acceptable, even mundane. “We all,” Wiseman concluded, “think our behaviour is normal.”

Sean Welsh

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