clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

5 movies that explain why documentarian Frederick Wiseman is a living legend

Cardholders at thousands of public libraries across America can now stream the master filmmaker’s half-century of work for free.

L-R: Titicut Follies, Central Park, High School II, and In Jackson Heights
From left: Titicut Follies, Central Park, High School II, and In Jackson Heights.
Zipporah Films
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Frederick Wiseman is a legend among filmmakers, a documentarian who’s been chronicling American life and institutions with a keen eye. His 41 winsome, thoughtful, and often funny films — about everything from ballet companies to mental hospitals to meat processing plants — pack a punch, slipping cultural critiques and implications below the audience’s radar by focusing on the fascinating people in front of the camera.

But for years, if you wanted to watch any of that for yourself, you were pretty much out of luck. Unless you were lucky enough to catch a retrospective at a repertory theater or museum, you’d have to buy the movies directly from Wiseman’s production company and watch them on DVD — and for all but passionate cinephiles, that can prove to be an insurmountable hurdle.

Now that’s all changed, and in the most delightful way.

Late last year, the streaming service Kanopy — which is available to public library cardholders in 237 library systems and more than 2,150 individual public libraries in the US — announced that it was partnering with Wiseman’s company to make his catalog available to cardholders. That means that anyone with a library card in a Kanopy-enabled system can now stream Wiseman’s films to a variety of devices and apps, including mobile phones, tablets, Roku, Apple TV, and more — for free.

Wiseman has cataloged some of the most fascinating and important institutions of our civilization, using his films to make stealth political arguments that circumvent the easy generalizations and partisan catfights that often erase citizens from the very systems that are meant to serve the public good. So it’s completely fitting that his movies are turning up for mass consumption thanks to the public library system. (In fact, his 41st film, Ex Libris, which will come to Kanopy after it premieres on PBS this fall, is about the New York Public Library system.)

Wiseman’s work is well-suited to streaming: Though he’s considered a pioneer of the “direct cinema” style of documentary filmmaking — his camera seems to just settle down and observe what’s going on around it, with no commentary or explanation — he’s also arguably the best very-long-form documentarian of all time, with his later films sprawling to three and even four hours in length. For most people, that’s just too long to sit and watch one movie, and it makes it hard to release the movies in theaters.

But though the runtimes sound daunting, Wiseman’s movies are also engrossing — time passes without you noticing it — and having the films available via streaming makes it easier for those who can’t commit to watching them all in one go.

Yet even with some of the barriers to entry removed by the Kanopy partnership, facing a catalog as vast as Wiseman’s can still be intimidating. Where should you start?

In truth, most anywhere will do. But here are five of Wiseman’s movies to start with, roughly corresponding to each decade in which he’s worked, that provide a good primer to the master’s oeuvre.

Titicut Follies (1967)

A scene from Titicut Follies
A scene from Titicut Follies.
Zipporah Films

Wiseman’s first foray into filmmaking as a director was Titicut Follies, and it very well could have been his last. Wiseman ventured into the Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Massachusetts and turned his cameras on the inmates. The result is a sort of harrowing tragicomedy, with images of force-feeding, bullying, strip-searching, and the staff’s indifference to inmates, all culminating in an institution-wide talent show called the “Titicut Follies.”

The movie garnered praise and awards, but the authorities, as one might imagine, were not amused. Wiseman had sought, and been granted, permission from the institution’s superintendent to shoot the film, and staff had made decisions during the shoot about which of the men were “mentally competent” to film. But the governor of Massachusetts attempted to block its premiere at the 1967 New York Film Festival, citing privacy concerns.

In 1969, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ordered that the film could only be shown to doctors, lawyers, judges, health care professionals, social workers, and students in mental health fields. Wiseman appealed to the US Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case. That made Titicut Follies the first film in US history to be banned from distribution for reasons unrelated to obscenity, immorality, or national security.

But Wiseman has long maintained that he believes the authorities were really worried about how they looked in the film — and that’s not without reason. The treatment of inmates in the film is often shocking, and in 1987, families of seven inmates who died at Bridgewater sued the hospital and the state. One of the inmates’ lawyers cited Titicut Follies in his case, saying that “there is a direct connection between the decision not to show that film publicly and my client dying 20 years later.”

In 1991, a superior court judge finally ruled that the film could be released to the general public, and the state Supreme Court ordered that a message run before the film saying that changes and improvements had taken place at Bridgewater since then. Since then, it’s been exhibited a number of times, and in 2017 — at the film’s 50th anniversary — a ballet based on Titicut Follies premiered.

Welfare (1975)

A scene from Welfare
A scene from Welfare.
Zipporah Films

Eight years after Titicut Follies, Wiseman released his 10th film: Welfare, an almost three-hour look at the welfare system. Wiseman spent about four weeks in February and March 1973 at the Waverly Welfare Center in lower Manhattan, which is clearly groaning under the weight of bureaucratic work it has to manage in order to serve those requesting its services. And that’s a lot of people: In 1973, America was not just nearing the end of Nixon’s presidency but commencing a recession that would still be in effect when the film was released two years later.

Welfare at times feels like the real-life, ensemble-cast version of a Kafka novel. The entire film is set in the center, and much of it consists of conversations between people: those who are looking for help, those who are trying to grant it (or not), and those who manage the traffic flow. Some of what happens will be familiar to anyone who’s tangled with American bureaucracy — being sent from one floor to another, endless line-waiting, never really knowing what the result will be. Other parts are more sobering; people who obviously need help because of physical and mental health issues, misfortune, and desperation struggle to get what they need.

Welfare can feel both dark and funny, but it’s always very human. Without interjecting anything outside of the center into the film — no commentary, no context — it becomes very clear that the system is broken, and that a fix will not be easy to come by.

Central Park (1989)

A scene from Central Park
A scene from Central Park.
Zipporah Films

By 1989, Wiseman’s place as a landmark documentarian was well-established. He’d made films about monasteries and meatpacking plants, fashion models and military maneuvers, schools for students with disabilities and horse racing tracks. So for his 25th film, Wiseman went to the park.

Specifically, he went to Central Park, the 843-acre center of life in Manhattan. In the 1980s, Central Park was still considered to be a crime-ridden, dangerous place after dark; the film, in fact, was released just months after a woman jogger was raped in the park, a case that became famous for triggering the trial and (unjust) conviction of the Central Park Five.

But Wiseman focused on the park during the daytime, capturing the buzz of life it represents. There are joggers and lovers, political rallies and marathons, skaters and drug dealers, homeless people and wealthy donors who try to figure out their role in preserving one of the city’s most vital public institutions.

In this way, Central Park also foreshadows what Wiseman would do in 2017 with Ex Libris, where many of the same issues are revived in connection with the New York Public Library. Central Park is considered one of Wiseman’s most accessible films, and it’s also among the best examples of one of his favorite themes: the ways that public institutions are a microcosm for the life of a whole city — in this case, New York City — and, by proxy, a whole nation.

High School II (1994)

A scene from High School II
A scene from High School II.
Zipporah Films

Wiseman’s second movie after Titicut Follies was 1968’s High School, showing a typical day for a group of students at Northeast High School in Pennsylvania. Twenty-six years later, he revisited the topic, this time settling down at Central Park East Secondary School in Harlem and watching as the students, faculty, and staff moved through their year.

High School II is more than triple the length of High School, 220 minutes to the earlier film’s lean 75-minute runtime. That’s partly for technical reasons — it had become much easier and more cost-effective to shoot a long film in 1994 than it was a quarter-century earlier — but it also shows how much Wiseman’s work had progressed to showing the passage of time.

Much about school life is mundane — faculty meetings, parent-teacher meetings, student council meetings, disciplinary conflicts, classroom activities and discussions, sex education, and much more. But what emerges over High School II’s lengthy runtime is a portrait of success thanks largely to trust and engagement between faculty and students, something that can feel unusual in a Wiseman film.

It also shows how the more things change, the more they stay the same. Early in the film, the students — many of whom are not white — are planning how to respond to the Rodney King riots and race-related issues in their own community. Their passion and interest in those issues has its echoes in youth movements not just back at the start of Wiseman’s career in the late 1960s, but also in 2018.

In Jackson Heights (2015)

A scene from In Jackson Heights
A scene from In Jackson Heights.
Zipporah Films

For his 40th film, Wiseman turned to the ethnically and culturally varied communities that make up Jackson Heights, a neighborhood in Queens. It’s a cross-section of a remarkably diverse community, one that’s noted for its vibrance as well as its changing face that reflects demographics both in New York and in the broader country.

Like all Wiseman films, In Jackson Heights is a stealth statement with some political implications. The film depicts all kinds of elements of life in the neighborhood: the city council office, a local Muslim school, a Jewish Center, an LGBTQ meeting, and more. People meet and interact in laundromats, slaughterhouses, pet stores, and places of worship.

Wiseman attempted to crowdsource the funding for In Jackson Heights and fell short. But he made the film anyway, and it garnered raves and awards from critics for the ways it portrayed the matters at the heart of urban living — immigration, tolerance, pluralism, and gentrification among them — through a series of human faces and interactions that show that the things that often get relegated to the realm of politics are actually about people.

And though he studiously avoids inserting himself into his films, that’s been Wiseman’s thesis for his whole career, and an agenda worth celebrating: the idea that this thing we call a culture is made up of humans who are just trying to live alongside one another, and the systems that order that life together. His argument, always, is that those institutions and systems — and the people who live in them — are more complicated than meets the eye.

In a time when public officials seem happy to serve up crass and glib oversimplifications of public issues as long as it suits their purposes, we need the work of Frederick Wiseman — a bracing, engaging, and ruthless observer who’s been telling our story with a twinkle in his camera lens for more than half a century.

The films of Frederick Wiseman are available to stream for free through Kanopy to cardholders at hundreds of public library systems and thousands of individual libraries across the country. Visit Kanopy’s website to see if the library is available to you.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.